The Ultimate Colorado Road Trip Itinerary: Where to Stop, What to Do, and More (Video)
Editor’s Note: Travel might be complicated right now, but use our inspirational trip ideas to plan ahead for your next bucket list adventure.
To experience the best of the U.S. via the open road, look to Colorado. This picturesque state straddling the Rocky Mountains has some of the most astounding stretches of highway in the country, connecting mountain resorts to artists’ colonies to pioneer towns. In short, it’s the perfect place for the ultimate road trip. With that in mind, we’ve devised a route that hits plenty of spots that make Colorado so special. Take a look.
The state’s capital and biggest city is inevitably where any Colorado road trip should start. Not only is Denver home to the state’s largest and busiest airport, and therefore where most travelers arrive, but it also acts as a gateway from the plains to the east into the Rocky Mountains. There’s plenty to do here before you start your journey: Grab some green chiles at El Taco de Mexico, explore historic Larimer Square, go to one of the city’s great museums, and perhaps buy yourself a pair of cowboy boots. Whatever you do, make sure your last activity is getting in your car and driving northwest.
Boulder, Denver’s smaller, more free-spirited sibling, is home to the University of Colorado’s main campus, which means you can expect a whole lot of restaurants and businesses catering to college students. That includes the people-watcher’s paradise of The Mediterranean, conveniently located in the heart of the city, and some sublime hiking on and around the Flatirons, an iconic formation formed by dramatic, diagonally tilted slabs of rock.
The journey northwest continues to Estes Park, the first destination on this route wholly within the Rocky Mountains. This quaint town has become a popular tourist stop, due to its proximity to some of the region’s best rock climbing and mountain trails, though it’s well worth a visit for its aerial tramway alone. This cable car travels to the summit of Prospect Mountain, situated at a height of over 8,700 feet, providing you with breathtaking views and easy access to some of the area’s best high-elevation hiking trails.
Estes Park is considered the jumping-off point for much of Rocky Mountain National Park, where you can easily spend several days exploring backwoods trails, finding waterfalls, and spotting wildlife. This part of the itinerary is optional, but definitely encouraged if you have the time.
Trail Ridge Road
If you’re road tripping between May and October, you’re in luck. The next portion of the route contains what is considered one of the most beautiful drives in America: Trail Ridge Road, a switchback-saturated stretch of U.S. Highway 34 that crosses over the Continental Divide and is closed during the fall and winter. In the spring and summer, you can pass through some of the region’s highest mountains, witnessing the sun glinting off glaciers as you weave through dramatic passes and drive along impossibly blue ponds until you reach Grand Lake. Refuel, then it’s onto the next oasis.
The aptly named Glenwood Springs is the hot spring capital of the area, with huge natural hot springs bubbling up from the earth. It’s just what you want to see after a long drive from Grand Lake, and a particularly scenic remedy for driving-related cramps. The town is located right where the Colorado and Roaring Fork Rivers meet, in a valley cradled by steep mountain faces.
Drive a few hours from Glenwood Springs and you’ll enter gold rush territory. Sure, you can try panning in the Uncompahgre or San Miguel Rivers (it’s a good way to cool off, but maybe not to get rich), though the real draw in Telluride and Ouray is the history. These little mountain villages are chock-full of relics from the area’s Wild West days, from museums like the Ouray Alchemist Museum & Penthouse to mining tours in Telluride. They’re also both tucked away in furtive, but gorgeous, canyons. You can hit Telluride, which is larger, more bustling, and artsier (it’s home to the Telluride Film Festival), or Ouray, which is smaller and more rustic. Either way, we’re venturing south.
Mesa Verde National Park
Continuing south and further back in time, you’ll trade the gold rush era for the times of the ancient Puebloans at Mesa Verde National Park. These lands in Montezuma County were once inhabited by cliff-dwelling ancestors of the Pueblo people, who constructed homes out of the sandstone from the cliffs and mesas on which they were built. The result is extraordinarily dramatic and incredibly enlightening. There are hundreds of these sites in Mesa Verde National Park, but the most impressive is Cliff Palace, which lies in the shadow of a magnificent rock arch. Check out its elaborate rooms and even see decorative plasters that have withstood erosion and time.
Beginning our turn east, Durango is the first major town on the map after leaving Mesa Verde. It’s a great place to stop and rest for a while, combining the laid-back charm of small town America with a rich history rooted in its importance as a railroad hub. It has also been the backdrop of many Hollywood Westerns, and you can visit shooting locations for "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid." Be sure to grab a bite at the Lone Spur Cafe before heading on down that dusty trail.
Great Sand Dunes National Park
Drive three hours down Route 160 and you’ll arrive in a place that feels so otherworldly, you’ll feel like you’re on another planet. Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve seems totally incongruous with the landscape around it, but that’s what makes it so enticing — towering, ivory-colored dunes up to 750 feet tall are an echo of the nearby mountains. Camping here is the move, as the effect of the clear night sky over the dunes is a popular astronomical phenomenon that must be seen to be believed.
There’s no better place in Colorado to witness the awe-inspiring force of water than Cañon City, so named for the steep cliffs carved by the Arkansas River. Whether you’re looking for a gentle, comfortable sightseeing experience like the Royal Gorge Route Railroad or a more extreme method like rafting, you’ll find it here, in addition to plenty of wineries and restaurants where you can luxuriate after feasting your eyes.
Colorado Springs is the last stop on your vehicular journey, and it’s a bit of a doozy. Not only is this the state’s second-largest city, but it’s also a stone’s throw from two of the state’s most impressive natural landmarks: Pikes Peak and Garden of the Gods.
Pikes Peak is easily ascended by car via the Pikes Peak Highway, and the views from its 14,000-foot summit are truly magnificent — it inspired Katharine Lee Bates to write “America the Beautiful,” after all. Meanwhile, Garden of the Gods is a gorgeous public park combining strikingly red rocks with some of the most beautiful forest in the state.
After your indulging in your outdoor activity of choice, bookend your trip with green chiles at King’s Chef Diner and bask in the success of a road trip well spent.