Four Scenic Drives in Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico - May 2021

Jim Kenney

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Four Scenic Drives in Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico - May 2021

By Jim Kenney


Introduction

My wife Kathy and I recently made the drive from Utah to Virginia. The second part of the trip was mostly about motoring efficiently across the Midwest to the east coast along Interstate 40. But the first part featured a few extra days to do some touristy stuff in the Rockies including four fun and very scenic drives in Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico.

The four scenic drives we enjoyed in late May 2021 are not too far from numerous major western ski resorts/destinations. Three of them are usually doable in all seasons. I thought I'd share some photos and details about them by chance fellow SkiTalkers happen to pass close enough for a visit. We hit these places in a west to east order that fit our general route from the Rockies to the east coast.

Some of our scenic drives were preplanned, others involved a bit of serendipity. During each of our drives we got out and stretched our legs several times, but at no point did we hike longer than about one mile. These are four scenic drives that can be enjoyed with or without burning many calories.

1. Canyonlands National Park, Utah - Island in the Sky scenic drive to Grand View Point

We left Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 27, but we had a lot of chores and packing to do in the morning and it took us much longer than anticipated to get rolling. Canyonlands National Park is about four hours southeast of Salt Lake City. It's approximately 40 minutes driving time from Moab, UT. When we finally entered the Island in the Sky district of the park it was nearly 6PM!

Click on this photo to expand a panoramic view from Shafer Overlook at Canyonlands National Park, Island in the Sky District
canyonlands pano.jpg


It was our first ever visit to Canyonlands National Park and I was frustrated thinking we'd blown a golden opportunity as we were only staying in the area one night. But we had some dumb luck. By arriving so late we missed the crowds and the heat, and instead caught an incredibly beautiful sunset.

Photog getting ready for sunset at Canyonlands National Park, UT
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On the day of our visit, 27 May 2021, the National Park Service still seemed to be operating at less than 100%. No one was manning the entrance station. Normally it costs $30 to enter the park, but my wife and I both have lifetime senior passes. The visitor center had closed an hour before our arrival, but there was a self-service box where we obtained a paper map of the park.

We stuck to the basics at the Island in the Sky district , an out and back drive of approximately 25 total miles to Grand View Point including a few short stops/side trips to overlooks along the way such as Green River and Shafer Canyon. The highlight of our visit was Grand View Point. It's the southern most point of the scenic drive. The mesa here rests on sheer sandstone cliffs over 1,000' above the surrounding terrain and includes a birds-eye view of the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers.

Grand View Point features Rim Walk (one mile out and back) along the edge of the cliff to the right
grandview trail.jpg


It was about 7PM when we arrived in the vicinity of Grand View Point Overlook and we stopped and ate a meal from our cooler at the picnic area about a half mile from the overlook. We had our own parking spot with a grand view! Judging from the amount of crumbs on the covered picnic table this had been a very popular spot earlier in the day.

Scenic picnic table at Grand View Point
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After our al fresco meal we set out on foot to explore the area around the overlook including a magnificent 45 minute stroll on Rim Walk while the sun lowered in the sky. Rim Walk was mind-blowingly beautiful. The whole world turned pink as we took our stroll and gazed to the east at the Colorado River basin.

Sunset on Rim Walk
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On the scenic drive out of Canyonlands National Park we enjoyed a long sunset and stopped several times to take in views to the west. We exited the Island in the Sky district of the park at about 9PM and drove another hour to our motel for the night in Green River, Utah. My wife and I were both ecstatic. It had only been a three hour visit, but they were three golden hours.

Sunset in the Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands National Park
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2. Colorado National Monument, Colorado - Rim Rock Drive

The next day was the Friday before Memorial Day Weekend and we attempted to enter Arches National Park at approximately 10AM. We were turned away because the park had already reached capacity. A flashing sign suggested we return in three to five hours. Only then did it sink in just how well-timed our late visit was to nearby Canyonlands National Park the evening before!

We had reservations for a hotel in the Aspen area for the next two nights and so we quickly decided to continue our drive east. I told Kathy that there was a scenic drive I vaguely recalled near Grand Junction and that perhaps we should check it out? She started plotting on her phone the 90 minute route from Arches National Park to Colorado National Monument.

