Plan a Colorado Road Trip? So, check our complete Colorado Itinerary. During this 2 weeks Colorado road trip, you will see the best of the state. You will admire all four Colorado national parks. Moreover, you will hike in the mountains, canyons, and dunes. And spot a lot of wildlife. You will admire ancient and modern landmarks, and soak in the hot springs. We show you must-see and must-do and some of Colorado’s hidden gems well. And suggest lots of activities, so you can choose what suits you best. We tell what new reservations in 2021 are required to enter Rocky Mountain National Park, Maroon Bells, and other attractions. This Ultimate Colorado Road Trip Itinerary helps you prepare for a perfect adventure.
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About this Colorado Road Trip Itinerary
Colorado delights with its diversity and attractions created by mother nature and those made by human hands. You can spend up to a month in this state, and you will still be hungry for sightseeing.
That is why we have prepared this Colorado Road Trip Itinerary, for which we have selected the most beautiful and exciting places in the state.
We made this Colorado road trip ourselves in May 2021, so we only share with you the current and tested places, actual prices, and regulations.
Of course, you can spend more time in each of these places. But we have prepared for you the essence of the state. This Colorado itinerary will allow you to see the best within 2 weeks. But it’s going to be an intense two weeks. We tell you what to see, where to eat, where to stay. If you have only 10 days for your Colorado road trip, we tell you how to shorten this plan.
Below is a Colorado Road Trip Itinerary quick overview, and then we describe each day in detail, indicating the best routes to optimize the driving time. We show the best activities and other tips. We help you prepare for perfect adventures, which helps you saving your time.
When to make Colorado Road Trip?
In summer, the state offers fabulous outdoor activities, like hiking, camping, mountain biking, or rafting. In the winter months, Colorado is one of the best places for snowboarding and skiing in the United States.
But this Colorado Road Trip Itinerary is perfect for the Summer and Fall season of 2021, from the end of May through the end of October. Of course, you can use this Colorado itinerary also for the winter months, but some places and roads will be closed. We’ll tell you exactly what is closed in winter to help you adapt this Colorado itinerary for all seasons.
Colorado Road Trip Itinerary Quick Overview
Day 1. Arriving at Denver
Day 2. Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park
Day 3. Rocky Mountain Highway 34 to Grand Lake and Winter Park
Day 4. Aspen and Maroon Bells
Day 5. North Rim of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Day 6. Colorado National Monument and Grand Junction area
Day 7. Rattlesnake Arches Trail
Day 8. South Rim of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Day 9. The San Juan Skyway and Mesa Verde National Park
Day 10. The Million Dollar Hwy and Durango
Day 11. Pagosa Springs and Great Sand Dunes National Park
Day 12. Westcliffe and Colorado Springs
Day 13. Pikes Peak Highway and Manitou Springs
Day 14. Return to Denver
Some important tips before your Colorado Road Trip
Reservations required to enter Rocky Mountain National Park
IT’S A NEW PILOT SYSTEM IN 2021. From May 28 through October 11, 2021, visitors to Rocky Mountain National Park will need a Timed Entry Permit and an entrance pass to recreate in the park. So you need to plan your Colorado itinerary carefully and get a permit before you travel. You can do this only via the NPS website.
According to the NPS website, you must purchase Timed Entry Permit before your trip. There are 2 reservation options. Bear Lake Road Corridor from 5 AM-6 PM which includes Rest of Park and, Rest of Park Area (Rest of Park and Rest of Park Area includes Wild Basin, Long’s Peak, Trail Ridge Road, Fall River Area) which has a reservation period from 9 AM-3 PM. Outside those times no reservations are needed.
What if you fail to get a reservation? You can take a Shuttle bus to the Bear Lake Road corridor.
Entrance pass to recreate in the Park
An Entrance Pass is required for each national park. The daily Entrance Fee is $25-30. Since you plan to visit 4 national parks and several state parks during this road trip, it pays to buy an America the Beautiful Annual Pass for 2021/2022. It only costs $80. It is valid for one year from the month of purchase. You can buy it online via Rei and be ready to enter. You can also buy it by entering the first park at the ranger station. But there are often long lines at the entrance in the season, so it’s worth having a card already. America the Beautiful provides access to more than 2,000 federal recreation areas across the United States.
