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We often see photos of beautiful trails and epic mountain summits in the Colorado Rockies but you don’t need to hike up a mountainside to experience the beauty of the Rockies. There are roads winding through the mountains that offer up stunning views. Colorado has nearly 100 mountain passes accessible by road [some paved, some very rugged]. This article highlights five of the most scenic mountain passes that are easily accessible. We also have five lesser known passes available via downloadable PDF to take your mountain road trip to the next level!
The mountains are beautiful places to explore…on foot, on bike or in your car. There are few places in the world where the journey to the trailhead is truly as amazing as the trail itself. However, mountain driving does come with its own set of challenges. So before we hit the road let’s chat about a few tips on how to safely and confidently take on the mountains roads…
...be prepared for traffic! This is especially true if you’re heading into the mountains on the weekends. You will likely see delays and even near standstill traffic on Friday afternoons, Saturday mornings and Sunday afternoons. Avoid this traffic avoiding these times.
…follow the traffic laws and flow of traffic. This may go without saying, but please be considerate of the other drivers [and safe!] by going with the flow of traffic. This means you’ll need to pull over onto a pull out, rest stop or trailhead to snap photos. On mountain passes there are many pull outs that are designed to give you a space to pull over and let others pass, please use these to keep everyone safe and happy.
…avoid overusing your brakes. If you can, shift down rather than ride your brakes. Even automatic vehicles have the ability to shift into lower gears. This is your chance to put that feature to use! When you’re driving down the mountain simply shift into a lower gear [you can do this when in motion] and allow your engine to help slow you. You’ll still need your brakes but you won’t need to use them constantly.
...be aware of wildlife. Most of the mountain wildlife, especially on popular mountain passes, is wary of the road. However, the elk and moose do walk across the highways and they do it without a care in the world. Hitting an animal as large as a moose or elk will do more than just kill the animal — it will annihilate your car. It is best to avoid this encounter all together by being extra alert, especially at dusk and dawn.
*hint*hint* If you see multiple cars pulled over and people out with cameras this may be your chance to peep wildlife in their natural habitat! Find a safe place to pull over and join them…just do NOT approach the wildlife and if they start moving toward the road it’s a sign you need to move along.
…pack all of your road trip essentials. After all, this is a road trip! The mountain traffic and variable weather [along with the stunning views!] may keep you on the road longer than expected. This is the perfect excuse to over pack snacks! Not sure what to pack? Check out our Road Trip Essentials!
Highway Name + Condition: Highway 381, paved, closed in the winter
Closest Town: Georgetown, CO
Distance From Denver: ~60 miles / 1.5 hours
Trail Access: Mount Bierstadt Summit, Square Top Mountain Summit, Silver Dollar + Murray Lake
You’ll find Guanella Pass to be a well-traveled and easy to navigate road for any one with some mountain driving experience. It is fully paved and quite wide with many pull off areas to take in the views.
The distance from Georgetown/I-70 to Grant/Hwy 285 is about 30 miles, but round up and allow for at least an hour of driving with pull offs. Add more time in if you’d like to hike at the pass summit.
You can drive it from north-to-south or south-to-north. The only factor to take into consideration is the time of day and your meal plans. The northern side of the pass [I-70] has more restaurant and food options than the southern side [Hwy 285].
You may have already driven over Kenosha Pass without even realizing it. Not because it isn’t impressive but because it is along one of the main routes into the Rocky Mountains. It is a well traveled road with sweeping views. You will definitely want to pull off to take it all in and stretch your legs at the pass summit.
The Colorado Trail crosses the road at the summit of Kenosha Pass. You’ll likely see thru-hikers and mountain bikers on the trails in this area. If you have the time and energy a hike up to Kenosha Pass North via the Colorado trail will get you views for days…and lots of fall color!
Monarch Pass is the main thru fare from Salida to Gunnison. There is a ski resort at the summit that offers a large parking lot year round. This parking area will give you access to trails during the summer months. Many of these trails are very long but offer scenic views when hiked as an out-and-back.
The Monarch Crest is a gift shop and cafe located at the edge of the paved parking lot at the summit. It’s worth a stop for snacks, ice cream, photos and tramway tickets. The tramway will take you up to the Monarch Observatory, about a ten minute ride in a gondola. The tramway is open May to September, weather permitting.
This mountain pass may take you by surprise with its sweeping views, easy access trails and near perfect road conditions [newly renovated!]. Cottonwood Pass is closed in the winter and you’ll see signage in the town of Buena Vista when it opens up or closes.
The road will take you along the river under the shade of cottonwood trees and up to an alpine tundra with endless views. It is highly recommended that you stop at the summit and hike a bit. You’ll be treated with expansive views of the highway in both directions as well as quick access to alpine lakes.
Independence Pass is paved and accessible with any vehicle but it is does have very tight turns. Due to the tight turns any vehicle [including vehicle + trailer] over 35′ is restricted from using Independence Pass at any time. If you’re traveling with a camper or a larger RV you will need to skip this pass, but keep it in mind for the next time you’re in the area.
The valley leading up to climb toward the summit is beautiful and often full of wildlife if you [ahem, your passenger!] keep an eye on the river. There are also multiple pull off areas on the tight turns as you near the summit — definitely allow yourself a few stops to take in the views.
If you’ve already soaked up the views on the stunning mountain passes listed above you need to get your hands on our list of the five lesser known mountain passes! We have this list ready for you in a downloadable PDF, all you need to do is give us an email to send it to. We’ve opted for a downloadable PDF so you can have it readily available when you venture beyond the reaches of cell service…where the real adventure begins!