Fall Driving Tour: Peak to Peak Scenic Byway
Ghost towns, Victorian charm, gold mining, countless trails and lakes and a front-row seat to the Continental Divide make this curvy drive one of Colorado’s most coveted. Here’s how to tackle it.
By Lisa Blake
Established in 1918, Peak to Peak is Colorado’s oldest designated scenic byway. Early fall is one of the best times to experience this classic drive in all its golden glory.
- I like to end camping and hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park, so this drive is preferred beginning from Black Hawk and heading north to Estes Park. But traveling north to south and ending at an old-timey saloon playing blackjack is just as nice.
- Give yourself around two to three hours of drive time and loads of extra time to pull over for photo ops, hikes and, of course, shopping, restaurants and breweries (bring along your favorite designated driver).
- From Denver, begin on I-70 and take Clear Creek Canyon (Highway 6) west towards Black Hawk. Head north to Nederland on CO-119, then take CO-72 to Allenspark and CO-7 north into Estes Park.
Stop Here: Central City and Black Hawk
These former mining jackpot sister cities were dubbed the richest square mile on earth after John Gregory discovered gold here in 1859. Today, the mountain-hugged streets are lined with buzzing casinos, shops and restaurants in an Old-West-meets- Vegas atmosphere.
Visit the Victorian-era Central City Opera House for various art and music festivals or pop into the Gilpin County Historical Museum for an inside glimpse at life in the 1800s. Watch for their spooky and spirited tours happening each October.
As you travel north from Black Hawk, you’ll notice narrow gravel roads sprouting from the main highway. A handful lead to ghost towns that once housed thousands of boom-or-bust-era folks hoping to strike it rich. Follow signs to Nevadaville, Hesse and Apex where you’ll stumble upon gold mining relics, original settlements and eerie gravesites.
Mining and Engineering History
Highways 72 and 119 are dotted with former mining sites. You may even spot hobbyists dredging creeks for gold flakes. Stop to see Moffat Tunnel, part of John Moffat’s railroad built over the mountain pass in 1903, marking the highest American railroad of the time. Pull off to hike or bike along Rollins Pass Road among railway leftovers and stunning views. Grab provisions at the hometown market in blink-and-miss Rollinsville.
Stop Here: Nederland
Wind through thick lodgepole forests and around towering craggy peaks before dropping into this adventure basecamp and slightly bohemian mountain town. Dive into a scenic hike in the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area skirting town. Family favorites include Caribou Ranch and the Blue Bird Mine loop where interpretive signs reveal life as a 19th-Century Colorado homesteader.
Back in Ned, wander from funky boutiques to scratch-made pastry shops and stop for lunch at Crosscut Pizzeria & Taphouse. Be sure to take a spin on the Carousel of Happiness, a historic hand-carved amusement ride before stopping into The Train Cars Coffee and Yogurt Company for a sweet treat.
Golden glowing aspen stands typically peak here in September and this drive delivers plenty of opportunities to immerse yourself in autumn splendor. Visit Brainard Lake Recreation Area near the tiny town of Ward, where you’ll be rewarded with endless hiking among crystal clear lakes mirroring 13,000-foot Indian Peaks. Fishing, kayaking and mountain biking are also prime here.
As you continue north and onto CO-7, stop for a selfie at the Mount Meeker Scenic Overlook. Layers of lush, green and golden mountainsides and iconic peaks like Meadow Mountain, Mount Meeker and Longs Peak make for an only-in-Colorado backdrop.
Stop Here: Allenspark
Small, tight-knit and artsy, Allenspark is a beautiful pit stop on your way to bustling Estes Park. Visit Chapel on the Rock (a.k.a. St. Malo’s) and marvel in the majestic views from the stone structure resting on top of a massive granite slab. Pope John Paul II stayed here in 1993.
Shop for Native American wares, art and jewelry at roadside gem, Eagle Plume’s and enjoy the area’s open meadows and thriving elk and deer populations.
End Here: Estes Park
Plan to spend a day or weekend exploring this welcoming entryway to Rocky Mountain National Park. Stroll Elkhorn Avenue for shops, galleries, fresh-pulled taffy, souvenirs and more and then duck a block behind the main thoroughfare for a pedestrian Riverwalk laced with bars and restaurants and plenty of patio seating and people-watching. Lake Estes invites fishing and boating, while Twin Owls just outside of downtown is a rock climber’s paradise.
Book ahead for camping inside Rocky Mountain National Park and extend your road-trip up and over Trail Ridge Road, the highest continuous paved road in the nation. Autumn is elk rutting season, so be on the lookout for these majestic creatures around every bend.
Find more Colorado fall adventures and events here.