This card will give you access to all US national parks, most state parks, and national monuments. It’s a great solution. But, please remember, that from May 2021 to the Rocky Mountain NP, you also need a Timed Entry Permit, without which you will not enter the park.
Reservations are required to Marron Bells and for a guided tour in Mesa Verde
On this Colorado itinerary, we also recommend seeing Aspen and a trip to the famous Maroon Bells. But you must book a ticket to Maroon Bells in the high season. In addition, Mesa Verde National Park requires bookings for guided tours to the cliff dwellings. But you can also explore this national park on your own. Below, you will find details on how to do this.
Colorado road trip – Book your accommodation in advance
Plan your Colorado road trip ahead. Whether you plan to sleep in hotels or camping, book your accommodation in advance. This tourist season 2021 will be very intense and can get crowded in the most popular places. After a one-year break in travel due to COVID-19, the world is backing step by step to normal. Lots of people are planning a vacation this year. So it’s worth having booked accommodation before your trip.
In this Colorado itinerary, we recommend only those hotels where we have stayed and that is worth recommending. But the choice of accommodation is wide, so use Hotels.com or Booking.com and book your places.
Stay hydrated for a few days before your Colorado road trip. It is a state of numerous heights and the highest peaks. Altitude sickness is widespread because of quick high changes. To avoid severe headaches, drink plenty of water and electrolytes, buy some sports drinks, which help hydrated. Already one week before your road trip, you should increase the amount of water in the body. Thanks to this, you will avoid headaches and dizziness, and you will be able to enjoy Colorado. Also, during all your Colorado road trips, remember to stay hydrated. Pack a large water reservoir for your daily trips.
Take snacks and food for each day
It’s an intense Colorado itinerary. So, after breakfast, every day you will go sightseeing, hiking, and driving a car. There will be nowhere to eat lunch on the way. There will be no restaurants in the national parks, so each day, have a packed supply of food, healthy snacks, sandwiches, protein bars, beef jerky, or energy bars. And lot’s of water as well.
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Start your Colorado road trip early each day
We suggest that you start each day early in the morning, then you will avoid lines at the entrance to the park or attractions, you will have more time to explore. And you will have more time for a rest at the end of the day. Therefore, do not forget to pack food for each day of the trip. There will not always be a chance to have lunch at a restaurant during the day. Some places are remote from civilization, so you must have food and water.
Do not approach and feed wildlife during your Colorado road trip
Colorado is, above all, extraordinary nature. You will spot a lot of wild animals. The photos we present we took during our Colorado road trip. But remember to be careful. Do not approach wildlife. Keep a safe distance. Photograph or observe them from a distance. Also, please remember during your Colorado road trip to leave no trace, pack all your rubbish, and protect its beautiful nature for the next generations.
Weather in Colorado
Colorado is a very diverse state in terms of climate. If you want to see all four national parks: the Rocky Mountain, Black Canyons of the Gunnison, Mesa Verde, and Great Sand Dunes, during one road trip, you need to pack for hot and cold weather. In the Rocky Mountain National Park, snowstorms can even happen in May and June. In one day you can experience winter and summer. The weather is unpredictable. You will experience the heat of around 80-100 degrees in summer to the west and south. So, even if the forecasts are good and there is no sign of it breakdown, always be prepared for a weather surprise. Wear layers. Check out our Day Hiking Packing List. It will be of great help in preparing for your Colorado Road Trip.
Sources for preparing Colorado Itinerary
We give you a ready-to-go Colorado itinerary with lots of useful tips. You don’t need additional guides. But, we used several of the sources below to prepare for our trips. If you like books, maps, or need more inspiration, you can take a look at the items below.
- Colorado Road & Recreation Atlas by Benchmark Maps and Atlases is our favorite series of maps. We buy it for each state we visit. It’s more than a map. You will find detailed roads, landscape maps, public lands.
- Colorado Bucket List Adventure Guide & Journal by Bridge Press is a new 2021 book. It’s great because it offers 50 natural wonders in Colorado, also lesser-known. You easily find your way thanks to comprehensive driving instructions.
