The Prettiest Drive in Colorado: Denver to Durango

For more than twenty years, we had a family cabin outside of Fairplay and some months, we’d go up twice. So, I have driven Highway 285 many times. However, that cabin has been sold for several years, and I am not visiting Southwest Colorado nearly as much as I used to. Therefore, when we drove Hwy 285 on the way to Durango earlier this month, I’d forgotten how lovely this drive is at any time of year.

The Prettiest Drive in Colorado Denver to Durango. Conifer, Colorado. HeidiTown
Conifer, Colorado

The Denver to Durango drive involves 209 miles on Hwy 285, before turning onto Hwy 112 at Center, in the San Luis Valley, and then just 15 miles later turning right on Hwy 160 in Del Norte. Hwy 160 ends up in Durango, and this 337-mile drive is the prettiest in Colorado.

There are many passes on this drive and a view around every corner. It’s simply breathtaking and this road trip should be on your radar.

The Prettiest Drive in Colorado Denver to Durango. HeidiTown
Kenosha Pass – coming into South Park (Park County), Colorado, on Hwy 285

The route goes through Conifer and Bailey and then up to Kenosha Pass. The view heading down into South Park is one that I’ve photographed hundreds of times, and I’m not exaggerating.

The Prettiest Drive in Colorado Denver to Durango 2. HeidiTown
The view of South Park mountains in the rearview mirror as we return home from Durango.

It’s a bit of a toss-up as to which view is my favorite on this drive. There are just so, so many.

Another view that always blows my mind, and has me taking photographs is the Collegiate Peaks as one drives Trout Peaks Pass towards Buena Vista. The Collegiate Pass Overlook is a must-stop.

About now, we should start talking about food. We’ve been down this route many times and there are traditional spots where we stop for lunch either on the way or back. Most recently, and many times in the distant past, we stopped at Brown Dog Cafe in Buena Vista.

Usually, this place has a massive line, but on a Tuesday there was none. They make one of the best chicken salad sandwiches but this time I had the Soup of the Day—white bean chicken chili—a tasty soup.

The Prettiest Drive in Colorado Denver to Durango. Mountain Goat Lodge. HeidiTown
A visit to Mountain Goat Lodge in 2018.

On the way out of Buena Visa and past the turnoff for Salida, there’s the Mountain Goat Lodge. While we usually cruise by on the way somewhere, I have stayed and you should too. I always look for Gina’s goats when we pass. By the way, she tells me there are 10 baby goats this spring. TEN!

A Stay at the Mountain Goat Lodge in Salida, Colorado

At Poncha Springs stay slightly left and head over Poncha Pass. Coming up is one of the most fabulous vistas in the world. As one enters the San Luis Valley, the Sangre de Cristos are in a line on the left.

The Prettiest Drive in Colorado Denver to Durango. Sangre de Cristo Range, San Luis Valley HeidiTown
Sangre de Cristo Mountains from a trip to Alamosa in 2023.

I never cease to be amazed by this sight. It was here that I declared, probably for the 170th time throughout the state, “This is my favorite view in Colorado” and Ryan looked at me and said, “You’re a scenery slut” (probably not a statement to be made in mixed company but funny at the time).

The Best View in Colorado.
San de Cristo Mountains, May 2019

We’ve often stopped in Villa Grove for lunch at Villa Grove Trade. Currently, it is closed but is set to reopen under new ownership. Lately, we’ve been stopping for lunch in Saguache, if the timing is right.

The Prettiest Drive in Colorado Denver to Durango. HeidiTown

By the way, this area is home to Joyful Journey Hot Spring which I’ve written about several times on

A Colorado Hot Spring at 7,700 Feet Above Sea Level

We are big fans of the 4th Street Diner. Not only is it downright adorable, the food is delicious. Plus, there’s nothing better than enjoying a homemade sandwich and deviled eggs next to a wood-burning stove.

