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Independence Pass Colorado

Independence Pass: Maps, Directions, Things to Do, and Where to Stay

Independence Pass is a haven for outdoor enthusiasts interested in hiking and climbing. Whether you’re a seasoned climber looking for your next challenge or a casual hiker wanting to explore scenic trails, the pass has something for everyone.

Routes range from easy walks along forested paths to more challenging climbs requiring technical skills. The diverse range of options means that you can visit multiple times and always have a new adventure waiting for you.





Independence Pass is one of the best-known high mountain roads in Colorado, and for good reason. With hairpin turns, rustic ghost towns, and spectacular vistas, it is well worth visiting during your next Sawatch Range trip. While the pass is paved along its entire length, it still closes each winter due to the deep snow that falls along the Continental Divide. In this guide, we’ll share some of the reasons you should visit Independence Pass, what to do nearby, where to eat and stay, and how to prepare and enjoy your visit with insider tips. Let’s get started!

Table of Contents





Why Visit Independence Pass?

There are dozens of excellent reasons to add Independence Pass to your itinerary. Here are four of the reasons why I spend time here each summer.

Easy Access to the Alpine

One of the key attractions of Independence Pass is the straightforward access it offers to the alpine environment. Without the need for multi-day hikes or specialized climbing equipment, you can find yourself amidst jagged peaks and blooming wildflowers.

It’s an excellent way to get a taste of Colorado’s high country without the arduous trek, making it accessible even for those who may be new to mountain landscapes.

Hiking and Climbing

Independence Pass is a haven for outdoor enthusiasts interested in hiking and climbing. Whether you’re a seasoned climber looking for your next challenge or a casual hiker wanting to explore scenic trails, the pass has something for everyone.

Routes range from easy walks along forested paths to more challenging climbs requiring technical skills. The diverse range of options means that you can visit multiple times and always have a new adventure waiting for you.





Landscape Photography

For photography enthusiasts, Independence Pass offers a dynamic range of landscape elements to capture. From the golden hues of aspen trees in the fall to the dramatic play of light and shadow over mountain ranges, the pass provides endless opportunities to hone your skills or simply capture memories.

Whether you’re using a high-end DSLR or a smartphone camera, you’re sure to walk away with some stunning shots.

Historical Exploration

But Independence Pass isn’t just about the natural scenery; it also holds significant historical value. With abandoned mining towns, old railway routes, and historical markers, a visit to the pass is like stepping back in time.

It offers a unique opportunity to combine outdoor exploration with a lesson in Colorado’s rich history, making it a well-rounded experience that educates as much as it exhilarates.

Photos From Independence Pass





History of Independence Pass

Independence Pass holds a special place in Colorado’s storied history. Named for the Independence mining camp established in 1879, the first road built in 1881 was a vital transit route for miners during the Colorado Silver Boom. At its height, the town of Independence was home to about 1,500 people, multiple businesses, and even a post office. However, the depletion of ore and harsh living conditions led to a decline in population, with most residents leaving by the turn of the 20th century.

The pass was originally called Hunter Pass. It was initially a narrow, precarious wagon road that later evolved into a more navigable route, becoming a part of the scenic Top of the Rockies Byway. Despite its transition over time, you can still find remnants of its mining past scattered throughout the area, including ghost towns and old mining equipment. It was finally paved in 1967, making the national forest more accessible to recreational enthusiasts and travelers alike.

Today, Independence Pass serves as a cherished historical site as well as a natural wonder, attracting both outdoor enthusiasts and history buffs alike. The area surrounding the pass has been carefully preserved to maintain its natural beauty and historical significance. Interpretive signs and historical markers offer visitors a glimpse into the pass’s storied past, making it not just a route through the Rocky Mountains, but a journey through time.

How To Get There

From Aspen:

To get to Independence Pass from Aspen, start your journey by heading east on East Main Street, which turns into Highway 82. Continue along this scenic route as you wind your way through thickets of aspen and pine trees. In about 20 miles, you’ll find yourself at the summit of Independence Pass, with expansive views of the Rocky Mountains. This route is straightforward, but it does get steep and winding, so be prepared for some tight curves.

From Leadville:

Coming from Leadville, your journey will also start on Highway 82 but in the opposite direction, heading west. Depart from Leadville and take Harrison Ave to US-24 E. In about 5 miles, turn right onto CO-82 W. Follow this road for about 22 miles, passing through Twin Lakes, and you’ll ascend gradually to Independence Pass. The road from Leadville offers stunning views of Colorado’s two highest peaks—Mount Elbert and Mount Massive—before delivering you to the pass.