- Photographing the Southwest: Volume 3-Colorado/New Mexico by Laurent Martres is our favorite book. We have all the books in this series. The author gives numerous less known places, hidden gems of Colorado. It gives directions to a specific location. Most of all, he shares information on when, where, and how to get the best shots. AIt’s perfect for each outdoor enthusiast.
- Hiking Colorado is Falcon Series. It a comprehensive guidebook that offers breadth and depth of knowledge unusual in a hiking guide. Each trail is described with details of the trails (distance, elevation, difficulty, time), landmarks, shaded topographic maps, and GPS coordinates.
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Day 1 Colorado Road Trip – Arriving at Denver
We start and end this road trip in Denver. It’s a loop. But you can adapt it for your needs if you are going from Utah or New Mexico as well. We chose Denver as our road trip starting point because it has a great domestic and international flight network. We found favorable fares on Skyscanner.
Renting a Car
In Denver, the choice of cars is also extensive. We analyzed the offers and compared the rentals via Discover Cars. We decided on a four-wheel-drive car to do some more difficult routes. It turned out to be a great solution. We rented a car at the Alamo, which we can highly recommend.
Things to do in Denver
Denver is a beautiful city, and it is worth spending a few hours walking and exploring downtown. If you have a day or more for your visit to Denver consider Denver CityPASS. You save up to 40% on Top Attractions. It’s valid 7 days from the first activation.
Half-day in Denver
If you have only a few hours visit:
- Larimer Square is a place with well-restored buildings from the Civil War period. In 1971, Larimer Square became Denver’s first historic district. There are art galleries, shops, and restaurants in the area. This is a great place to dine or for live entertainment such as comedians or bands. The neighborhood is also known as the place where Buffalo Bill once lived.
- 16th Street Mall – The street runs through the city center, has been turned into a pedestrian zone with shady trees, flower beds, and benches. The only traffic here is the free shuttle bus. The street is full of department stores, boutiques, souvenir shops, restaurants, and street vendor stalls. There are numerous modern and postmodern skyscrapers near the southern end of the street.
- Civic Center Park – which is designed in a classic style with numerous monuments. The main Colorado state administration buildings are located around the park.
- Colorado State Capitol – on a low hill on the eastern side of the park is the Classicist-style State Capitol, topped by a gilded 250-foot / 76-meter dome. From the viewing platform on the dome drum, there is a magnificent view of the city’s impressive skyline and the Front Range. The 13th step on the west side of the Capitol is exactly one mile above sea level, hence the name “Mile City.”
One day in Denver
If you have more time to explore Denver, you can select additional attractions depending on your interests.
- Denver Center for the Performing Arts is a gigantic cultural center with the Boettcher Concert Hall and the Auditorium Theater with the Ellie Caulkins opera house. An evening at the Performing Arts Center can mean watching a Broadway Show or other extraordinary spectacle. You can book tickets via the website.
- Denver Botanic Garden – is one of the largest botanical gardens in the United States, occupying 23 acres.
- Denver Art Museum has an extensive collection of American, African, European, Asian, and oceanic Indians. Collections also include Spanish colonial and pre-Columbian works.
- Museum of Nature and Science is located in the south-eastern part of the City Park. The most famous exhibits include impressive dinosaur skeletons, remains of Ice Age animals, and one of the largest gold nuggets found in Colorado.
- Denver Zoo is beautifully laid out, with enclosures adapted to various species, from polar bears to monkey island. The zoo is one of Denver’s most popular attractions.
- Coors Field is the home of the Colorado Rockies baseball club. The stadium, which opened in 1995, has a capacity of 50,200 seats. From some places, you can see the Rocky Mountain in the distance. There are tours around the facility throughout the year.
- 6-Zipline Rocky Mountains Adventure Tour is the longest and fastest zip line from 850 feet to over 1,900 feet long. You can travel at speeds up to 60 miles per hour at 250 feet above the ground. The course is in a beautiful nature park nestled in the Rocky Mountains, only 30 minutes from Denver.
Where to stay in Denver?
The choice of accommodation in Denver is wide. You will find both hotels and private apartments. We can recommend Comfort Suites Near Denver Downtown with the perfect location, and cozy and comfortable rooms.
Where to eat in Denver?
