The Best Colorado Road Trip: A Scenic Adventure for the Nature Lover

The Best Colorado Road Trip: A Scenic Adventure for the Nature Lover

If you’re looking for the best Colorado road trip, you’ve come to the right place! This scenic adventure will take you through some of the most beautiful landscapes in the state, including the Rocky Mountains and the great plains. Did you know that Colorado is home to four national parks, eight national monuments, and 11 national forests? Colorado is also home to a whopping 42 state parks, so the opportunities for outdoor adventure are boundless.

We’ve started by assembling a list of our favorite must-see destinations throughout the state, with a little variety from different kinds of terrain and things to do. There are endless opportunities for adventure and exploration along this route, so make sure to pack your sense of adventure! Just take into consideration your time frame and season, and use our suggestions to put together your own ultimate Colorado road trip! Let’s get started on this amazing road trip!

P.S. – we’ve also put together a more condensed Colorado national parks road trip that just includes the four national parks and optional side trips to national monuments.

Planning Your Colorado Road Trip

But first, let’s talk about the details of planning the best possible Colorado road trip. There’s some things you should take into consideration when planning your trip.

Airport

Typically people fly into Denver International Airport, and this is the airport of choice but can sometimes be quite a hassle. It’s very busy, so always give yourself plenty of time to get around. If you have the option, there’s an airport in Colorado Springs that has some direct flies to some major US cities and is a much more enjoyable experience when it comes to airports. If you’re driving, just pick up our road trip itinerary closest to your intersection point, as the route we’ve put together is a large loop around the state.

Time of Year

The time of year is the #1 consideration to take into account when planning your trip. We highly recommend taking a summer road trip, as you’ll find that a lot of campgrounds and higher altitude roads will be closed October through at least May. The best time to visit is late June or July, when summer peaks in the mountains. If you’re planning to stay in lower elevations the entire time, you could add April and May, as well as September and October as possible travel months. But if you’re going to visit Colorado, the Rocky Mountains and high alpine environments are what the state is known for, so why would you want to not to see that at its peak?

If you’re interested in a winter road trip through the state, you’ll need to do extra research on road closures and campground closures before embarking on your adventure.

Snowy roads and mountains in Colorado winter

Lodging

Now that you know when to go, it’s time to start thinking about where you’ll stay. One of the best things about road tripping through Colorado is that there are endless camping opportunities, as well as dispersed camping (camping outside of designated campgrounds). You can find some great information on camping in Colorado on the state’s website, or camping websites like The Dyrt. If you’re not interested in camping, there are also a ton of great hotels and Airbnbs throughout the state.

dispersed camping in Colorado
Dispersed camping outside Crested Butte

Route

Now that you know when to go and where you’ll be sleeping, it’s time to start planning your route. This is where we come in to help! The best Colorado road trip starts in the central-north and winds its way down through the mountains clockwise, hitting all the major highlights along the way. You could easily spend a month or more exploring all that Colorado has to offer, but we’ve put together a suggested itinerary that will take about two weeks.

If you’re short on time, or just want to hit the highlights, you could easily cut out a few stops on this route and still have an amazing road trip.

colorado road trip
A general idea of the route

The Perfect Colorado Road Trip Itinerary

Denver (0-2 Days)

Depending on how much you like city-life, we wouldn’t recommend more than a day in Denver. Use this time to adjust to the altitude, as its called the Mile High City for a reason. Get your bearings and explore the city, which is filled with a variety of breweries, restaurants, and art districts.

If you’re looking for a nature break from the city, take a trip to Red Rocks Park, which offers stunning views of Denver and the Front Range. If you can time it right, attending a concert here is a must, as it’s one of the most beautiful and fun venues in the whole country. For some outdoor activities, we recommend the Denver Botanic Gardens, or the Butterfly Pavilion.

If you’re not into the city experience, skip spending time here and continue on to Rocky Mountain National Park, which is 1.5 hours away. Just keep in mind that if you plan on high altitude hiking in the park, you will probably want a couple of days to adjust to the altitude before attempting any big hikes.

