From deep canyons and mountain peaks to rolling grasslands and dense forests, Colorado boasts one of the most varied landscapes in the country. There’s so much to see, but where to begin? We’ve compiled the 7 best scenic drives near Denver that will immerse you in the stunning natural beauty of this great state. Grab your sunglasses, a camera, and a couple of friends – it’s time to hit the road.
1. Guanella Pass
If you’re in search of a quick escape into the wild just a short ways away from the city, then Guanella Pass is the scenic drive you’re looking for. An introduction to the Rocky Mountains, Guanella Pass will immerse you in Colorado’s unique ecosystem. Travel above the timberline (the point where the environment is no longer suitable for trees to grow) and into the alpine tundra characterized by dense, hardy plants and lichen.
There’s plenty of photo opportunities along the way. Keep your eyes sharp as Guanella Pass is known for its abundance of wildlife including bighorn sheep and even beavers. You’ll drive by Mount Bierstadt, which is 14,060 ft at its highest point, and also stop through Georgetown, a former mining town rich in history. At just 22 miles in distance, budget an estimated 1 hour of driving time to take in the views.
2. Lariat Loop
Connecting the towns of Golden, Morrison, Idledale, Kittredge, and Evergreen as well as passing through multiple national parks, the Lariat Loop was one of the first scenic drives established by the City of Denver. This scenic drive is 40 miles long, boasting multiple stops along the way that will interest every member of your road trip group – no matter their interests.
For the music lovers, the Lariat Loop cuts through Morrison, the home of the famous Red Rocks Park and Amphitheatre carved into natural rocks. History buffs will enjoy touring Buffalo Bull’s Museum and Grave. The Lookout Mountain Nature Center will fasciate nature enthusiasts, and to captivate the paleontologists at heart, Dinosaur Ridge is recognized as one of the top dinosaur track sites in the world.
3. Mount Evans Scenic Byway
Looking to leave behind all civilization and head deep into the mountains? The Mount Evans Scenic Byway is the escape you need. One of the highest paved roads in the country featuring winding curves that will make your heart pound, this scenic drive guides you through five climate zones as you ascend 9,000 feet in elevation until you reach Mount Evans. One of Colorado’s famous “fourteeners” (a mountain peak with an elevation of at least 14,000 feet), Mount Evans’ summit reaches 14,264 ft. The Mount Evans Scenic Byway us a high-altitude drive that inspires a bit of an adrenaline rush.
When you reach the end of your scenic drive and you’re as high as you can go, don’t forget to snap a few shots of the spectacular view. You may even spot a herd or two of mountain goats and bighorn sheep. This journey through Colorado’s majestic mountains requires a full day, so when you’ve got a weekend to spare, there’s no better way to immerse yourself in Colorado nature.
4. Peak to Peak
Established in 1918, the Peak to Peak Scenic and Historic Byway is the oldest scenic drive in Colorado stretching 55 miles alongside the Continental Divide. As you journey down the byway, there are endless opportunities to get out, stretch your legs, and find an adventure. Take a short hike to the Boulder Falls waterfall, ride the whimsical Carousel of Happiness in Nederland, and enjoy a picnic in the Brainard Lake Recreation Area.
Watch for wildlife as the drive takes you through the Rocky Mountain National Park and the Golden Gate Canyon State Park, both featuring striking, high-alpine landscapes with grassy plains, wildflowers, and towering aspen trees. Towards the end of your scenic drive, stop in the historic gold rush towns of Black Hawk and Central City to learn more about the history of Colorado. Peak to Peak is your perfect weekend adventure.
5. South Platte River Trail
Looking for something a little different than your typical Colorado scenic drive? The South Platte River Trail is a driving route with a historic twist. Although this 19-mile loop may be a short 30-minute drive (the shortest of all Colorado’s scenic byways), you’ll get a close-up look at the Colorado prairie and insight into the state’s Western history as this trail was used by pioneers on the route westward.
The South Platte River Trail begins in Julesburg, home to the Colorado Welcome Center, and passes through Colorado’s only Pony Express station as well as Forth Sedgwick which was built in 1984 to protect the route. Markers along the trail also commemorate the Transcontinental Railroad and the Lincoln Highway. We’ve mentioned goats and sheep, but what other wildlife can you see in Colorado? The South Platte River Trail is home to deer and antelope, and if you have a keen eye, you may even be able to spot a Bald Eagle.
6. Top of the Rockies
With the vast majority of the byway sitting at 9,000 ft and above, the Top of the Rockies is aptly named. This scenic drive provides a front row seat to Mount Elbert, the tallest peak in Colorado and the highest summit in the Rocky Mountains of North America, and Mount Massive, the second tallest peak, both reaching higher than 14,400 feet in the sky.
Along the 82-mile path, you’ll drive over the Tennessee Pass and Freemont Pass – both more than 10,000 feet above sea level. Journey through three national forests – Pike National Forest, San Isabel National Forest, and White River National Forest – with beautiful skylines, crystal lakes, and towering mountains. Want to turn your scenic day drive into an extended visit? Top of the Rockies offers numerous opportunities for hiking, biking, and overnight camping.
7. Trail Ridge Road
Feeling a little daring? Discover the Trail Ridge Road in the Rocky Mountain National Park. Known as the Highway in the Sky, it’s one of the most iconic scenic drives in the country. Trail Ridge Road is a paved road winding through jagged peaks and alpine landscape, reaching more than 12,000 feet in height. Beginning in Estes Park and ending in Grand Lake, the 48-mile path crosses the Continental Divide and features stunning panoramas of the Rocky Mountains.
During the scenic drive, the ecosystem transitions from a field of aspen and pine trees to dense subalpine forests of fir and spruce before ascending into the alpine tundra. Marmots, ptarmigans, and (of course) bighorn sheep are common wildlife you’ll find in the tundra once you emerge 11,000 feet above sea level. During the summertime, fields are painted with colorful flowers and 200 species of alpine plants. And while reaching the top is the ultimate goal, be on the lookout for moose and elk as you make your journey up the Highway in the Sky.
Don’t waste another moment searching for the best scenic drives in Denver. Each of the 7 scenic byways and trails we’ve chosen will introduce you to a different aspect of Colorado’s landscape and history. It’s time to grab your keys and start driving!