Start in the Roaring Fork Valley, where the hideaway of Carbondale takes in the view of Mount Sopris (12,953 feet) and welcomes visitors with galleries and boutiques — part of the Carbondale Creative District. The Thompson House Museum, built in the 1880s, contains all the original furniture and tools used by the owner. Later, head to Marble Distilling Co. for a sip of their gingercello.
Designed around the natural landscape and rock formations, Avalanche Ranch Cabins & Hot Springs has three natural pools in a tiered layout for ultimate enjoyment.
The West Elk Loop then heads up the river, offering a stop in the historic hamlet of Redstone, situated snugly in the Crystal River Valley. On one side of the byway are beehive-shaped coke ovens formerly used for processing coal. On the other, you can tour the 42-room, Tudor-style Cleveholm Manor — now Redstone Castle — or stop for a hearty lunch at the Redstone Inn.
After crossing McClure Pass, the byway drops into the North Fork Valley, a region synonymous with cherry and apple orchards. Buy a bushel of nectarines from a farm stand in Paonia, snap a photo of the historic Curtis Hardware Store on Grand Avenue and pop into art galleries, artist studios and arts-related events throughout the town’s Certified Colorado Creative District. Paonia is a lush landscape that produces an abundance of fruit and vegetables (though local cherries are tops).
Before leaving, grab a meal at nido — the homemade tacos and tamales star locally sourced ingredients and fierce flavors, like jerk chicken and curried green tomato relish. Then check out West Elks AVA, a collection of North Fork Valley wineries offering a taste of Colorado’s vino scene.
From the town of Hotchkiss, and after stopping at Delicious Orchards & Big B's Cidery for ciders and juices, the route bends to the south and skirts the North Rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, a 2,700-foot deep chasm, that is now preserved as a national park. No other gorge in North America combines the narrowness, depth and sheer drop-offs of the Black Canyon. Or, stop at the Blue Mesa Reservoir, part of Curecanti National Recreation Area, where you can rent watercraft to zip around the sapphire-tinted water. Stick around at night for the area’s infamous dark — named an International Dark Sky Park, you can see the Milky Way and zillions of other stars.
Next up is Gunnison, which is equal parts college town and ranching community, where wide streets tell the town’s original hopes to be Colorado’s future state capital. Stop by the Gunnison Pioneer Museum, located just outside the charming downtown, to see a railroad depot and re-created schoolhouse.
Just off the byway, and tucked between Gunnison and Crested Butte, is Almont — a small and charming town well worth a visit, especially in late spring or summer when river rafting is at its best. Opportunities for other outdoor adventures abound in the area, from canoeing and kayaking to mountain biking and off-roading. North of Almont, you’ll find the Roaring Judy Fish Hatchery, where you can stop, stretch your legs and marvel at pools of glinting kokanee salmon, rainbow and cutthroat trout being raised for future release.
Back on the byway, head north to Crested Butte, which is famous for its preserved Victorian architecture — and renowned Crested Butte Mountain Resort for skiers. In the summer, there are so many blooming meadows the Colorado legislature dubbed it the Wildflower Capital of Colorado. The area is also a haven for mountain biking.
The Crested Butte Mountain Heritage Museum showcases the history of skiing in the town with an authentic Crested Butte Mountain Resort gondola, restored from the early 1960s. Walk through the community’s National Historic District and pop into the galleries and shops that make up the Crested Butte Creative District, as well as Montanya Distillers for some craft cocktails.
The circuit is completed by crossing over Kebler Pass, an area that locals cherish in September when massive groves of aspen bear bright-gold foliage. This section is closed during winter, when it becomes a popular route for snowmobilers.
Events on the calendar: Mountain Fair in Carbondale, Crested Butte Music Festival, Pickin’ in the Park in Paonia, Cattlemen's Days rodeo in Gunnison