Call it the stuff of legend: Colorado’s scenery is so spectacular that the U.S. Department of Transportation recently added two of the state’s roadways to the America’s Byways list, which celebrates some of the most stunning driving routes in the country.
The new designations give Colorado 13 federally designated scenic and historic byways—more than any other state in the nation. (Both roadways were already part of the state-sponsored scenic and historic byway list.) Best of all, because the additions are in southern Colorado and relatively unknown, both routes offer refreshing opportunities to immerse yourself in unspoiled beauty, as well as relive some of the Centennial State’s rich history and “geo” heritage.
Scenic Highway of Legends
Located just west of I-25, the Scenic Highway of Legends is an 82-mile route that stretches along Colorado Highway 12 from Walsenburg to La Veta to Trinidad. Its central spur, which is closed in winter, extends eastward to Aguilar along Huerfano/Animas County Road 46. With great hiking, quiet state parks, a historic fort, and other museums, it’s easy to spend a day or more exploring this region.
The dramatic scenery in the area has long inspired legends from the Native Americans, Spanish explorers, trappers, and miners who ventured here. The highway’s backdrop includes the rugged Sangre de Cristo Mountains, which has summits that rise above 14,000 feet. The twin bell-shaped Spanish Peaks are where life emerged on our planet, according to local Native American lore.
The Spanish Peaks are arguably this byway’s most distinctive landmarks. The straightforward hike up West Spanish Peak from Cordova Pass leads to breathtaking views at its summit. Both that mountain and its twin, East Spanish Peak, which once served as a landmark for passing wagon trains rumbling along the Santa Fe Trail, are the remains of two large blobs of magma that were emerged about 24 million years ago.
As you drive along the byway’s central portion, you’ll see dozens of elongated “fingers” of solidified magma, called dikes. The magma was originally injected into a thick stack of sedimentary rock that erosion inexorably washed away, exposing the more resistant dikes as ridges that radiate outward from West Spanish Peak like spokes on a wheel. Some, like the Devil’s Staircase and Profile Rock, are so distinctively shaped that they’ve inspired their own stories.
Some other noteworthy attractions along this byway include:
A.R. Mitchell Museum of Western Art: Located in Trinidad, this museum showcases the artwork of Arthur Roy Mitchell. The building, which was built in 1906, still sports the original, pressed-tin ceilings.
Trinidad Lake State Park: In addition to fishing, boating, and camping, this park offers one of North America’s best glimpses of the K-T Boundary, the 66-million-year-old layer of ash kicked up by the asteroid that landed on Earth and killed off the dinosaurs, along with 70 percent of all other species on the planet.
Silver Thread Colorado Scenic and Historic Byway
This 117-mile-long route wanders through spectacular scenery in the northeastern San Juan Mountains, stitching together a patchwork of magnificent alpine landscapes that are dotted with remnants of the area’s old silver mines.
From Blue Mesa Reservoir west of Gunnison, the route follows Colorado 149 as it winds through a series of volcanic plateaus that get increasingly higher. By the time you reach the historic mining town of Lake City, the mountains—including 14,321-foot-high Uncompahgre Peak, the highest in the San Juans—fully envelop you. Sparkling San Cristobal Lake lies just a short distance up the valley. It was formed when the slowly creeping Slumgullion Earthflow created a natural dam on the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River.
The Silver Thread ascends the still-moving earthflow, passing the site where Alferd Packer, also known as the “Colorado Cannibal,” ate deceased members of his traveling party to survive after they’d all gotten lost in the winter of 1874. Stunning views of the highest San Juan peaks unfold as you climb over 11,530-foot-high Slumgullion Pass and enter the massive La Garita Caldera, site of the world’s largest known volcanic eruption about 28 million years ago.
Here, the beautiful North Clear Creek Falls tumble over solidified ash that erupted from the caldera. On the other side of the pass sits the storied mining town of Creede, which is dotted with the evocative ruins of dozens of mines.
A few more attractions along this byway include:
Creede Underground Mining Museum: Open year-round, this museum gives you a sense of what it was like for the miners who toiled day after day underground to extract the region’s rich silver ore. Both audio and guided tours, led by retired miners, are also available.
The World’s Largest Fork: An outsized piece of flatware greets visitors who enter Creede.
Collier State Wildlife Area: Picnicking, fishing, and hunting are all available at this 579-acre recreation area ensconced in the Rio Grande National Forest on the byway’s southern end.