Rocky Mountain National Park (2 Days)

The first destination on our list is Rocky Mountain National Park. This incredible park is located in the north-central region of Colorado and is home to some of the most spectacular mountain scenery in the state. The park features over 400 miles of hiking trails, so be sure to bring your hiking boots! If you’re looking for a more relaxing experience, take a scenic drive through the park on the highest continuously paved road in America or enjoy a picnic lunch by one of the pristine alpine lakes. Rocky Mountain National Park offers tons of hiking opportunities, so plan your time here based on how much time you need for your top hikes, plus a half-day on the scenic drive.

If you want more time to adjust to the altitude, you can move this stop to the last one on the list, and go there on the way back to the airport after Breckenridge.

Colorado Springs (Day Trip or 1-2 Days)

Next, head back south through Denver towards Colorado Springs, which is home to Garden of the Gods, one of the most photographed spots in Colorado. There’s also Seven Falls, Cave of the Winds, the Manitou Incline, and Pikes Peak. You can drive or take the railway to the top of Pike’s Peak, the tallest mountain in the state. This is an easy way to get amazing mountain views without having to hike the whole way! If you’re looking for a day trip with plenty of options for hikes, views, and outdoor activities, Colorado Springs is the place to go.

If you are short on time, you can spend the day in Colorado Springs then continue on to the next stop instead of staying the night. If you would like to spend time in Colorado Springs, other great options for nearby attractions are Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, Paint Mines Interpretive Park, and the Colorado Wolf and Wildlife Center.

The Royal Gorge (1-2 Days)

After Colorado Springs, we’ll head to the Royal Gorge Bridge and Park. This is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Colorado, and for good reason! The Royal Gorge Bridge is the highest suspension bridge in the United States, stretching an impressive 1000 feet above the Arkansas River. Visitors can enjoy hikes, rafting trips, zip lining, and more at this incredible park. We highly recommend taking a white water rafting trip through the gorge!

If you don’t feel a connection to the Royal Gorge, but still want an epic white water rafting adventure, consider visiting Buena Vista instead. You can raft through Browns Canyon National Monument then soak in one of the many hot springs in the area. Continue the adventure by hiking a 14er, which is a mountain peak over 14,000 feet. Colorado has 58, several of which are near Buena Vista.

Great Sand Dunes National Park (1 Day)

Our next stop is the Great Sand Dunes National Park. This park, located in southern Colorado, is home to North America’s tallest sand dunes, which is definitely an anomaly of the terrain typically seen in the state. Visitors can enjoy hiking, sand boarding, ATVing and more on the dunes. Rent a board from a local retailer and try your hand at sand boarding. There’s also a few hikes, but make sure you download a route map ahead of time, as hikers say that the routes are hard to follow with the constantly changing sandy terrain.

Mesa Verde National Park (1-2 Days)

Next up on our list is Mesa Verde National Park. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is home to some of the best preserved Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings in North America. Visitors can explore these ancient dwellings on guided tours or via self-guided trails. There are also opportunities for hiking, biking, and horseback riding at Mesa Verde National Park. Most of the attractions are easily accessible, so you won’t need more than an afternoon or single day here.

A great side trip option from here is Canyons of the Ancients, which is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This national monument is home to an abundance of archaeological sites, many of which are still being excavated today.

Ouray, Telluride, and Silverton (2-3+ Days)

The San Juan Mountains and the towns of Ouray, Silverton, and Telluride, are some of our favorite destinations in the state. The towns are the most picturesque mountains towns you’ll ever see, and the hikes are unlike anything else in the state. From Mesa Verde National Park, you’ll head north and the first town you’ll come through is Silverton. This is a great place to stay to hike Ice Lake and Island Lake, which is easily one of our favorite hikes we’ve ever done. The hike is strenuous and isn’t for kids or anyone out of shape, but the adventure is worth the effort.

island lake colorado
Island Lake

From Silverton, continue on the Million Dollar Highway to Ouray. The Million Dollar Highway is a stretch of road that goes through the San Juan Mountains and is known for its hairpin turns, switchbacks, and incredible views. There’s many theories as to how this road got its name, whether it be the million-dollar views, the cost to build it, or the sheer amount of gold ore used in the roadway’s fill. There are no guardrails, so if you have any extreme issues with exposure or cliffs, we would recommend going an alternate route, such as highway 145 to Telluride.

