Colorado’s mountain towns are evolving quickly with the influx of tourists — growing from the quiet, simple outposts of yesteryear to grand mountain resorts complete with all the dining, brewing and outdoor adventures anyone could ask for. Some of the state’s backwoods gems are still a local’s secret though. A drive down the Peak to Peak Highway is the perfect way to experience the forgotten lifestyle of a true mountain town. The changing colors of the trees make a drive in the fall and unparalleled views of the mountains even more worthwhile.

Total Distance One-Way: 59 miles
Total Driving Time One-Way: 1 hour 40 minutes

Start: Black Hawk/Central City

Black Hawk, Colorado, Photo by Kent Kanouse via Flickr

In their heyday, Black Hawk and Central City were known as the “richest square mile on earth.” Miners flocked here during the Pikes Peak Gold Rush in the mid-1800s. Today the area is known for its gambling and casinos but visitors can still get a taste of this national historic district’s past.

Population:

127/733

Not to Miss:

Central City Opera House – Each summer a blast of miner’s dynamite starts off the opera season of this Victorian-era wonder.
Apex and Nevadaville – Take a tour of these ghost towns where life once thrived.
Teller House Bar – Here you’ll find the famous painting “The Face on the Barroom Floor.” And yes, it is on the floor.
Gilpin County Museum – Step back in time for a look into what mining life was like.
Moffat Tunnel – Originally planned to link Denver and Salt Lake City, the underpass construction only made it as far as Craig. Today the tunnel is still used for freight and Amtrak passengers.

First Stop: Nederland

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Like many settlements along the route Nederland — Ned to those who know it — was born as a mining town. The town has had plenty of booms and busts throughout its history. But today Ned is establishing itself as the hub of the Peak to Peak community.

Population:

1,534

Driving Time:

30 minutes

Not to Miss: 

Ned’s – Not only do they have great food but they also have great events like Monday Night Movie Night.
The Train Cars Coffee and Yogurt Company – Three old train cars put together make for a cozy coffee spot. Plus, they have bhakti and sherpa chai.
The Caribou Room – A new music venue that serves local brews and has a rotating menu for those looking to dine in.
Carousel of Happiness – Traditional horses are replaced by animals carved over 20 years from the creator’s imagination. All proceeds are donated.
Rocky Mountain Oyster Bar — Knock this off your bucket list at this bar and eatery. If you’re not in the good a Colorado classic they have plenty of other pub food offerings too.
Blue Owl Books and Boutique — A quaint used bookstore also doubles as a boutique and ice cream parlor.

Optional:

Nederland Mining Museum
Crosscut Pizzeria
New Moon Bakery

Second Stop: Ward

Photo by Chloe Dascoli

Ward — once among the richest towns in Colorado — is a place of true isolation. The town is unique in that it isn’t part of any county. Most positions with the town are on a volunteer basis and it even has its own sheriff. With difficult winter conditions, those who can live out the whole year here are truly mountain strong.

Population:

156

Driving Time: 

18 minutes

Not to Miss:

The Glass Tipi – This gallery features over 30 local artists with everything from furniture to paintings and jewelry.
Marrocco’s – Stop here for some genuine Italian home cooking.
Utica Market – If you need a quick snack or coffee this is the place for you. Plus check out their locally spun, naturally dyed yarns.
Gold Hill – On your way from Nederland to Ward take a detour through historic Gold Hill. The Gold Hill Inn — established in 1872 — has acoustic music nights on Sundays.

Third Stop: Allenspark

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Allenspark is a tight-knit community of creativity. It may be small and lightly populated but that doesn’t residents from putting their heart and soul into what they do. Thanks to that drive this mountain haven is experiencing a growth. If you stop here you just might want to stay.

Population:

528

Driving Time:

23 minutes

Not to Miss:

Eagle Plume’s – Celebrating its centennial this year, this roadside secret owned by Dayton Raben and wife Ann Strange Owl-Raben is a shop and gallery of all things Native American.
Meadow Mountain Cafe – A great stop for breakfast or lunch. Just be sure to order their special cinnamon coffee.
Distant Harbors – An antique store with a blend of old and new — check out their handmade soaps.
St. Malo’s – Known as Chapel on the Rock, this small church was originally built in the 1930s and is a designated historic site.

Optional:

Gallery VII
Ferncliff – a modern day ghost town
From Ward detour through Raymond

Finish: Estes Park

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After the tiny mountain towns of the Peak to Peak Estes Park feels like a metropolis. It still has its own small town quirks though and it’s worth taking the time exploring the town to find them.

Population: 

6,362

Driving Time: 

27 minutes

Not to Miss:

Historic Park Theatre – Catch a current flick here or a special event here at one of the oldest operating movie theaters in the United States.
The Stanley Hotel – The historic hotel is thought to be the most haunted in the country and has inspired the likes of Stephen King.
Rocky Mountain National Park – Snap pictures of wildlife on a hike or scenic drive through the park.
Downtown Riverwalk – Explore the shops and river scenery from this picturesque walk along the Big Thompson River.

Check out our Estes Park fall guide and our best hidden hikes guide for more!

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