Entering Colorado National Monument
entering co nat mon.jpg


Colorado National Monument was a breath of fresh air, literally and figuratively. The northwest entrance station is only four miles off Interstate 70 and about 20 minutes west of the city of Grand Junction, Colorado in an area of towering monoliths and deep red rock canyons. It features 23 mile Rim Rock Drive that winds up switchbacks, darts through tunnels, and rises onto the mesa top while skirting along canyon walls before finally descending back into the valley.

Rim Rock Drive
co mon road tunnel.jpg


It costs $25 to enter Colorado National Monument, but again it was free to us with our Senior National Park Pass. Although it was an unexpected addition to our itinerary, we both loved the low crowds, spectacularly constructed roadway, and beautiful overlooks. I honestly believe the fees at some of the lesser known National Park Service units help keep crowds down and filter out less motivated visitors.

Rim Rock Drive was super scenic and had a refreshingly low volume of traffic. There are overlooks every couple of miles and many were empty on the same day we saw extremely heavy holiday visitation at Arches. Additionally, while temperatures were expected to reach about 90 degrees that day in Arches, up on Rim Rock Drive it was only about 75 degrees. About one third of the way through the 23 mile drive we stopped for a delightful hike on Otto's Trail.

View of Independence Monument from Otto's Trail Overlook
kathy colorado monument 28 may 2021.jpg


This trail is named after John Otto, the first custodian of the park. It's relatively flat and affords a one mile roundtrip to a quiet overlook. The overlook is perched on the edge of the mesa with fantastic, solitary views of various features including the park's signature monolith - 450' tall Independence Monument. Otto's Trail offers a huge scenic payoff for very modest effort.

Towering spires abound in Colorado National Monument
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The southeastern portion of Rim Rock Drive winds through beautiful pinyon and juniper forests on the plateau above the cliffs. The roadway, however, is never far from scenic overlooks, lovely hiking trails, and sheer cliffs. By the time we completed the 23 mile drive we had forgotten all about our snubbing at Arches National Park.

Representing SkiTalk.com at Colorado National Monument
SkiTalk co mon.jpg


3. Independence Pass, Colorado - State Highway 82

By this point in our journey we needed a place to chill out for a couple days before logging big mileage driving through the Midwest. Ironically, we found slopeside lodging at Snowmass Village to be some of the most affordable accommodations in this part of Colorado. The month of May falls between ski and summer seasons at Aspen and our hotel (Stonebridge Inn) had just reopened after being closed for a month for spring cleaning/maintenance.

Highway 82 east of Aspen, CO
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I booked our stay in Snowmass Village about a week before we left Salt Lake City and it was then that I began thinking about including the scenic drive east over nearby Independence Pass on Highway 82. Independence Pass is usually open for car travel by Memorial Day Weekend, this was perfect timing for the dates of our trip. After a couple of relaxing days in the Aspen/Snowmass area, including finding a nice deal on a new ski jacket at a sidewalk sale, we set off for Independence Pass via Highway 82 on the morning of May 30, 2021.

View to the East from Independence Pass
indy pass view east 30May2021.jpg


We had become accustomed to beautiful, but cliffy drives over the previous few days and good thing, because Highway 82 climbs to an elevation of 12,095' and includes many twists and turns. The topography was completely different from our other scenic drives through red rocks and arid canyons. Independence Pass looks very alpine with vast evergreen and aspen forests and a deep snowpack remaining at the highest points. FYI, vehicles over 35' are prohibited at all times for about 40 miles of this route due to narrow roads and steep inclines.

On the way to the pass there are some nice hiking trails at the nearby ghost town of Independence, CO
indy pass ghost town.jpg


Again, I had done minimal research about Highway 82. I knew it was open, but I didn't really investigate much more. While we were still on the ascent from Aspen we stopped at a picnic area called Grottos to stretch our legs and stumbled onto the beautiful Cascades Waterfall. The cascade here carried a heavy volume of spring snowmelt and extended for about 100 yards while dropping perhaps 100'. It was an awesome find, but if I'd done a little more homework I might not have missed the famous ice caves also waiting nearby to be explored.

