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Top of the Rockies

February 28, 2013

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of driving to and from Gunnison, CO for work.  I know it might sound crazy to describe 6 hours of driving in one day as a pleasure, but it truly was.  That’s because the drive, which is mostly on the Top of the Rockies National Scenic Byway, is jaw-droppingly gorgeous.  So much so that I was shooting photos through the windshield without even looking at the camera (you should have seen how many photos I deleted and edited to get the ones below) and pulled over a handful of times to really take it in.

Map Edwards to Gunnison

For all you road warriors out there, I would absolutely recommend this drive.  As you can see from the map above, I left Edwards and headed south on Highway 24 through Minturn, Leadville, and Buena Vista before turning west on Highway 50 toward Gunnison.  A word of caution – if you’re not experienced driving on mountain roads, I would definitely save this drive for the summer when it will be equally beautiful but you won’t have to worry about snow and ice.  It would probably be particularly gorgeous in September when the aspens are changing.

Heading toward Leadville over Battle Mountain Pass, the views started to wow me.

Highway 24

And they just kept getting better.

Highway 24

After climbing steadily for almost an hour, I made it to Leadville.  At over 10,000 feet in elevation, Leadville is the highest incorporated city in America. It is also a charming town with an old-fashioned main street.  It’s somewhere I’ve passed through dozens of times but never stopped and explored.  I need to remedy that soon.



Despite one of my friends’ comments that Leadville reminds her of a place where old men with ponytails hang out (a weird thing to say, but I can totally picture it), I’d love to at least grab lunch and spend an afternoon walking around one day.

Leadville Tabor Opera House

Leadville Saloon

Also, perched so high in the Rockies, the views of the surrounding mountains are stunning.  As I left town (it’s the kind of place you drive through in under 5 minutes), the sky opened back up and it seemed like I could see forever.

Leaving Leadville

After climbing for so long, the road levels out on a high plain and descends slightly toward Buena Vista.

Highway 24

When I hit Buena Vista (about half way through my journey, it was time for a rest stop.  I hung a right when I saw the sign for Cool Beans Coffee proclaiming “Lattes and T-shirts!”  If the lattes hadn’t sucked me in already, the name surely would have.

Cool Beans Coffee

The small store was filled with interesting knickknacks and souvenirs, and the latte was right on.  And for $2.40 for a 16 oz. latte, I knew I wasn’t in Vail anymore.

Back on the road, I passed through the least exciting portion of the drive.  Snow-covered ranch and farmland on the right, the Arkansas River sparkling on the left, and 14,000 foot peaks flanking the valley.

Buena Vista

After hanging a right on Highway 50, I started up Monarch Pass.  The pass was still snow-packed from the previous day’s storm, so I took it nice and slow and pocketed the camera for a while.  Approaching Gunnison the landscape flattened out again, but you can still see the mountains in my rear view mirror.

Approaching Gunnison

Gunnison is a small town located between Monarch Mountain and Crested Butte ski areas and is also home to Western State University.  From my short visits, it seems like a place with plenty of character and a warm small-town atmosphere.

I had a productive meeting in Gunnison and lunch at Farrell’s Restaurant, a delicious bakery and cafe with a character for an owner. (Picture a man in his 70s with a major white mustache wearing a t-shirt, apron, short shorts and tube socks – and from what I heard, the shorts he was wearing that day were his “long shorts.”)  A few hours later, I put Gunnison in my rearview and hit the road once again.

Gunnison in the Rearview

Heading back up Monarch Pass, most of the snow had thankfully melted and it was an easier drive.  I pulled over toward the top to take in the views and snap a few photos.

Monarch Pass

Right near the summit where I pulled over there was an aerial tram advertising scenic rides to the top of Monarch Ridge.  It was closed at the time, but has a sign that said something like, “The views from the top are like nothing you’ve ever seen. Bring your camera.”  I’d love to come back in the summer and take a ride to check out the views, which would probably be spectacular.  Better yet, I wished I had brought snow shoes or my skis to skin up to the ridge.  Based on tracks leading up the ridge, those looked like  popular options.

Monarch Ridge

The towers you can see at the top of the ridge are for the tram ride to the top.  The views must be epic.

Oh yeah, I almost forgot to mention that they had SO MUCH SNOW on top of the pass.  It looked like they got pounded during the most recent storm.  I was wishing I had my skis and gear in the car!

Monarch Pass Snow

After taking in the sights, I got back in the car and headed down the pass, back the way I’d come.  In the late afternoon light, the views I’d passed through early that morning looked new again.  After stopping in Leadville, I made my way back toward home.  I pulled over at the Point of Interest sign pointing out Camp Hale about midway between Leadville and Red Cliff.  Camp Hale was the training camp for soldiers in the 10th Mountain Division, the skiing soldiers of World War II who later went on to start skiing as a recreational activity in the United States.  A few of the soldiers even founded Vail ski area.

Camp Hale

A beautiful high valley, Camp Hale is supposed to be a great place for nordic skiing and snowshoeing.  There are plaques near the highway explaining the history of the area.  Yesterday, the snow was too deep to get close enough to read the signs.

Camp Hale Plaques

After stopping at Camp Hale, I made my way back home and arrived in Edwards just before sunset.  I regretted having to drive straight through and am already thinking about how fun the drive could be on a long weekend.  My imagined itinerary would include leaving early, stopping in Leadville for breakfast and walking around, then on to Monarch Pass where we could hike Monarch Ridge or do a little skiing at Monarch Mountain.  From there we would continue on to Gunnison for lunch, then continue on to Crested Butte to spend the night, explore town, and ski or hike depending on the time of year.  Who wants to go with me?


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