Built with the intent to connect nearby towns and provide a passage for early explorers of our state, mountain passes make it easier to navigate through the Rockies of Colorado. While these mountain passes serve a practical purpose they also serve as another way to enjoy the beauty of the mountainside.
Usually found at a higher elevation, Colorado mountain passes offer heart-pounding turns, matched with scenery that will take your breath away, making even the most apprehensive travelers happy they are along for the ride. So, whether you’re trying to get somewhere or are just out for a leisurely drive, check out these top scenic mountain passes in Colorado.
Colorado’s Best Mountain Passes
Because of their nature as high alpine passes in the Rocky Mountains, many of the roads close seasonally each winter, usually beginning in late October to early November. They begin opening again in May, some not until later in June. So each summer make the most of your long days and take on these stunning views.
If you’re looking for more of a challenge and have the high-clearance, 4×4 to drive, consider these highest roads in Colorado. Some of these are one-way trips up to the peak or very near, others are up and down the other side passes, like these great drives below.
Located in north-central Colorado, roughly 90 miles west of Estes Park, Cameron Pass rests at 10, 276 feet in elevation, connecting the southern end of the Medicine Bow Mountains and the north end of the Never Summer mountains. Known for its beautiful peaks that surround the area, the pass sits on the boundary of the Roosevelt National Forest and the Colorado State Forest State Park, adding to the captivating landscape.
The summer season offers a great opportunity to enjoy hiking along several of the trails found near the summit and ample opportunity for cross-country skiing in the winter is available. The best route is between Walden and Fort Collins along HWY 14. While the pass receives plenty of snow in the winter, the road typically remains open all year-round.
Resting at 11, 094 feet in elevation, Shrine Pass is found within the Sawatch Range of central Colorado. In the summer, travelers will enjoy scenic views of colorful wildflower meadows, dense forests, and distant views of Mount of the Holy Cross. While the fall season brings leaf peepers up the pass and the winter offers a haven for snowmobilers and cross-country skiers.
The dirt road (FSR 709) begins near Vail Pass and ends at the town of Red Cliff. Primarily a 4WD or jeep trail, in almost perfect weather conditions the road is travelable by way of a 2WD vehicles with good tires and decent clearance. The road is easily traveled from either direction but for those who wish to bike, it’s much easier to start at Vail Pass Trail.
While the Dallas Divide can’t quite compete with numbers, reaching only 9,000 feet in elevation, it takes the winning spot for one of the most scenic roads in the country. All thanks to its large grove of aspens set against the impressive Uncompahgre Plateau and the majestic San Juan Mountains, the Dallas Divide reaches the pinnacle of beauty.
As the saddle between the San Juan Mountains to the south and the Uncompahgre Plateau to the north, the Dallas Divide links the towns of Dallas and Telluride. Drivers might not realize they have reached the top, with its beautiful distractions and no official roadside sign indicating the summit. So just enjoy the ride!
Trail Ridge Road
Connecting the towns of Estes Park and Grand Lake, Trail Ridge Road traverses Rocky Mountain National Park, making this one of the most scenic mountain passes in Colorado. Capping out at 12,183 feet in elevation, at its summit, Trail Ridge Road is the highest continuous road in the country. A drive along this iconic mountain pass brings road trippers well above treeline, offering unobstructed views of never-ending mountain peaks, such as Longs Peak, alpine tundra, wildlife, and on a clear day, Wyoming in the distance.
There are numerous scenic overlooks and short hiking trails along the road that offer additional viewing points. The seasonal road is open roughly Memorial Day through Columbus Day in October. Trail Ridge Road summits three mountain passes: Iceberg, Fall River, and Milner (listed east to west).
When people think “fall foliage in Colorado” most are thinking Kebler Pass. Home to Colorado’s largest aspen grove, Kebler Pass cuts through a massive sea of large aspen that turn a brilliant shade of yellow every fall. As part of the West Elk Loop Scenic and Historic Byway, the 30-mile gravel road connects the towns of Crested Butte and Paonia and a beautiful scenic shortcut to Aspen.
At a summit of 10,000 feet in elevation, the road passes through the Gunnison National Forest and offers several hiking-trail options and dispersed camping spots on either side of the road, plus the groomed dirt road welcomes bikers as well.
Located along the Continental Divide in central Colorado, Boreas Pass Road (FSR 33) spans north from the town of Como, connecting to the town of Breckenridge. Reaching an elevation of 11,493 feet, Boreas Pass meanders through a thick grove of aspens and pine forests, eventually crossing the Continental Divide.
Not only does Boreas Pass put on a colorful show every fall, but it also offers plenty of history with the Boreas Railroad Station Site at its summit. The gravel road is closed in the winter and is passable in the summer with a 2WD car with good clearance.
Coal Bank Pass
At a summit of 10,610 feet, Coal Bank Pass provides road trippers with some of the most scenic landscape in the state with its location in the San Juan Mountains. Found on the popular Million Dollar Highway (HWY 550) south of Silverton, the pass offers views of some of the most rugged mountain peaks in the state.
The asphalt road is usually open all year-round with road closures possible due to heavy snow. Traveling on the north side of the road is gentle, while the descent on the south side is very steep at 6.5% grade. Hiking trails are available during the summer, while cross-country skiing is very popular in the winter.
Red Mountain Pass
Named because of the iron oxide laden rock that forms the mountain slopes, Red Mountain Pass offers unique scenic mountain views. Reaching an elevation of 11,018 feet, the beautiful road cuts through the majestic San Juan Mountains, separating the Las Animas and the Uncompahgre River watersheds.
Traversed by the Million Dollar Highway (HWY 550), the pass lies between Silverton and Ouray. The paved road makes for the ideal summer scenic drive but can still be treacherous during the winter months due to its steep 8% grade.
As part of the San Juan Skyway Scenic Byway, Molas Pass traverses the Million Dollar Highway in the San Juan National Forest. The summit, at 10,912 feet offers views of the Needle Mountains subrange. Well-known for having some of the most rugged peaks in the state, stunning landscape, and colorful aspen, Molas Pass is a real showstopper. Typically open year-round, the paved road will close when there is heavy impassable snow.
Not for the faint of heart, Webster Pass is a 4×4 road that brings travelers to the near knife-edge of the mountain, making for a thrill-seeking day drive that will keep your heart pounding. Due to the exposed red iron ore, colorful mountainsides make for a dramatic scene matched with a heart-pounding drive along this infamous mountain pass.
Resting at 12,103 feet, the pass crosses the Continental Divide, with the south side of the pass a narrow ledge road, and the north side a series of dramatic switchbacks.
That’s a roundup of some of the most exciting mountain passes in Colorado. Have a safe trip and see you on the other side!