4. Top of the Rockies Byway
It’s possible to drive the Top of the Rockies scenic byway in about three hours, but we wouldn’t recommend it. Instead, stop often, and stay overnight in one of the charming mountain towns along the way. There are plenty of pull-offs for scenic viewing and picture-taking opportunities along the 75-mile route, numerous small town museums and cafes to discover, and of course, those breathtaking Rocky Mountain views that Colorado is famous for. The byway seldom dips below 9,000 feet, living up to its moniker. Alpine lakes, streams, and wildlife are plentiful, as the road crosses through three national forests.

Pick Your Route

Keystone Resort (Photo: P. Thompson via Flickr)
Think of the byway as a “Y” shape, with three possible starting/ending points. Many visitors drive the route during ski vacations, or coming from the Denver metro area, so a popular starting point is to hop of the byway from Interstate 70 between Avon and Vail. If you choose this route, why not get in a few runs at Keystone Resort before your drive? With day and night skiing and a terrain park in winter, world-class restaurants, and hiking, mountain biking, golf and other outdoor activities in the summer, it’s the perfect kickoff to the adventure.

From Interstate 70 West, exit onto State Highway 91 south. Fremont Pass is one of two mountain passes along the byway. It’s relatively gentle as Colorado passes go, but has a lot of bang for the buck. You’ll see three of Colorado’s famed fourteeners (peaks towering more than 14,000 feet)—Quandary Peak, Mount Democrat and Mount Lincoln. After a few steep switchbacks on the descent, you’ll reach the town of Climax, which is a ghost town except for an old molybdenum mine.

Historic Leadville - America's Highest Incorporated Town

Tabor Opera House (Photo: Jasperdo via Flickr)
From Climax, continue south to Leadville , the highest incorporated city in the United States at 10,152 feet. This charming little mining town (its claim to fame was silver ore) is full of surprises, namely the many brightly-colored Victorian style homes lining its historic neighborhoods. Leadville is home to some unique festivals and events, too, including the Leadville 100 ultramarathon and the annual ski-joring festival—where skiiers are pulled through an obstacle course by galloping horses—in March. It is surrounded by wilderness areas, and Colorado’s two highest peaks, Mount Elbert and Mount Massive, can be seen from town.

The beautifully-restored Tabor Opera House makes for an unforgettable evening of entertainment in the Rocky Mountains. The National Mining Museum commemorates the work of miners and others who work with natural resources. After some sightseeing, head toward Callaway’s inside the historic Delaware Hotel for hearty eats like buffalo chili, house-smoked meats and tempting desserts. They even have boxed lunches and afternoon tea!

From Leadville, you have two choices: go north on Highway 24 and back up the left arm of the “Y” toward Minturn, or west on Highway 82. The first option takes you up and over Tennessee Pass and the Continental Divide, a sight that should be experienced at least once. An interesting stop is Camp Hale, where an elite ski corps was trained to fight in snow during WWII. And then there is the tiny town of Red Cliff, with its abundant hiking and cross-country skiing trails and striking views of Mount of the Holy Cross, a prominent point of the Sawatch range.

Minturn, Twin Lakes and Glamorous Aspen

The Twin Lakes Inn Restaurants
Minturn, the next town along the route, is a rather trendy and modern (by small mountain town standards). A handful of art galleries, a winery, and several cute restaurants make up the downtown. Grill your own kebobs and steaks at Minturn Country Club (which is actually a very casual establishment), while the Minturn Inn is an elegant log cabin respite just five miles from the swanky Vail and Beaver Creek ski resorts.

The southwest option, down Highway 82 West from Leadville, leads to the picturesque town of Twin Lakes. This is a great place to spend the night (and wake up). Aptly named for its glacial lakes, there are several cozy places in town to rest up and recharge. Twin Lakes Roadhouse Lodge has individually-decorated rooms and homemade cinnamon rolls at breakfast; Black Wolf Lodging can help plan group getaways or reunions; Twin Lakes Inn is popular with hikers and endurance racers, and Ores & Mine bed and breakfast is perfect for couples who want to relax and unwind.

The final jaunt of the trip is from Twin Lakes to Aspen, and is one of Colorado’s most beautiful drives, over the famed Independence Pass to the iconic ski town of Aspen. You’ll want to leave plenty of time for photo opportunities on this leg of the journey. You’ll have worked up an appetite by the time you reach Apen, so head for Meat & Cheese , a beloved casual dining spot serving artisan meats and cheeses, charcuterie and other fresh fare. Or if you’re here for the powder, don’t miss the Little Nell—the place to see and be seen for aprés ski.

by Davina van Buren
Route Details
115 miles
About 3 hours
Recommended Stopovers
  • 1. Keystone Resort
  • 2. Climax
  • 3. Leadville
  • 4. Camp Hale
  • 5. Red Cliff
  • 6. Minturn
  • 7. Twin Lakes
  • 8. Aspen