Toe-Dip Road Trip: A Flexible Colorado Summer Adventure

Tuesday 12th, May 2020 / 13:38 Written by
Toe-Dip Road Trip: A Flexible Colorado Summer Adventure
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Tour de NoCo Colorado Road Trip – Adventure, Beauty & Food in Fort Collins & Steamboat Springs

The experts in Fort Collins and Steamboat Springs teamed up to create onehelluva post-safer-at-home road trip itinerary highlighting the natural beauty of Northern Colorado. The goal: include as many no-reservations-needed, social distancing-compliant options as possible. The result: a 150-plus mile journey that includes: a Colorado Historic District; a genetically-pure buffalo herd (celebrating an anniversary); the first state-sponsored pump track; an authentic drive-in movie theater; a Colorado Scenic Byway; a Wild & Scenic River; two mountain passes; a yurt stay; miles of backcountry trails; a National Wildlife Refuge; two Colorado Creative Districts; remote gravel roads; Colorado State Parks; pristine local lakes; acres of open space; and a bounty of wildlife-spotting opportunities. And so much more.

We’ve included the full bonanza below. It’s long. And, dives deep. We’ve done the research and included links to just about every aspect of this trip because we think it makes for a pretty do-able toe-dip into travel this summer.

Fort Collins → Poudre Canyon → Cameron Pass → Walden → Rabbit Ears Pass (Continental Divide) → Steamboat Springs

The Itinerary:

A six-day trek highlighting Northern Colorado’s remote beauty, with a focus on things-to-do-and-see, outdoors, without a reservation. We’ve also included lodging and dining recommendations, and a few indoor options, as well.

Note: Before traveling please check for coronavirus updates by county:

Fort Collins (Larimer County): Currently operating under Safer at Home order; select lodging properties are currently open.

Walden (Jackson County): Currently following state orders and recommendations.

Steamboat Springs (Routt County): County commissioners extended the Public Health Order limiting lodging in short-term rentals until May 31, 2020.

Days 1 & 2: Fort Collins, Colo.

Days 3 & 4: Never Summer Nordic Yurt/Backcountry Stay

Days 5 & 6: Steamboat Springs, Colo.

The Route:

1. Start in Fort Collins: one of Colorado’s Creative Districts; home of Colorado State University (CSU) Rams; Old Town Fort Collins, the inspiration for Disneyland’s Main Street USA; and a Colorado Historic District. From Fort Collins follow Hwy 14 and the Poudre river toward the spectacular Poudre Canyon.

2. The Poudre Canyon is one of Colorado’s Scenic Byways. Pass the village of Kinikinik and keep a lookout for fly-fishers, rafters, kayakers and standup paddleboards as you ascend.

3. Head over Cameron Pass (summit 10,276 feet), and take a peek at the Medicine Bow (north) and Never Summer Mountains (south) in the rearview mirror. Continue through North Park toward Walden.

4. Continue east on Hwy 14 to Walden. Watch for the Arapaho National Wildlife Refuge, a managed waterfowl nesting area and lush wetlands complete with meandering streams, just before you reach town.

5. Stop in Walden (population 750) for lunch at the River Rock Café at the Antlers Inn on the main drag.

6. From Walden continue west on Hwy 14 and enjoy wide-open vistas, fields of sage and prairie grass, the occasional cattle ranch, abandoned cabins and peaceful miles until you reach the base of Rabbit Ears Pass.

7. Turn west (right) onto Hwy 40 and immediately start the climb over Rabbit Ears Pass (summit 9,246 feet). You’ll cross over the Continental Divide (9,426 feet) on your way up the east side of the pass (look for the sign on the north side of the highway) and you’ll see the famous Rabbit Ears (also on the north side of the highway) in the distance.

8. Follow Hwy 40 down the west side of Rabbit Ears Pass, into the Yampa Valley and Steamboat Springs, home to miles of singletrack and paved trails, the beloved F.M. Light & Sons, the best river tubing in the state and another Colorado Creative District.

WHAT TO DO BY SECTION

Section 1: Fort Collins, Colo.

Stay:

Looking for a smaller, more affordable lodging option? Check out:

— Remington Flats is a boutique studio hotel with locally-made snacks and a fleet of New Belgium cruiser bikes perfect for exploring nearby Old Town.

—The Fernweh Inn & Hostel, located in a Registered Historic Landmark and within walking distance of Old Town, offers shared and private rooms at reasonable rates.

— The Solarium Colorado, located along the Spring Creek Trail, offers guests free waffles and coffee in a welcoming atmosphere.

road trip Colorado

Eat: 

Order delivery or pick up a to-go order from the following spots:

• Craving pizza? Beau Jo’s Colorado Style Pizza has you covered. 

road trip Colorado

• For delicious sammys, visit Yampa Sandwich Company or Spoons.

