A Memorable Road Trip on Colorado’s Side Roads

The Crystal River parallels Highway 133 in Colorado.

The Crystal River parallels Highway 133 in Colorado.

Story and photos by Brad Clement

Brad is a photographer and filmmaker specializing in mountaineering and wilderness adventure. He is based in Boulder, Colorado.

The drive from Boulder to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park reaps many rewards. 

Some 60 miles west of Denver on Interstate 70, the Eisenhower Tunnel shelters about 30,000 cars a day as they travel under the Continental Divide in the Rocky Mountains. Every time I exit the 1.6-mile-long tunnel, I am acutely aware I’m leaving the city and entering a magical realm that offers numerous possibilities for outdoor adventures in Colorado.

I’m on a 262-mile road trip from Boulder to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, where I plan to explore the 2,722-foot-deep canyon, fish for trout in the Gunnison River — recognized by the state as “Gold Medal Waters” — and photograph the night sky. Travelers seeking the fastest route remain on I-70, but instead I exit at Frisco and head south on Highway 9. In Breckenridge, a famous ski town, I stop at Crepes A La Cart for a delicious breakfast. I take in views of the famed Tenmile Range, still snow-capped in early summer, and then begin the drive up and over Hoosier Pass.

From the pass, I drop into Fairplay, the county seat in Park County and home to just under 800 people. The region of South Park — the inspiration for the animated television show of the same name — once was home to the Ute communities that originally settled the region as well as tremendous herds of American bison. I stop to tour the South Park City Museum, an open-air restoration of a Colorado mining town that’s on the National Register of Historic Places.

Back in the rental car, I continue down Highway 285 to Buena Vista, where I pull in at Brown Dog Coffee Company, my favorite spot for a chai latte. Beverage in hand, I ponder whether to continue south on 285 along the rugged Sangre De Cristo mountains or steer west along Highway 50. I choose the more direct route along Highway 50, and soon I’m cruising over Monarch Pass, some 11,300 feet above sea level. The Monarch ski area is a hidden gem, one of the snowiest resorts in the state but one of the least visited. I stop for fuel in Gunnison, about an hour east of the national park. On the Weather Channel’s list of the coldest cities in the U.S., Gunnison ranked second, thanks to an all-time record low of -47 degrees, set on Christmas Day in 1924.

Fishing, Photography, Hot Springs

When I reach the park, I set up camp in the magnificent canyon on the banks of the Gunnison River and apply myself to fly fishing, a new passion of mine. In spite of my inexperience, I land more than a dozen rainbow and brown trout, one measuring almost 20 inches long. I also capture photos of the Milky Way, as Black Canyon is designated as an International Dark Skies Park.

When it’s time to head home, I map out a different route. I drive north on Colorado State Highway 92 to Paonia, known for its apple orchards, and then on to the high peaks, passing through Carbondale and Glenwood Springs along Highways 133 and 82. The route allows me a gorgeous view of Mount Sopris, a twin-summit mountain often considered the most beautiful peak in Colorado. Before heading east on I-70, I pause at Glenwood Hot Springs Pool for a soothing dip in the hot mineral water provided by underground springs.

Soon enough I’m back in the Eisenhower Tunnel, heading home. Throughout the state, Colorado offers so many side roads with breathtaking views, welcoming communities and places where even short getaways relieve any stress from city living. I love all those roads, just as much as I enjoy escaping on them.

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