Soaring mountain peaks, fathomless canyons, vast forests, crystalline reservoirs, verdant river valleys, teeming fruit orchards — these diverse sights and more beautify the West Elk Loop. Shaped like a rope with a lasso at its end, the route stretches south from Carbondale for 50 miles and then circles around the West Elk Mountains.
Those who travel the 205-mile byway can stroll colorful main streets, sample local wines and fruit, participate in water or snow sports, hike, mountain bike, picnic and explore several public lands, including Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.
From its starting point in Carbondale, West Elk Loop follows Colorado 133 south along the Crystal River. As the river flows between slopes covered with scrub oak and juniper, it sparkles like a diamond dust mirror. Mount Sopris scrapes the sky.
The byway enters White River National Forest and climbs toward Redstone, nicknamed “Ruby of the Rockies.” Entrepreneur John Cleveland Osgood created the town as a social/industrial experiment to improve coal miners’ living conditions. Besides indoor plumbing and electricity, the facilities included a theater and library. Today, art galleries, shops and restaurants line its charming main street. In the riverside town park, picnickers enjoy their meals at tables fashioned from local marble.
On the ascent to McClure Pass, stands of aspens stripe the slopes. The road enters Gunnison National Forest and passes Paonia State Park’s reservoir, a favorite in warm months for boaters and sunbathers.
At Paonia Dam, the “lasso” begins, posing travelers with the choice of turning east or west. Eastbound, the byway follows County Road 12 over Kebler Pass. (The 31-mile gravel section is closed in winter.) Sleek horses graze on high mountain ranchlands. Curves open to successive splendid views of the West Beckwith Mountains, West Elk Mountains, the rippling rock slopes of Marcellina Mountain, and the pink hue of the Ruby Range.
The route traverses one of Colorado’s largest single stands of aspens. Leafy canopies crown their bright white trunks. Mid-summer, yellow, blue and white flowers dapple the forest floor.
After cresting Kebler Pass, the byway parallels Coal Creek, which beavers have blocked and diverted with a series of dams. Mount Crested Butte heralds arrival into Colorado’s Wildflower Capital, Crested Butte. Storefronts painted purple, red and other bold colors line the historic district’s main street. Mountain bikers delight in the extensive network of mountain and valley trails that spoke out from town. In winter, snow riders cruise the mountain resort’s slopes while cross-country skiers glide along the Slate River.
From here, the road curves southeast past ranches, willow-fringed river valleys and sagebrush-dotted slopes into Gunnison, home to Western State College. Then it turns west onto U.S. 50 to Curecanti National Recreation Area and Blue Mesa Reservoir. In this high desert, water enthusiasts windsurf, water ski and fish. Dillon Overlook captures an impressive view of two geological formations, Welded Tuff and the Dillon Pinnacles.
Turning northwest on Colorado 92, the byway crosses Blue Mesa Dam. On one side, glacial blue water flows through a deep canyon. On the other side, the still reservoir stretches for miles. Grand vistas unfold as the road climbs in elevation. From Hermit’s Rest overlook, travelers enjoy a panorama of Morrison Lake, Cimarron Ridge, Wells Basin and Cimarron River Valley in the foreground, and the San Juan Mountains some 30 miles away.
The road gently winds through Gunnison National Forest into cattle country. Needle Rock, a volcanic plug outside of Crawford, signals the turn-off to the North Rim of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. Those who take the 2 to 3 hour side trip find themselves rewarded with the gorge’s awesome depth and sheer walls. At the Narrows, the canyon’s width is only 40 feet at the river. Visitors can peer some 1,750 feet straight down to the roaring river. In the distance, pink pegmatite stripes the somber tones of a monolith named the Painted Wall. Scenic overlooks along the North Rim Road frame other dramatic perspectives of the canyon.
North of Crawford, swaths of lush, irrigated fields alternate with parched, brown terrain. The silhouette of pancake-flat Grand Mesa rises to the west. As the road approaches Hotchkiss, The Raggeds fill the northern horizon. Outside Paonia in the North Fork Valley, fruit orchards and vineyards thrive. In the summer, produce stands teem with cherries, peaches and apricots.
The clickety-clack of coal conveyors and rail cars filled with coke, a kind of processed coal, announces active mining operations. A few miles beyond Somerset, a coal mining town since 1896, the “lasso” comes full circle.
Turning north on Colorado 133, West Elk Loop re-enters White River National Forest as it again climbs McClure Pass. On the descent, a vista of mountains carpeted with dense aspen and evergreen forests unfolds. As the byway nears its end, Mount Sopris towers on the horizon, creating a glorious grand finale view.
If You Go
West Elk Loop heads south from Carbondale on Colorado 133 to its juncture with County Road 12, where it starts is circle around the West Elk Mountains. Heading east on County Road 12, it reaches Crested Butte, then follows Colorado 135 to Gunnison, U.S. 50 to Sapinero and Colorado 92 north to Hotchkiss, where it rejoins Colorado 133. The total length is 205 miles; drive time is six to eight hours.
The route is great for diversity of landscapes and vegetation, Black Canyon of the Gunnison and outdoor sports. The byway’s 31-mile gravel section over Kebler Pass is closed in winter. Hiking, water sports, viewing wildflowers and buying fruit from local orchards make summer a great time to explore.
Crested Butte–Mt. Crested Butte Chamber of Commerce, 970-349-6438
Gunnison County Chamber of Commerce, 970-641-1501
Paonia Chamber of Commerce, 970-527-3886
U.S. Forest Service–Sopris Ranger District, 970-945-2521
Rose and David Muenker, who live in Denver, are co-authors of the Colorado Front Range History Explorer, which features history-oriented sites and attractions of our state’s most populous region, and Colorado Front Range Scenic & Historic Byways.
From the Editors: We spent a heap of time making sure this story was accurate when it was published, but of course, things can change. Please confirm the details before setting out in our great Centennial State.