• For something a little more elevated, check out the options at Ginger and Baker, Next Door American Eatery and The Regional.  

• If you need a little spice, order up a breakfast burrito or tacos from Vatos Tacos and Tequila.

• Don’t forget dessert! Grab doughnuts from FoCo DoCo, a caramel apple from Kilwins Chocolates & Ice Cream, or bean-to-bar chocolates from Nuance Chocolate

road trip Colorado

For the most up-to-date info on Fort Collins restaurants, visit our FoCo To-Go page.

Do:

• Hike and/or bike: Lory State Park has a plethora of trails that range in difficulty but they all offer beautiful views. There’s even a 70,000-square-foot mountain bike park located southeast of the visitor center. The Corral Center Mountain Bike Park is Colorado’s first officially state-sponsored dirt/pump track and offers a comprehensive skills area appropriate for riders of all ages and skill levels. After a warm-up at the park, hit the Lory State Park Valley Trails. If you would like a little guidance on your first biking adventure, Fort Collins-based Front Range Ride Guides is ready to help.

• For additional hiking options, head to Horsetooth Reservoir, which is open year-round and located west of Fort Collins. The Inlet Bay Trail connects the Blue Sky Trailhead and Soderberg Trailhead and includes 2.7 miles of easy trails. Venture up Poudre Canyon to the four-mile-long Mineral Spring Gulch Trail, or to the more challenging Little Beaver Creek Trail.

• Soak up nature at one of the nearly 50 nearby Natural Areas. Soapstone Prairie Natural Area is extraordinary with over 28 square miles of wide-open vistas, nearly pristine grasslands, miles of trails and world-renowned cultural resources. It is also home to the iconic American bison, reintroduced to Soapstone Prairie Natural Area and Red Mountain Open Space in 2015. This year, 2020, marks the five-year anniversary of the herd’s reintroduction. Visitors may see them in their fenced pasture from March-November. There is no bison range access but you may see them from the road or Cheyenne Rim Trail. More information is in the Soapstone Prairie site brochure. You can learn more about the bison project here.

 • Play on the Poudre: The new Poudre River Whitewater Park opened late summer 2019. Located on the river just north of Old Town in the booming river district, the park includes a boulder-lined boat chute, rock features, holes for kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding (SUP) and tubing, and shallow play along the shore.

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• Catch a movie at the Drive-In: Head to Overland Trail to catch a double feature at the Holiday Twin Drive-In. Moviegoers have been enjoying flicks at this iconic spot for more than 50 years. The drive-in opened May 1 at about half capacity to maintain social distancing. Buy tickets online at holidaytwin.com. The theater is generally open through September; check the website for the latest films as well as most up-to-date information. 

road trip Colorado

Section 2: The Poudre Canyon

Do:

• Hike: There’s great hiking to be found in the Poudre CanyonGreyrock Trail and Blue Lake Trail are two options near Bellvue. While Lady Moon Trail and Killpecker Trail are both located in the Red Feather Lakes area.

• Check out Poudre Falls: This set of three cascades flows down the Cache la Poudre River in Poudre Canyon and is easy to spot from Highway 14. Located a few minutes’ drive after the Sportsman’s Lodge Cabins and Campground, watch for a green sign that says “Poudre Falls.” 

• Raft or fish the Cache La Poudre River, the only nationally designated “Wild & Scenic” river in Colorado (similar to a National Park designation). In an effort to keep the river wild and the experience incomparable, commercial rafting trips are limited and there is almost no commercial development along the river’s banks. Convenient access, clear water, challenging rapids, and pristine scenery, make a descent of the Cache La Poudre one of the most unique river expeditions in the state. Whitewater rafting trips range from mellow floats to grand adventures down hair-raising rapids.

Section 3: Cameron Pass

Named for Robert Cameron, the founder of the Fort Collins Agricultural Colony and former Union general in 1870, Cameron Pass offers unparalleled backcountry scenery. The pass is located at the boundary of the Roosevelt National Forest and the Colorado State Forest State Park.

Do:

• Hike the nearby trails, which are popular for hiking in the summer and snowshoeing in the winter. Located in State Forest State Park, Lake Agnes is a 2.5-mile out-and-back trail that begins at historic Agnes Cabin. The stunning Lake Agnes, nestled in a cirque at 10,320 feet, is well worth the trek. Also nearby, the rated difficult American Lakes trail features stunning views of the Never Summer mountain range.

