The Mount Evans Scenic Byway takes you up over 14,000 feet and is one of the most impressive scenic drives you’ll ever experience. From up-close encounters with mountain goats to breathtaking views of the continental divide, the Mount Evans Scenic Byway delivers in more ways than one.
In this guide, I’ll tell you about all of the major highlights you can experience when enjoying the Mount Evans Scenic Byway and give you some tips along the way.
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What is the Mount Evans Scenic Byway?
The Mount Evans Scenic Byway is a picturesque road that winds its way up to the summit of Mount Evans in Colorado. The byway is 28 miles (45 km) in length and gains over 7,000 feet (2,100 m) of elevation as it takes you from Idaho Springs and winds its way up to the summit of Mount Evans.
Along the way, it passes through several different ecosystems, including forests, meadows, and alpine tundra. It is the highest paved road in North America, reaching an elevation of 14,130 feet (4,307 meters) above sea level at its peak making it about 20 feet higher than the Pikes Peak Highway.
Construction of the highway began on July 22, 1923, and it opened to the public in June of 1931. At that time it was the highest in the world.
Where is the Mount Evans Scenic Byway?
The Mount Evans Scenic Byway is located in Clear Creek County, Colorado, about 60 miles west of Denver. It’s close enough to Denver that you can easily make a half day trip out of it.
How do you visit the Mount Evans Scenic Byway?
Mount Evans Scenic Byway is open 24 hours and is free to visit. However, if you plan on staying in one of the fee areas then you will have to pay a fee and make a reservation which you can do at recreation.gov.
You’ll notice that there are different types of reservations you can make depending on the type of visit you are interested in. For example, you can get a pass to only park at Summit Lake or you can get a pass to get you access to Summit Lake, Mt. Goliath Nature Center, and the Summit of Mt. Evans. The most expensive pass is $15 per vehicle.
If you have an annual national park pass, you don’t have to pay the entrance fee and can get by with only paying the reservation fee which was only $2 for us.
It took us about 4 hours from the time we began the drive to the time we ended and that was with doing the small hike to the Summit and making several stops along the way.
The Mount Evans Scenic Byway is typically accessible from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day, although the amount of access and specific dates vary depending on the weather and road conditions.
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Mount Evans Scenic Byway: our experience
Our journey started with taking the Mount Evans Scenic Byway exit off of Interstate 70 in Idaho Springs. Idaho Springs is basically your last contact with civilization before you jump on the highway so if you need gas, snacks, or drinks, make sure you are supplied before you leave town.
From Idaho Springs, the first portion of the drive is pretty tame as you are driving through heavily wooded areas of pine and aspen and the road is not very windy. However, as soon as you approach the Chicago Creek Campground area, that’s when you’ll get your first dose of winding roads.
At this elevation, be on the lookout for elk and deer as we saw a lot of them early in the morning (around 7 AM).
Shortly after that we arrived at Echo Lake which was pretty much glass in the morning and very beautiful. There are a few trails that begin at Echo Lake Park and those can take you all the way up to Summit Lake for a pretty strenuous adventure.
After passing Echo Lake, we turned onto highway five (also called Mount Evans Road) and there was a gate here but we did not have to deal with any agents because we were arriving early.
We continued on until we arrived to our first stop on the scenic byway which was the Goliath Peak Visitor Center.
I highly recommend you stopping at this spot. For one, you have some amazing views and beautiful forest scenery to check out. But specifically, this is a great place to see the famous Rocky Mountain bristlecone pine trees (Pinus aristata).
These remarkable trees have managed to withstand the harshest of conditions, resulting in their distinctive gnarled and twisted appearance, which adds to their allure and mystique.
The longevity of these ancient beings is truly incredible. These trees are 700 to 1,600 years old making them some of the oldest living organisms on the planet. (The oldest Rocky Mountain bristlecone pine tree has lived for an astounding 2,480 years!)
To see these majestic trees, you can park in the visitor center and then take the quarter-mile Bristlecone Loop Trail and within just a few hundred feet you’ll come across some beautiful bristlecone pine trees so it’s really easy to get a good view of them.
Inside the visitor center there’s also a (dead) 1,000 year old bristlecone pine tree and a lot of information about the ecosystems that I’d encourage you to take a look at. You can also check out the amazing flower garden behind the visitor center.
Continuing on our expedition, it didn’t take us long to ascend above the tree line, where a whole new world awaited. The landscape shifted dramatically, and we found ourselves amidst the captivating tundra.
If you’ve ever wondered what it feels like to be in such an alpine environment, this scenic drive offers a perfect opportunity to immerse yourself in the unique scenery and enjoy the crisp mountain air.
We made our way over some of the winding roads and had some gorgeous views along the way.
Then, after climbing close to 13,000 feet we made it to our next stop which was Summit Lake Park which is owned by the city of Denver making it the highest city park in North America.
In 1965, it was designated the first National Natural Landmark in Colorado and it’s known for being one of the best examples of Arctic tundra within the contiguous United States. In fact, some of the vegetation here can only be found here and above the Arctic Circle, so tread lightly.
It’s worth noting that around this area the road got a bit rough and lumpy at times but it was never a huge problem. Also, this is another place where you will need to have a reservation as it has timed entry.
Aside from the ecosystem significance, it’s just a really beautiful alpine lake to check out and some people do fish here although there’s no swimming allowed.
From the lake you can embark on the trail to Mount Evans or if you want something a little bit more subdued you can do Mount Spalding which is a short and steep 13er.
The hike to Mount Evans doesn’t look bad on paper but it does involve a fair amount of scrambling towards the end which makes the hike more strenuous and time consuming than you would think.
