These are our picks for Colorado’s 10 most challenging drives with a big assist from former UCCS athletic director Stephen Kirkham, who’s driven all of them many times.
We chose only roads that are in public use and, with one exception, are two-way. Those that are considered service roads or jeep trails were excluded.
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10. Trail Ridge Road
This popular tourist destination takes drivers atop the Continental Divide, which separates west-flowing and east-flowing rivers. The drive itself is picturesque and not particularly challenging. It makes this list because of its popularity. It’s heavily traveled by inexperienced tourists, who end up driving in the middle of the road. You’ll also experience RVs struggling to crawl up the inclines.
9. Douglas Pass
While Douglas Pass isn’t particularly high (8,268 feet) or steep, it is built into a shale mountainside that makes for frequent lane blockages and erosion of the shoulders. It’s heavily used by truckers because it’s by far the most expeditious route north from Grand Junction. The narrow lanes, heavy use and erosion make for unexpected surprises.
8. Pikes Peak Highway
Switchbacks, switchbacks and more switchbacks. When you get above timberline, it’s like driving on Mars with a boulder-strewn, reddish-hued landscape. Wander just a little from the road and it looks as if your car might tumble all the way to the base of the mountain. While making the drive, keep in mind that there’s an annual race on this road. During the Broadmoor Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, racers hurtle up the pass.
7. Phantom Canyon Road
Connecting Highway 50 near Florence to Cripple Creek/Victor, Phantom Canyon Road is one of southern Colorado’s most popular drives. The narrow roadway winds through the scenic canyon making use of rough-hewn, one-way tunnels, narrow gaps gouged through the mountainside and a distinctive curved bridge.
6. Independence Pass
Connecting Aspen and Twin Lakes, Independence Pass is named after prospectors who formed a town of the same name after defying an order by Gov. Frederick Walter Pitkin’s order not to cross to the west of the Continental Divide. Now a ghost town, some remnants of the settlement can still be seen. The pass is closed during the winter and is a single lane in some places.
This 8½-mile road gets its name from being a two-way road that is only about 1¾ cars wide. It features steep grades, no guardrails and washed-away shoulders. Beyond those shoulders are steep cliffs. The road connects Idaho Springs and Central City.
4. Million Dollar Highway
Built in the late 1880s, this part of the San Juan Skyway is listed as among the most spectacular drives in the world by dangerousroads.org. “From Durango, through Silverton and Ouray, to Ridgway, the highway delivers jaw-dropping vista after vista,” says the website. The Million Dollar Highway includes our No. 1 most challenging drive – Red Mountain Pass.
3. Old Fall River Road
Built by convicts and opened in 1920, Old Fall River Road is a steep, unpaved path from Horseshoe Park in Rocky Mountain National Park to Fall River Pass. You’ll take Trail Ridge Road back down because Fall River Road is one-way. As you drive it, you’ll see why. It’s rarely wider than 14 feet and features hairpin turns so tight that larger cars will have to maneuver back-and-forth to finish the turn. Its 15 MPH posted speed limit is about as fast as you’ll want to go.
2. Shelf Road
A popular destination for experienced rock climbers, Shelf Road is carved out of the side of a cliff and connects Canon City to Cripple Creek/Victor. It’s a two-way road that is just over a single vehicle wide in many places. As a result, one of the two vehicles must back up to a spot wide enough for the two to crawl past each other. You’ll be close enough to shake hands with the other driver.
1. Red Mountain Pass
This pass in southwest Colorado connects Silverton to Ouray and reaches an elevation of 11,018 feet. There are no guardrails as the roadway is too narrow in most places to accommodate them. There is no shoulder and inches from the edge of the pavement is a sheer drop-off of hundreds of feet. If a truck comes in the opposite direction, there will be just inches between you and it.
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