Lizard Head Pass

Everything You Should Know (By Coloradans)

alpenglow on Lake Point Peak and surrounding mountains along Lizard Head Pass in Colorado

Lizard Head Pass in Colorado - The Complete Guide

The Ultimate Guide to Lizard Head Pass, With Expert Advice From Coloradans

If you’ve never driven Lizard Head Pass in southwest Colorado, we just have to say: you’re in for a real treat. This is hands-down one of our favorite mountain passes in the state (and as Coloradans, we’ve driven plenty of them).

Not only is Lizard Head Pass located right outside one of our absolute favorite mountain towns in CO (hey, Telluride!), but the views from this road are absolutely world class.

From epic hikes to cross country skiing opportunities to some of the most picturesque campgrounds you’ve ever seen to mountain views that include several 13’ers and the iconic 14’er Wilson Peak, you just can’t beat this dreamy drive.

As Coloradans who’ve driven Lizard Head Pass many-a-time, we’re sharing our top tips on getting the most out of this route, including the best seasons to visit, top spots to camp (including dispersed camping options), roadside stops you must see, and hiking trail recommendations in the area.

And of course we’ll include plenty of photos from our adventures on the pass throughout this guide. Let’s get into it!

snow dotted mountains with alpenglow seen from the Sunshine Mountain scenic overview along Lizard Head Pass in Colorado

Disclosure: We’ve included lodging and gear recommendations in this guide to Lizard Head Pass in Colorado. If you choose to book or buy through our links, we may earn a commission, at no cost to you. Shopping through these links helps support our small Colorado business and allows us to continue creating this free content.

All recommendations in our guide are crafted with love and expertise, from platforms we use and trust for our own adventures, both in the San Juan Mountains and beyond.

Where is Lizard Head Pass?

Directions From Telluride and Rico

sun streaming over Pilot Knob, Golden Horn, and Vermilion Peak from Lizard Head Pass

You can access Lizard Head Pass on the north end from Telluride and Mountain Village and on the south end from Rico, Colorado.

If you’re traveling from Telluride, you’ll take W Colorado Ave (the main road that runs through town) westbound. 

You’ll hit the first traffic circle on the edge of town, where you’ll keep going straight. After about three miles, you’ll hit another traffic circle. At this one, take the second exit, which’ll go up the mountainside toward Mountain Village. This is CO 145 going southbound (aka Lizard Head Pass). The summit of the pass will be in about 12 miles.

The directions from Rico, Colorado are even more simple: just take N. Glasgow Ave. northbound and this just turns into Lizard Head Pass. It’s about 12 miles to the summit.

  • GPS Coordinates (summit of Lizard Head Pass): 37.812977, -107.907010
  • Nearest Towns: Telluride, Mountain Village Ophir, and Rico, Colorado
  • Lizard Head Pass Length: 24 miles (this is from the start of where CO-145 goes southbound from Telluride to the edge of Rico, Colorado)
  • Lizard Head Pass Elevation: 10,222 ft
  • Cell Service: Service is mostly non-existent on this drive. We recommend packing a satellite communication device like this brand we use, particularly if you plan on camping, hiking, or climbing.

When Is Lizard Head Pass Open?

And When Is It Closed?

paved section of road on Lizard Head Pass near Telluride Colorado with a view of Sunshine Mountain on the left

Lizard Head Pass is one of a handful of Colorado mountain passes that stays open year-round. 

That said, the road can and does get shut down due to inclement weather (as is common on pretty much any Colorado mountain pass that’s open year-round).

It’s worth noting that while the pass is plowed and maintained throughout the winter months, driving this route can get dicey, particularly on the northern half near Telluride, where you have the most switchbacks.

If you plan on driving Lizard Head Pass outside of the summer season, an AWD or 4WD vehicle with all-weather or snow tires with a mud/snow designation is your best bet.

Bear in mind that if you’re traveling in a 2WD vehicle, you’ll either want those tires we mentioned above or you’ll want to have tire chains handy.