The center is also full of great restaurants, bars, and cafes for every pocket. You will find here both food trucks and restaurants with delicious food. We can personally recommend Jax Fish House with excellent fish and seafood and 3 Margaritas in the heart of 16th Street Mall with great Mexican food and delicious cocktails.
Day 2 Colorado Road Trip – Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park
Driving Time from Denver to Estes Park: 64 miles, about 1 hour and 30 min via US-36 E and US-36 E/Denver Boulder Turnpike to the park entrance.
Pro Tip: Start your trip early in the morning, and from Estes Park, go directly to the Rocky Mountain National Park entrance. To the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center. It’s about 10-15 minutes from the town. Estes Park, you will visit in the afternoon. We assume that you have a Timed Entry Permit and America the Beautiful Pass to enter the Rocky Mountain.
In Rocky Mountain, you won’t get bored even for a week. But we suggest at least 2 intensive days. On the first day, you will focus on the eastern part of the Park with an overnight stay in Estes Park.
And the next day, we suggest you drive along the famous Highway 34 (Trail Ridge Road, which is open only from Memorial Day to mid-October) and concentrate on the western part of the Park and the Grand Lake area. Below details.
Bear Lake Rd in Rocky Mountain
From Beaver Meadows Entrance Station turn on left to Bear Lake Road. It offers fabulous views and some easy hikes which are perfect for a first day in the mountains. They are easy hikes but offer breathtaking views. We recommend Bear Lake Trail, Sparque Lake Trail, and Bierstadt Lake Trail. Perfect also for kids.
It is possible to make these three trails in one day or choose one or two. If you are in weaker condition or tired after travel, do Bear Lake and Sprague Lake. Bierstadt Lake is a bit more demanding, but still, it’s great to hike.
Pro Tip: pack layers for Rocky Mountain National Park. Even if you’re only driving through for the day, at over 10,000 – 11,000 feet in elevation, getting out of your car is cold even in the summer. So, take a warm jacket. Check our Day Hiking Packing List to prepare for your adventure. Don’t forget to pack plenty of water and food for the day in a Park.
Deer Ridge Junction and Fall River
When you pass Bear Lake Road back and forth, head back to main road 36 and head towards the famous Highway 34 to Deer Ridge Junction.
In this Colorado itinerary, we suggest that you drive the famous Highway 34 the next day. But if you have little time, you can combine these two days into one.
But if you have at least two days for your visit to Rocky Mountain NP, from Deer Ridge Junction take the road to West Horseshoe Park and Fall River Entrance Station and go back to Estes Park.
If you don’t want to hike, you can consider going down to Allenspark to the Wild Basin area. It’s 16 miles scenic route via CO-7 W and Marys Lake Rd.
Evning in Estes Park
Estes Park is a very picturesque and pretty town. This schedule is tight, and we plan to spend only 1 night in it, but if you have more time, consider staying here for 2-3 days.
There is a lot of gift shops and great restaurants. It is definitely worth going for a tasty meal after a long day in the mountains. If you have time visit the historic Stanley Hotel in which the famous thriller Shining with Jack Nicolson was filmed. Another location in this movie was the Timberline Lodge in Oregon in a picturesque setting of Mount Hood.
Where to eat in Estes Park?
In Estes Park, you will find a wide variety of food. We can recommend Twin Owls Steakhouse, Peppers Mexican Grill and Bob & Tony’s Pizza.
Where to stay in Estes Park?
If you can afford an overnight stay at the Stanley Hotel, it would be a great choice. The hotel is beautiful, and we dream about staying in it someday. But it did not fit in our budget. We stayed in the Historic Crag’s Lodge By Diamond Resorts. And it was a great choice. The hotel is beautifully situated, has an attractive interior, cozy rooms, great service.
Day 3 Colorado Road Trip – Rocky Mountain – Highway 34 to Grand Lake and Winter Park
Trail Ridge Road Drive
After breakfast, go to Beaver Meadows Entrance Station in Rocky Mountain and go directly to Highway 34.
Trail Ridge Road is the name for a stretch of U.S. Highway 34 that traverses Rocky Mountain National Park from Estes Park, in the east to Grand Lake, in the west. The road is also known as Beaver Meadow National Scenic Byway.
Trail Ridge Road length is 48 miles.
But driving time with some stops from Estes Park to Grand Lake will take at least 4 hours.
