From alpine forests to mirrored lakes, Colorado’s Peak-to-Peak Scenic Byway skirts between the Roosevelt National Forest and the Rocky Mountain National Park. This byway was originally part of a link between Longs Peak and Pikes Peak. You can explore many of the old mining towns along the route and find some ghost towns as well. Roads along these mountain lanes are mainly two lanes, so you won’t want to rush it. There are also plenty of places to pull over and enjoy the view.
Hint: CO-7 near Estes Park is also known as South St. Vrain. As you view directions, you will sometimes see CO-& or roads with the name Vrain. It’s the same road.
How long? About sixty-two miles from Central City to Estes Park. However, I would give yourself up to 2 hours. In the summer (especially around Estes Park), give yourself up to three. Or four. Heading from Denver to Central City can easily add on another hour. To loop back around to Denver from Estes Park is another hour and a half, so this tour can easily be a days drive if you stop at everything.
Time of Year? I would go from May to October. The Spring can be nice, but just make sure to check the weather as pop-up snow and winter storms can occur. In the winter? If the weather is nice and you know there isn’t much snow, it might be an adventure. Just be careful. Trust your gut, check the weather, and remember the Donner Party (or the Shining.) Seriously though, many of these roads are not available year-round due to winter weather and the high elevation, so plan accordingly.
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Peak-to-Peak Scenic Byway Itinerary
Start from Central City
Central City is a former mining town founded in 1859 during the Pike’s Peak Gold Rush. The rush financed many of the Victorian structures that still stand in the downtown area. Teller House, which now operates as a restaurant, was built in 1872. The City Central Opera House (124 Eureka St, Central City, CO 80427) was constructed in 1878 and is still in use. Oscar Wilde and Buffalo Bill Cody were known to have visited the opera house and today you can view events such as summer music festivals. Just up the hill from Central City is the ghost town of Nevadaville with original buildings and several historic mines. If you want a short excursion, you can follow Central City Parkway and take the Nevadaville Road on the left or simply take a (steep) hike up into the town.
As you begin heading north towards Nederland, Colorado, you will drive through the magnificent Roosevelt National Forest. As you begin climbing the gorge, you will be able to see Buckeye Mountain to the west and Tungsten Mountain to the east. The drive also passes the entrance to the Golden Gate Canyon State Park. In Nederland, visit the Carousel of Happiness to view hand-carved animals on a restored 1910 merry-go-round. Nederland was founded in 1874 and has plenty of old buildings to explore in its historic downtown. You can also drive out to Trail Ridge Road, which is the highest paved road on the U.S. mainland!
The Brainard Lake Recreation Area is where the looking-glass lakes called the Red Rock and Brainard offer a great stopping point for views and activities. A short trail leads up to Long Lake Trailhead, which offers superb views of nearby peaks. Off-season, when the gates are closed, head over to the Brainard Gateway Trailhead (Brainard Lake Winter Lot), with a warming hut, bathrooms, and parking for the snowshoe and ski access. Better yet, visit the town of Ward, Colorado, a former mining town in 1860, and look around the near-ghost town. The town has a restaurant, a coffee shop, and a general store in case you need a snack.
From Brainard Lake, the CO-72 drops back into a valley along a creek and some hairpin turns. You will soon arrive at the Peaceful Valley Campground, where you can view some great scenery and wildlife. If you are not planning on camping, continue the drive into a tunnel-like canyon walled by granite cliffs. After a slight panic attack (okay, just me), you’ll soon turn west onto CO-7 E.
North of Allenspark, Colorado, is the St. Catherine of Siena Chapel, also referred to as Chapel on the Rock. The church was built in the 1930s out of a large rock formation just east of the Rocky Mountain National Park. The structure has been damaged by sporadic landslides, floods, and fire. It is undergoing renovations and is occasionally open to the public. However, you can still view the majestic structure from the parking lot or as you drive nearby.
The Longs Peak Trailhead hike is a 16-mile round-trip hike to the tallest summit in Colorado, Longs Peak. At 14,259 feet, the hike is not for inexperienced climbers as it has narrow ledges, loose rock, and steep cliffs. It’s a climbing hike. You can always drive down the Longs Peak Road to the trailhead and view the campground. The mountain is visible in the distance.
Either after you visit and complete the trailhead, or just take a glimpse, head up CO-7 to Enos Mills Cabin. The museum also includes a short nature trail that leads you to the original homestead cabin of Kansas Enos, considered to be the “Father of Rocky Mountain National Park.” The cabin was built by Enos as a 15-year-old in 1885. Admission can be steep ($20 per adult), so you may want to drive by and continue up to Lily Lake.
Lilly Lake, once the home of a field full of lilies, is full of a variety of ducks, mallards, Canadian geese and an occasional moose. A 0.8-mile hiking trail goes around the lake and is easy enough for all skill levels. It can be crowded as it is used by locals and tourists, but it has a great visitor’s center with clean restrooms.
Estes Park is called the “Eastern Gateway to the Rocky Mountain National Park.” Surrounded by the soaring vistas, the town is a popular resort year-round. This is especially true in the summer; if you find a parking space, grab it. It may be a while before you find another one. The city is walkable so you can visit many of the shops and galleries on foot along Elkhorn and Morain avenues. The Riverwalk is fun too.
The Beaver Meadow Visitor’s Center is a great place to stop and watch a 20-minute video about the Rocky Mountain National Park. Before you start heading east into exploring the park, even more, you can get an idea of what to see, do, and so forth. The historic Stanley Hotel (333 E Wonderview Ave, Estes Park, CO 80517) is also nearby and is a popular spot both for its history and for serving as the inspiration for Stephen King’s The Shining.
If you have more time and feel like continuing your tour, dive deeper into the Rocky Mountain National Forest. Take US-34 east out of Estes Park and continue to Loveland, Colorado, an hour away. In fact, if you are planning on spending the night, Loveland has more affordable hotel rates that might make your trip easier. Also, it’s a stunning drive, especially in the summer.