From Buena Vista:

If you’re setting out from Buena Vista, begin by heading north on US-24 W. After approximately 20 miles, make a left onto US-24 W/US-285 N and continue for around 6 miles. Turn right onto US-24 W and drive for about 15 miles until you reach Leadville. From there, follow the directions for the Leadville route above to reach Independence Pass. The trip from Buena Vista takes you through a varying landscape, offering glimpses of the Collegiate Peaks and the Arkansas River before converging with the route from Leadville.





Map of Independence Pass

Use this FatMap of Independence Pass to plan your hike or scenic drive along this spectacular mountain road. Always check conditions to ensure the road is open before you go or you may be subjected to a very long detour.

Best Times To Visit

The ideal time to visit Independence Pass is from late May to early October, with each season offering its unique allure. Summer, from June to August, is the most popular time for outdoor activities like hiking, climbing, and photography, especially with the wildflowers in full bloom. Fall brings the spectacle of changing leaves, with vibrant hues of red, orange, and yellow enriching the landscape, although early snowfall can sometimes arrive in September.

Spring is quieter but comes with unpredictable weather that can affect trail conditions and road accessibility. While the pass is usually open by Memorial Day, late snowfalls and mudslides are not uncommon in this transitional season. Regardless of when you visit, always check current conditions to ensure a safe and fulfilling experience.





What to Expect

Visiting Independence Pass is an adventure filled with both breathtaking beauty and challenges. Whether you’re a seasoned outdoor enthusiast or a casual traveler looking for scenic vistas, it’s essential to know what to expect when making this trip through one of Colorado’s most iconic passes.

Variable Weather Conditions

When navigating Independence Pass, prepare for quickly changing weather conditions that can turn on a dime. It’s not uncommon to experience sunshine, rain, and even snow within a short period. Sudden temperature drops are also frequent, especially as you gain elevation. Always pack layers and be ready for various weather scenarios to ensure you’re comfortable and safe.

No Services or Cell Signal

It’s crucial to remember that Independence Pass is remote, offering limited access to services. There are no gas stations, restrooms, or convenience stores along the majority of the route. Likewise, don’t count on a cell signal, as coverage is generally spotty at best. Make sure to fuel up your vehicle, carry essentials like water and snacks, and inform someone of your itinerary before you head out.

Spectacular Views

Despite its challenges, Independence Pass rewards visitors with some of the most spectacular views Colorado has to offer. From expansive alpine meadows to craggy peaks, the landscapes here are nothing short of awe-inspiring. Numerous overlooks and trailheads along the way offer opportunities for photography and short hikes. Whether you’re seeking the thrill of outdoor activities or simply want to soak in the panoramic vistas, Independence Pass is a destination that’s hard to beat.





Independence Pass Elevation Sign

Things to Do Near Independence Pass

Independence Pass isn’t just a scenic drive; it’s a hub for outdoor adventures and activities that cater to a wide range of interests. From hiking and wildflower viewing to more in-depth explorations of the surrounding natural and historical landscapes, there’s plenty to do here that can make your trip unforgettable.

Go for a Hike Along the Divide

One of the most rewarding activities to do at Independence Pass is hiking. Several trails offer hikes along the Continental Divide, each with their own unique views and challenges. These trails range from easy walks to more strenuous climbs, giving hikers of all levels an opportunity to experience the beauty of this alpine environment.

Count the Wildflowers

Independence Pass is a paradise for wildflower enthusiasts, particularly from late spring to early summer. Wander through fields of colorful blooms, such as Indian paintbrush, columbine, and alpine sunflowers. Bring a wildflower guidebook and see how many different species you can identify.





Learn About the Alpine Ecosystem

The area around Independence Pass is a fantastic place to learn about alpine ecosystems. Informational placards and self-guided trails offer insights into the local flora and fauna, as well as the geological forces that shaped this rugged landscape. It’s a natural classroom that engages both the young and old.

Climb a Nearby 13er or 14er

For those who seek the thrill of summiting a high peak, Independence Pass is close to several near 13,000-foot and 14,000-foot mountains. These climbs offer the kind of challenges and views that mountain enthusiasts dream of, with the added bonus of being less crowded than some other popular Colorado peaks. La Plata Peak is great for beginners, while Castle Peak is a good choice for more experienced climbers.

