High in Rocky Mountain National Park, the Colorado River is a mere ribbon of water as it starts flowing westward, gathering momentum, breadth and depth on the descent.
The Colorado River Headwaters Scenic and Historic Byway accompanies this treasured water source for about 80 miles of its 1,450-mile journey to the Gulf of California. As the route threads from Grand Lake, at the national park’s west entrance, to State Bridge, it parallels shimmering lakes and reservoirs, squeezes through craggy canyons, crosses mountain meadows and ascends to sweeping views of rivers and ranges.
Travelers can view wildlife, fish, hike, take part in water and snow sports, and bathe in hot springs, among the many activities.
The byway’s starting point, Grand Lake, showcases its western heritage with boardwalks and lodgepole pine buildings. The former gold camp evolved into a lake resort that in the early 1900s boasted several tourist hotels. One of them, the Kauffman House, is now a museum that portrays the vacation environment summer guests enjoyed at that time. From the porch of another historic structure, Grand Lake Lodge, captivating views of the town, lake and surrounding ranges unfold.
As the road heads southwest, it borders three bodies of water: Grand Lake, Shadow Mountain Lake and Lake Granby. From boating in summer to ice fishing in winter, the lakes lure visitors year-round. The area’s large network of hiking, cross-country skiing and snowmobile trails also attracts outdoor sports enthusiasts.
At Granby, a former railroad center, the route jogs north to Windy Gap Reservoir and Wildlife Viewing Area. Numerous migrating waterfowl and shorebirds make the locale their temporary home. Depending on the season, travelers may see such feathered species as American white pelicans, Canada geese and gadwall ducks. Other viewable wildlife include river otters, muskrats, rabbits, deer and elk.
A half-mile nature trail leads to spotting scopes and interpretive panels. One site presents photos, written descriptions and foot castings of various birds, plus the sound of their calls. The great blue heron’s song, for example, sounds like frog croaks, while the osprey’s cheeps seem more befitting of a chick than a bird of prey.
From here, the route winds through Windy Gap and crisscrosses the Colorado River, fringed with tall cottonwoods. Sagebrush covers the northern slopes; pine trees climb the southern ones. In warm months, purple flowers dapple farmlands.
Mineral hot springs distinguish Hot Sulphur Springs, the county seat of Grand County. Among the first to seek the waters’ reputed healing powers were the Ute Indians. By the late 1800s, the railroad passed through town, carrying trainloads of tourists to the hot springs. Today, travelers can explore the area’s history in the Grand County Museum and partake of the waters in 21 pools at the Hot Sulphur Springs Resort and Spa.
The road then winds through steep Byers Canyon, named for William N. Byers, founder of Denver’s first newspaper, the Rocky Mountain News. At the end of the chasm, the terrain opens onto a broad, sage-studded valley. Anglers fish for trout near the humble town of Parshall. Trains blow their whistles as they chug by.
In the verdant basin of Middle Park, the Colorado, Blue and Muddy rivers converge, making this a popular area for river raft trips and fishing in Gold Medal waters. Nearby, three national forests and Wolford Mountain Reservoir offer recreational opportunities year-round, from mountain biking to dog sled rides.
The town of Kremmling anchors this large ranching region. False-front buildings, reminiscent of the 1880s, frame the town square. Early residents included ranchers, loggers and railroad workers.
A massive butte forms an imposing backdrop. William’s Fork Range and the Continental Divide rise to the east while peaks of the Gore Range scrape the sky to the south.
South of town, the byway turns onto Trough Road. The well-maintained gravel route ribbons through sagebrush grasslands and piñon pine-juniper woodlands as it climbs to Gore Canyon. Inside the 6-mile-long chasm, the shelf road hugs the sheer granite walls high above the Colorado River.
Although it has barely begun its long journey, the river’s mighty waters have sculpted the landscape into a canyon with walls more than 1,000 feet high. Inspiration Point offers travelers the chance to stop and absorb the raw grandeur. Interpretive panels chronicle the challenges that railroad workers encountered laying track.
The route re-enters sagebrush grasslands and passes Rancho del Rio, an intake point for rafters and kayakers. A convenience store and gas pump offer the one chance to purchase supplies on Trough Road.
Along the byway’s last miles, the river carves sweeping bends in a lush valley. The route reaches its terminus at State Bridge, site of Colorado’s first state-constructed bridge across the Colorado River. All that remains of the original structure is one of the concrete supports. In contrast, the timeless Colorado River flows on.
If You Go
The Colorado River Headwaters Scenic and Historic Byway follows U.S. 34 from Grand Lake to Grandby, U.S. 40 to Kremmling and Colorado 9 and Trough Road (County Road 1) to State Bridge. The total length is 80 miles; drive time is two hours. The route is great for bird watching, fishing, water and snow sports, hiking and soaking in hot springs. Open year-round, winter conditions may limit travel on Trough Road. Winter is a great time to explore the route for snow sports and events.
Granby Chamber of Commerce, 970-887-2311
Grand Lake Chamber of Commerce, 970-627-3402
Kremmling Area Chamber of Commerce, 877-573-4263
From the Editors: Please confirm the details before setting out in our great Centennial State.