While Denver is full of fun activities, sometimes it’s nice to sneak away from the city and spend the day in the mountains. If you’re crunched for time and don’t have a full weekend or more to explore, our Denver Day Trips are your ticket to a day of freedom.
Day Trip Overview
Distance: Est. 115 miles
Trip Time: Est. 4.5 hours
Denver > Central City > Rollins Pass > Golden
At the top of Rollins Pass, on the east side, are two high elevation lakes. This route from Denver takes you up to those lakes where you can hike around, enjoy the views, and even cast a line to see what you can catch. While our attempt to get to the top of the pass was thwarted by lingering snow, we were still rewarded with beautiful views and a fun day of back roads driving. The day was capped off with an impromptu stop at the Last Stand Tavern with a cold beer and some live music.
For this trip, we planned our route using FunTreks’ Guide to Northern Colorado Backroads and 4 Wheel Drive Trails. This is a comprehensive book that covers all of the notable off-road drives north of I-70. There is a companion book that covers everything south if you’re looking to head to those locales.
What You’ll Need
A vehicle with a decent amount of clearance. This drive didn’t feature any large obstacles, but is fairly bumpy and has a few short steep sections. Something like a Subaru Crosstrek or Toyota Rav4 will be fine, unless there is still snow. When the roads are dry, a 2WD truck would also be acceptable. We took the Land Rover.
Food and Snacks. The outbound section of the drive takes about 2-3 hours, depending on stops, so by the time we parked near the top we were fairly hungry. The lake and surrounding mountains are also the perfect backdrop for a picnic.
Additional layers for weather. Even if it is warm in Denver, at higher elevations it can still be quite cool. By the time we were walking around the lakes, I had on a sweater. Also bring a rain jacket. We experienced some light showers and even if the forecast is clear the weather can be unpredictable.
A camera and other essentials. Don’t forget to pack some sunscreen! Charge your phones, bring extra water, and if you’re feeling inspired and want to turn this day trip into two, bring a tent. There are plenty of camping spots along the route.
Denver to Central City
This section of the trip is pretty straightforward and takes the common route of I-70 west. Our departure time was late morning so there wasn’t any traffic. If you’re trying to take this trip during peak leaf peeping season, you might find yourself staring at a few more brake lights.
From Denver you’ll head out until you reach exit 243. This is just before Idaho Springs, so if you get there you’ve gone too far. Once exiting the interstate you’ll head up a hill and will now be on the Central City Parkway. Follow this all the way into Central City.
Our first stop was for coffee and we drove through Black Hawk and turned left on CO-119. Here, we grabbed our iced mochas at a coffee shop called Buffawhale. Their logo is exactly what you think it is and our iced drinks were served in hot cups. They must really love mixing things up around there.
To get to the first major section of trail you’ll need to start in Central City. Before we departed, we walked down one of the main streets to get a feel for this little gambling oasis.
Central City to Apex Road
To start the off-roading part of this trip head, out of town on Apex Road. This road connects to many other 4-wheel drive trails, but for the sake of this route you’ll end up taking it all the way to Rollins Pass.
Leaving town the dirt road is fairly smooth and mostly gravely. The road undulates and gains elevation as you head out on Upper Apex Road and towards the ghost town of Apex. Now, while calling it a ghost town makes it sound interesting, it’s probably not worth the stop. There are a few lingering buildings, but at one we saw a woman head into an outhouse and another could have passed as a junkyard with all the crap they had piled outside. So, when it’s time to turn left onto Elk Park Road, go ahead and do that and keep the wheels rolling.
Once you get further along the views start to show. There will be a stretch of road where the trees clear and you can see all around you. You may also come across some mud puddles like we did. However, unlike us, check the depth first. It was deeper than expected!
Once you start to head back down towards Rollins Pass you’ll experience some rocky sections, but nothing overly technical. To your left, you’ll be able to see mountains all around and some sneak peeks of the valley below.
The end of the trail intersects with CR16. Taking a right would take you to Rollinsville, but you’re not down yet. Go left and head up to Rollins Pass.
Apex Road to Rollins Pass
Once off of Apex Road you’ll be back on a two-lane dirt road that heads towards the East Portal Moffat Tunnel. Just before the tunnel comes into view you’ll happen upon Moffat Road, which will be well marked and off to your right.
The entrance is about a single lanes width so check for other vehicles coming from the other direction. From here, you’ll ascend up towards the pass.
If you look to your right, not while driving, you’ll have great views of the valley below. If you’re lucky you might even see some trains traveling through. Eventually the trail switchbacks in towards the mountain and you’ll have dense trees on both sides. Throughout the route the trail widens and narrows so keep an eye out when driving around blind corners.
One thing to know about this pass is that it is fairly rocky and bumpy. Because it is accessible and not entirely difficult to drive, it receives a lot of traffic and the trail gets eroded. There were some sections of snow piled up which kept a few drivers from getting all the way up, but we saw a Rav4, a Volvo station wagon, and a Dodge Caliber all plucking their way through the rocks. When there is no snow this route is suitable for stock SUVs.
At times when driving this route it felt like the rocks were never ending, but ultimately it was worth it. We ended up parking just below Yankee Doodle Lake and hiking up a little higher. There was a large section of snow blocking us and a truck had gotten himself stuck in there. We didn’t want to test it ourselves.
After spending some time walking around, we set up some chairs and had a picnic. Sitting in a car and driving all day makes you hungry.
Rollins Pass is an out and back so the return trip follows the same route. Mostly.
After exiting the pass, turning off of Moffat Road and onto CR16, you’ll end up in Rollinsville. At this point if you want to go home, turn right and head towards Golden. If you’re looking to spend a little more time in the mountains, turn left and head towards CO72, or Coal Creek Canyon Road.
This is a beautiful drive (and back on pavement!) that will end up placing you in between Golden and Boulder. Along the way there’s a great place to stop called Last Stand Tavern.
For us, stopping there was not in the plan. As we drove past we saw a band on the patio and decided to swing in for a beer and some live music. On this particular day the band Half Pint & The Growlers were playing. Their swingy, soulful music was the perfect way to end the day.
When you’re finally ready, hop back onto Coal Creek Canyon Road and when it intersects with US-93 take a right.
You know the rest from there.