La Plata Peak is the closest 14er to Independence Pass

Stay for a Camping Trip

Extend your visit by camping at one of the many nearby campsites. Whether you’re in a tent or an RV, spending a night under the stars allows you to fully immerse yourself in the tranquility and beauty of this alpine wonderland. Just make sure to follow Leave No Trace principles and respect the fragile environment.

Visit a Nearby Ghost Town

If you’re interested in history, take a detour to visit one of the several ghost towns located near Independence Pass. Places like Independence and Twin Lakes offer a glimpse into the past, back to the days when these now-deserted locales were bustling centers of mining and community life. Explore old buildings, read historical markers, and imagine what life was like during the heyday of Colorado’s mining era.





Remember: Leave No Trace

When exploring the breathtaking beauty of Independence Pass and the surrounding alpine landscapes, it’s crucial to minimize your environmental impact. Adhering to Leave No Trace principles is not just responsible; it’s a form of respect—both for nature and for the others who will come after you.

  • Pack it in, Pack it out: Always pack out all trash, including food scraps and litter. This is especially critical in alpine areas where decomposition is slow.
  • Stay on Designated Trails: To protect fragile alpine vegetation, it’s essential to stay on designated trails. Shortcutting switchbacks or creating new paths can lead to soil erosion and lasting damage.
  • Respect Wildlife: Keep a safe distance from all wildlife and never feed animals. Always keep dogs on leash. The alpine ecosystem is particularly sensitive, and human food can harm wildlife and their habitats.
  • Leave What You Find: Take photographs but leave historic artifacts or natural items like rocks and antlers so others can experience them too.
  • Be Courteous to Other Visitors: Keep noise levels down to allow everyone to enjoy the natural sounds of the outdoors. Maintain a friendly attitude and always yield to other hikers on the trail.

Where to Stay Near Independence Pass

If you want to stay somewhere close to Independence Pass, you have many great options, including hotels, motels, and campgrounds. These are some of my favorite recommendations.

Nearby Lodging:

1. The Little Nell (Aspen)

This luxury hotel is located in Aspen, which is one of the two main towns that offer access to Independence Pass. The Little Nell offers top-tier amenities, including a rooftop pool, fine dining, and an extensive wine cellar. It’s an excellent choice for travelers looking for a high-end experience.

2. Limelight Hotel (Aspen)

Also situated in Aspen, the Limelight Hotel is a more moderately priced option that still offers plenty of amenities. With a laid-back atmosphere, spacious rooms, and a lounge that often features live music, it’s a great choice for those who want comfort without the luxury price tag.





3. Inn the Clouds Hostel (Leadville)

For those coming from the Leadville side of the Pass, this hostel offers a budget-friendly option with a friendly, communal atmosphere. It’s simple, clean, and provides a good base for exploring the Pass and surrounding areas.

4. Delaware Hotel (Leadville)

This historic hotel in Leadville offers a step back in time with its Victorian-era furnishings and antiques, but still provides modern amenities. It’s a charming option for those looking to experience a bit of Colorado history while they explore the region.

5. Columbine Inn (Leadville)

A no-frills motel with small-town charm, the Columbine is my personal go-to when visiting Leadville for winter adventures or a quick road trip stopover. The friendly staff and simple but exceptional breakfast are great if you don’t need much but a bed and a warm atmosphere.

Nearby Camping:

You have SO many options for camping near Independence Pass. The road itself has dozens of pull-off dispersed camping sites with free first-come, first-serve camping. There are also plenty of reservation-only campgrounds on and around the pass. Here are some of the most popular:

1. Difficult Campground

Located just 5 miles east of Aspen, Difficult Campground offers a mix of shaded and sunny sites. This campground is perfect for those who are looking for a balanced outdoor experience, with fishing opportunities in the Roaring Fork River and several hiking trails close by. Read More

2. Weller Campground

Weller Campground is another great option near Aspen. It’s just 9 miles from the summit of Independence Pass and sits alongside the Roaring Fork River. This makes it an excellent spot for anglers and those looking to experience Colorado’s rich landscape. The campground offers basic amenities, like restrooms and water. Read More

3. Lost Man Campground

Positioned at 10,500 feet in elevation, Lost Man Campground is one of the higher-altitude options, located just a few miles from the Pass itself. It’s ideal for those seeking to get away from it all, but be warned that services here are minimal, so come prepared. Camping here is first-come, first-serve, with no reservations. Read More





4. Lincoln Gulch Campground

Lincoln Gulch Campground is a smaller site located around 11 miles from Aspen along Highway 82. It offers easy access to Lincoln Creek and is ideal for visitors interested in water activities like fishing and kayaking. Read More

