Four Colorado Road Trips to Take Before Summer Ends

Just get in your car and drive.
Just get in your car and drive. Eli Duke
School is back in session and the days are getting shorter, but there's still time to take that summer road trip. Hop in your car and head in any direction from Denver; you're sure to encounter vastly different histories, cultures and landscapes that are all fascinating. These four jaunts, favorites in the Best of Denver 2017, will take you to, and through, some of the best Colorado has to offer.

click to enlarge Mesa Verde National Park - JIRKA MATOUSEK, FLICKR
Mesa Verde National Park
Jirka Matousek, Flickr
Best Road Trip — West
Mancos/Mesa Verde

Way out west in the Four Corners region of Colorado lies the town of Mancos, a cultural gem on the edge of Mesa Verde National Park that’s not only a gateway to several of the nation’s most treasured archaeological hot spots, but also a real, working cowtown situated in the valley made famous by the Westerns of Louis L’Amour. To counter that, it’s also a town of artisans and summer balloon fests and art fairs. And Mancos is a stop on two of Colorado’s designated scenic byways: For a true Rocky Mountain adventure, make your way to Mancos via the breathtaking San Juan Skyway, rolling past mining towns and hot springs and over the cliff-hanging Million Dollar Highway, or opt for the Trail of the Ancients, a Four Corners loop with stops at Mesa Verde, Lowry Pueblo, the Anasazi Heritage Center and Hovenweep.

click to enlarge Comanche National Grassland - JEFFREY BEALL, FLICKR
Comanche National Grassland
Jeffrey Beall, Flickr
Best Road Trip — East
Comanche National Grassland

The Colorado grasslands aren’t for everyone. Their lush periods are slight while the dry spells are brutal, but if you fine-tune your eye (which has probably been spoiled by all those mountain vistas) to the more subtle charms of the plains landscape, visiting them is well worth the drive. Find out what the fuss was all about when the U.S. Army tried — and eventually failed — to expand its Piñon Canyon Maneuver Site by encroaching on the grassland ten years ago: There are dino tracks preserved in the canyon along the Purgatoire River (anglicized to “Picketwire” by its American denizens), the ruins of the Dolores Mission to explore, and petroglyphs and tipi circles in Picture Canyon. Wildlife runs the gamut from prairie chickens and pronghorns to collared lizards and roadrunners, and you can even follow the Santa Fe Trail, imagining yourself crossing the plains in a covered wagon.

click to enlarge Lake San Cristobal - ROBERT THIGPEN, FLICKR
Lake San Cristobal
Robert Thigpen, Flickr
Best Road Trip — South
Silver Thread Byway

Rich in mining lore, Texas-sized belt buckles and beautiful scenery, the Silver Thread Byway follows the Rio Grande River out of South Fork, passing by the Collier State Wildlife Area on ancient Ute Indian lands on the way to historic Creede, a mining town reinvented with art galleries, eateries and a famed summer repertory theater on Main Street. In spite of its charming new directions, you can still revisit Creede’s mining past firsthand at the Underground Mining Museum or on side trips into the hills above town before heading over steep Spring Creek Pass and past Lake San Cristobal to picturesque Lake City, a Victorian aerie perched high in the San Juans. From there, it’s on through high-walled canyons to Gunnison — and back again.

click to enlarge Trail Ridge Road - ADIFFERENTBRIAN, FLICKR
Trail Ridge Road
adifferentbrian, Flickr
Best Road Trip — North
North Colorado Loop Tour

You can add to or take away from this extensive loop by stitching together a variety of scenic byways and national heritage areas, but whichever route you commit to, you’re going to gain a new appreciation for northern Colorado — and especially for its rugged scenery, from the Poudre Canyon to the headwaters of the Colorado River. Highlights range from the de rigueur Trail Ridge Road and Rocky Mountain National Park to the pristine and nature-heavy beauty of North Park and Walden, the Rawah Wilderness and the Medicine Bow and Never Summer Mountains.

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