The Lariat Trail Scenic Mountain Drive, also known as Lookout Mountain Drive, winds five miles and 1,500 feet from the town of Golden to the top of Lookout Mountain. One of the earliest scenic mountain drives in Colorado, it was planned and built by William “Cement Bill” Williams from about 1910 to 1914. The road provided access to the new Denver Mountain Parks system and 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 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. Golden cement contractor William “Cement Bill” Williams wanted to attract more tourists to town, so he planned a road from the city of Golden to the summit of Lookout Mountain. 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. However, the project stalled because of a lack of money.
At the same time, the City of Denver was planning to establish a system of mountain parks west of the city. They needed a network of roads to provide visitors with easy access and scenic views. Initially, Denver planned to construct a route up Mount Vernon Canyon, which later became the Interstate 70 corridor. But the city decided that Williams’s road up Lookout Mountain would better serve as the northern entrance to the parks.
In 1913, with help from Denver’s business community, Williams secured funding for his road. Funds included $15,000 from the state and $7,500 each from Denver and Jefferson County. That summer he and his work crew widened the original two-foot trail into a road suitable for automobiles. Landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. and Saco DeBoer helped design the Denver Mountain Parks system, and it is likely that they provided advice on the road as it was being built.
The road was designed 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” 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 Park. The Lariat Trail Drive on 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 for the construction of the road. The road crossed a piece of land that Williams owned, so in May 1914 he set up a gate and stopped cars that were registered in Denver from passing through; drivers from elsewhere, meanwhile, were allowed through. In July Denver settled payment with Williams and secured the northern entrance to its growing system of mountain parks.
The opening of Denver’s mountain parks allowed tourists to explore Denver’s foothills by car, and the Lariat Trail became tremendously popular with the rise of automobile tourism. When William “Buffalo Bill” Cody was buried on Lookout Mountain in 1917, 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.
The major reason for the Lariat Trail’s popularity was that it connected Bergen Park to the newly improved Bear Creek Canyon Drive. This created the forty-mile Lariat Loop that provided easy access to many of Denver’s Mountain Parks. The Lariat Trail was considered the north entry to the parks, while Bear Creek Canyon was considered the south entry. In 1917 large stone pillars marking the “Entrance to the Denver Mountain Parks” were put up 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, which is 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, a memorial to “Cement Bill” is located near the Buffalo Bill Museum, 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.