Note: When traveling this route during inclement weather, remember that the state of Colorado may implement its chain law. Equipping your car with the required tires and/or chains will be essential when navigating Lizard Head Pass.

Is Lizard Head Pass Truly Worth The Drive?

Candid Thoughts From Coloradans

alpenglow hitting the jagged mountains along Lizard Head Pass including Lake Point Peak and Sheep Mountain

Don’t get us wrong, iconic southwest CO passes like Million Dollar Highway are 100% worth the hype, but they’re also crazy busy. Lizard Head Pass has views that rival (and frankly, even exceed) what you see on Million Dollar. But it’s so much less crowded.

All of this to say, if you’re in the San Juans, this pass should absolutely be on your travel list.

Planning A Trip To Telluride But Not Sure Where to Stay?

Telluride is one of our favorite places in our home state of Colorado, and we make the drive over whenever we have the chance. So we’ve crafted our list of best lodging in Telluride with lots of love.

If you’re unsure of the best spot to book, we’ve got you covered, including a gem in a former ghost town that can be accessed via Lizard Head Pass.

The Best Seasons to Drive Lizard Head Pass

alpenglow on Sheep Mountain from Lizard Head Pass in Colorado

Hands-down the two best seasons to drive Lizard Head Pass are summer and fall. In summer, everything is as green as it gets and the wildflowers are on full display. You’ll also have much more accessibility on the hiking trails along the pass, which at these elevations tend to be covered in snow most of the year.

Summer is also the most ideal for camping along Lizard Head Pass, as you’ll have a lot of sites that open in late spring and close in early fall. And off-roading routes like Ophir Pass (that starts from Lizard Head Pass) are open and accessible only in summer and early fall.

tall wildflower in a meadow with mountains in the background along Lizard Head Pass in southwest Colorado

Speaking of fall, the pass is home to tons of aspen trees, making it a truly iconic drive in autumn (if we’re being honest, Telluride in general is one of the best fall locations in all of Colorado). The drive from Telluride up Lizard Head is one of our absolute favorites to do during this season.

Note, though, that when we say “fall” what we really mean is the approximately 2-week long time period when colors are peaking. In this part of the state, this is typically right at the extreme tail-end of September or very beginning of October, but it varies year-by-year, so following a fall colors tracker will be crucial.

sunrise above the mountains framing an alpine lake in the fall that can be accessed via a dirt road along Lizard Head Pass near Telluride, Colorado

As a general rule, in very snowy areas like high elevation mountain passes, we try to avoid spring. This is mud season, and the hiking trails are in their worst shape. Add onto that the lack of greenery (as everything is still dry from the winter), and it’s not the most scenic time.

Winter on the pass is stunning, but it comes with the risks of navigating a winding mountain road in potentially stormy weather. But people do cross country ski on Lizard Head Pass, and if you’re into winter sports, it’s a wonderland (just be sure to check the snow report). We would highly advise having prior avalanche training before adventuring in this area in the winter, though.

Our Favorite Stops Along Lizard Head Pass

sun shining up from behind Pilot Knob and Golden Horn mountains from Lizard Head Pass Colorado

From off-roading detours to scenic overlooks to roadside lake stops, we’re sharing a few of our favorites along Lizard Head Pass. Note: we’ll have a dedicated section for hiking trails and camping (including dispersed camping options) a bit later. 

We’ll put these in order from closest to Telluride to farthest away.

Alta Lakes - For Epic Ghost Town Views Along Lizard Head Pass

alpine lake basking in alpenglow seen from a dispersed campsite that can be accessed via southwest Colorado's Lizard Head Pass

We won’t reinvent the wheel here, since we have a full guide to everything we love about the Alta Lakes area, but prepare yourself for gorgeous, jagged mountain views, stunning alpine lakes, an incredible dispersed camping area, and an awesome ghost town on your drive to the top.

And there’s also an epic observatory cabin you can rent that has private access to one of the three lakes. It’s probably the coolest spot you could rent when exploring Lizard Head Pass.

Note: this isn’t a paved route and some sections of the road up to the lakes are single lane (and at the beginning there are some steep drop-offs). We’d advise a 4WD or AWD vehicle with high clearance.