Selfie at Cascade Waterfall
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The temperature continued to drop as we climbed the pass to a refreshing 55 degrees. When we reached the parking lot at the summit of Independence Pass there was snow everywhere. We were above treeline and the elevation was 12,095'. The parking lot at the summit was about 75% full at 11AM and it was fun to observe all manner of hikers, snowshoers, and X-C skiers traversing the nearby peaks.

X-C trekkers on Independence Pass, Memorial Day Weekend 2021
indy pass x-c skiers.jpg


On the descent of the eastern side of the pass we drove through the fishing, camping and recreation area of Twin Lakes. We were not far from Mount Elbert (elevation 14,439'), the highest point in Colorado. It's probably not geographically correct to say it, but psychically the Twin Lakes/Mount Elbert area sure felt like the very heart of the Rockies!

Twin Lakes recreation area, it's possible the flank of Mount Elbert may be at the right of this photo?
twin lakes mount elbert.jpg


4. Capulin Volcano National Monument, New Mexico - Volcano Road

May 30th was an epic day of driving and sightseeing for my wife and I. After crossing over Independence Pass we continued through central Colorado following the Arkansas River Basin on US Route 50. When we reached Raton, New Mexico we turned east on US Route 87.

US 87 passes within about three miles of Capulin Volcano National Monument. We knew about this perfectly shaped dormant volcanic cone, but I honestly wasn't sure if we wanted another diversion after a long day. As we neared Capulin it was about 6PM and I turned to my wife and asked her if she wanted to check out the volcano? To my surprise, she agreed.

The entrance fee for Capulin Volcano National Monument is $20, but our senior National Park passes worked here too.
capulin volcano 30May2021.jpg


Making the drive up Volcano Road at Capulin Volcano National Monument is a fun and easy excursion. We were probably in the park less than an hour total time before resuming our drive east. The park has a cute little visitor center/gift shop at the base of the volcano and the drive from there to the summit parking lot only takes about 10 minutes.

The road to the summit is very well constructed, but still somewhat sketchy for flatlanders. It spirals up the mountain like the stripe on a barber pole. The drop off on the side of the road is about as steep as a black diamond ski trail and goes for 1000+ vertical feet.

By this time Kathy was becoming an old pro at sketchy scenic drives:duck:
capulin sketchy drive.jpg


The summit of Capulin Volcano is elevation 8182' and it rises about 1300' above the plateau below. The upper parking lot is a few hundred feet below the highest point of the crater and a scenic one mile hiking trail circles the crater rim. We started up the trail, but it had been a rainy evening and storms threatened again so we cut short our visit.

Crater Rim Trail
kathy capulin trail.jpg


Capulin Volcano National Monument is right at the transition where the mountains meet the prairies. Our trip up Volcano Drive gave us a wonderful panoramic farewell to the Rockies and a welcome to the Great Plains. We had a number of miles to log until our next motel and were happy to make a brief, but scenic visit. Not long after we departed we spotted a storm chaser vehicle on the highway, followed by thunder, lightening, and rain. The timing for our four scenic western drives worked out just about right!

Storm Chasers
storm chaser.jpg


Conclusion

Beware of prime time crowds at major National Parks. Last year it was the neighborhood and local parks that were mobbed. This year it's the National Parks. If you plan to visit a popular National Park go during the offseason or at least go early or late in the day.

Stay flexible. Our crowd-free and enjoyable day on Rim Rock Drive at Colorado National Monument was completely impromptu after we got turned away at Arches National Park. Keep your options open and maybe try the smaller, less famous destinations over the headline grabbers. Our last-second detour up Capulin Volcano was a fun little final scenic mountain drive before we tackled the prairies.

Do your homework. The country is returning to normal tourist levels and patterns. Select a few alternatives to your main objectives and keep a plan B in your back pocket in case plan A doesn't work out. I'd give myself a grade C on my pretrip research. We could have gotten more out of our travel, but at least we knew of a few options and they came in handy.

