Driving from the Rocky Mountains of northern Colorado to the high plains of southeastern Wyoming is an immersion in a world of snowcapped peaks, scenic lakes, geological curiosities, and cowboys on horseback riding the endless range.
This 390-mile (630-kilometer) road trip begins in Denver, Colorado, crosses through Rocky Mountain National Park, and continues north into Wyoming, where a world of sagebrush and enormous skies are punctuated by the occasional cluster of civilization. Gas stations can be far apart. Cattle are abundant, outnumbering people, as is wildlife—keep an eye out for roaming pronghorn, elk, and moose. Circling through the mountains and along the prairie's edge, this drive is stunning in any season, but parts of it are impassable in the winter, when snow buries the roads.
First Stop: Boulder
From Denver, follow Highway 36 northwest, stopping to absorb the city of Boulder's funky vibe on pedestrian-only Pearl Street Mall, where incense wafts from open doors and street musicians puff into didgeridoos. At the Boulder Arts & Crafts Gallery (www.boulderartsandcrafts.com), check out the efforts of local artists, including elk-antler jewelry, hand-carved cherrywood spoons, and giant saguaros made of metal.
Rocky Mountain National Park
Highway 36 continues, winding and climbing, then winding and descending, into Estes Park (www.estes-park.com), where the sprawling, reputedly haunted Stanley Hotel (www.stanleyhotel.com), inspiration for Stephen King's novel, The Shining, gleams from a hilltop. Once a rustic mountain town, today Estes Park is the bustling T-shirt-store-lined gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park (www.nps.gov/romo). Traverse the park on the stretch of Highway 34 known as Trail Ridge Road. Ponderosa pines tower over the road, then part to reveal valleys far below and sheer mountainsides above. It's the highest continuous paved highway in the U.S., topping out at 12,183 feet (3,713 meters). Above the timberline (11,500 feet/3,500 meters), it winds through a wind-whipped moonscape dotted with alpine plants clinging to the tundra. In the winter, snowdrifts can reach 35 feet (11 meters), and the road closes.
Once through the park, head north on Highway 125. Trees, sagebrush, and vast ranches—evidenced by split-rail fences and the occasional log building—provide the scenery until Walden, the self-proclaimed moose-viewing capital of Colorado. At the River Rock Café (www.waldenriverrock.com), patrons, some still wearing their spurs, tuck into hearty chicken-fried steaks and plates of fried Rocky Mountain oysters (bull testicles).
Signs for the Wyoming border appear less than 20 miles (32 kilometers) farther up the road, which becomes Highway 230. It's another 50 miles (80 kilometers) of sagebrush, tall cottonwood trees rustling in Wyoming's ever present wind, and pronghorn gazing over wire fences, to the Saratoga Resort and Spa (www.saratogainn.com). Outside, the low-slung building surrounds steaming thermal pools fed by natural hot springs. Inside, rawhide lampshades, leather-upholstered furniture, and barn wood walls decorate the lobby. On the North Platte River, which passes through the town of Saratoga, you can cast into 65 miles (105 kilometers) of blue-ribbon trout fishing, or just float the river alongside the fish.
Backtrack 8 miles (13 kilometers) and follow 130 east, entering the Medicine Bow National Forest, named for the Native American tradition of carving bows out of mountain mahogany from these valleys. Stop at the observation point for a view of the craggy 12,013-foot (3,662-meter) Medicine Bow Peak. The few buildings of Centennial, population 100, huddle against the east side of the Snowy Range mountains. At the Trading Post Dinner House and Saloon (www.centennial-tradingpost.com), try the Centennial Steak, but be prepared to share the 21-pound, placemat-size slab of sirloin.
With the blue, snow-tipped mountains receding behind and the High Plains stretching ahead, continue east on 130. At Laramie, turn left on Snowy Range Road, which passes the Wyoming Territorial Prison. Built in 1872, it's one of the few prisons of its kind still standing, the only one now a museum. Enormous mug shots accompany stories of prisoners, Butch Cassidy among them; he served his only prison time here. "You can't put history into perspective until you visit places like this," says superintendent Tom Lindmier. "It's the bad history. We need that as well as the good history." Laramie harbors the leafy campus of the state's lone four-year university, as well as an assortment of buzzing coffee shops and bars. The walls of its best-known watering hole, the Buckhorn (114 East Ivinson), display a collection of mounted heads (including a jackalope and a two-headed horse), as well as a decades-old bullet hole, the consequence of two patrons' romantic rivalry.
Ten miles (16 kilometers) east of Laramie on I-80, Abraham Lincoln's face looms over traffic. His 12.5-foot (3.8-meter) head, perched on a 30-foot (9-meter) pedestal, marks the highest point on the road, which parallels the path of the first transcontinental railroad. At Vedauwoo (pronounced "vee-da-voo," meaning "earth-born" in Arapaho), eerie, gargantuan hoodoos and rocky outcrops of 1.43-billion-year-old Sherman granite rise up against the sky. Take exit 329 to get a closer look from Turtle Rock Trail, a 3-mile (4.8-kilometer) loop winding through the formations.
Eastward, the landscape flattens into beige grassy folds, virtually uninterrupted until Cheyenne, 30 miles (50 kilometers) away. Low brick buildings face the wide streets of the state capital, home to the world's largest outdoor rodeo every summer. Look for the wooden horse galloping above the red-painted brick Wrangler (1518 Capitol Ave.). Inside, amid 13,000 square feet (1,200 square meters) of Western duds, might be the perfect pair of cowboy boots to begin breaking in on the way back home.
Though most of this route—with the notable exception of Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park—stays open year round, your safest bet for smooth driving is to plan your trip for midsummer. Expect crowds in Estes Park, with less congestion on the Grand Lake, or western, side of the national park. Check current park conditions at www.nps.gov/romo.
—Text by Suzanne Bopp, adapted from National Geographic Traveler