In Colorado, Leave No Trace principles—guidelines that minimize your impact on the environment—are practically gospel. Whether camping in the backcountry, summiting one of the state’s ubiquitous snowy peaks, or paddling the alpine lakes, it’s all about respecting the region’s natural beauty. But what happens when the best way to reach those quintessential Colorado vistas is via gas-guzzling, exhausting-effusing cars?
Even with COVID-19 restrictions loosening, many travelers are still opting for a classic American road trip—9 out of 10 Americans vacationing for Memorial Day Weekend will drive, according to AAA. And Colorado, with its 26 Scenic & Historic Byways (the most of any state in the nation) connecting historic sites, epic Rocky Mountain skylines, and small towns, is a natural destination.
At the same time, interest in responsible and sustainable travel is surging; sales of electrified vehicles jumped 81 percent in the first quarter of 2021 compared to the same time last year, according to a recent analysis of the U.S. auto market by Cox Automotive and Kelley Blue Book.
Colorado is meeting that demand by aiming to electrify all of its Scenic & Historic Byways, seven of which (Lariat Loop, Grand Mesa, Silver Thread, Collegiate Peaks, Flat Tops Trail, Trail Ridge Road, and Top of the Rockies) are ready to go this spring.
With electrified byways, drivers will have access to Level 3 charging at intervals no greater than 100 miles between a byway’s start and end (think Buena Vista to Salida, a 24-mile segment on the Collegiate Peaks byway in south central Colorado). These speedy chargers use direct current at 480 volts to juice a newer electric vehicle, like the Volkswagon id.4 or Nissan Leaf, up to 80 percent battery (the max recommendation for keeping the battery in prime condition) in about 30 minutes—enough time for lunch, shopping on Main Street, or even a short hike. Each of the electric byways will also be near one of the 34 fast charging corridor stations being installed along major thoroughfares of Colorado’s highest trafficked roads. As of May 2021, 9 of the 34 locations are operational; all 34 stations will be operational by the end of 2022.
While the charging at these stations will be quick, it will also allow drivers time to get out and explore. “The reality is most people don’t sit in their cars while charging,” says PT Wood, the owner of Wood’s Distillery in Salida and the town’s mayor, who’s been involved in the project. “They walk around and spend money at restaurants and shops”—which can be a boon to local economies.
That’s especially true for locations with Level 2 chargers, which Colorado is also prioritizing installing along the electric byways. These charge at 240 volts, which take significantly longer than their counterparts to offer a full charge—think 4 hours for the Mini SE Hardtop to up to 12 hours for the Tesla Model S. These are often better used as an overnight option at properties that offer them, like the Sonnenalp in Vail or the Surf Hotel in Buena Vista.
Before driving the 40-mile Lariat Loop, for example, which starts near Golden and winds its way through the foothills of the Rockies, you can power up at two Level 3 charging stations just off I-70 or a wealth of Level 2 stations in Golden and Morrison. That’ll give you plenty of freedom to stop and hike the hundreds of sandstone steps at Red Rocks Park or the hilly, pine-strewn paths overlooking Morrison in Lair o’ the Bear Park Open Space; tour the MillerCoors Brewery just outside of Golden; or swim, paddle, and boat around Evergreen Lake Park. And if you’re continuing west instead of returning to the Denver Metro Area, you can charge in Frisco; the town recently installed a free charging station right off Main Street (head to the Walmart off Route 9 for a fast charge if you’re short on time).
Traveling sans gas gets a little dicier when you’re navigating the serpentine curves of the roads that make up the section of the Top of the Rockies Byway from just outside of Vail up to Leadville. As leafy forests give way to rocky outcrops and snow-covered summits up on Tennessee Pass, it can feel like driving Rainbow Road in Mario Kart; all that climbing (not to mention the drop in temperature the higher your elevation) can drain an EV’s battery faster. Leadville only has a single Level 2 charger, but if you’re forced to plug in, there are plenty of ways to kill time in the highest incorporated city in the United States: Grab a Reuben made with house-cured brisket at the historic Silver Dollar Saloon, visit the National Mining Hall of Fame and Museum, or bike or walk the paved Mineral Belt Trail, which passes Silver Boom–era mining structures.
Cruising down the 57-mile Collegiate Peaks byway—which starts at the tiny Gold Rush town of Granite and meanders through Buena Vista over to Salida—is easier on EVs and can feel like watching a NatGeo movie through your windshield. Along this stretch, you can kayak and raft the Arkansas River rapids at Browns Canyon National Monument, hike and mountain bike the San Isabel National Forest, and summit any of the 14,000-plus-foot peaks—including Mount Princeton, Mount Yale, and Mount Harvard—lining the horizon. Even if you’re just driving through, make time to soak in the geothermal waters at the Mount Princeton Hot Springs Resort.
The beauty of these byways is that they encourage slow travel—a movement that encourages people to stop and enjoy where they are at any given moment. And Colorado’s byways are proof slow travel can be sustainable and responsible with the right resources and infrastructure. The only challenge? Choosing your route.
Dollar and Thrifty will be renting electric vehicles by the end of 2021, and Teslas are currently available to rent in downtown Denver and at the Denver International Airport via EV Rides. To find available charging stations as you drive, download the apps PlugShare and ChargePoint. For more information, visit Drive Electric Colorado. Ashley’s car for the trip was a VW ID.4 loaned from Tynan’s Volkswagen.
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