Section 4: North Park

Stay: 

Book a Never Summer Nordic Yurt stay. For a unique twist on Colorado’s iconic hut trips, try a yurt trip in Northern Colorado. The yurts of Never Summer Nordic are remote backcountry shelters located in the Colorado State Forest State Park in the northern Colorado Rocky Mountains. The yurts are circular tent-like canvas and wood structures built high on a wood deck, offering the backcountry enthusiast a secure, secluded private refuge. Each yurt is set up with beds, woodstove and basic cooking facilities for the ultimate social distancing escape.

Several of the yurts offer two-wheel “drive-ups” and wheelchair access. Pets are permitted at all Never Summer Nordic Yurts from June – September. Check the Never Summer Nordic Yurts website or social channels for the most up-to-date info on booking.

Do:

All of the Never Summer Nordic yurts offer a seemingly endless system of old roads and trails for skiing, hiking and mountain biking of all skill levels allowing you to play and then relax without nary another person in sight. 

Eat:

We recommend picking up provisions for your stay at one of the smaller mom-and-pop grocers like Beavers Market or local co-op Mountain Avenue Market in Fort Collins.

road trip Colorado

Section 5: Walden

Do:

Don’t miss Arapaho National Wildlife Refuge, a managed wildlife habitat a few miles before you reach Walden. Located in an intermountain glacial basin approximately 35 miles wide and 45 miles long (23,464 acres), it is the highest refuge in the lower 48 states. It was founded in 1967 primarily to provide suitable nesting and rearing habitat for migratory birds. The refuge is home to hundreds of species of birds, along with plenty of mammals, amphibians and 390 species of plant life. Stop for a peek at the overlook just off the highway.

Eat:

Continue into Walden for breakfast or lunch at the River Rock Café at the Antler’s Inn on Main Street, which serves comfort food classics for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Section 6: Walden to the Base of Rabbit Ears Pass

Continue on through North Park to the junction with US Route 40. Enjoy the peaceful miles during this leg of the drive and watch for antelope, cattle ranches and old homesteads as you pass through fields of sage and prairie grass.

Section 7: Rabbit Ears Pass

Turn from Colorado Hwy 14 onto U.S. Hwy 40 and start the ascent of Rabbit Ears Pass. The pass is known for its false summit, a crossing of the Continental Divide, and the distinctive “rabbit ears” rock formation that creates one of the nearby peaks.

The area offers a variety of options for camping, hiking and trail running, mountain and road biking, and off-roading. 

Do:

Rabbit Ears Peak Trail, located in the Mt. Zirkel Wilderness, is a moderate out-and-back trail featuring gorgeous wildflowers during the summer months, and exceptional views of the rock formation — and pass namesake — that resembles a rabbit’s ears. Open June through August, the trail begins near Dumont Lake, west of Rabbit Ears Pass on US Route 40.

Section 8: Steamboat Springs, Colo.

Stay:

For a smaller, more affordable lodging option check out:

— Rabbit Ears Motel: With an ideal location on the south end of town, adjacent to the Yampa River, the Rabbit Ears is an affordable, comfortable, family-friendly option and a beloved local favorite.

road trip Colorado

— Nordic Lodge: With a great mid-downtown location, a variety of amenities, comfortable accommodations at an affordable price, the lodge is a great home base.

— Camp at Pearl Lake or Steamboat Lake.

Eat:

We’ve included a few options in a variety of categories below. Check out the Chamber’s Shop Local page for open status and more ideas.

Grab-and-Go

• Yampa Sandwich Company – Formerly Backcountry Deli, this place is THE place for to-go yumminess.

• Skull Creek Greek – “Fun, fast, affordable” greek eatery and Best of the Boat winner in downtown Steamboat Springs.

Pizza Pick-Up

• Blue Sage Pizza – Best pie in town.

Take out/pick up

• Fiesta Jalisco – Family-owned with six locations in Colorado.

• Mambo – Italian with a twist.

road trip Colorado

Local Ingredients

• Freshies – A local favorite for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Do:

Several Steamboat shops and outfitters offer curbside gear pick up, as well as repairs and tune-ups. Check out the Shop Local page for details.

• Tour the local trails:

2A Trails – Steamboat’s 2A Trails Program (started in 2014-2015) allows users to enjoy miles of seamlessly connected multi-use trails in five main network “pockets” in and around town: Buffalo Pass Trail System (the current focus for new projects); Emerald Mountain Trail System; Mad Creek Trail System; Rabbit Ears Pass Trail System; and Town Pathways and Amenities. All projects are accessible from town by foot, bike or vehicle in 30 minutes or less. Here are a few recommendations:

• Hiking Luna Lake accessed from the Mad Creek trailhead (Mad Creek and Buffalo Pass Trail Systems) – This rarely visited hike travels along the Continental Divide Trail, beginning at the top of Buffalo Pass and quickly landing travelers in the Zirkel Wilderness.

