Wandering the West Elk Loop
It’s a crisp, fall morning in Central Colorado. Steam is rolling off the natural hot springs that line the banks of the Crystal river. Elk are munching on the tall yellow grass in the North Fork Valley. And further down the road, the aspen groves tower over you, gently rocking back and forth as the winds send their vibrant yellow leaves, cutting through the air like little pieces of glitter, against the sunlight slitting through the trees.
Colorado is home to 26 Scenic and Historic Byways. While each of them have their own beauty, I feel that the West Elk Loop perfectly encompasses many of Colorado’s different landscapes, like the one I just described. The scenic byway is roughly 205 miles long, with one 30-mile dirt road portion. It passes through multiple mountain towns, each with their own unique history and recreational offerings for outdoors enthusiasts.
While the internet claims you can do it in 8-10 hours in a car, I would definitely recommend two, if not three, full days of riding to really stop and enjoy the epic scenery that you’ll be surrounded with. For those of you not familiar with mountain riding, miles are much less important than minutes spent on your bike. A 350 mile day can easily be done, however you’ll be on your bike most of the day, with little time to stop and enjoy the scenery. On both weekends we rode the West Elk Loop, we made it back in to Denver on our second day after the sun had been down for at least an hour. We definitely made it a jam packed weekend, but it was two very full days of riding.
Recently, my boyfriend and I took a weekend trip to Ouray, where we rode two thirds of the West Elk Loop during our adventure. The leaves were going to be changing soon, and we knew that we had to go back and finish the entire byway before winter came. We just recently came back from riding a second weekend on the West Elk Loop, and I cannot stop thinking about how epic of a ride it is. If you’re looking for a weekend adventure, I’ve put together some of my recommendations for each area of the scenic byway below. From hot springs, canyons, epic BBQ, the world’s largest aspen grove, and classic mountain brewpubs, this ride has just about everything you could want in a Colorado road trip.
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Part One: Exploring the Black Canyon
To start our journey, we headed to Almont via Cottonwood Pass, which had just recently been paved! Although the pass isn’t a part of the West Elk Loop, it’s a great road to hit as you make your way towards Almont’s neighboring town of Gunnison, a small college mountain town that once had hopes of becoming the state capitol.
From Gunnison you’ll head west on Highway 50, where the road twists and turns next to the Blue Mesa Reservoir, the state’s largest body of water at 20 miles in length. Towards the Western edge, near the dam and the Dillon Pinnacles, the road splits off towards Highway 92. But first, we headed out to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park’s South Rim.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison is one of the least visited National Parks in the country, and comes in first place as the least visited in Colorado. If you’ve been to the Royal Gorge, Rio Grande Bridge, or the Grand Canyon, then the Black Canyon of the Gunnison would truly fascinate you. The walls of the canyon are made up of some of the oldest rocks in North America, dating back over 2 billion years. There’s multiple viewpoints throughout the park, but the Painted Wall and Sunset point would be my top two suggestions to check out.
You can take a VERY bumpy, 1st gear engine brake all the way down, ride to the Gunnison River via the East Portal Road. The road is poorly maintained and is closed in the winters, but twists and turns over from the top of the canyon to the bottom, maintaining over a 16% grade most of the way down. If you’re interested in camping, I highly suggest the East Portal Campground for a quiet night’s stay on your adventure. If not, there are plenty of nearby campgrounds available outside of the park.
Interested in seeing the North Rim of the Black Canyon? Once you head back east, you’ll jump onto Highway 92 and make your way across the Dam and up the windy road towards the North Rim of the canyon. Highway 92 twists and turns along the canyon’s rim offering some pretty incredible views of the the Gunnison river hundreds of feet below. Be sure to stop off at the Morrow Reservoir Overlook, where you can even see the San Juan Mountains in the distance, and the deep blue waters of the Morrow Point Reservoir glistening below.
For those of you who aren’t worried about poorly maintained roads, the North Rim of the park can be accessed via Crawford State Park on the West Elk Loop. The road will remain gravel throughout the park, however its a sight less seen by the masses, so perhaps this will be of interest to some of you! We skipped this part of the adventure for the sake of time, but it’s definitely on our list for next summer, as the north rim roads are closed in the winter.
Part Two: North Fork Valley to McClure Pass
Highway 92’s scenery will begin to change as it make its way towards the North Fork Valley, where you’ll see farmland and cattle grazing, as Colorado’s rugged mountain terrain drapes a picturesque “home on the range” image throughout your ride. Many of the towns in this area are known for their ranching, wineries, arts districts, orchards, and farm-based lifestyles. However, we saved that adventure for another time, and continued on for lunch in Marble!
