Collegiate Peaks Drives - Colorado Scenic Drives

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Cruising through the Collegiate Peaks on an Autumn afternoon with the sun sparkling off the yellow Aspen - that's close to Nirvana for anyone that likes to recreate behind the wheel. Here some great routes through Clear Creek and Chalk Creek Canyons, over Cottonwood Pass, and along the Highway of the Fourteeners. These routes are all near the San Isabel National Forest.

Clear Creek Canyon

Round trip distance: 65 miles.
Driving time: excluding sightseeing is 2 hours.

Drive north on US 24 from Buena Vista about 15 miles. Just past Clear Creek Reservoir turn left on County Road 390. Heading west you are entering the large mountain valley forming the dainage of Clear Creek.

The region is one of heavy pine forests with a number of tributary streams to Clear Creek rising southward through steep gorges up among the line of Fourteeners, Mts. Oxford, Belford, Missouri, & Huron, whose 14,000-foot summits stand only 3 miles or so south of the Clear Creek road.

Along the stream are many ideal picnic sites and scenic photography points. At Beaver City across the valley south you will see Belford Falls.

The ghost town of Vicksburg is about 8 miles up the Clear Creek Road from US 24, and Winfield is about 5 miles further. Both were active mining towns during the 1880's with Winfield having the larger population of about 1,500 at its peak. Vicksburg had as many as 40 buildings by 1882. Visiting them today, now deserted in a beautiful remote corner of the mountains, tends to leave one quietly pondering questions of life, time, and place.

Beyond Winfield the road is 4-wheel drive. It proceeds about 2 miles along Clear Creek's South Fork, passing the old Banker Mine on the left after about 1 1/2 miles.

Chalk Creek Canyon

Round trip distance to Hancock: 55 miles.
Driving time: excluding sightseeing time is 2 1/4 hours.

This tour has become popular as a drive into the Colorado mountain history of the last century, visiting 4 remote ghost towns. Chalk Creek Canyon. has a lively, colorful mining town and railroad history. The 1880's mining town of St. Elmo is an official National Historic Site. Many of the old buildings in these historic towns are now privately owned homes. Please respect them as private property as well as treasures of the past.

From Buena Vista, go south of US 285 for 8 miles to Nathrop. Turn right on Hwy. 162 towards Chalk Creek Canyon. After 5 miles on the left you will pass Mt. Princeton Hot Springs, a 19th century hot springs swimming pool which is still in operation and open to the public.

On the right is the Chalk Cliffs, an unusual geologic formation making up a large area of mountainside. Legend going back to the 17th century holds that a group of Spaniards desperately fleeing from hostile Indians threw their store of gold into the crevices of the Chalk Cliffs, where it is still waiting to be rediscovered.

Chalk Creek Canyon climbs gradually between the steep, rugged face of Mt. Antero on the left and the south face of Mt. Princeton on the right. The canyon offers a number of scenic views. Soon after the Chalk Cliffs you pass Agnes Veil Falls on the right with an easy 10 minute hike to the falls. On the lift is manmade Chalk Lake (stocked with trout), and then up the hill on the right as the road turns to dirt is the Cascades section of Chalk Creek, with Cascades Canyon rising to the north high above it.

The road next reaches the first old town site of Alpine, which by 1880 had a population of 500. Besides mining, the Alpine Smelter was the main source of income. The town consisted of a number of false front stores, saloons and the ever-present western dance hall. There were 2 hotels, 3 livery stables, 3 banks, a school, a church, a newspaper, and a stagecoach stop.

Proceeding west you are driving on the old narrow gauge railroad right-of-way of the Denver South Park & Pacific to St. Elmo. The town of St. Elmo is an authentic Colorado mining town, and now a National Historic Site.

100 years ago Chalk Creek was an active mining center for gold, silver, and other ores. The mines flourished, including the Iron Chest, the Mollie, Stonewall, Lulu, Pride of the West, Black Hawk, and the most famous of all, The Mary Murphy Mine, just above Romley. The Mary Murphy was one of the most productive mines in Colorado, paying out a total $65 million before it ceased operation in 1918.

St. Elmo was originally known as Forest City. It seems unbelievable today that the now remote, deserted ghost town a hundred years ago reached a population of over 2,000! The "St. Elmo Rustler" was the town's first newspaper, and it was founded in August 1880. St. Elmo was the railhead for the Denver, South Park, & Pacific Railroad until the line was completed to Gunnison through the Alpine Tunnel.

When entering St. Elmo the remains of the mill pond can still be seen. The pond served as a swimming hole in the summer & ice skating pond in winter. The last train passed through St. Elmo in 1926.

Romley, on above St. Elmo, was a station on the railroad and had about 400 residents at its peak. The building to the right of the road was the railroad depot and restaurant.

Few remains are now left of Hancock, the last of the 4 towns of Chalk Creek Canyon. Hancock was active while the railroad passed through, reaching about 350 residents.

THE DRIVE TOUR FOR CARS ENDS AT HANCOCK, AS THE ROAD TO THE ALPINE TUNNEL IS FOR 4-WHEEL DRIVE AND NOT RECOMMENDED FOR CARS. THE ROUTE IS, HOWEVER, A GOOD HIGH ALTITUDE HIKE OF 3 MILES (ONE WAY), ASCENDING 7,000' TO 11,500'.

