Here in the heart of the state, the wide Gunnison Valley is framed by diverse mountain scenery. The West Elk Scenic Byway Loop and Silver Thread Scenic Byway are designated routes for road travelers. Access by car to views of the Black Canyon, Maroon Bells, Fossil Ridge and the Collegiate peaks can easily be found. Points of interest include the reservoirs, the Castles, ghost towns, historic mining towns, Crystal Mill and over 12 fourteen-thousand foot peaks.
The Taylor River Canyon
The Taylor River runs from Taylor Reservoir through majestic Taylor Canyon which is considered one of the most scenic canyons in all of Colorado. The canyon winds through National Forest, spectacular granite cliffs (great for rock climbing) and a dense forest. This river contains powerful waves and numerous rocks. To get there go north from Hwy 50 on Hwy 135 until you reach Almont, turn right off of Hwy 135.
West Elk Scenic Byway Loop
West Elk Loop circles through a landscape known for its variety. Traveling through the Crystal River Valley, it traces canyon rims, winds next to rivers, dives into forests, and crosses fields. The region provides countless opportunities for recreation and natural sightseeing in a setting unlike any other. From state parks and national forests to the expansive Curecanti National Recreation Area, the route keeps a promise of beauty and diversity.
Several state parks and national forests offer generous portions of recreation and nature watching. Visit Crawford State Park and Paonia State Park, prime places for picnicking, hiking, and camping. Crawford features fantastic bird watching and photographic views. The route passes through three national forests: Grand Mesa, White River, and Gunnison. Revered as the top recreation forest in the world, White River National Forest boasts numerous ski resorts and wilderness expanses. Explore the aspen forests in Gunnison National Forest. During the day, discover the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, where 1,000-foot crystalline canyon walls carve a path for the swift Gunnison River. At night, look up through the trees and see stars pierce the dark sky.
Silver Thread Scenic Byway
A 115-mile drive between the beginning of Hwy 149 west of Gunnison and South Fork, the Silver Thread Scenic Byway offers not only scenic beauty and natural wonders, but also a deep history. Stories of abandoned gold and silver mines and boomtowns are plentiful along Highway 149. At the height of Colorado's mineral rush, this byway was once a thoroughfare for prospectors and entrepreneurs, boasting towns of thousands of people and thriving businesses. Now only a shadow of its crowning glory, this stretch of highway still attracts visitors with alluring vistas, wild adventures, lively recreation, and fascinating historical sites.
Along this byway are five of Colorado's mountains that reach above the 14,000-elevation mark. Stop at the Windy Point Overlook a few miles outside of Lake City for a breathtaking view of all five "fourteeners." There are countless marvels of nature along this byway, among them North Clear Creek Falls. About an hour north of Creede, the waterfall surprises unsuspecting travelers. Also, seven miles south of Creede, visitors can four-wheel and hike up to Wheeler Geological Area to appreciate its stunning formations.
This stretch of the Rio Grande National Forest encompassing Lake City, Creede, and South Fork is also rich in history. There are a few ghost towns along the way and many abandoned mines. Creede offers numerous attractions for visitors seeking history and cultural experiences. Tour the town's historic mining district on the 17-mile Bachelor Loop and learn about mining and its influences on the town by visiting the Creede Underground Mining Museum. This small town also houses the renowned Creede Repertory Theater, a popular attraction available May through September.
Learn more about the Silver Thread Scenic Byway at www.swcolotravel.org/drives.html.
Collegiate Peaks Wilderness
Collegiate Peaks Wilderness covers 166,938 acres, of which 48,986 acres are within the Gunnison National Forest. This Wilderness has eight peaks over 14,000 feet in elevation. They are: Huron Peak (14,005 ft), Missouri Mountain (14,067 ft), Mt Columbia (14,073 ft), Mt. Oxford (14,153 ft ), Mt Yale (14,196 ft), Mt Belford (14,197 ft), La Plata (14,340 ft), and Mt Harvard (14,420 ft).
Fossil Ridge Wilderness
Fossil Ridge Wilderness is a small wilderness of about 32,000 acres and is located approximately 16 miles northeast of the town of Gunnison. The area contains several high mountain lakes. The 26 miles of trails within the wilderness are open to foot and horse travel. The wilderness is surrounded by the Fossil Ridge Recreation Management Area which is approximately 44,000 acres in size.
La Garita Wilderness
La Garita Wilderness is a beautiful, pristine 128,859 acre area located in the Gunnison and Rio Grande National Forests. La Garita is a Spanish name meaning the "the overlook." The Colorado Trail and the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail pass through this Wilderness. Skyline, Cebolla and Rough Creek trails also are in this area. San Luis Peak (14,104 ft), Stewart Peak, Organ Mountain, Machine Lake and Mineral Creek are a few of the many attractions in the La Garita Wilderness.
Raggeds Wilderness is a 64,992 acre area within the Gunnison and White River National Forests. Elevations range from 7,000 to about 13,000 feet. There are more than 90 miles of constructed trails in this wilderness.
West Elk Wilderness
West Elk Wilderness in the Gunnison National Forest is about 176,000 acres ranging from 7,000 to more than 13,0000 feet in elevation. More than 200 miles of constructed trails are available for both foot and horse travel through sometimes rugged terrain. Mill Castle Trail is one of the most rugged and scenic trails in this wilderness.
Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness
Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness takes in more than 181,000 acres on the Gunnison and White River National Forests. The great majority of the area (almost 162,000 acres) is located on the White River National Forest. Elevations range from 9,000 to 14,000. There are more than 100 miles of trails for foot and horse travel through extremely rugged terrain.
Powderhorn Wilderness is located 10 miles northeast of the town of Lake City and occupies 60,100 acres. The wilderness is approximately 23% National Forest and 77% Bureau of Land Management. Elevations range from 8,699 feet in the north to 12,600 feet in the south.
The picturesque Crystal Mill is one of the most photographed sites in Colorado. Its precarious perch on an outcropping of rock just above the Crystal River, framed by beautiful aspens and a backdrop of stunning mountains, gives it an undeniable visual appeal. Though some misinformed people have dubbed it the "Dead Horse Mill", that name is erroneous and was never historically used. Historically speaking, the mill was known as the Sheep Mountain Power House, and was located on the Lost Horse Millsite. Today it is known as "The Crystal Mill".
The mill, constructed in 1893, harnessed the river adjacent to the mill to power the air compressor housed inside. Early engineers had built a dam across the river, which funneled water down the vertical penstock (the ladder-like structure) onto a horizontal wheel, which drove an axle in the penstock. The penstock powered the air compressor. In turn, the enormous compressor ran drills in the nearby Sheep Mountain and Bear Mountain mines. The drills were used to bore holes in the mine walls for the placement of dynamite. Once the dynamite was detonated, the miners removed the ore.
The mill closed its operations in 1917. Continuing efforts to preserve it have been aided by Gunnison and Aspen Historical Societies, residents of Crystal and Marble, and interested individuals caught by the spectacle of the old mill.
The Crystal Mill is located six miles east of Marble, just before the ghost town of Crystal. It is reachable only in the summer and fall months by a rough, one-lane, 4-wheel-drive road. If you are not interested in driving, or your vehicle does not have generous ground clearance, the trip to Crystal Mill can be reached by foot, mountain bike, or guided jeep tour.