Take in West Elk scenes

Completing loop to Crested Butte worth drive, several rolls of film

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Leaving Northwest Colorado during the peak of fall color season is a difficult thing to do, but the West Elk Scenic Loop is sufficient reason to pack up and point the SUV south toward Carbondale.

Along a 205-mile circuit, dramatic views open up across huge aspen forests with stunning volcanic mountains as a backdrop. The loop is punctuated by traditional Western towns, several of them relatively untouched by tourism. In places, the loop requires driving on gravel roads, but Gunnison County Road 12 and Gunnison County Road 730 are easily negotiated by passenger cars.

The loop can be completed in six to eight hours, once motorists have reached Carbondale, but it would be a shame to give it such short shrift when it's easily deserving of two full days. Photographers prone to stopping to set up a tripod every 2.5 miles will want to allow a third day. It's possible to leave Steamboat Springs by 9 a.m., stop for some photography and a picnic lunch along the way, and arrive comfortably in Crested Butte for dinner. Travelers who enjoy touring without an itinerary or fixed destination will find it possible to set out without hotel reservations.

Carbondale is 163 miles south of Steamboat Springs via Interstate 70 through Glenwood Springs. Where Colorado Highway 82 continues up the Roaring Fork Valley to Aspen, travelers destined for the West Elk Loop will exit through the town of Carbondale to follow the Crystal River along Colorado Highway 133. Mount Sopris, just a shade under 14,000 feet, dominates the view as the highway begins to climb.

Redstone offers a quaint commercial district in a little town that looks like the 21st century has passed it by. But people who really want to step out of time should take the 10-mile detour up a dead-end road to the town of Marble. The streets are dirt, and residents offer chunks of white marble for sale in their yards. The quarry up the hill is the source of the marble used in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery.

Back on Colo. 133, make time to stop at the historic marker denoting the former site of the town of Placita, where mule trains once hauled coal out of the mountains.

Just beyond Marble, the highway switches back to the right on the climb up McClure Pass. It's worth stopping at a turnout to look back at the dramatic views of Chair Mountain. Once over the top, the highway begins a long descent into the valley of the North Fork of the Gunnison River.

Overlapping ridges covered with orange gambel oak stretch to the horizon. Between 60 million and 70 million years ago, dinosaurs lived in the dense tropical forests that dominated this region. The forest deposited large amounts of peat and sediment that were buried by lava 30 million years ago. The volcanic heat cooked off the gas in the decaying organic material, improving the quality of the coal that was forming underground.

Just beyond Paonia Reservoir, travelers on the West Elk Loop need to keep a sharp eye out for a left turn on C.R. 12. This 31-mile stretch of road climbs over Kebler pass all the way into Crested Butte. The road is closed in winter, but the surface is smooth and free of washboards in September.

After climbing through evergreens followed by oak, the road bends to the east, where the West Elk Range, rimmed in new snow, comes into view. The West Elks were formed by volcanoes and in places, erosion has carved a formation of volcanic rock and ash known as breccia into strangely shaped fins.

Many of the aspen forests beneath these rugged peaks were still green Sept. 25, with large pockets of yellow. The photographic opportunities are self-evident here.

Twenty miles from the turnoff on C.R.12, the unworldly cliffs of the Ruby Range and a formation known as "The Dike" tempts photographers with large stands of orange aspen, but trees in the foreground make it nearly impossible to get the shot. The solution lies at the turnoff to Cliff Creek Trail, which climbs to a parking lot offering unfettered views. They're worth at least two rolls of film.

The unabashedly funky town of Crested Butte is just a dozen miles away and offers many dining and lodging choices.

There is no need to rise at dawn for the next day's photo tour; the sun is hanging low enough in the sky this time of year to afford good shooting until at least 10 a.m. Gunnison is just about 35 miles south on Colo. 135, but the best views are accessed by retreating six miles back up C.R. 12 toward Kebler Pass. Turn left on C.R. 730 over Ohio Pass. The road is not suitable for motor homes or campers -- there are some narrow sections flanked by steep drop-offs in the first three miles, but the view to the West Elks and a formation of spires, known as "The Castles," is otherworldly.

The county road leads all the way into the town of Gunnison, a little college town that has a traditional Main Street.

From Gunnsion, the loop heads west on U.S. Highway 50, where numerous public access points offer trout fishing on the main stem of the Gunnison River.

The route enters the Curecanti (pronounced Koor-eh-cantee) National Recreation Area surrounding Blue Mesa Reservoir. Travelers have a choice between staying on U.S. 50 all the way to Montrose or crossing the dam to climb never-ending switchbacks up out of the canyon. Either route affords access to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. The views down into the canyon make some people feel weak in the knees. From either Montrose or Crawford, it's a short drive into the fruit orchard country surrounding Hotchkiss and Delta. Delta is the best bet for overnight lodging. However, the most charming town in the region is Paonia, which completes the loop and guides travelers back over McClure Pass on their way home to Steamboat.

Winter will close in soon enough, but the West Elk Loop Scenic Drive is one of the best road trips within easy distance of Northwest Colorado.

-- To reach Tom Ross call 871-4205

or e-mail tross@steamboatpilot.com

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