The Alpine Tunnel was a true wonder of its time. Built in 1880-82 at an altitude of 11,500 feet, it tunneled under the Continental Divide and is at an even greater altitude than the great, modern Eisenhower Tunnel on Interstate 70.

The Alpine Tunnel is 1,830 feet in length, 14 feet wide, and 7 feet high. In these mountains this was the only way for the railroad to reach Gunnison, which then became the railhead of the Denver, South Park, & Pacific.

Cottonwood Pass

Round-trip distance: 36 miles.
Driving time: 2 hours.

Cottonwood Pass (12,126 ft.) is one of the highest passes in the U.S. over the Continental Divide. It is likely to be the most extraordinary spot for a family picnic you will ever see. If that's your plan on a summer morning, by leaving Buena Vista by around 9AM you could comfortably return by 1-2 PM.

Besides the lunch, we recommend a camera and binoculars, as well as a map if you want to orient the big peaks as you view them from the western side. Also, even though sunny, take a warm sweater or jacket when heading for the high country. Remember, at high altitude the sun is much stronger.

From the stoplight in Buena Vista go west on Hwy. 306. The 18-mile drive to Cottonwood Pass is scenic and takes you through an area with many points of interest, including a possible side trip to Cottonwood Lake. Just after you pass Jump Steady/Cottonwood Hot Springs, keep your eyes peeled on the right hillside bighorn sheep and deer (there is a pull out on the south side of the road). If you take the side trip to Cottonwood Lake, keep a sharp eye on the cliffs on your right for mountain goats.

The main road is good and climbs over timberline (11,500 ft.) and several sharp curves approaching the pass. At-Cottonwood Pass you're almost 2 miles high on the Continental Divide. There are high, open grassy ridges reaching north and south from the pass. By walking up to the crest of either one, you have a panoramic view of the wilderness side of Collegiate Range which except for the Cottonwood Road, can only be seen after a considerable distance by foot trails into this high and remote area. Just a few hundred yards east of the summit there is a faint rail sign for the South Texas Creek Trail. You can take a short hike into a beautiful basin on that trail (don't go too far as the trail is faint).

After your picnic or hike, be sure to pack out all trash.

Highway Of The Fourteeners

Total one-way distance from US 24, west from Trout Creek Pass: 19 miles.
Driving time excluding sightseeing: under 30 minutes.

One of the best known scenic drives in the Rockies is this section of US 24 called the Highway of the Fourteeners, so-called because it passes a total of ten 14,000-foot peaks on either side of Buena Vista. There is no other stretch of highway in the U.S. where you will see this many of the highest peaks together nor be able to view them so closely. There are many different views for camera shots and the big peaks are constantly changing mood and color with the seasons, various times of day, lighting, and cloud conditions.

Heading west, US 24 from Colorado Springs and US 285 from Denver join at Antero Junction. Nearly one mile farther west the highway crests the hill of Trout Creek Pass which is the beginning point for the mileages given below.

In the distance directly above your car hood the pointed summit of Mt. Princeton first appears, followed in succession to the right by Mts. Yale and Columbia. After 3/4 mile, just before the highway curves left, you then sight the sharp of Mt. Harvard--3rd highest in the Rockies--and to its right, Mts. Missouri, Belford, and Oxford, all higher than 14 000 feet.

Two miles after Trout Creek Pass there is a handy road turn-out to the right for an excellent view of the very photogenic Buffalo Peaks to the northwest. Although not Fourteeners, they are beautiful mountains and a popular big game hunting area in the fall.

From the same turn-out the Castle Rock formation can also be viewed several miles ahead to the south, beyond the notch where the highway will cross Trout Creek.

After e to 3 1/2 miles there are turn-outs on both sides of the road, providing one of the best view points of Buffalo Peaks overlooking the broad grassland of Chubb Park.

At 5 miles on the left you pass the Castle Rock and the other Castle formations below it. At that point ahead you have the first full view of Mt. Princeton, a massive mountain with great shoulder peaks on each side of the summit.

On approaching the valley you come to the most spectacular view of all as you face the entire Collegiate Range, a wall of peaks from north to south. For the best viewpoint -- at 10 miles -- signs will direct you to the right turn into the Scenic Overlook described at the beginning of this pamphlet.

1.8 miles beyond the overlook bottom of the valley, you follow US 24 as it branches off to the right. Now heading north you are parallel to the peaks on your left. Camera buffs: at certain seasons about 1 miles after US 24 turns right look for small ponds in the meadow near the left side of the highway. When the surface is still they become ideal reflection ponds for reflection shots of the peaks, especially in the bright pink cast of the sunrise each morning.

As US 24 goes through the town of Buena Vista and for another 3 miles north of town, the road passes 3 or 4 miles from the Fourteeners and you have a close up view. After Mt. Yale look for the beautiful view up North Cottonwood Basin to the Continental Divide with the pointed Birthday Peak at the far end, standing on the Divide about 10 miles away

Just north of town you have a close view of the avalanche fingers of Mt. Columbia -- an unusual series or avalanche courses that fall vertically more than 2,000 feet. After Mt. Columbia, Frenchman's Creek lies just before great ridge that ascends west eventually to the summit of Mt. Harvard. This point is the north and west end of the Highway of the Fourteeners tour.

Move on to: San Isabel National Forest


Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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