5. Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument
The rumblings of ancient volcanoes—massive mountains that erupted repeatedly—are responsible for the fossils here. Mudflows dammed a stream, and the backed-up waters partially inundated the surrounding forest. Then thick rains of ash and pumice buried the region, thereby preserving the area’s plants and animals as fossils.
The climate was much different then, a time when sequoia, cedar, hickory, beech, and even avocado trees thrived in a warm, humid realm. Conditions were perfect for insects, and they are among the most frequently found fossils—from butterflies to the tsetse fly, a species that today occurs naturally only in Africa. Mammals, too, were captured in stone and now form a prehistoric menagerie that includes a large rhinolike creature about 14 feet in length. Two short trails, A Walk Through Time and the Petrified Forest Loop, guide sightseers through the scattered forests and summer wildflower meadows that cover the numerous fossil-bearing shales.
6. Eleven Mile State Park
Large lakes are few and far between in this rugged, steep landscape, so humans have stepped in and, at Eleven Mile State Park, created a reservoir. Although visitors are not allowed to swim in the cold, cobalt water, they can cast a line and try for trophy-size trout. To enjoy the area’s impressive views—panoramas that take in several mountain ranges—explore the hiking trails that crisscross the surrounding wilds.
Back on Rte. 24, the drive leads to Wilkerson Pass, ascending to 9,507 feet. On the way back down, the view opens to reveal South Park, one of Colorado’s largest upland basins. The valley, about 900 square miles in size, offers a haven for deer and elk, which descend from the high country to graze among the meadows. You might also glimpse patches of white—alkali salts left behind by the evaporation of prehistoric lakes.
7. Collegiate Peaks Scenic Overlook
The drive begins another demanding ascent as it climbs the western slope of South Park to Trout Creek Pass, which tops off at 9,346 feet. Tracing a 19th-century railroad’s course, the highway slices up barren hillsides, snakes through shadowy canyons, and passes abandoned, weatherworn cabins that were built along the way by early pioneers who settled the area in numbers in the 19th century.
One of the region’s finest vistas awaits at the Collegiate Peaks Scenic Overlook, perched above the Arkansas River valley. The view looks west across a fertile basin—spotted with willows and cottonwoods—to the snowcapped crowns of the Collegiate Peaks. Part of the Sawatch Range, the mountains were named in 1869 for the prestigious universities of the East—Harvard, Columbia, Yale, and Princeton. Rising more than 14,000 feet, each qualifies as a Fourteener, and together their sturdy backbone marks the Continental Divide’s route through these precipitous parts.
8. Arkansas River
When the snow begins to melt, many of the local outdoor enthusiasts put their skis away and dust off their kayaks. They are bound for the roiling rapids of the Arkansas River, which originates among these mountains at the start of what will be a 1,450-mile course to the Mississippi.
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As the drive veers to the south, it crosses the river, then follows near its course via Rte. 285. Much of the river is encompassed by the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area, a protected corridor that was established in 1989. The river’s rapids range from the fairly tame to frothy stretches that are rated among the state’s most difficult. (A number of outfitters offer tours and supplies.) Ruby Mountain Recreation Site, a put-in point with camping and fishing, lies just upriver from Browns Canyon, where the Arkansas swirls between the towering pink walls of 6,600-acre Browns Canyon Wilderness Study Area. The river, however, does not have a monopoly on recreational activities here; inviting trails lace the region, and hikers can hope to catch glimpses of mule deer, elk, eagles, and peregrine falcons.
9. St. Elmo
A side trip, Rte. 162, turns away from the river and heads west for a nearly 2,000-foot climb. Mts. Princeton and Antero, both Fourteeners, stand sentinel on opposite sides of the road, which meanders next to Chalk Creek and its canyon, a prime foraging ground for bighorn sheep. Agnes Vaille Falls, one of the largest in these parts, can be reached along a short trail that begins just beyond Chalk Cliffs. The tumbling water creates a steady, soothing music, and the abundant spray keeps the ledges green with ferns and mosses.
Aspen groves, especially brilliant in the fall, dot the area’s steep slopes for most of the ascent; then at higher elevations thick forests of Engelmann spruce and Douglas fir appear on the mountainsides. St. Elmo flourished during the region’s gold rush but is now a ghost town, where visitors can view old buildings and follow a railroad line to Alpine Tunnel, which burrows beneath the Continental Divide.