By Jayne Clark
In the heart of the Colorado Rockies, scenic drives are almost as abundant as mountain peaks.
If you’re staying in or near Beaver Creek, you’ll have easy access to one of the country’s truly spectacular drives, the Top of the Rockies Scenic Byway. One of only 53 designated scenic byways in the nation, it soars at an elevation of 9,000 feet and higher, offering top-of-the-world views.
Because the 115-mile-long route isn’t a contiguous loop, we’ve split it into two portions. Both are ideal for day trips, allowing plenty of time to linger at overlooks and explore small towns – both inhabited and abandoned – along the way. And keep an eye out for wildlife. This is the realm of big horn sheep, pronghorn antelope, red tail foxes, deer, elk and more.
The road is paved, but take note that it’s narrow and winding in spots. If you’re traveling in winter, check in advance to make sure all stretches are open.
Top of the Rockies Scenic Byway Part 1
From Beaver Creek, head east, then take Highway 24 south toward Minturn, the oldest town in the Vail Valley. It’s worth stopping for a walk down its historic main streets and to browse in galleries and other shops. There’s also plenty of amazing places to stay in the area if you can’t get enough of Vail.
The former mining town of Gilman, now a ghost town, lies just south of Minturn. Founded in 1886 during the silver boom, it was abandoned in 1984 due to environmental toxins from mining operations.
Continuing on Highway 24, you’ll cross a steel arched bridge with great views of the Eagle River below. The town of Leadville sits at an elevation of 10,430 feet and claims fame as the highest incorporated community in the country. Take time to explore the town’s Victorian architecture and historic mining district.
From Leadville, turn north on Highway 91. You’ll cross the Continental Divide at the summit of Fremont Pass, an elevation of 11,318 feet.
This spur of the byway ends at Copper Mountain Ski Resort. From there, it’s a fast jaunt back to Beaver Creek via Interstate 70.
Top of the Rockies Scenic Byway Part 2
From Leadville (the 40-mile drive from Beaver Creek takes about an hour), head south on Highway 24. You’ll pass the Leadville National Fish Hatchery, the second oldest operation of its kind in the country. Continue on to Hayden Meadows Recreation Area and Sawatch Interpretive Trail. With two of Colorado’s highest peaks as a backdrop, this is a mandatory photo stop. Stretch your legs on the Sawatch Interpretive Trail, or drop a line in the Arkansas River.
The byway continues on Highway 82, which leads west to the tiny town of Twin Lakes, near the foot of the state’s highest mountain, Mt. Elbert. The Interlaken Hotel, built in 1879, is now operated by the U.S. Forest Service as a National Historic Site. There are some easy lakeside hikes in the area as well.
Independence Pass is 18 miles west of Twin Lakes (usually open from Memorial Day until late October or early November). Expect spectacular views at the summit. There’s a viewpoint overlooking the Roaring Fork Valley, Lake Creek Valley, Collegiate Range, Sawatch Range and West Elk Range.
West of the summit are the remains of the town of Independence, which, in its heyday in the 1880s, boasted a summer population of 1,000. Watch for ruins of the 1881 Farwell Stamp Mill near Mile Marker 57.
At the western end of the byway are the Braille and Discovery trails. Created in 1961, the Braille Trail was the first U.S. trail designed for the blind. In 2000, the U.S. Forest Service added the wheelchair-accessible Discovery Trail along the Roaring Fork River.
The byway ends in Aspen, where a plethora of restaurants, shops and galleries await.
Looking to get out on the road in Colorado? Check out some of these Colorado vacation home rentals.
Freelance travel writer Jayne Clark lives in Washington, D.C. She has been a travel reporter at USA Today and several other daily newspapers.