Summit Parking Lot at Capulin National Monument, NM, where the Rockies meet the Great Plains
capulin volcano lot.jpg
 
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Daniel

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Excellent information Jim. If it's any consolation, this past Saturday Arches N.P. filled up by 7:45 a.m. The news report also indicated Saturday was the 80th day thus far in 2021 that Arches filled to capacity and the summer tourist season is only in the early stages! I just returned from 2 weeks in Oregon and Nevada, including several days spent in Crater Lake N.P. What a refreshing change from the large crowds the 5 National Parks in Utah have routinely been experiencing for the past decade or so. Hope to see you on the slopes next season!

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James

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Very cool. That crater in New Mexico looks very similar to the cinder cones north of Flagstaff, AZ. Like Sunset Crater NP.
They used to use volcanic cinders on the roads in winter in Flagstaff, don’t know if they still do.
 
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Jim Kenney

Jim Kenney

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Looking good @Daniel
I got an Ikon add-on to my Bird pass and ought to get up BCC a lot more next season.
 
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Jim Kenney

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This came out a couple days before I posted this report but I just saw it now, same conclusions!
 
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Jim Kenney

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UPDATE, APRIL 2022.

I thought I would take a minute to update this report and document another remarkable western drive I recently completed in mid-April 2022. My wife and I drove from Salt Lake City to Mammoth Lakes, CA and I enjoyed four days of skiing at a great mountain. I should probably do a trip report on my Mammoth Mountain visit, but some of my photos and comments on that visit begin here in the 2022 Mammoth thread.

The drive from SLC to Mammoth is approximately 550 miles (8.5-9 hours) through high desert and a series of dusty valleys and isolated mountain ridges. I've done quite a few road trips in the US over my lifetime. What was remarkable about this drive is that it was one of the most remote and low traffic I've ever taken in the USA.

The segment from the town of Wendover on the NV-UT border to almost all the way to Mammoth features over 400 miles on two-lane roads via US ALT 93, US 6, and CA Rt 120. The drive cuts all the way through the extremely rural heart of Nevada where towns and gas stations are far and few between. I saw a sign in the eastern portion of the drive that said Next Gas 124 miles. Towards the western side of Nevada I saw a sign referring to a different section of roadway that said Next Gas 167 miles.

The drive through central Nevada can be described as beautiful for it's stark desolation. The roads were clear of snow and traffic, and the temperatures were comfortable (around 60-70 degs) when we made our crossings (April 14 westward, April 19 eastward). However, it's not a place you want to run out of gas, especially in the summer months.

These photos run in an east to west direction over some of the memorable parts of the drive. All photos are by Jim Kenney.

This photo depicts the Bonneville Salt Flats, where automobile speed records have been set. It was taken at a rest stop along I80 near the UT-NV border. The 400 mile section of two-lane roads to Mammoth Lakes begins about ten miles west of here.
bonneville salt flats 14 apr.jpg


The view southwest along highway 93, lots more of the same ahead, only 400 miles to Mammoth.
hwy 93 14 apr.jpg


One of the loneliest rest stops I've ever visited, somewhere in the vicinity of Ely, NV, our highway is to the right. The presence of trees is not to be taken for granted.
lonely rest stop 14 apr.jpg


West of Ely off US 6 there is a great deal of BLM land.
blm 19 apr.jpg


We stopped to look at the ancient lava flow. The source volcano in the background blew its top long ago.
black rock lava flow 19 apr.jpg


Approaching the old mining town of Tonopah, NV. I don't mean to offend anyone, but this is one of the grungiest towns I've seen in the US west.
tonapah outskirts 19 apr.jpg


Main street Tonopah. When the Mizpah Hotel was built in 1907 it was the tallest building in Nevada.
tonapah main st 19 apr.jpg


Local Tonopah businesses retain their sense of humor.
clowns 19 apr.jpg


Dusty view of Boundary Peak (elev 13,147') from US 6 on the NV-CA border. The Sierra Nevada Mtns of CA are in the background.
boundary peak 19 apr.jpg


Late day view on CA Rt. 120 looking northeast towards Benton, CA. This is a pano and will enlarge when clicked.
near benton 14 apr.jpg


A view from the summit of Mammoth Mtn towards Nevada. SLC is 550 miles thataway!
climax bowl mammoth 15 apr.jpg
 
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