Colorado Vacations 
Family Travel Colorado 
Your Guide to Visiting Colorado with the Kids
Recommended Trip:  Independence Pass, Colorado

Editors' Pick: 
Independence Pass - 
A Great Colorado 
Family Vacation

One of our Recommended Trips, Independence Pass is a great experience for both kids and their parents on vacation in Colorado. 

A high, winding, narrow road, coupled with Sound of Music scenery, cozy campgrounds, hidden waterfalls, historic ghost towns, and world class hiking make this a trip not to be missed.   

d You Know?

Colorado has 41 passes over 10,000 feet above sea level.

Many can be traveled by passenger car, though some can only be accessed by 4-wheel drive vehicles.

Vail Pass offers great views of the Gore Range in Colorado
Families on vacation in
Colorado can travel right over
10,662-foot Vail Pass on I-70.  

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Colorado columbine, state flower
Photo: Colorado's state flower, the white and lavender columbine (Aquilegia caerule).

We were 12,095 feet above sea level, and the sunlight sparkled with ferocity.  Bursts of wind nipped our faces, and wildflowers exploded all around.  Nearby, salvos of jagged rocks shot into the sky.  The air was so clear that standing on this overlook in the Colorado Rockies I thought I could lean past the railing and plant a flag on a summit six miles away.

This was the high point of Independence Pass, Colorado, a thin ribbon of highway that winds its way past glittering lakes and amber meadows.  It climbs along dancing streams, and at its peak, crosses the Continental Divide.  It’s a fitting place to spend the 4th of July – on one of America’s most majestic viewpoints.

A Drive on the Wild Side

Mid summer is perfect for visiting Colorado’s high country and it’s the best time to drive Colorado State Route 82, Independence Pass.  The road is open from Memorial Day weekend until snowfall closes it, usually in October. By July, the snow is melted and wildflowers abound.

The pass connects tiny Twin Lakes, Colorado with bustling Aspen. Both villages hunker in valleys, and the 32-mile drive between them is serious. Though paved, the road is narrow, twisting, and bordered by edges sheer enough to make the faint-hearted swoon. Guardrails and shoulders are often non-existent.

Nonetheless, thousands drive it every year, frequently pulling trailers.  Keep in mind length limits (your rig should not be over 35 feet long), and plan to use the abundant pullouts to savor the views and let speedier drivers pass.

Base Camps

The road lies almost entirely within the San Isabel and White River National Forests. Six Forest Service campgrounds offer a place to bed down in some of the most rugged, pristine land in Colorado. Additionally, there are two lakeside camping areas and an overflow site east of Twin Lakes.

Campgrounds sport only the basics (water, picnic tables, fire grates, privies, and trash pick-up), and offer a good sense of the wilderness close at hand.  They are often heavily wooded and rich with wildlife.

In fact, a bear visited us in the wee hours one morning.  “We hear of bears in the campgrounds almost every night,” says Keri Hamouz, Aspen Ranger District Visitor Information Specialist.  “Some bears are relocated and when that happens more than once, they have to be destroyed.  Please don’t leave food out which will attract wildlife.”  On Independence Pass, keep a clean camp and store all your food and toiletries in the car.

Some campgrounds are small, with as few as 6 sites. Reservations are accepted only at Difficult, near Aspen, and Lake View and White Star, east of Twin Lakes. All campgrounds have water nearby, usually a creek, and one is near a waterfall.

Take a Hike
At least 16 hiking trails can be accessed from the Independence Pass road, many originating near campgrounds.  Paths range from an easy stroll on the Colorado Trail along the shores of Twin Lakes Reservoir to the challenging southern approach to Mount Elbert, Colorado’s highest peak.  Often trails dive into one of three wilderness areas flanking Independence Pass, providing a rare opportunity to explore unspoiled back country.

High altitude treks offer the best views, but are frequently more difficult. We hiked near the pass’s crown to the headwaters of the Roaring Fork River, Independence Lake.  Tucked under the Continental Divide’s granite crest, the trailhead starts from a pullout at a big hairpin curve in the road, 2 miles west of the top of the pass.

Starting at timberline, the trail climbs steadily uphill through alpine tundra.      Dwarf evergreens and willows give way to cushion plants with flowers like rainbow sprinkles on cupcakes.  Alpine streams burble through rocks, sometimes muddying the trail. Steep in places, the path wanders beneath a ridge’s jagged teeth that rise to a 13,700-foot summit.  And there is the lake – a shallow green gem, glinting in the sunlight.

The easy Grottos Trail, 8 miles east of Aspen, is between the Weller Campground and the Lincoln Creek Road. It offers a picnic area next to the Roaring Fork River and a gentle path up the former Leadville to Aspen stagecoach route. Confusing maps at the trailhead allude to ice caves.  We weren’t sure if we found them.  Instead, we saw a steeply cut, 30-foot-deep slot canyon in granite formations – perfect for exploring.

Ghost Town

On the Fourth of July 1879, prospectors struck gold 13 miles up the road from Aspen, and like a skyrocket, the town of Independence burst into existence.  In three years the population shot up to nearly 1,500 people, and the town was complete with grocery stores, boarding houses, a newspaper, post offices, and saloons.  Gold worth over $190,000 was produced that year.

But the brilliance of Independence was short lived. The next year, gold production dropped to $2,000.  The sparkle of silver drew most residents down valley to Aspen.

The skeleton-buildings remaining today make a great picnic site, and the Aspen Historical Society has an interpretive display and an information center in a restored general store.  Brochures for a ghost town walking tour, picnic tables, and an outdoor privy are also provided.

Festivities on the Fourth

Fireworks aren’t the only things exploding on Independence Pass on the 4th of July.  Aspen’s population, normally 6,300, bursts to 20,000 people, crowded into a town encompassing just two square miles.  The huge celebration includes a kid’s bicycle rodeo, an old fashioned parade commencing at high noon, and musical performances. 

The Forest Service may ban skyrockets, if fire danger is high.  If not, the best viewing of city-sponsored displays is in Wagner Park, on the corner of Durant Avenue and Monarch Street.

Or to avoid holiday crowds, head for the historic dirt streets of Twin Lakes, on the east side of the pass.  Boasting a year round population of 40, this National Historic District has buildings dating from silver boom days, an interesting historical park with interpretive signs, and no fireworks displays.

When You Go

Summer temperatures vary with the altitude on the pass.  Nighttime temperatures can drop below freezing, and occasionally it snows in July.  However, days are often warm, and it’s easy to work up a sweat while hiking.  Dress in layers to adjust to changing conditions.

The high altitude can create a variety of symptoms, including headaches and shortness of breath.  Take it easy, and plan a day or two to acclimate before trying strenuous hikes.  Drink plenty of water (as much as two liters a day) to help minimize discomfort and prevent dehydration.  And apply sunscreen frequently to protect against intense, high altitude sun exposure.

Forest Service Camping fees are $11 per night, except at Difficult Campground, which is $14 per night.  For campgrounds and trails east of the summit of Independence Pass, contact the San Isabel National Forest, Leadville Ranger District Office at (719) 486-0749.  For areas west of the summit, contact the White River National Forest, Aspen Ranger District at (970) 925-3445.   

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