Wildflowers, wildlife, and wild roads: Colorado’s West Elk Loop

    Colorado has some incredible roads, and this time we took a day to get away on the ultra-scenic West Elk Loop…

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    Sure, you can get an idea of how beautiful Colorado is while cruising along on I-70, but for a real Colorado scenic drive, you just have to get off the interstate. Just outside Aspen, we decided to spend the day heading south for an all-day loop around some of the most beautiful and rugged Colorado scenery we’ve ever witnessed. This is our day on the West Elk Loop.

    CODOT
    CODOT

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    Starting in Carbondale, the gentle prairies start to give way to larger hills and valleys before coming to the first major stop along 133: Redstone.

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    You’ll know you’re in Redstone when you come to the historic coke ovens along the side of the road. The coke ovens tell the story of Redstone… Like the town, 200 of these ovens were built during the coal mining boom in the area, and then fell deserted, as did the town, just a decade later. Today, the town of Redstone has made a comeback as a peaceful but quirky mountainside retreat, and the remaining 90 coke ovens also are making a comeback with a handful having been restored to their original glory.

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    After snapping a few pictures at the ovens, it’s time to hit the town. You’ll find a handful of charming little stores like the Redstone General Store where you can buy everything from ice cream to souvenirs. Also stop by the Redstone Art Gallery and the wonderfully eclectic Tiffany of Redstone antique and jewelry store.

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    We didn’t have time to check it out, but we’re told the Redstone Castle is worth a stop. Built at the turn of the century for a coal tycoon, the castle has hosted big names like John D. Rockefeller, JP Morgan, and even Theodore Roosevelt. In 2006, it was used as a filming location for The Prestige. (For more on all to see and do in Redstone, click here.)

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    Back on State Highway 133, we cruised across McClure Pass as the road seemed to cut through the middle of the mountains. (Note: we did not make the side trip to Marble, but if you like scenic drives and, well, Marble, then budget an hour or two for the side trip. Marble from Marble was used in the Lincoln Memorial and Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Washington, D.C.)

    When 133 meets 135, the “loop” part of the trip begins. You can go either way, but we decided to turn left and head up 135 first. As we crossed Kebler Pass, the road turned to gravel and dirt, often only one lane as we began snaking our way through Gunnison National Forest as the elevation grew higher and higher. Suddenly, we were surrounded by beautiful Aspens as we drove for miles until finally coming back down the mountain and to a paved road just in time for beautiful little pullout featuring some wildflowers. From there, it was on over to Crested Butte.

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    In the winter, Crested Butte is a ski town, but in the summer, it’s all about mountain biking, hiking, and wildflowers. The town has so many wildflowers it’s been dubbed the state’s Wildflower Capital.

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    Walk the town streets just as we did to take in all the clapboard buildings, art galleries, and cafes.

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    With all our time in Colorado, we’d never actually seen a bear in the state. Well, oddly enough, that changed in Crested Butte where we saw this poor guy trapped in a tree in town…

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    Only in Colorado.

    We grabbed a bite to eat and a beer at Kochevar’s Saloon and Gambling Hall, a historic place dating back to the late 1800s. We’re suckers for any saloon with a rough and rowdy history, and Kochevar didn’t disappoint. They still have the original roulette wheel from 1899 hanging on the wall. The place feels like a Colorado mountain bar through and through.

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    After our stop in Crested Butte (a place we could have stayed for at least another day or two), it was back on the road toward Gunnison. In full disclosure, we didn’t have time to spend in Gunnison, but it too looked like a pretty charming rancher town.

    The road turns west where the scenery seems to change dramatically to a southwest-style as we approached Blue Mesa Reservoir. There are plenty of viewpoints for the lake including the dam itself and then up just past the dam.

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    Our absolute biggest regret from the trip was not budgeting time to visit Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. Since we failed you on this, here’s what the National Park Service says about it:

    Big enough to be overwhelming, still intimate enough to feel the pulse of time, Black Canyon of the Gunnison exposes you to some of the steepest cliffs, oldest rock, and craggiest spires in North America. With two million years to work, the Gunnison River, along with the forces of weathering, has sculpted this vertical wilderness of rock, water, and sky.

    NPS/Lisa Lynch
    NPS/Lisa Lynch

    From the Blue Mesa Reservoir, you’re treated to miles and miles of farmland, mountains, and valleys on State Highway 93 before it connects back to 133.

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    Once back where we started in Carbondale, we took a minute to tour the town with its abundance of galleries and cafes, but then saw a sign for a rodeo… That was enough for us to track down the Carbondale Wild West Rodeo.

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    Happening every Thursday from June until late August, you could tell this was the place to be in town. We arrived late, but still caught some barrel racing and even bull riding.

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    The drive itself will take a good portion of the day and you’ll want plenty of time to stop in Redstone, Crested Butte, and Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park so plan on taking the whole day or make a weekend of West Elk Loop. You won’t be disappointed.

    (In case this wasn’t somewhat common-sense… the dirt road portions of the byway are closed in the winter. Trust us, they’re exciting enough in the summer.)

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