Highway to Heaven
Summit County's Signature Summertime Roadtrip
From lonely lakes to happy hours, 72 hours (and 60 miles) of bliss on the Blue River Parkway.
Colorado's high country is blessed with an abundance of two-lane highways that offer solitude and grandeur while meandering from one quaint mountain community to the next. Some are among the most famous roads in the world (e.g., Highway 550, a.k.a. the precipitous Million Dollar Highway, between Ouray and Silverton), while others exist more or less in anonymity—which is to say until you have driven it yourself, you don’t know how spectacular and road trip-worthy it is. Colorado State Highway 9, a 138-mile route from Kremmling to Cañon City, is one of those roads. Not all of it is epic or breathtaking or even fun to drive (the forgettable expanse from Hartsel to Fairplay can put you to sleep on a sunny day), but you don’t need to worry about that—at least not for this story. We’ve focused on what we consider the most scenic—and, since it still matters to some, civilized—stretch: the roughly 60 miles from Green Mountain Reservoir to Fairplay. Most of that passes through Summit County and is known as the Blue River Parkway, with the final section, south of Hoosier Pass, providing a tour of Park County’s two funkiest towns, Alma and Fairplay. You will never run out of views to capture or things to do. So fill up the tank, pack a bag or two, and punch it down Highway 9 for one of America’s classic summertime diversions—the multiday regional road trip—on a stretch of asphalt that was built for it.
Day 1: Heeney to Silverthorne
The northernmost town in Summit County? It’s Heeney, not Silverthorne. Start your voyage here, on the shore of Green Mountain Reservoir, a watersports and camping haven 1,500 feet lower than much of Summit County—and accordingly warmer. There are seven campgrounds on the banks and beaches that ring the water, and all but one is first-come, first-served. Availability aside, your decision-making amounts to whether you’d rather stare out at the Williams Fork Range (from the west shore) or the Gore Range (from the east). We recommend the Prairie Point and McDonalds Flat campgrounds on the reservoir’s southern tail.
The few campsites that can be reserved are found at Cow Creek South on the east shore, a campground with 44 sites that can accommodate anywhere from 10 to 30 people and cost $13 to $26 per night (reserve at recreation.gov). And be forewarned, the entire reservoir can sell out on a busy summer night, so it pays to arrive early or reserve ahead. The Heeney Marina can provision basic needs like snacks, fuel, and ice.
If you decide (as we recommend) not to rush your trip south the next day, you will have plenty of options for fun and adventure. Some of the finest hiking in Summit County starts just off the highway and heads into the Gore Range, a wilderness the Forest Service deemed so pure it decided not to name most of the peaks or build trails to their summits. Take Rock Creek Road to the Rock Creek Trailhead and hike until you hit the Gore Range Trail. Hang a right on that to Lower Boulder Lake, then return the way you came for a six-mile round trip with 1,150 feet of climbing.
Rather ride your road bike? Park at the base of Ute Pass Road and pedal up to the pass’s summit, elevation 9,583 feet. It’s a moderate 5.3-mile climb, and the views of the Gore are as good as you’ll find anywhere. Just make sure you don’t get sucked in to the rugged splendor too deeply on the descent; the curvy highway demands as much attention as you can spare.
You’ll be ready for a hearty lunch after either of those adventures, and you’ll find it at Sauce on the Blue (we recommend the organic arugula pizza; sauceontheblue.com) or the Mountain Lyon Café, whose large portions are exemplified by the chicken-fried steak and eggs with homemade green chili (970-262-6229). Both eateries are located along Highway 9, of course.
Got a shopper in your wagon? The Outlets at Silverthorne may never let you get to Frisco. Forty-five stores, with national brands ranging from Banana Republic to Pearl Izumi to Olive Fusion, offer just about anything you could want to buy (outletsatsilverthorne.com). But fret not, ye outdoorsy types. While your wingman or wingwoman is swiping plastic, you can be casting for (seriously) big trout on the Blue River below the dam. Pop into Cutthroat Anglers, just down the sidewalk from Sauce on the Blue, to find out what’s biting what—and where (fishcolorado.com).