Sunshine Mountain Scenic Overview

snow dotted mountains with alpenglow seen from the Sunshine Mountain scenic overview along Lizard Head Pass in Colorado

The mountain views at this roadside overlook are seriously unmatched. If we could recommend a time of day to visit, it’d 100% be sunrise. The alpenglow on the tips of the mountains is absolutely unreal here.

This is also a great section of Lizard Head Pass to take in the fall colors, as there are lots of aspen groves in the area.

Ophir Pass

Calling all off-roaders! Why just explore Telluride when you could also explore another epic (but much-less traveled) mountain town: Silverton?

Silverton is one of our favorite mountain towns in CO, and the scenic route to access it is via Ophir Pass. From this pass, you have access to epic hikes and some of the most gorgeous high alpine mountain vistas.

This is another route where a high-clearance, 4WD or AWD vehicle is recommended. Our guide to the pass covers the details you should know before attempting this drive.

Trout Lake - A Staple Along Lizard Head Pass for Fishing and Picnics

snow dotted mountains and trees surrounding Trout Lake along Lizard Head Pass in Colorado

I don’t think we’ve ever driven Lizard Head Pass and NOT stopped at Trout Lake. It’s a popular spot for fishing, SUPing, and taking in some seriously beautiful mountain views. The perk? It’s not a detour at all. The lake is literally right by the road, so this is an easy must-see stop.

Curious About Our Favorite Off-Roading Route That Branches Off From Lizard Head Pass?

Ophir Pass is hands-down one of our favorite off-roading routes in the area, connecting Telluride to another mountain town fave of ours: Silverton. And you can access the Telluride end of this route from Lizard Head Pass. Our guide has all the must-know details about this drive.

The Best Hikes on Lizard Head Pass

wooden bridge with mountains and trees in the background seen from the Cross Mountain Trailhead on Lizard Head Pass in Colorado

This is by no means a comprehensive list of hiking trails along Lizard Head Pass, but if you’re looking for options that aren’t crazy hard and have gorgeous views, these are the ones we recommend.

That said, if you are traveling from a lower elevation, remember: you should give yourself at least 48 hours to get acclimated to higher altitudes. You’ll also likely notice that you get tired or out of breath more easily. Expect hiking to be more challenging than it would be back home.

  • Hope Lake Trail – The San Juans are known for some of the prettiest alpine lakes in all of Colorado, and Hope Lake is no exception. This hike is 4.8 miles long (and 1,348 ft of gain) and is a total stunner.
  • Cross Mountain Trail – Not only do you get excellent views of Lizard Head Peak, but the mountain vistas you’ll come across are seriously dreamy. This is a great hike for wildflower sightings. While this hike is 7.2 miles (and 2,122 ft of gain), it’s worth every step.

Hiking Note: Yes, you can access the route to summit El Diente Peak and Mount Wilson from Lizard Head Pass. But we’ve intentionally not included those hikes on our list, as these aren’t your run-of-the-mill 14’ers and shouldn’t be attempted by anyone without the technical skills to summit. This is more mountaineering and climbing than it is hiking.

alpenglow on the tips of snow dotted mountains on Lizard Head Pass

Hiking Pro Tip: When planning high altitude hikes (particularly those that go above tree line), you want to opt to start your hike before or around sunrise (we personally aim for before, so we can be at the top for that dreamy golden sunrise light).

Why, exactly? Thunder and lightning storms (which are extraordinarily common in the summer hiking months) can be extremely dangerous at high elevations like those on Lizard Head Pass. And these storms primarily happen in the afternoons. It’s generally advised that hikers be back at the trailhead before noon when going on hikes above tree line.

