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Guanella Pass: A great weekend getaway from Denver

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In the summer all of my plans become focused a single number: 48. That’s how many hours of freedom I have on the weekend (actually it’s 64 hours if I count every moment from clock out to clock in is counted but I’ll round down for normal considerations like commuting and sleep). And that number 48 is also one thing that makes living in Denver awesome because there are so many places you can get to in 48 hours to escape from the civilized in favor of the wild. One of my favorite destinations for a weekend getaway from Denver is Guanella Pass because of its beauty, diversity, and convenient proximity to the Denver metro area.

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Connecting Georgetown to Grant over the 11,669 foot Guanella Pass, the Guanella Pass Scenic Byway makes a great getaway for a day trip or overnight outing with picnicking, hiking, biking, and camping options.

We took the pass from the south starting our trip a little before Guanella Pass at Coney Island because every great trip starts at a giant wiener (and since 1965 the hot dog-shaped restaurant called Coney Island Boardwalk Diner has been the biggest wiener in Colorado). Located just east of Grant on Highway 285, this uniquely shaped eatery sits right off the South Platte River so there are some nice outdoor seating options with wonderful views of rushing waters, sloping hillsides and a giant frankfurter. The food is exactly what you’d expect from a restaurant shaped like a giant hot dog and so like Casa Bonita it’s not the food but the atmosphere you go for. Though admittedly there was a part of me that loved the absolute unhealthiness of the neon orange cheese seeping from the corners of my grilled cheese sandwich.

Once we were as stuffed as the 35 foot hot dog bun at Coney Island we made our way to Grant and turned north on Country Road 62. The beginning of the road is patchily paved with portions of washout and bumper-knocking dips but we made it in a low riding Subaru without any major incidents. Altitude is slowly gained at the beginning as the road hugs the South Platte River beneath pines and patches of aspens. There are picnic and camping sites all along Guanella Pass both in marked areas and open spaces along the side of the road.

On the south side of Guanella Pass my favorite camping is around Duck Lake just past the Duck Creek Picnic Area. There’s a turn off for Duck Lake marked by an easy to miss wooden sign on the west side of the Guanella Pass Scenic Byway, but as a rule of thumb if you start really gaining altitude you’ve probably missed it.

Duck Creek and Duck Lake camping is spread along a beautiful mountain valley with open spaces close to the water and sheltered spots nestled against the hillside; there are large campsites trailers could fit in and small, hidden spots you can hike back to off the road. There are also beavers and stars and peace and quiet, and it’s all less than two hours from Denver. We took up a creek side space near the northern end of the valley to spend the majority of our 48 hours before completing the entire Guanella Pass Scenic Byway on our way home.

After the turn off for Duck Creek the Guanella Pass Scenic Byway gains elevation quickly and the upper portions of this drive breach tree line for extended views of the Pike National Forest and several Rocky Mountain peaks including Mount Bierstadt, one of Colorado’s 53 fourteeners. On the northern side of Guanella Pass there are hiking and picnicking options along the road and several bighorn sheep signs so keep your eyes open. There are also the same kind of camping options as the southern side of the pass with road side spots and official areas like the Guanella Pass Campground. However, several were closed for construction or maintenance when we visited so double check with the park service if you’ve really got your heart set on one specific spot (though the beauty of the area is if one place is unavailable there’s sure to be another just down the road)

The Guanella Pass Scenic Byway ends (or begins based on perspective) in Georgetown right on the I-70 corridor. Georgetown is a favorite mountain town with many Coloradoans because of its unique mix of Victorian style architecture and outdoor sport enthusiasm. From Georgetown Denver is only an hour east on I-70; not a bad after camping commute. However, just a few exits down from Georgetown is Idaho Springs, one of my favorite I-70 pull-offs for food. So that’s actually where we ended our 48 hours on Guanella Pass with dinner and drinks at Tommyknockers Brewery over a few shared stories of days in the woods.

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