Length: About 60 miles.
When to go: Year-round.
Not to be missed: The Oh My God Road, a narrow byway winding a tortuous course from Idaho Springs to Central City.
Nearby attractions: Mt. Evans Byway, one of the highest paved roads in North America, Idaho Springs. Eldora Mountain Resort, Eldora. Wild Bear Center, providing environmental education, Nederland.
Further information: Tourism and Recreation Program, P.O. Box 679, Nederland, CO 80466; 866-435-3672, www.colorado.com.
With almost 1,100 peaks soaring higher than 10,000 feet—55 of them rising above 14,000 feet—Colorado has justly been dubbed “the state nearest heaven.” Originally conceived as part of a link between Longs Peak and Pikes Peak, this route skirts between two scenic alpine gems: Roosevelt National Forest and Rocky Mountain National Park. Designated a Scenic and Historic Byway in 1918, it is Colorado’s oldest.
1. Central City
The rush for gold is still on in Central City, where shiny $5 slot machines have breathed new life into the former mining town. But the present revival is nothing compared to 1859, when some $2 million in gold was gouged from the nearby hills, earning Central City the sobriquet “richest square mile on earth.”
The resulting boom financed many Victorian structures that still stand—the handsome Teller House, for example, where President Ulysses. S. Grant stayed, and an elegantly restored opera house once frequented by such luminaries as Oscar Wilde and Buffalo Bill Cody. A short, steep hike west from Central City leads to the ghost town of Nevadaville, where a few rickety houses still cling precariously to slopes scarred by mining.
2. Roosevelt National Forest
As Rte. 119 climbs a precipitous gorge into the expansive Roosevelt National Forest, it offers glimpses of magnificent Mt. Evans, whose snowy bulk to the south rises to 14,264 feet. Rolling over hills and ridges, the drive then passes the entrance to Golden Gate Canyon State Park, where downtown Denver can be seen twinkling in the purple twilight.
Just past the cozy town of Nederland, Rte. 72 twists and turns for nine miles as it approaches Ward, a once-rowdy mining camp that lost its luster along with its gold. Follow Rte. 112 west toward the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area, a two-mile-high wonderland of deep pine forests and alpine lakes where snowdrifts linger through July.
3. Brainard Lake Recreation Area
Soon the drive reaches Brainard Lake Recreation Area, where two looking-glass lakes (Red Rock and Brainard) offer fine trout fishing. Take the short, paved trail to Long Lake Trailhead for splendid views of peaks haloed by clouds. But beware in winter, for the area’s serenity is sometimes shattered by the roar of a distant avalanche.
4. Peaceful Valley Campground
Back on Rte. 72, the road drops into a valley along a dancing creek and hairpins at the aptly named Peaceful Valley Campground, where it’s not unusual to see a bear lumber by. From here the drive descends into a tunnel-like canyon walled by granite cliffs and then turns west onto Rte. 7.
5. Scenic Overlook
With the new road comes a change in scenery, including verdant valleys, wooded ravines, willow thickets, and meandering creeks. Three miles past the junction, a scenic overlook faces north to Mt. Meeker and the Wild Basin in Rocky Mountain National Park. The largest national park in Colorado, this 265,000-acre preserve boasts an abundance of natural skyscrapers—114 named peaks that soar above 10,000 feet, 78 of them topping 12,000.
About four miles north of Allenspark, the 14,255-foot-tall profile of Longs Peak comes into view to the west. Its flat-topped summit, visible to half of Colorado’s population, long served as a landmark to westward-bound pioneers.
6. Longs Peak Trailhead
To reach Longs Peak, continue another mile and follow a spur road west to the Longs Peak Trailhead. The 15-hour round-trip hike to the summit is strictly for the hardy but well worth the effort, offering a grand vista of the Central Rockies.
Back on Rte. 7, continue north another half-mile to the Enos Mills monument, built to honor the founding father of Rocky Mountain National Park. Mills’s one-room cabin, filled with books, photographs, climbing equipment, and other memorabilia, is nestled among nearby pines. Behind the cabin loom the craggy silhouettes of Twin Sisters Peaks. In mid-September, when the aspens turn yellow, look for the so-called butterfly burn, a stand of trees that sprouted on a previously burned slope and resembles a giant butterfly.
7. Lily Lake
The lilies are long gone from Lily Lake—early homesteaders periodically drained its waters, causing the flowers to die—but they live on in its name. Full once again, the lake lures a steady stream of ring-necked ducks, mallards, and migrating Canada geese. Exhibits at the visitor center recall the days when the lake was a shimmering pool of yellow blooms.
8. Estes Park
Winter comes early to the Rockies, with snow dusting the hills, then deepens as the days grow shorter. In early fall elk wander down from the high country for their annual mating ritual, which you can see—and hear—from the highway. The road coils around Prospect Mountain before plunging to Estes Park, the eastern gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park and a popular year-round recreational center. (The town’s name reflects the western custom of referring to any open, grassy valley as a park.)
During ski season a maze of Nordic trails shoelace up the snow-draped mountains that hover over this storybook town. (In summer an aerial tram whisks visitors to the summit of Prospect Mountain for panoramic views.) The historic Stanley Hotel, a sugar-white grand dame with a red roof, is a popular warming spot for visitors.
By late April, winter loosens its grip on the valleys and hillsides as distant thunder signals the return of spring. Rivers swell with snowmelt while luminescent wildflowers—alpine buttercups, shooting stars, and forget-me-nots—bloom through early May, transforming the low country into a land of Oz.
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