Gear We Recommend Bringing When Doing Any Hikes Here

Pilot Knob bathing in warm sunlight with trees in the foreground on Lizard Head Pass

Plan on doing any of the hikes along Lizard Head Pass? This the the bare minimum gear we’d recommend packing with you:

  • Sunscreen – Colorado sun is super intense, and it’s even more intense at higher elevations. Prepare to burn more easily. This specific sunscreen is always in our packs, especially for hiking adventures. We also love this face sunscreen from the same brand since it doesn’t clog pores or leave an awkward white cast.
  • Satellite Communication DeviceOur Garmin is crucial when we go on hikes, especially in areas where we won’t have cell service (like the Lizard Head Wilderness). This allows us to send an SOS in emergencies.
  • Headlamp – Headlamps are crucial if you plan on starting your hike before sunrise or finishing it after sunset (and to be honest, it’s just best practice to always have one handy, just in case). This is the headlamp we personally use, and we’ve tested many. We love the excellent high beam, and the battery life is much better than others we’ve tried. Plus, it’s not as expensive as other comparable headlamps. 
  • Water – Staying hydrated at elevation is key for avoiding those gnarly altitude headaches. Pack that Nalgene bottle or hydration bladder. Your body can get dehydrated faster at higher altitudes, and hiking only exacerbates that. Ask your doctor before taking these, but electrolyte packets can also be a great addition to your pack when doing longer, high exertion hikes.
alpenglow on snow-dotted mountains from the Cross Mountain trail along Lizard Head Pass

Other gear MVP’s include: hand and foot warmers (because, yes, the high alpine can get cold close to sunrise and sunset, even in the thick of summer) and a solid, lightweight nano puff jacket that won’t restrict you on your hikes, because the temperature fluctuations throughout the day in the mountains are no joke…layering is essential.

Where to Stay When Exploring Lizard Head Pass

The Top Spots to Lay Your Head After An Epic Adventure

alpenglow on the mountains overlooking Telluride, Colorado from Lizard Head Pass

While you certainly could stay in the town of Rico, Colorado and drive north up Lizard Head Pass, it’s a very small town with limited lodging, and not too terribly much to do.

If you’re not planning on camping on Lizard Head Pass (more on camping options in the next section!), we’d highly recommend staying in either Telluride or Mountain Village. Not only are you within super close distance to some of the most epic hikes and off-roading the area has to offer, but you can also easily access great food, coffee, and boutique shops if you want an “in town” experience.

We’ve written a guide to the best lodging in the Telluride area to get you started.

alpenglow on a snow sprinkled Wilson Peak near Lizard Head Pass in Mountain Village, Colorado

Not Sure When To Plan Your Trip to Southwest Colorado?

Navigating when to visit the Colorado high alpine can be a bit of a challenge, especially if you’re not used to the wild weather in high altitude spots like Lizard Head Pass. Our complete guide to CO’s seasons covers the must-know info about planning a trip to the Rockies with ease.

Where to Find Camping on Lizard Head Pass (Including Dispersed Camping)

mountain views along Lizard Head Pass with clouds lit up an orange-pink color overhead

Lizard Head Pass is home to some of the best camping sites in the state of Colorado. Honestly, could there be a better spot to wake up than the middle of the San Juans? We don’t think so. 

We’ve included a list below of camping options along the pass, including developed and dispersed:

  • Sunshine Campground – This campground is first-come, first-served, so you can’t reserve online. It’s also the closest to Telluride (only a 15 minute drive), only about a 5 mile drive up Lizard Head Pass. Because of its proximity to town, expect it to fill up fast.
  • Alta Lakes Dispersed Camping – This may just be our favorite area to camp in all of Colorado. You’re down the road from an epic ghost town, high up in the mountains with the prettiest alpine lake views. You can’t beat it.
  • Matterhorn Campground – This one’s basically your full-service campground. Expect picnic tables, fire rings, vault toilets, showers, and some campsites have RV hookups, too. This campground is also super close to Trout Lake (one of our favorite spots along Lizard Head Pass).
  • Priest Lake Campground (dispersed camping) – Want the same general location as the Matterhorn Campground, but didn’t make reservations? Priest Lake campground is a first-come, first-served dispersed campground a little over a mile away.

There is also dispersed camping on the eastern end of the summit of Lizard Head Pass (at these coordinates: 37.810413, -107.906111).