Once in Ouray, enjoy the historic, scenic town by enjoying some of the best it has to offer. Top things to do in Ouray:

– Soak in the natural mineral hot springs at Orvis Hot Springs

– Visit Box Canyon Falls

– Take a jeep tour through Ouray and Telluride to see some of Colorado’s most beautiful scenery

-Hike Blue Lakes, one of the best hikes in the entire state. It’s located between Telluride and Ouray, just outside of Ridgeway.

blue lakes telluride
Blue Lakes near Ridgeway, Colorado

After Ouray, we’ll head to Telluride. This historic mining town is now a popular ski resort and tourist destination. There are plenty of shops, restaurants, and bars in Telluride as well as opportunities for hiking, skiing (winter), and mountain biking (summer). Make sure to visit Bridal Veil Falls, paddleboard at Alta Lakes, or go off-roading on Ophir Pass. If you’re looking for an adrenaline filled adventure, make reservations for a guided trip on the Via Ferrata, which is a climbing route with cables and ladders that will take you up the side of a mountain.

bridal veil falls telluride
Bridal Veil Falls near Telluride

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park (Half Day)

The next stop on our tour is the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. This park, located near Montrose, is known for its steep and narrow canyons. Visitors can enjoy hiking, biking, fishing, and camping in the park. The most popular attraction in the park is Painted Wall, which at over 2,000 feet is one of the tallest cliffs in North America. If you’re short on time or just not feeling up to a strenuous hike we recommend driving along South Rim Drive to take in the views from various overlooks.

If you’re looking to stay the night here, the closest town is Montrose. Or if you would like to camp, you can stay at one of the few campgrounds in the park. There’s not a ton to see or do within this small, lightly visited park, so a half day should be plenty of time to see the main attractions.

black canyon of the gunnison national park
Painted Wall at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

Optional Side Trip: Crested Butte (1-2 Days)

Crested Butte is a tiny town that’s quite a bit out of the way from pretty much anywhere else, but it’s a vibrant area that’s full of amazing hikes. It’s home to the Crested Butte Wildflower Festival, which is one of the most popular events in the state. The festival celebrates the wildflowers that grow in the area and typically takes place at the end of July.

If you’re looking to stay the night, there are plenty of hotels and Airbnbs in Crested Butte. Or, if you’re looking for a more rustic experience, there are campgrounds, dispersed camping, and cabins available as well. As for hiking, Crested Butte is home to some of our favorite hikes and backpacking routes, including Three Lakes (hiking) and the Four Pass Loop (backpacking). It’s also an optional starting point for a hike to Crystal Mill, which can be accessed from Schofield Pass. When leaving Crested Butte, you can backtrack towards Gunnison, or you can take a scenic drive over Kebler Pass.

If you have the time, we highly recommend spending a day or two in this beautiful mountain town.

crested butte wildflowers
Wildflowers in Crested Butte standing as tall as us!

Grand Junction (1-2 Days)

Grand Junction is the largest city in western Colorado and is a great place to stop for supplies, or if you need to get your car serviced. It’s also home to some interesting museums, including the Museum of Western Art and the Dinosaur Journey Museum. Our recommended best place to visit is Grand Mesa, which is a unique flat top mountain covered in hundreds of lakes. Grand Junction is also a great middle-ground from side trips to Palisade (known for its peaches), Fruita (for mountain biking), or even Rattlesnake Canyon, which is home to the largest concentration of natural arches after Arches National Park in Utah. Consider a day trip to Colorado National Monument, which preserves landscapes that remind you of the Utah desert with red rock canyons and towering monoliths. See the monument best from Rim Rock Drive.