• Biking G.E.M. trail accessed from Flash of Gold trail (Buffalo Pass Trail System) – G.E.M. trail, dubbed an “aspen-peeper’s and single-track-lover’s dream” by the Steamboat Pilot & Today, opened summer 2019. The 2.5-mile trail is located off the top of Flash of Gold, a new loop around Buffalo Mountain loop with incredible views and a 360-foot elevation gain.

• Explore the Yampa River Core Trail, a 7.5-mile paved multi-use recreation path that runs through the heart of Steamboat Springs along the Yampa River. Don’t miss these great stops (that allow for social distancing) along the route: Yampa River Botanic Park, a six-acre sanctuary of 40 gardens, ponds and sculptures; fishing access; Howelsen Ski Area, with volleyball, tennis and basketball courts and a skate park; tubing the Yampa, and more.

road trip Colorado

Steamboat Gravel – Home to 600 miles of dirt and hard-packed gravel roads and easy access from town, some are calling this a nirvana for world-class gravel riding and racing – arguably one of the sport’s more accessible and fastest growing disciplines. There are several great gravel rides located in the Steamboat area; this is one of our favorites:

• Emerald Circuit (partially paved) – Length: 27.6 miles. Difficulty: moderate/intermediate. Ride-able: April to October. Minimum tire size: 28mm.

• Love the local lakes

Update May 4, 2020: Colorado Parks and Wildlife campgrounds will remain closed until further notice. Agency staff is working on a reopening plan, but ask visitors to State Parks to remain flexible in their travel plans as we navigate a very uncertain time. CPW is extending its closure of all campgrounds and camping facilities (including yurts and cabins) at Colorado’s state parks and state wildlife areas. This action has been taken based on the Safer At Home Order from Colorado Governor Jared Polis and the advice of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). For more information: https://cpw.state.co.us/aboutus/Pages/COVID-19-Response.aspx

There are three Colorado State Parks located less than one hour away from Steamboat Springs, all featuring beautiful lakes:

Pearl Lake State Park – This 167-sq-acre mountain reservoir sits at the base of Farwell Mountain nestled among a pine forest about 25 miles north of Steamboat Springs. Paddleboard or propel a wakeless craft around the picturesque lake, enjoy a scenic picnic, or a relaxing camping getaway with easy access to the wealth of Routt National Forest hiking and biking trails. Anglers can catch cutthroat trout and grayling biting on flies and lures. The campground features 38 sites and two yurts, offering a serene escape with lake and mountain vistas.

Steamboat Lake State Park – This vast recreation area comes complete with stunning Hahn’s Peak views, along with boating, fishing, waterskiing, swimming and other watersports, plus nearby hiking and biking. The marina offers boat rentals, dock rentals and fuel, as well as fishing licenses, bait and tackle. Birding and photography are popular pastimes, and on-site camping allows for overnights right at the lake. Stock up on provisions at the on-site marina convenience store (don’t miss the famous fudge), or on the way to the lake at the Clark Store (famous for their ice cream).

Stagecoach State Park – Stagecoach State Park is known for its trophy fishing, abundant wildlife, watersports and spectacular scenery. Located 20 minutes south of Steamboat Springs, Stagecoach Reservoir is a quiet lake with a marina that offers boat rentals for a day of fun in the sun. Record-sized fish have been pulled out of Stagecoach, and the calm waters are perfect for paddleboarding and wakeboarding before a picnic on the shore.

• More “No Reservations” Favorites

Burgess Creek Beach- Steamboat’s mountain-style beach is located at the base of Steamboat Ski Area in the cool, clear waters of Burgess Creek. Adults can sunbathe and enjoy a drink as they watch as their kiddos play in the sand and explore the mini waterfalls. Free. 

Spot a Sandhill Crane – The annual Yampa Valley Crane Festival soars into the area Sept. 3-6, 2020. Attend a guided sandhill crane viewing, take a nature or bird walk, listen to expert speakers, and participate in workshops, children’s activities and more. Learn about these fascinating birds from experts like the research coordinator for the International Crane Foundation. The festival takes place each year at the height of their stopover in the Yampa Valley where they nest and raise their young. Register for the event or learn more here. Most options are free; donations are appreciated. Check the website for COVID-19 updates.

road trip Colorado

Use this new online tool for the most recent information about USDA Forest Service recreation site status updates, warnings, fire restriction info and more.

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