Colorado Scenic Byway: Top of the Rockies & Leadville

Scenery reaches new heights on the Top of the Rockies Scenic Byway in Colorado — Mount Elbert and Mount Massive are the tallest and second tallest peaks in the state. Follow the beginnings of the Arkansas River, and be sure to stop by one of the many lakes in the area and spend some time on Leadville's main street.

By: Staff Writer
Updated: April 22, 2024

Wedged between the world-class resort towns of Vail to the east and Beaver Creek to the west, the high-altitude town of Minturn finds itself in a unique position. It is a far cry from a resort town, but has certainly found its niche solidly in the quaintness of mountain life. There are no high-dollar spas or multimillion dollar restaurants here, just pure, simple Colorado. Nearby, the town of Vail lays claim to the Colorado Snowsports Museum, which was created in tribute to the multitude of talented individuals who have taken to the slopes.

Cross-country ski trails abound here. Try the 11-mile Shrine Pass route — one of Colorado's top spots for spring wildflower viewing, including rosy paintbrush and lupine. And when the snow melts, you can drive or mountain bike this same lofty road. Either way, you'll be treated to phenomenal views of 14,005-foot Mount of the Holy Cross. If you're in search of trout fishing, you'll find numerous mountain lakes in the area. Consider dropping a line at Missouri Lake, the closest lake to Red Cliff.

At an altitude of 10,152 feet, Leadville is the highest incorporated city in the United States. Built on the shoulders of the silver boom, Leadville has a number of historic structures peppered throughout its quaint downtown. Of these sites, the still-functioning Tabor Opera House is perhaps the most well-known and visited. There's also the National Mining Hall of Fame and Museum, which celebrates the town's silver-boom past and shows what life was like for the state's mining pioneers, and the historic Delaware Hotel, a Victorian-era gem that's earned the nickname "a museum with pillows." If grandiose nature inspires you, the town is surrounded by five peaks that tower more than 14,000 feet: Mount Elbert (14,437 feet), Mount Massive (14,423 feet), Mount Democrat (14,152 feet), Mount Sherman (14,040 feet) and Mount Bross (14,177 feet).

Twin Lakes is a small historic town tucked in the San Isabel National Forest that offers a snapshot of rural life deep in the Rocky Mountains. Here, locals know each other by name and share in outdoor pursuits ranging from hiking the national forest to fishing the nearby Twin Lakes Reservoir. To the west, as the Top of the Rockies courses through a deep valley toward Independence Pass, La Plata Peak towers at 14,343 feet and the road twists to reveal unparalleled mountain views in all directions.

The History: Leadville's silver boom helped fuel the dynasty of the Guggenheims, and paved the way for others to make a fortune. Stop by the Tabor Opera House, the Matchless Mine and the Dexter Cabin for stories of colorful characters and insights into Colorado's mining boom days.

Distance: 82 miles
Suggested Time: Allow 2 hours

Colorado is home to 26 scenic and historic byways, 13 of which are also federally designated America's Byways. Read about all 26 in our Quick Guide to Colorado's Scenic & Historic Byways; check out our Colorado byways microsite with videos, trip tips and more; or view our virtual Colorado Byways Guide.