This post was contributed by Carrie Patrick of AAA Colorado.
Some of the most scenic roads in Colorado are also the most nervewracking. The reason is obvious — flat land just isn’t as interesting to look at. But to enjoy all the vertical stuff this state does so well, you have to get up there somehow. Here are four drives that will have nervous passengers clutching the dashboard and inadvertently trying to creep across in their seat to the other side of the car.
Million Dollar Highway, Ouray
There are different stories about how this 12-mile stretch of road heading south out of Ouray got its name. Some say it comes from the original paving material—ore from the area’s gold mines—and others say it refers to the high cost of building the road. The last time I drove it, my passenger said it was because “You’d have to pay me a million dollars to do that again.”
For my money, this is the scariest road in Colorado. Having driven on narrow, winding, unpaved mountain roads most of my adult life, I thought I was immune to fear of the Edge. The Million Dollar Highway taught me otherwise. I found myself driving so slow it might have taken advanced scientific instruments to detect that the car was moving at all, and I spent a shameful number of those 12 miles trying to press myself through the side of the car, as if being another inch or two away would have helped. If you start from Ouray, as I did, you’re on the outside the whole way.
There were times when the only reason I kept going was because the alternative was trying to turn around. This was not to be considered. The other alternative—abandoning my car, building a mud hut facing away from the drop, and staying there for the rest of my life with my eyes closed, whimpering—had a certain appeal, but in the end I decided it would be too embarrassing.
Luckily, the road isn’t scary all the way from Ouray to Silverton. Not even close. Apart from those first few miles south of Ouray, it’s a fairly standard (and breathtaking) Colorado alpine road through beautiful scenery and three mountain passes over 10,000 feet. There are hundreds of photo opportunities along the way, including old mining ruins.
The Million Dollar Highway is theoretically open year-round but often closes in winter due to snow conditions. It is part of the San Juan Skyway.
Oh My God Road, Idaho Springs
The original nine-mile road from Idaho Springs to Central City doesn’t get as much traffic now that there’s a big modern highway to use instead. That’s good, because a lot of the way it’s unpaved and not very wide, with no guardrails. The last thing you want is traffic.
The road’s starting point can be a little hard to find. In Idaho Springs, look for Virginia Street, and turn from there onto Virginia Canyon Road. Eventually you will come to a dirt road with a sign for Central City—that’s Oh My God Road. Keep following the signs to Central City; avoid any side roads branching off along the route, as these may be more suitable for mountain bikes or offroad vehicles.
The grade is about 7% and the highest elevation is 9,400 feet. Watch for cyclists. On the narrower stretches of road, and with a loose gravel surface, neither you nor the cyclist will have much room for error.
Views are good but not amazing: the real fun of driving this road is simply to be able to say you did. There are interesting old mining ruins, and some of the tree-lined stretches of dirt road are very attractive. The solitude and quiet can be very enjoyable, especially compared to the busier scenic mountain roads where one can expect a constant stream of traffic.
Mt. Evans Scenic Byway
This is the highest paved road in North America, taking motorists to 14,130 feet. From the summit parking lot, a short walking trail leads to the summit itself at 14,264 feet.
The drive from the entrance station to Summit Lake doesn’t rate very high on the scare-o-meter, and there’s a reassuring stop at 12,000 feet with a beautiful lake, broad tundra meadows, and a large parking lot with no terrifying dropoffs nearby. From here, you can watch cars ascend and descend the summit road, a five-mile line of zigzags and hairpin bends.
Surprisingly, the grade on the 14-mile summit road is only 2–5%. The elevation and the hairpins make it seem steeper and scarier than it really is. Most drivers need no reminder to take it slow around these mountain-edge turns, but even if you’re hardened to the thought of accidentally plummeting into 14,000 feet of thin air, remember that cyclists or mountain goats may be around the next bend. The goats are a big attraction on Mt Evans, especially in late spring and early summer when the babies can be seen playing. Never feed the goats, but they are curious and interested in people, and may come to you if you sit quietly nearby.
Mt. Evans Scenic Byway is usually open from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Entry costs $10 per vehicle, or $5 when the upper section of the road is closed due to weather conditions.
Pikes Peak Highway
If you haven’t seen the award-winning five-minute French film Climb Dance—a simple 100mph+ ride up Pikes Peak Highway with rally driver Ari Vatanen—you probably shouldn’t watch it immediately before your own trip to the mountain. The current record for the annual Pikes Peak International Hill Climb (also known as the Race to the Clouds) is 10:01 minutes, set by Nobohiro Tajima in 2007, but the typical driver who is just there for the scenery will make it to the summit and back in about two hours. Allow three so you’ll have time for stops along the way, and hot donuts from the Summit House at the top.
The road that would become Pikes Peak Highway was first built in 1887. The first automobile went up in 1901, and the annual road race started in 1916. With that in mind, it’s obvious that any vehicle is capable of making it up Pikes Peak, though not all drivers will find it a soothing experience.
The best thing about this road is that there are plenty of safe places to turn around and head back down if you decide you’ve had your fill of scenery before tackling the final stretch. Even if you’re nervous on mountain roads and don’t intend to go above treeline, the lower elevations of the mountain provide a spectacular drive. It’s 19 miles from the base to the summit, and the road only gets really alarming after 14 miles—so it’s well worth the trip, whether you go all the way up or not. The last five miles include “the Ws”, a series of hairpin bends above treeline. Don’t forget you will be coming down the same way, so stop at all the scenic viewpoints on your side of the road going up, and catch the rest on the return trip.
Pikes Peak Highway is open year-round, but closes on any day that weather conditions make the drive unsafe. On good days in winter it is open from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Entry costs $12 adult, $5 child, or larger groups can pay $40 per vehicle (up to five passengers).
All four roads described above are safe for ordinary passenger vehicles (when open) and do not require 4WD or high clearance. However, caution and respect are needed. Some tips for new mountain drivers:
• Watch the road, not the scenery. Stop at scenic overlooks instead. This is also a good way to give your brakes a chance to cool, and your driving muscles a chance to relax.
• Drive as slowly as you like, but if there is traffic backed up behind you on a long mountain drive, pull over to let them past as soon as there is a safe location to do so.
• If you’re stuck behind a vehicle that is going slower than you would prefer, take a few deep breaths and enjoy the trip. Or stop at a viewpoint to let them get well ahead of you. On roads like the ones in this article, you’re not doing it to get somewhere fast, so why push an already nervous fellow driver?
• Even if you think you’re the only vehicle on the road, don’t stop anywhere other vehicles can’t see you.
• Shift to low gear on the way down.
• Never ride the brakes. Overheated brakes are the greatest risk on drives such as Pikes Peak and Mt Evans. Again, stop a few times at scenic overlooks to give the car a chance to cool off.
• If you come to a place where it’s too narrow to pass an oncoming vehicle, and there is no signage to indicate right of way, give way to the uphill vehicle.
Not scary enough for you? In a blog series exploring the world’s scariest roads, Avi Abrams writes that the worst road in the world is North Yungas Road in Bolivia, a muddy 10-foot-wide busy mountain road with half-mile sheer dropoffs that claim a horrifying 200–300 lives every year. That’s one vehicle every two weeks. The InterAmerican Development Bank called it the most dangerous road in the world. See photos of North Yungas Road, and other roads around the world that will make you grab the arms of your chair a little tighter, on the blog Dark Roasted Blend.
Even our state’s most hair-raising roads are more scenic than scary to some hardened travelers. Where do you go (or avoid) when it comes to the really bad stuff?