The Prettiest Drive in Colorado Denver to Durango. HeidiTown
Road Trip Travel: How to Find Great Food Along the Way

Along the Hwy 285 stretch between Saguache and Center, we almost always stop at Russell Lakes Wildlife Area. Not only is there a restroom, but it’s a good spot to see birds, and the bird nerd in me gets rather excited at that prospect. We’ve seen a lot of interesting waterfowl in this area not to mention some big birds of prey flying overhead.

At Center, Colorado, is where the Denver to Durango trip diverts from Hwy 285 to Hwy 112 to Del Norte. There, take a right on Hwy 160 and drive all the way to Durango.

A Road Trip in Southern Colorado: Relish Remote Relaxation 

Del Norte is a charming, small Southwest Colorado town. We stayed at the Mellow Moon Lodge once, and have frequented Three Barrel Brewing over the years. Even Fritzi has enjoyed the patio at Three Barrel multiple times in her four years of life.

The Prettiest Drive in Colorado Denver to Durango. Three Barrel Brewing. HeidiTown
On the patio at Three Barrel Brewing in Del Norte, Colorado.

Recently, we stopped for a meal on the way from Durango to Denver. They have excellent woodfired pizza, but I got the special earlier this month, a pork sandwich with green chile aioli. It was heavenly.

The Prettiest Drive in Colorado Denver to Durango. Three Barrel Brewing 2. HeidiTown

From Del Norte, Hwy 160 goes through South Fork and up and over Wolf Creek Pass (elevation 10,856 feet above sea level). I’ve had some hairy experiences traversing this high-altitude pass. Once, in April, coming home from speaking at the Southwest Tourism Summit in Pagosa Springs in 2014, I encountered a freak snowstorm. The road atop Wolf Creek Pass near the ski area was pure ice, and I kept my eyes focused on the RV in front of me and white-knuckled through.

The Best Views in Colorado.
Wolf Creek Pass April 2015

Not only is this pass really, really high, but it features one of my favorite views in Colorado, Wolf Creek Valley Overlook. I’ve taken dozens of photos here over the years.

The Prettiest Drive in Colorado Denver to Durango. Wolf Creek Pass April 2024. HeidiTown
Wolf Creek Pass on our most recent trip, April 2024.

The view is like a Colorado postcard, especially when the valley is green. During the winter, it’s inaccessible as it acts as the area for plows on Wolf Creek Pass to deposit their snow loads.

Heading out of Pagosa Springs towards Wolf Creek Pass.
Heading out of Pagosa Springs towards Wolf Creek Pass.

The views between Wolf Creek Pass and Pagosa Springs are startlingly green in the springtime and early summer. Crossing the San Juan River, in Pagosa Springs, look for The Springs Resort & Spa, a hot springs destination that will set you back a few pennies. However, it’s worth it. And if you stay in one of the two lodges on the property, you get 24-hour access to the hot springs.

Five Things to do in Pagosa Springs this Summer

Shout out to Riff Raff Brewing, a spot in Pagosa Springs we’ve been going to since they opened. Now, they have a newer second location in town, and we stopped in on the last trip on the way to Durango.

The Prettiest Drive in Colorado Denver to Durango. The view from Riff Raff Brewing Patio in Pagosa Springs. HeidiTown
The view from Riff Raff Brewing’s patio in Pagosa Springs, Colorado.

The drive between Pagosa Springs to Durango feels like 50 hours but it is just 60 miles. This is because, coming from Loveland as we do, this is our seventh hour on the road and life is starting to move in slow motion. Once we’ve hit Bayfield though, I know we’re close.

The Prettiest Drive in Colorado Denver to Durango. Durango HeidiTown
Durango is worth the drive. Every single time. April 2024

So, there you have it. Denver to Durango via Hwy 285 to Hwy 112 to Hwy 160. I will write about our recent visit to Durango (it had been five years), but for now, this drive, or at least parts, should be on your MUST drive list this summer.

The Prettiest Drive in Colorado Denver to Durango. Hwy 285 through San Luis Valley approaching Poncha Pass. HeidiTown
Heading home. The view from Hwy 285 in San Luis Valley approaching Poncha Pass.

For more beautiful Colorado drives visit Colorado Scenic & Historic Byways.

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