This location on Highway 70 is a great off-shoot to continue on a Utah road trip, or even a side trip to Dinosaur National Monument (northwestern Colorado) but from here we’re going to head east back into the mountains of Colorado.

Glenwood Springs (1 Day)

On the way from Grand Junction to Glenwood Springs, take an afternoon pit-stop in Rifle, and go to Rifle Falls State Park. Rifle Falls is a triple 70-foot waterfall that’s surrounded by greenery that’s kept moist by the spray of the cascading falls.

If you’re looking for a place to relax and take a dip, Glenwood Springs is the perfect stop. The town has natural hot springs that flow into the Colorado River and there are numerous places to soak in the mineral-rich water. There’s also plenty of shopping and restaurants in town, as well as opportunities for hiking and rafting.

A great place with fun for people of all ages is the Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park, which is located just outside of town. It includes a amusement park, cave tours, and zip lines. There’s also plentiful opportunities for fly fishing, rafting and kayaking, hiking, mountain biking, disc golf, and more!

Normally we would recommend a side trip to Hanging Lake, which is always one of Colorado’s must-see destinations, but as of 2022 it’s still closed due to wildfire damage that’s causing dangerous mud slides. Instead take a side trip to the small town of Marble, which is aptly named for its amazing marble mining and mill. Stop at the National Historic Site of the Marble Mill, then meet up for a Jeep Tour to Crystal Mill. Crystal Mill is one of the most photographed scenes in the state, and is a treasure that may not be around for much longer. Either use your own 4×4 vehicle or rent one. You can also hike, but if you prefer to visit on foot, the route from Crested Butte is much more scenic (see above for access information under Crested Butte).

crystal mill colorado
Crystal Mill in the fall

Aspen (Day Trip from Glenwood Springs or 1-2 Days)

Aspen is home to Maroon Bells, the most photographed place in the whole state. Reservations for the shuttle must be made well in advance, but the effort is worth it for this beautiful setting. It’s a quintessential mountain view and you can even get married there or catch a trail and backpack the Four Pass Loop. Aspen is a great little mountain town, but is also notoriously known for being quite expensive. Either stay here, or continue south on Hwy 82 and take the scenic route over Independence Pass. There’s several great hiking options, including the Grottos (ice caves) and Devil’s Punchbowl swimming hole. Independence Pass is only open in the summertime, and offers great views of the mountain scenery.

maroon bells colorado
Photo from our wedding at Maroon Bells

Breckenridge (1-2 Days)

Breckenridge is our favorite mountain town and has endless opportunities for hiking, backpacking, mountain biking, fly fishing, and all kinds of outdoor adventure. It’s also home to Quandary Peak and the Decalibron, both of which are famous 14er trails. Try your hand at mountain biking by renting a bike near the base of Peak 8 and taking the ski lift up so you can ride down. If you’re more into road biking, book a shuttle to the top of Vail Pass, and bike the 14 miles downhill to the town of Frisco, where you get picked up to head back to Breck. If you love hiking, consider McCullough Gulch or Mohawk Lakes. For scenic drives, take a half day and go across Boreas Pass. For water sports, paddleboard on Dillon Reservoir.

mohawk lakes breckenridge
Overlooking Continental Falls on the Mohawk Lakes trail.

After leaving Breckenridge, you’re only 2 hours from the Denver airport, which is a straight shot west on I-70. You can drive this the morning of your departure, or stay in a hotel near the airport the night before.

Conclusion

Colorado is an amazing state with something for everyone. If you’re looking for an epic Colorado road trip that offers scenic views and endless adventure, this is it! We’ve highlighted some of our favorite destinations, but there’s plenty more to explore. Pick and choose your favorites to create a shorter excursion, or include them all for a multi-week getaway. No matter what you choose, you’re sure to be delighted, so get out and enjoy all that Colorado has to offer.

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