Alta Lakes Is A Must-Stop Detour Along Lizard Head Pass

Not only is it home to three stunning, scenic alpine lakes, but it’s also an excellent dispersed camping location that can be accessed via the pass. Our guide to Alta Lakes covers everything you need to know.

Lizard Head Pass Colorado FAQs

Why Is It Called Lizard Head Pass?

alpenglow on Lizard Head Peak along Lizard Head Pass in Colorado

Lizard Head Pass is named after the peak you can see near the summit of the pass: Lizard Head Peak (elevation 13,113 ft). The peak is shaped like a lizard’s head (see photo above).

We highly recommend driving to the peak at sunrise to see the warm alpenglow hit the Lizard Head. It’s such a stunning sight.

Is Lizard Head Pass Dangerous?

curvy section of paved road along Lizard Head Pass near Telluride, Colorado

In the summer when roads are clear and you tend not to deal with inclement weather, Lizard Head Pass is definitely one of the less dangerous (and less scary) mountain passes in Colorado.

But remember, this route is open year-round, and things can get dicey in winter conditions, especially on the northern half of the pass near Telluride and Mountain Village. That’s where you’ll encounter the most switchbacks, which can be harder to navigate in snowy and icy conditions.

How Long Does It Take To Drive Lizard Head Pass?

Vermilion Peak with some snow and trees in the foreground on Lizard Head Pass in Colorado

Assuming clear roads without icy or snowy winter conditions, you can expect the 24 mile long drive of Lizard Head Pass to take around 30 minutes if you’re not making any stops.

That said, if you can, we’d absolutely recommend camping at one of the many campsites along Lizard Head Pass, experiencing some of the hiking trails, or taking other off-roading detours. This truly is the type of mountain pass you could spend days exploring.

Road Conditions - Is Lizard Head Pass Paved?

paved section of Lizard Head Pass lined with aspen trees with alpenglow bathed mountains in the background

Yes, Lizard Head Pass is paved. That said, there are other off-roading routes and drives to trailheads that branch off from the pass that are not, so we’d advise bringing along a high clearance 4WD vehicle to explore some of these spots (note: this recommendation is for summer when those off-roading routes are open).

view of Lake Point Peak from Sunshine Mountain overview along Lizard Head Pass Colorado

Want to See The Best Colorado Has to Offer?

There’s no better way to see Colorado’s most iconic spots than through an epic multi-week road trip (especially in places like the San Juans of SW Colorado).

Our full CO road trip guide is our go-to itinerary to our favorite must-see spots in the state.

Need More Epic Mountain Drives In Your Future? We've Got You Covered.

sun rising up from behind mountain peaks and bathing the view in warm orange light

We’re suckers for a good mountain pass, and exploring them is basically one of our favorite things to do. These are some of our other favorites throughout Colorado:

  • Independence Pass – Located right outside Aspen, this is basically our go-to in the summer for high alpine hikes with serious Sound of Music vibes. Plus, the aspen trees in the fall are to die for.
  • Guanella Pass – Another iconic fall colors spot (this one’s near Georgetown), but also home to some of our favorite high alpine hikes. Plus, it’s super accessible and close to lots of mountain towns with plenty to do.
  • Cottonwood Pass – Always and forever in our top 3, we’re kind of obsessed with this one. Not only is it totally underrated, but it’s also home to some of the prettiest stretches of winding mountain roads in the state. Plus, it’s located outside of Buena Vista, which is hands-down one of our favorite places in CO.

And just in case you need more Lizard Head Pass photo inspo, we’re sharing more of our faves from our travels down below. We hope you love this pass as much as we do!

Your Experts On All Things Colorado

We’re Sheena and Ed, two adventure photographers, outdoors advocates, and hikers.

As Coloradans, there’s nothing we enjoy more than exploring our great state and sharing all that it has to offer.

Visiting soon? These are some of our favorite resources:

Sheena Shahangian Photography LLC

Empowering You To Have Your Adventure Elopement, Your Way

Colorado Elopement Photographers + Adventure Wedding Photographers

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Copyright 2024. All Rights Reserved. Sheena Shahangian Photography LLC.