If someone were to design the perfect landscape for an epic overlanding trip, that landscape would be the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.
There are so many options for overlanding in Colorado, that it’s impossible to cover them all in one post. Here I’ll touch on some of the well-known overland routes in the state, as well as point out areas where there are plenty of options to map out your own adventure as well as resources for planning.
Colorado Overlanding – The Big Picture
Overlanding in the Colorado Rockies is a treat for adventurers who are looking for epic landscapes and a variety of terrain, from mellow truck trails to serious off-road routes. The varied landscape provides a broad range of experiences that are hard to match anywhere else.
So what makes Colorado an overlander’s dream? Here are a few reasons:
The Rocky Mountains are renowned for their rugged and scenic beauty. High mountain passes, such as Imogene Pass, Engineer Pass, and Mosquito Pass, provide opportunities for technical driving with the reward of breathtaking panoramas. The significant elevation changes and often unpredictable weather can add an extra layer of challenge.
The Colorado Rockies are home to expansive forested areas, like the San Juan National Forest, Pike National Forest, and Arapaho National Forest. These places offer a network of unpaved roads and trails for overlanding, with routes ranging from easy to difficult, allowing for a wide spectrum of overlanding experiences. See below for more information on National Forests and National Parks.
Rivers and Lakes
Colorado’s mountains are a significant watershed, and many rivers start their journey to the sea here. There are numerous high alpine lakes and rivers that provide beautiful places to camp, fish, or just cool off. Some lakes have car camping nearby, others you’ll need to hike in.
The Colorado Rockies host a variety of wildlife, including elk, mule deer, bighorn sheep, black bears, and even moose. Overlanders will have plenty of opportunities to observe these animals in their natural habitat.
Colorado’s history of mining and westward expansion has left a trail of ghost towns, abandoned mines, and historical sites scattered across its mountains. Overlanding routes often pass by these sites, providing opportunities for exploration and learning.
There are numerous established campgrounds throughout the Rockies, as well as opportunities for dispersed camping in National Forests and on BLM lands. Overlanding enthusiasts can enjoy the freedom of setting up camp in remote, scenic locations under the starry Colorado night sky.
Depending on the time of year, overlanding in the Colorado Rockies can be a very different experience. Spring and summer bring wildflowers and rushing rivers, while fall is famous for the spectacular display of changing aspen trees. Winter overlanding can be a serious challenge due to snow and cold weather, and many trails are closed during this time.
Keep in mind that while the Colorado Rockies provide exceptional overlanding opportunities, they also require careful preparation and respect for nature. It’s crucial to follow Leave No Trace principles, ensure your vehicle is in good condition, and stay updated on weather and trail conditions.
Colorado Overlanding Routes
Colorado is home to a number of established overlanding routes, where people have mapped out and documented the trip. These can be helpful if you are looking for a route where there is lots of information, making planning easier. The downside is that these routes may see more traffic due to their popularity. If you are looking to create a bespoke route, see the information below this section.
|Time of Year
|Upper passes are typically opened in May or early June and close again in late October. Areas at lower altitudes open earlier in the season. Check with the National Forest Service office to find out what’s open.
|You can access about two-thirds of the route in a two-wheel drive, but to complete the entire loop through the high-mountain passes you’ll need a high-clearance four-wheel drive.
|Colorado Tourism Office Guide and San Juan National Forest website and brochure (PDF).
The route, which is only open in the summer, can be driven in a day. But spending more time along the way will allow you to explore the many opportunities for world-class hiking, mountain biking, off-roading, fishing, camping, and wildlife viewing. There are many side roads and trails that can be explored.
Colorado Backcountry Discovery Route
The Colorado Backcountry Discovery Route (COBDR) is a mostly off-road motorcycle route across Colorado. The route is designed to be traveled from south to north, starting near Four Corners and ending near Wyoming. The total distance is roughly 675 miles, and it is typically traversed over the course of 3-6 days.
While the route was designed for and by motorcyclists, it can also serve as the basis for overlanders using other types of vehicles — but you’ll want to make sure your rig can navigate the various sections.
The Backcountry Discovery Routes organization (BDR), which manages the COBDR and other similar routes in different states, was created with the intent of establishing and preserving off-highway routes for dual-sport and adventure motorcycle travel. The routes are typically made up of a combination of dirt, gravel, and paved roads, and pass through some of the most beautiful and remote parts of the state.
The organization provides detailed route information, including GPS tracks, maps, and planning resources, to help riders plan and navigate their trips. Riders are expected to be self-sufficient and prepared for a range of potential challenges, including weather, mechanical problems, and remote locations far from help.
While not fully in Colorado, the Rimrocker Trail is a rugged off-road route that can be run as an overlanding trip. The trail extends over 160 miles. It offers a unique off-road experience as it travels from Montrose, Colorado to Moab, Utah, connecting these two popular outdoor recreation destinations.
Rimrocker trail traverses a variety of landscapes, including alpine scenery, desert vistas, red rock canyons, and slickrock sandstone typical of the Moab area. Along the way, you may spot wildlife, historical sites, and interesting geological features.
Before embarking on the Rimrocker Trail, it’s highly recommended to check the trail’s official website or local ranger stations for current conditions and potential closures. Detailed trail maps are available online or at local visitor centers. Also, check out the BLM website for the trail.
Plan Your Own Colorado Overland Route
While I’ve listed a few known routes above, there are many, MANY, options to plot out your own adventure route in Colorado. National fore
Colorado National Forests
National Forests are often some of the best places for overlanding and off-roading, as they have forest services roads that bring you to backcountry camping areas. The Forest Service provides vehicle use maps for some of the forests in the area that can be helpful in planning a trip.
- Arapaho National Forest
- Grand Mesa National Forest
- Gunnison National Forest
- Pike National Forest
- Rio Grande National Forest
- Roosevelt National Forest
- Routt National Forest
- San Isabel National Forest
- San Juan National Forest
- Uncompahgre National Forest
- White River National Forest
Colorado BLM Lands
The United States Bureau of Land Management oversees millions of acres of public lands in the state of Colorado, and around a quarter of them are managed for recreation purposes. They provide a variety of recreational opportunities for off-roading, overlanding and other outdoor enthusiasts, including hiking, camping, hunting, and fishing.
BLM lands great opportunities if you are looking for a more remote and rugged experience than what is offered by national and state parks. I bet you are. Dispersed camping is allowed on many BLM lands, with fewer limitations than other areas, making them a great option for those looking to explore the backcountry.
Check out BLM’s website on Utah for more information and ideas.
Colorado National Parks
- Rocky Mountain National Park: Known for its stunning mountain views, numerous trails, diverse wildlife, and the scenic Trail Ridge Road, a paves scenic highway.
- Mesa Verde National Park: Famous for its well-preserved Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings, particularly the large Cliff Palace.
- Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve: Home to the tallest sand dunes in North America, offering activities like sandboarding and sand sledding.
- Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park: Known for its deep and dramatic gorges carved by the Gunnison River, and its dark night skies perfect for stargazing.
Colorado Scenic Byways
Colorado has a number of roads that are designated “scenic and historic byways,” which are an option if you are looking to take in views and historical sites without getting off the pavement.
These can also be nice connectors between backcountry routes and used to piece together overland routes across large parts of the state. The state publishes a site on the official byways that is helpful.