Planned and built by William “Cement Bill” Williams from about 1910 to 1914, the Lariat Trail Scenic Mountain Drive winds roughly five miles and 1,500 feet from Golden to the top of Lookout Mountain. One of the earliest scenic mountain drives in Colorado, the road provided access to the new Denver Mountain Parks system and also influenced later scenic drives such as the Pikes Peak Highway and Trail Ridge Road. In 1990 the road was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and it is also an integral part of the Lariat Loop National Scenic Byway.
Building the Lariat Trail
The road up Lookout Mountain grew out of several forces at work in the early 1910s. First, Golden cement contractor William “Cement Bill” Williams wanted to attract more tourists to town, so he planned a road from the city to the summit of Lookout Mountain. Starting in 1910, he used his own money and donations from local businessmen such as Adolph Coors to fund a survey and build a two-foot-wide trail along his proposed route, but the project stalled because of a lack of money.
At roughly the same time, Denver was planning to establish a system of mountain parks west of the city and wanted a network of roads to provide visitors with easy access and scenic views. Initially Denverites eyed a route up Mount Vernon Canyon (now the Interstate 70 corridor), but soon they decided to back Williams’s road up Lookout Mountain as a northern entrance to the parks.
With help from Denver’s business community, in 1913 Williams secured funding for his road: $15,000 from the state and $7,500 each from Denver and Jefferson County. That summer he and his work crew widened his original two-foot trail into a road suitable for automobiles. Some sources indicate that landscape architects Saco DeBoer and Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., who consulted on the overall design of the Denver Mountain Parks system, also provided advice on the road’s route as it was being constructed.
The road managed to scale the steep slopes of Lookout Mountain with no grades over 6 percent. It started by climbing toward the north flank of Mt. Zion above Clear Creek, where it went through three hairpin turns. From there it traversed south across Mt. Zion and just under the Colorado School of Mines “M” (built in 1908) to Windy Saddle. Just past Windy Saddle was the Spring House, a rustic rest area with a natural spring. After four more tight hairpins, the road curled east and wrapped around the summit.
By 1914, Denver had acquired its first two mountain parks—Lookout Mountain and Genesee—and the Lariat Trail up Lookout Mountain had been extended as far as Genesee Saddle to provide access to both. Just one problem remained: Denver still owed Williams $2,500. Williams owned a piece of land that the road crossed, so in May 1914 he set up a gate and prevented drivers registered in Denver from going through. Drivers from elsewhere were free to use the road. In July Denver settled with Williams and secured a northern entry to its growing system of mountain parks.
The Lariat Trail became tremendously popular as the rise of automobile tourism and the opening of Denver’s mountain parks led Denverites and other tourists to explore the foothills by car. When William “Buffalo Bill” Cody was buried on Lookout Mountain in 1917, for example, at least 20,000 people used the road to attend the ceremony. That summer nearly 70,000 cars traveled to Denver’s Mountain Parks, many using the Lariat Trail. In 1918 more than 116,000 cars drove the road.
One major reason for the Lariat Trail’s popularity was that it could be connected via Bergen Park to the newly improved Bear Creek Canyon Drive to make the forty-mile Lariat Loop, which provided easy access to many of Denver’s Mountain Parks. The Lariat Trail was considered the north entry to the parks, and Bear Creek Canyon was the south entry. In 1917 large stone pillars marking the “Entrance to the Denver Mountain Parks” were erected at the start of both roads. The pillars at the base of Bear Creek Canyon in Morrison have been removed, but the pillars near the bottom of Lookout Mountain still stand.
Today the Lariat Trail (also known as Lookout Mountain Road) has been paved and widened, but it maintains the same alignment that Williams laid out in the early 1910s. It remains a popular scenic drive and also draws cyclists and runners looking to test themselves on the nearly 1,500-foot climb. At the summit, the Buffalo Bill Museum parking lot includes a memorial to “Cement Bill” at a spot overlooking the road.
In 1990 the Lariat Trail was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The full Lariat Loop was named a Colorado Scenic Byway in 2002 and a National Scenic Byway in 2009.