On the way down we made another stop to Summit Lake to check it out with different lighting and the parking lot was just about full. There was a park ranger patrolling everything very closely so if you don’t want a ticket I suggest you abide by the fee system.
After checking out the lake we then I made our way towards the summit.
At this point, we had already encountered quite a few marmots but they were really out in vast numbers. We probably saw somewhere around 30 of them!
Lots of the marmots are pretty bold and will hang out in the street so make sure that you are always on the lookout for them. Also, be prepared for the occasional traffic slowdown, as drivers take a moment to admire these chonky marmots in their element.
As you start to approach the summit, that’s when you hit the final set of switchbacks.
By the way, pretty much all of the scenic byway does not have guard rails.
Some upper portions of the road are a little bit narrow so when a car is incoming, it can get a little bit tight but it never felt that bad to me. But use caution when turning on those tight turns if you’re sharing the road with another vehicle (some drivers chose to just stop and wait for the vehicle to clear the turn).
After a bit of back-and-forth on the switchbacks we then made it to the end of the scenic byway!
Immediately on arrival at the summit, we were greeted by a handful of shaggy mountain goats.
These magnificent creatures exuded a certain charm, but at the same time, we knew better than to underestimate their wild nature. While they didn’t appear menacing, it was evident that keeping a respectful distance was the best course of action.
Mountain goats, especially when accompanied by their adorable young ones (called “kids”), can become protective and assertive at times. They’ll stand their ground to safeguard their families, and it’s essential to give them the space they need.
Additionally, we were mindful of the guidelines that required our furry companions to be leashed, as some mountain goats don’t take kindly to the presence of dogs.
These goats are not native to Colorado and were introduced to the state in the mid-20th century for recreational hunting purposes, but this action has raised concerns among conservationists and wildlife experts.
Being non-native to the area, mountain goats can potentially pose challenges to the native ecosystem and other indigenous species, particularly the rocky mountain bighorn sheep.
Competition for resources and habitat space between these two species has led to some ecological conflicts, sparking discussions about the impacts of introducing non-native species to delicate ecosystems.
Sometimes these goats make their way north to Rocky Mountain National Park and if found the park will euthanize them, so it’s a pretty serious issue.
Nevertheless, the scenic drive up to the summit of Mount Evans is one of the best and easiest ways to encounter mountain goats in Colorado.
Besides hanging out with the mountain goats, at the top there are quite a few things to see and do.
The top thing I would recommend is to make the short hike to the actual summit of Mount Evans.
You’ll need to hit up a few switchbacks and it is a bit rocky so having your hiking boots will be helpful although it’s not necessary. It’s just over half a mile round-trip and the elevation gain is only about 100 feet. While this will be easy for lots of people, if you are struggling with the altitude this could feel a lot harder.
From the top, you’ll have sweeping panoramic views, including a great view of Summit Lake and its glacier-carved cirque.
Try your hand at identifying some of the neighboring peaks like Bierstadt, Grays and Torrey’s Peak, and if it’s clear you can easily see all the way to Longs Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park.
If you have a telephoto lens, zoom in on your photos later on and you might be able to see hikers on top of the other summits!
There were a few geological markers up there so you could also look for those.
For anybody who is not interested in taking on a full 14er hike, this is a great way to experience what it’s like to be on top of one of the highest peaks in the country.
Back on the parking lot level, be sure to check out the overlook and the historic Crest House.
Back in 1942, the Crest House emerged atop the world at a staggering 14,260 feet above sea level, making it the highest structure on the planet.
As a restaurant and souvenir shop, it treated visitors to more than just delicious meals, as it boasted large windows that offered breathtaking vistas of Denver. It took design inspiration from the night sky as it was built in the shape of a star and it housed interior lights that had round globes that resembled the moon.
Regrettably, the Crest House met a tragic fate on September 1, 1979, when a propane explosion reduced it to ruins.
Amid the debris and twisted steel, however, a glimmer of hope persisted — the arched wall and star-shaped platform miraculously stood strong.
In the early 90s, the Arapaho National Forest was determined to salvage what remained and transformed the Crest House into the observation platform you see today. And so, rising from the ashes this “Castle in the Sky,” now stands as a sanctuary of contemplation, inviting visitors to Mt. Evans to soak in its inspiring views.
There’s also an observatory up there called the Meyer-Womble Observatory. A sign lists it as the highest telescope observatory in the world although some research shows that it’s not the highest.
Still, it is the third-highest optical/infrared observatory in the world and at one point was the highest observatory. Sadly, it looks like the observatory has been decommissioned or is in the process of being shut down.
When nature calls and you find yourself in need of a bathroom break, there are vault toilets awaiting you at the summit. However, a word of caution: the resident mountain goats seem to have taken a liking to this spot.
So, as you venture towards the restroom, be prepared for a delightful surprise — these curious and majestic creatures might just stand guard as you make your exit!
After taking out the sites we made our way down and didn’t have any issues with our brakes overheating as we didn’t find the decline to be nearly as steep as other mountain roads where that’s an issue but use your own judgment based on your vehicle.
The Mount Evans Scenic Byway promises a magnificent escapade for those seeking an authentic Rocky Mountain encounter.
True, I would rather hike my way up to a 14er than drive but this drive is a spectacular experience especially for those who are not interested in putting themselves through a strenuous hike.
Cruising along the highest paved road in North America is an exceptional privilege, but what makes it even more extraordinary is the abundance of awe-inspiring scenery and the chance to encounter captivating wildlife.
Daniel Gillaspia is the Founder of UponArriving.com and the credit card app, WalletFlo. He is a former attorney turned travel expert covering destinations along with TSA, airline, and hotel policies. Since 2014, his content has been featured in publications such as National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine, and CNBC. Read my bio.