Zip into the Bakers’ Brewery for the earliest happy hour in Summit County, starting at 2 p.m. The roomy dining room offers views of Buffalo and Red peaks, and you get $2 off beers—like the Cotton Mouth Killer session IPA—until 6 o’clock (thebakersbrewery.com).
Not that you’re going to stay that long. Highway 9 continues to Frisco, after all, the next stop on the road to resplendence.
Day 2: Frisco to Breckenridge
The central stretch of Highway 9 overlaps with Interstate 70 between Silverthorne and Frisco, where it then regains its independence. Lodging options abound in Frisco, from the bargain hunter’s Snowshoe Motel on Main Street to a trio of Forest Service campgrounds on the water. One of those, Heaton Bay, is accessed from the Dillon Dam Road, while the other two, Peak One and Pine Cove, are on the Frisco Peninsula. All sites can be reserved at recreation.gov. For a standard pub dinner, head to the Moose Jaw and order the best burger in town, made your way with steak fries (moosejawfrisco.com). The Boatyard serves delicious pizza and an incredible ahi and avocado sandwich (boatyardamericangrill.com).
Dawn on Dillon Reservoir can break misty and soulful, so if you can handle an early wakeup, it’s usually worth it to behold the scene from Frisco’s marina, where sailboat masts poke through the early-morning fog, and stand-up paddlers, kayakers, and scullers cut wakes over the glassy surface. When the mist dissolves, the water reflects Peak One like a mirror.
Grab breakfast at the bustling Butterhorn Bakery, where we often hold our editorial brainstorming meetings (the Eggs Butterhorn and huevos rancheros never disappoint; butterhornbakery.com), then head back to the Frisco Marina for a spin across Denver’s water source. The marina rents pretty much every craft imaginable: canoes ($40 for two hours), single and tandem kayaks ($30 and $40, respectively), fishing skiffs ($65), speedboats ($145), and the luxury liner for lake cruising, pontoon boats ($155 for a 20-footer). You can also opt for a SUP ($35) and a variety of sailboats. Call 970-668-4334 to reserve a vessel or get more information, or visit townoffrisco.com.
You probably shouldn’t spend more than two hours on the water—this is, after all, supposed to be a road trip. After refueling at Food Hedz—arguably the best lunch in Summit County, with a rotating menu of fresh dishes daily (foodhedzcatering.com)—and some casual window shopping along Main Street, continue south on Highway 9 past the Frisco Adventure Park, where daredevil bikers can hit dirt jumps if in need of an adrenaline fix. Proceed nine miles to Breckenridge, the county seat and the most-visited destination along your route.
It’s easy to forget Breckenridge was founded by gold miners in 1859, now that the town is defined by its recreational amenities. But if you look around, there are plenty of reminders. For a dose of history, stop by the Edwin Carter Museum, a free-admission shrine to its naturalist namesake that includes interpretive exhibits and photographs chronicling a bygone era in the “Kingdom,” as the town was once known (breckheritage.com). Kids of all ages love Blue River Plaza, where they can frolic in crystal clear snowmelt and you can lounge on a grassy knoll and gaze up at 13,000-foot peaks. The Crown, with its sunny back patio and tasty happy hour treats, is less than a minute’s walk from the plaza (thecrownbreckenridge.com), and spirits lovers can sample the Breckenridge Distillery’s award-winning bourbon and vodka (breckenridgedistillery.com) in a free tasting room below Relish, one of the best restaurants in Colorado (relishbreckenridge.com).
An afternoon stroll through a quaking-aspen forest awaits at Carter Park, where a 1-mile loop takes you up the aptly named Jack’s Cruel Joke singletrack, across the Hermit Placer flume (where you’ll behold a stunning view of Breckenridge Ski Resort), and back down a series of switchbacks to the park.
The new-for-2017 Residence Inn by Marriott, located next to the Breckenridge Brewery where Highway 9 rejoins Main Street, offers rooms starting between $160 and $240 depending on the date (marriott.com), while more frugal travelers can try the Fireside Inn, a Victorian mainstay on French Street (firesideinn.com), or the Bivvi, a popular high-end hostel on the outskirts of town (thebivvi.com). For an unpretentious dinner with kids, head to Northside Pizza (northsidebreck.com); if it’s a nicer occasion, check out Relish (for culinary mastery) or the Salt Creek Steakhouse (for its signature 16-ounce, bone-in rib eye; saltcreekbreck.com).
