Great Drive: Colorado

It has been far too long since I took a great drive, let alone wrote about one. With a few spare hours after work on a business trip to the Boulder, Colorado area, I set off earlier this week on a drive for which I had done minimal research.  The scenery far surpassed my expectations, though the trip was slower than I had expected due to speed limits.

Prior to my departure, I had quickly scoured Google Maps for curvy, mountainous roads near Boulder, and found plenty. I decided to head up Baseline Road from its intersection with US-36, which led me to Flagstaff Road. Boulder (elevation 5430 feet) sits in a high valley flanked by tall mountains, and almost immediately from its intersection with US-36, the route began climbing steeply. Shortly thereafter, Flagstaff Road began, with incredible vistas around every (incredibly-sharp) corner. Flagstaff Road is posted 20 MPH, and it’s not possible to go much faster due to vehicle and bike traffic, combined with narrow lanes and shoulders (often with precipitous drops off the downhill side).

I stopped briefly at Flagstaff Summit (Elevation 6850 feet), and then continued up the road which eventually peaked and started descending the other side, through scenic meadows and scarred forests which fell victim to wildfire several years ago.

At this point, it’s fair to caution readers that any time you’re exploring someplace new, especially in a remote area, it’s pretty important to actually know where you are going. Having a map or navigation system is important because once you’re in the wild, you’re likely a long way from a cell phone tower, meaning your iPhone’s favorite internet-based navigation app isn’t going to know where you’re at or how to get you back to civilization. You can view an interactive map of my first day’s drive here.

From my online research, I knew that Flagstaff Road eventually connected to some other roads that led to CO-72 (Coal Creek Canyon Road). What I found out on my drive was that Flagstaff Road is eventually signed “NO OUTLET”, at an intersection with an unpaved (though decently maintained) road with a small sign with an arrow to Hwy 72. The sign pointed the way up the dirt road, which wasn’t obviously posted with a name but turned out to be Gross Dam Road. The road eventually led past a large lake which I later discovered was Gross Reservoir, behind Gross Dam. I was able to stop and hike out to a scenic overlook, where I took some stunning sunset photos. I departed the overlook quickly, knowing the sun was going down and not knowing how far I would need to drive on this dirt road to reach CO-72. The road took me up hills, down hills, through a maintenance village for the dam, across a double-track railroad crossing, and up and down some more hills. As darkness was falling, the road finally started to have some cabins and homes along it, and it eventually intersected with paved  Crescent Park Drive, which I figured must be the way to the paved highway. Without any cell phone signal or map, I simply had to rely on my best judgment to guide me down this curving, rural road which descended to meet Highway 72. Checking an online map back in at my hotel, I later learned that Gross Dam Road intersects directly with CO-72 about a half mile later. Although unpaved, the road is well-enough maintained that a standard midsize sedan would be able to handle it without incident.

My memory told me I needed to turn right onto CO-72, which I did in a misty dusk. I remembered that  I would eventually come to CO-119 (Peak-to-Peak Highway) which would lead to the town of Netherland, where Boulder Canyon Road would take me back to Boulder. What I didn’t remember was that I first needed to travel about six miles on foggy, dark, curvy CO-72, skirting the community of Pinecliffe at elevation 8009 feet; I was growing very concerned as it grew darker, and I still had no signal on my phone. Eventually, I reached the intersection with CO-119 and a sign pointing to Nederland. By the time I reached Nederland (elevation 8228 feet) and descended sixteen miles (and nearly 2800 feet) through Boulder Canyon, the canyon was shrouded in darkness, but my headlights showed it to be spectacular. I made the decision to return the next evening after work, heading up Boulder Canyon to check out its splendor. By the time I had returned to Boulder, about 2.5 hours had elapsed.

The next evening, after a long day and a late-running meeting, I hurriedly changed clothes and hopped into my rented 2013 Dodge Durango Crew, heading for Boulder Canyon. By the time I reached the intersection of US-36 and CO-119 (Boulder Canyon Road), it was already 7:00 PM, though daylight does last late into the evening in early June. The road winds up the canyon through Roosevelt National Forest, alongside picturesque Boulder Creek with whitewater kayakers, past turnouts to park for hiking and mountain biking, the Boulder area really is an adventure-sports enthusiast’s playground.  The ascent to Nederland took about 25 minutes including a couple of photo stops, and the temperature had dropped from 82deg F at the start of my journey to 58deg F as I passed Barker Reservoir.

In Nederland, I followed signs to CO-72, which is the continuation of the Peak-to-Peak highway north of that town. The drive to the intersection with CO-7 (St. Vrain Drive) took me about 45 minutes including photos stops, passing numerous scenic vistas as well as the community of Ward.

Knowing that I was running out of daylight, I turned right on CO-7 toward the town of Lyons, though I would have loved to continue back on to the Peak-to-Peak’s terminus in Estes Park. The route down CO-7 took me through very lightly traveled St. Vrain Canyon, with a rushing creek running along the side of the road, towering rock walls, and the scent of an arid Western forest in the air; I found the scenery even more spectacular than that of Boulder Canyon. This route has many day-use pull-outs (on the right-side of the road while descending) to park and explore by the creek.

The steep, narrow canon ended suddenly, spilling out into a green, grassy plain studded with large boulders, with lush leafy trees overhanging the road and the creek.  At the edges of the valley, red rock mesas with green foliage rose up sharply to the sky. I was able to stop at a park there called Hall Ranch to take some photographs of the stunning scenery in the fading light.

I continued on to (and through) the community of Lyons, where CO-7 intersected with US-36 , which took me back through a grassy plain to Boulder. I was back in Boulder right at 9:00 PM, two hours after my departure and satisfied with the second night’s drive, an interactive map of which is available here.

Although my rented Durango was relatively comfortable and its all-wheel drive gave me confidence on the steep unpaved sections of road, something with a lower center of gravity and a better power-to-weight ratio will make the drive more enjoyable. At elevations between 5000 and 8000 feet above sea level, the Durango’s Pentastar V6 was often out of breath, and the five-speed automatic transmission struggled to find the right ratios when ascending the steep hills. The heavy Durango’s inertia was a lot for the powertrain to overcome, and the heavy, slow-ratio steering means the Durango doesn’t like to be hustled through tight corners. Next time, I’ll be trolling the Avis lot at DEN for something a bit smaller, hopefully with a turbocharger to combat a normally-aspirated engine’s altitude sickness in Colorado’s mountains..

If you find yourself in Boulder and decide to follow either of these routes (or a combination of them), I’d recommend starting a bit earlier in the day than 7 PM, so that you can enjoy the entire route in daylight. I would also recommend a weekday rather than a weekend, because the curvy roads (which mostly lack passing lanes and have few turnouts) are likely to be clogged with slow drivers and bicyclists on the weekends. Be sure to pack a map (be smarter than me!), snacks, water, and a sweatshirt, and know that your cell phone won’t work in the canyons. Drive safely, and enjoy!

Author: Kevin Miller

As Autosavant’s resident Swedophile, Kevin has an acute affinity for Saabs, with a mild case of Volvo-itis as well. Aside from covering most Saab-related news for Autosavant, Kevin also reviews cars and covers industry news. His “Great Drive” series, with maps and directions included, is a reader favorite.

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