Sure, the Mississippi River is America's mightiest body of water, but the Colorado River is one of America's most incredible. At its headwaters in Rocky Mountain National Park, it might not look like much, but the waterway winds through 11 National Parks, lakes like Lake Powell and Lake Mead, and more on its way to its mouth in the Gulf of California. Along the way, it has shaped the landscape, carving out the Grand Canyon, and bringing water to some of the driest regions in the country. Taming the majestic river with the Hoover Dam was no easy feat! Pay tribute to the mighty Colorado by following its path from the headwaters in the Rockies to Gore Canyon along the Colorado Headwaters Scenic Byway. From rocky crevasses and sweeping, green ranch land, to the stunning peaks of the Rocky Mountains and the incredible towns dotted along the way, the landscapes are varied and completely stunning, making for one amazing scenic cruise.
The Colorado River Headwaters Scenic Byway officially begins in Rocky Mountain National Park, just north of Grand Lake on Highway 34, right near the river's headwaters. The route follows the river south and west as it winds past towns like Grand Lake, Granby, Hot Sulphur Springs, Parshall and Kremmling, and then follows State Highway 1 along Trough Road to end with some stunning views at Gore Canyon. It's about 80 miles total, and only takes a few hours to complete, so take your time and stop off whenever the impulse strikes you.
One of the first stops you'll encounter along the way is Shadow Mountain Lookout, a 1932-era fire lookout and patrol cabin. It's the only remaining fire lookout in the park. It's not in use now and hasn't been since the late ’70s, but the fire lookout tower offers a pretty incredible view of the park.
Along the Colorado River, you'll find Grand Lake, the largest and deepest natural lake in the state. The lake is home to one of the West's oldest yacht clubs (also one of the highest elevation yacht clubs in the world), and a marina where you can rent boats and paddleboards. It's prime for fishing, sailing, waterskiing, and general boating. There's even a sandy beach for swimming, sports, and soaking up the sun, if you're planning on a quick visit or just want to stretch your legs and enjoy the mountainous scenery.
Grand Lake is home to a historic lakeshore boardwalk that's been around since 1881. It's home to 60-plus stores, shops, bars, and restaurants, many of which have a Wild West flavor, and the views of the lake are simply to die for. Plus, it takes you right down to one of the sandy beaches, so it's easy to spend a relaxing day checking out the boutiques, eateries, playground, and shoreline.
The third largest lake in the state, Lake Granby, is also along the Colorado River Headwaters Scenic Byway. It's a reservoir that was created by the Granby Dam in 1950, and it's quite the scenic stop. It's especially great for anglers, as it's well-stocked with trout and Kokanee salmon. There's a yacht club here as well, so boating is another popular pastime for the people of Granby.
Hop out of your car and enjoy the fresh mountain air and views at Kaibab Park. Grab snacks or grub from Java Lava Cafe or Midtown Café, and bring it here to eat at a picnic table. Then take a stroll down to the banks of the Fraser River, or burn off some steam on the playground. You've still got a bit more driving ahead of you!
Ducks, geese, gulls, terns, and more can be found pretty much constantly at the Windy Gap Watchable Wildlife Area. There are even viewing scopes that let you get a better view of the wildlife! Keep your eyes peeled for adorable Wyoming ground squirrels and river otters, as they're known to occasionally spend time around the reservoir as well.
There's some incredible history along the route as well. Hot Sulphur Springs' Pioneer Village Museum, made up of historic buildings like an old schoolhouse, court, jail, blacksmith shop, and more, is loaded with exhibits and artifacts that bring the Wild West period of Colorado history to life. See ancient archaeological objects, pioneer clothes and tools, old train cars, and tons more as you explore and learn here.
The Glory Hole Cafe is a little breakfast/brunch/lunch stop that is wildly popular with locals. Massive portions of perfectly prepared grub and quirky, rustic decor (think mounted deer heads and log cabin touches) give fun flair to the cafe. The breakfast burrito, smothered in green chile, is an especially popular dish that will fill you up, but there are also burgers, breakfast sandwiches, enormous cinnamon rolls, chicken fried steak, and tons of other classic, delicious brunch/lunch staples on the menu.
Kremmling, the last major town on the route, also has a stellar history museum, the Kremmling Heritage Park. Here, you can tour a real barn, a ranch house, a 1915-era forest ranger station, a fishing cabin, the old town jail, and more. It's an in-depth look at Colorado life in the 1900s, and you can see interesting objects galore as you peer into the past.
Your trip along the byway is almost over, so stop off one last time for snacks, ice cream, or a final caffeine boost at Big Shooter Coffee. The cozy local spot also has baked goods, pastries, ice cream treats, and burritos. The inside is super adorable and quaint, but there's even a drive-thru if you want to cruise through and on to the end of the road!
The roadless but utterly stunning Gore Canyon is where the Colorado Headwaters Byway ends. Here, the river flows into a steep gorge and descends 3,000 feet. The last leg of the byway follows Trough Road along the southern rim of the canyon, and you can get one last glimpse of the Colorado River as it flows on to bigger and better things!
As you follow the winding and twisting Colorado River, you'll experience all of the things that make this part of the country special. Small towns, peaceful lakes, subalpine forests, rich history, and local gems line the route and provide endless opportunity for excitement and fun. All along the way, you'll get to see the changing landscapes that the Colorado River experiences on its long journey to the sea.
Only 67 miles from Denver, Grand County is brimming with natural beauty, adventure and authentic Colorado heritage. Each of our 5 towns - Granby, Grand Lake, Kremmling, Hot Sulphur Springs and Winter Park - has its own distinct character and story to tell. Don’t just vacation. Go Grand.