Day 3: Breckenridge to Fairplay
Have your camera (or phone) ready, because the road from Breckenridge to Fairplay is the most scenic section of this route. You’ll drive 23 miles between the two towns, but the best spectacle per click of the odometer comes between Blue River and Alma, where sawtooth summits and cobalt lakes envelop the Continental Divide. Before you start, slide into a booth at the Columbine Café on Breck Main Street and order one of its heaping scrambles—our favorite is the “CBH,” which includes the café’s famous pecan and applewood-smoked corned beef hash (970-547-4474). Then take a ride up and down the free Breckenridge Gondola for one last view of the Victorian hamlet, before getting back in your vehicle for the final stretch of your trip.
Leg-stretching options abound just south of Breck, thanks to five Forest Service trailheads and access points that enter the alpine basins above the valley. Of course, there is also Hoosier Pass, which affords a menu of its own, and since you’re bound to stop there anyway, we recommend holding off on your activity until then. If you can’t wait, park across the highway from the newly remodeled Lodge by the Blue (and its Myla Rose Saloon) and hike up the nonmotorized dirt road into McCullough Gulch. Fit hikers can follow the road up to the official McCullough Gulch trailhead, then take a
well-traveled singletrack all the way up to the plateau beneath Quandary Peak’s imposing north face in half a day. There, wildflowers and shallow alpine lakes make you feel like you’ve entered a Swiss fairy tale. For a shorter jaunt, proceed only to the beaver ponds at the top of the initial dirt road, where the view is still stunning, but the ascent won’t drain your tank.
You’ll have fun navigating the hairpin turns once Highway 9 begins to climb toward Hoosier Pass and the Divide. Some of Breckenridge’s more affordable single-family homes are planted next to the route, though you must accept certain conditions—like, ahem, a seven-month winter—if you’re to relocate here. Along the way you will pass the trailhead to Quandary Peak’s East Ridge, which is often overflowing with vehicles due to its ease of access and friendly ascent (not to be confused with an easy ascent, however; when you must climb 3,500 vertical feet to reach a summit, there’s no such thing as easy). Another nice detour takes you out Blue Lakes Road to the Blue River headwaters, a marvelous site for a picnic.
Upon reaching Hoosier Pass, you have a few options. If you’re in a four-wheel-drive vehicle, you can drive west through the parking lot onto a potholed dirt road that continues around the south side of a prominent bushy knob. It reaches a saddle between the knob and a mellow hillside to your west, on the flank of 13,614-foot North Star Mountain. You’ll see old mining claims here, as well as close-up views of three fourteeners: Quandary, Lincoln, and Bross.
Don’t feel like driving a potholed dirt road or hiking anything strenuous? Set out east from Hoosier instead, and follow the flat and forested Bemrose Trail through a lush ecosystem until it peters out in a gully full of willows. The kid-friendly flume is a great place to let your mind wander.
Once you’ve taken your obligatory selfie in front of the Hoosier Pass sign, continue down Highway 9 to Alma and a table at the South Park Saloon (southparksaloon.com). Don’t underestimate Alma’s charm; it may be small and rustic, but it maintains a groovy, far-out vibe that other resort towns conceded to growth long ago. (Also, a tip: take the 30 mph speed limit seriously or you’ll end up with a ticket.) The Saloon is known for its chicken and beef pot pies, with good reason, and the Al-Mart general store is as cultural as they come in the Rockies.
The six miles to Fairplay are unspectacular, relatively speaking, but worthy nonetheless since they deposit you in the old South Park City—which, as you may have heard, inspired the name and setting for South Park the cartoon. Stroll down Front Street and peruse its unique shops and boutiques, and duck into Millonzi’s if someone needs a bite or a brew (open Wednesday through Sunday; millonzis.com). Like Alma, Fairplay’s funky character stands out in Colorado, where the line between mountain towns and resort towns is increasingly blurred, but after finishing this road trip, you probably will have discovered that for yourself.