Scenic Drive: Colorado – West Elk Loop Scenic and Historic Byway

Crested Butte

Shaped like a lasso that’s been dropped on Colorado’s pristine West Elk Mountains, the West Elk Loop Scenic and Historic Byway unites three very different mining communities, gets within arm’s reach of four diverse wilderness areas and meanders through the Gunnison Country mountain towns of Marble, Gunnison and Crested Butte.

The twin summits of Mount Sopris and the incomparable Black Canyon of the Gunnison anchor the ends of the West Elk Loop. This magnificent landscape has been home to uncounted generations of Native Americans, most recently the Utes. White settlers originally came in search of minerals and stayed to farm and ranch.

The coke ovens at Redstone bear witness to the toil that built the communities of today. Carbondale, Hotchkiss, Crawford, Gunnison, Crested Butte and other towns offer a slice of Colorado’s rich history, varied lifestyles and natural beauty. The route gives access to the White River and Gunnison National Forests, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Curecanti National Recreational Area, and Crawford and Paonia State Parks.

  • Marble is a sleepy hamlet where some of the finest marble in the world has been mined. In fact, marbled used in the Lincoln Memorial and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier came from local quarries.
  • Veering to the south and just west of Gunnison, the loop passes the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. No other gorge in North America combines the narrowness, depth and sheer drop-offs of the Black Canyon.
  • Head next to Gunnison, one of Colorado’s top summer recreation destinations. Gunnison is a town that is equal parts ranching community and University town, where wide streets tell of the town’s original hopes to be Colorado’s future state capitol. Gunnison is a great place from which to explore the back country and enjoy outdoor recreation year-round. Be sure to stop by the Gunnison Pioneer Museum to see a railroad depot and re-created schoolhouse.
  • Travel north on Hwy 135 to Crested Butte, a town surrounded in summer by so many blooming meadows that the Colorado legislature dubbed it the Wildflower Capital of Colorado. A Shangri-La to skiers, a paradise to mountain bikers and just plain heaven to everyone else, Crested Butte offers year-round recreation, entertainment, festivals and events. Much of the town lies within a designated Historic district where Victorian buildings decked in vibrant colors preserve the aura of the past. A stop at the Crested Butte Mountain Heritage Museum affords the chance to learn about the history of the community and its role in the invention of mountain biking as a sport.
  • Just two-miles to the north, Mt. Crested Butte is home to Crested Butte Mountain Resort and a host of year-round events and activities.
  •  Kebler Pass lays claim to some of Colorado’s most colorful scenery. Travel over a vast and untrammeled mountain range that is perfect for backcountry hiking and boasts quaking aspen that turn brilliant shade of red, orange and gold in fall.

SEASONAL TRAVEL:   Kebler Pass is closed in winter (Nov.–May)
Personal Experience: We traveled in dry conditions in mid July 2018 in a mini-van with no issues
DISTANCE:   205 miles
TOTAL ELEVATION GAIN:  5,351 – 9,980 feet
TRAVEL TIME:  Allow 8 to 10 hours