5. Parry Peak Campground

If you’re approaching from the Leadville side, Parry Peak Campground is a convenient choice. Situated near Twin Lakes Reservoir, the campground offers basic amenities and is popular among anglers, hikers, and those interested in boating activities on the reservoir. Read More

6. Twin Lakes Campground

Also on the Leadville side, Twin Lakes Campground offers stunning views of the adjacent lakes and surrounding mountains. This campground is slightly larger and offers more amenities, making it ideal for families or larger groups. Read More

View of Independence Pass

Insider Tips: Enjoy Independence Pass Like a Local

Navigating the scenic drive through Independence Pass can be one of the most rewarding experiences Colorado has to offer. However, there are some key insider tips that can help ensure a smoother, more enjoyable journey.

Tip #1: Check to Ensure the Pass is Open

Independence Pass is a seasonal route, generally open from late May to October. Always check the Colorado Department of Transportation’s website for the most current information on road conditions and closures before heading out.

Tip #2: Leave Your RV and Trailer at Home

The narrow, winding roads of Independence Pass are not suitable for large RVs or trailers. The tight turns and steep grades make it a challenging, if not dangerous, drive for large vehicles. Any vehicle or trailer 35 feet long is strictly prohibited and will result in a hefty fine.





Tip #3: Get Early to Avoid Thunderstorms

Afternoon thunderstorms are common in the Colorado Rockies, especially during the summer. An early start will not only help you beat the crowds but also lessen the chance of getting caught in a storm.

Tip #4: Leave Time to Stop and Explore

The drive through Independence Pass is packed with scenic overlooks, hiking trails, and historic sites. Make sure to allocate enough time to get out of your car and truly experience what the area has to offer.

Tip #5: Try Dispersed Camping for a Wild Experience

If you’re up for a more rugged overnight experience, consider dispersed camping in the nearby national forest lands. Remember, dispersed camping comes with its own set of rules and responsibilities—always follow Leave No Trace principles.

Independence Pass: Now You Know

Independence Pass is more than just a roadway through the Rockies; it’s a journey through Colorado’s natural splendor and historical landmarks. Whether you’re keen on hiking the Continental Divide, capturing the perfect landscape photo, or simply enjoying the high-altitude air, Independence Pass offers an unforgettable experience.

With thoughtful preparation and respect for the environment, you can make the most of everything this remarkable pass has to offer. Thank you for reading this guide, and we wish you an incredible adventure ahead.





FAQs

If you do not see your question addressed below, leave a comment at the bottom of the page. We will get back to you with an answer as fast as possible.

Q: How long does it take to do Independence Pass?

A: The drive over Independence Pass itself takes about an hour if you’re not making stops. However, to truly experience all that the pass has to offer, including hikes, photo opportunities, and historical sites, you should plan for at least half a day.

A: No, RVs and trailers are not recommended due to the narrow, winding roads and tight switchbacks. There is also a length restriction of 35 feet for vehicles.

A: Independence Pass can be approached from either Aspen in the west or Leadville in the east. Both routes will take you over the pass and offer unique scenic views.

A: Independence Pass was originally used by Native American tribes and later by settlers in search of gold and silver. The modern paved road was built to facilitate easier access through the Rocky Mountains, but the construction process was challenging due to the high elevation and rugged terrain.

A: The grade of Independence Pass varies but can get as steep as 6.5% in some sections. Drivers should be prepared for steep inclines and descents.

A: The road can be challenging due to its steep grades, narrow lanes, and tight switchbacks. It is recommended that only experienced mountain drivers attempt the pass, and always check road conditions beforehand.

A: The pass is named after the Independence Gold Mine, which was one of the most productive mines in the area during the late 1800s. The name reflects the spirit of freedom and discovery associated with the Colorado Gold Rush era.

A: Independence Pass sits at an elevation of 12,095 feet, making it one of the highest paved passes in Colorado.

A: Independence Pass is generally open from late May to early October, depending on snow conditions. Always check for current road status before planning your trip.





Alex Derr, Founder of The Next Summit

Alex Derr is an Eagle Scout, climber, and environmental policy expert located in Denver, Colorado. He created The Next Summit to help others stay safe exploring the mountains and advocate to preserve the peaks for the future. Follow him on Linkedin or Twitter or click here to contact him.





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In 2018, I watched in disbelief as dozens of people hiked into a storm on Longs Peak, unaware of the extreme danger. Soon after, I started The Next Summit to educate and empower the public to safely and responsibly explore America's mountains.

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