While you may be tempted to cut out the section of road from McClure Pass up to Carbondale, I’d highly suggest against it. As soon as you crest McClure Pass and begin to descend towards Marble, you’ll completely understand why. The view is insanely picturesque Colorado, especially if you make a trip during the fall foliage. The aspens will be glowing yellow against the blue-green mountains. It’s breathtaking to say the least. Just at the bottom of the pass you’ll see the turnoff for Marble.
Marble is a town roughly 6 miles off of HWY 133, and is historically known for (you guessed it) the Yule Marble Quarry that has produced some of the world’s purest marble. Marble from this Quarry has been used in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier as well as the Lincoln Memorial. It’s also home to some of the best BBQ I’ve had in Colorado. I may or may not have planned our ride around having lunch at Slow Groovin’ BBQ. Some of our friends in Denver will ride out here and camp for a night at the local campground, just to get up, eat BBQ, and then head back to the city.
Highway 133 will continue to wind along next to the Crystal River as you make your way to Carbondale. If you enjoy hot springs, the Penny Hot Springs are just off the side of the highway along the river’s edge. You’ll also make your way past the tiny town of Redstone, where remnants of 90 of the original 249 Coke Ovens line the west side of the road. The Mining industry is a major part of Colorado’s history, and this Coking operation was the largest in Colorado.
Part Three: Highway 12 to Crested Butte
And now for the grand finale…the world’s largest Aspen grove! Kebler Pass is a 30-ish mile stretch of dirt road that winds through thousands of Aspens as you make your way to the tiny mountain town of Crested Butte. I think going leaf peeping on this road for my first fall foliage adventure may have ruined any other views of the aspens in Colorado…it’s INSANE. If you love to take photos of your adventures, I highly suggest planning in extra time on this stretch so that you can pull over a gazillion times for photos.
At one point, the winds had picked up and the aspens rocked back and forth in their typical fashion. While I was riding through this, and seeing the yellow leaves flicker down to the ground like glitter as they hit patches of sunlight, I screamed in my helmet, “I’m riding through a freakin’ fairytale!” …I don’t think I can put this sight into much better words. It’s something you have to see for yourself.
Kebler Pass is closed from November to April, as the area receives nearly 350 inches of snow every winter. A week day trip during leaf peeping season is the best time to see the beauty that lies within this forest. There are plenty of areas to pull over and camp as well. Most of it is dispersed, so come prepared for no restrooms, running water, etc.
Next you’ll arrive in Crested Butte. The historic little mountain town, turned eclectic ski-bum bungalow, has plenty of options for food and drink. We pulled into town with little to no idea about food options, but heard a bar blasting Waylon Jennings over it’s patio, so we took our chances based on the bartender’s music choice. The bar was called the Eldo Brewpub. We happened to make it in during a Monday Happy Hour, where you could get a home made bratwurst, fries, and pint of beer brewed just below the bar at Elk Ave Brewing for $10. Lots of locals seemed to venture in while we were there, so that’s always a good sign. If you like laid back, no frills bar vibes, I’d highly recommend the Eldo!
With daylight running out, we cut our time in Crested Butte short and headed towards the point at which we had started the West Elk Loop: Almont and Cottonwood Pass.
Plan for Weather
While most of the loop is passable in the winters, I’d suggest doing this trip between May and Mid-October. We did this ride in late September/early October while the leaves were changing, and saw a few snowflakes above treeline. Temperatures ranged between 35 and 50 in the late night and early morning, but warmed up to be comfortable with a light jacket on throughout the day. In the summers you may find yourself dodging rain storms in the afternoons, but that’s pretty standard throughout Colorado.
Plan Your Gas Stops
Depending on fuel capacity, you may want to plan your gas stops. There is no gas between Gunnison and Montrose, so if you plan to visit the South Rim of the Black Canyon, you’ll want to refuel in Montrose before heading towards Hotchkiss. If your fuel capacity is under 100 miles, I’d suggest doing a tiny bit of pre-planning.
Where to Stay
Wether you’re interested in tent camping or staying at a hotel, there are endless options throughout the loop. The first weekend, we rode all the way to Ouray to enjoy the Hot Springs before getting back on track. The second weekend, we stayed in Glenwood Springs one night at the Glenwood Cedar Lodge (very low budget, but very clean!).
If you’re trying to stay on track of the loop, I’d recommend Crested Butte, Carbondale, or Gunnison for hotel options. If you’re looking to camp, I’d recommend searching near Kebler Pass, Marble, and Almont for dispersed camping and National Forest sites.