The Trail Ridge Road’s highest point is 12,183 feet (3713 m), so it’s cold and windy. Wear layers and pack warm clothes. Even in May and June, there can be a lot of snow in the highest parts of the mountains. At this altitude, you may have altitude sickness or have a severe headaches. So, remember to stay well hydrated and drink plenty of electrolytes. The weather conditions on this road may change at any time. So, check road status on the NPS website before your travel.
The road will provide breathtaking views. But don’t forget to drive carefully. You can spot moose, deer, and other wild animals, next to the road or on the road.
Trail Ridge Road leads you to Grand Lake. On the way, you have a lot of hiking trails. You can consider some hikes with fabulous views if you have more time, as the Colorado River Trailhead, Timber Lake Trail, Holzwarth Historic Site, or Bowen/Baker Trailhead.
Pro Tip: The Trail Ridge Road is open only from Memorial Day to mid-October. If you do not have a reservation or traveling outside the scheduled dates, you will not drive through the park via famous Highway 34. There is no shuttle bus also. So, if you are after/before the season, the only solution is to drive down via Allenspark and Idaho Springs to the Grand Lake and Winter Park. It’s 143 miles and about 3 hours 30 minutes of driving.
Vitisting Grand Lake, Fraser and Winter Park
Grand Lake, Fraser, and Winter Park are the most popular and prettiest towns on the west part of Rocky Mountain. They are worth a shortstop. In our opinion, Grand Lake is the most charming. You can find here also nice and easy hiking trails, like a hike to Adams Falls.
Where to eat in Grand Lake and Fraser?
In each of the towns, you will find bars and restaurants with good cuisine. In Grand Lake, we can recommend Sagebrush BBQ & Grill and The Wake Coffee Shop. The delicious pizza we ate in Hernando’s Pizza Pub in Fraser.
Where to stay in Grand Lake and Fraser?
In Grand Lake, we stayed in Spirit Lake Lodge & Snowmobile Rentals. It’s a simple place with cozy and clean rooms. In Fraser, we stayed in the comfortable Holiday Inn Express Hotel & Suites Fraser Winter Park Area. But in this Colorado itinerary, we suggest staying in the area only one night, because it’s 2 weeks Colorado road trip.
Day 4 Colorado Road Trip – Aspen and Maroon Bells
After early breakfast head towards the famous Aspen resort.
From Winter Park is 145 miles via I-70 E and CO-82 E. Driving time is about 3 hours and 30 minutes.
From Grand Lake is 164 miles via I-70 W and CO-82 E. Driving time is about 3 hours and 20 minutes. On the way, you have fabulous Glenwood Springs. It’s a perfect idea to soak in these hot springs for an hour and rest after driving. Pool reservations are not required. Day admission for the Pool is on a first-come-first-serve basis. Day rates start from $35 per adult, but they can change, so check them on the website.
Bus Trip to Maroon Lake
Maroon Bells Scenic Area is one of the most photographed spots in Colorado. But, reservations are required to visit Maroon Bells by personal vehicle or shuttle in 2021. Here you can find detailed information about shuttle reservations and parking reservations. Due to the large volume of visitors, a bus service runs every day from 8 am-5 pm from mid-June through mid-October.
The bus runs from Aspen Highlands to Maroon Lake every 15 minutes. The Maroon Bells scenic area features several hiking trails ranging from short hikes near Maroon Lake to longer overnight backpacking trips into the Maroon-Snowmass Wilderness. But if you plan a backpacking trip, you must get a permit also.
Evning in Aspen
The town is small, so a short walk is enough to walk through it. You will find numerous pubs and restaurants. Unfortunately, the place is not cheap.
Day 5 Colorado Road Trip – North Rim of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Driving time from Aspen to North Rim of Black Canyon of the Gunnison is about 3 hours. It’s 119 miles via scenic CO-133 S.
Like the Grand Canyon in Arizona, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park consists of two parts – the North Rim and the South Rim. Both are worth seeing. But if for any reason you have to choose only one, the southern part will be more representative. We recommend both in our Colorado itinerary. You can do this by following our tips. We split our visit into two parts, between we also visit Grand Junction area. You can also check our detailed guide to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, with the best things to do and lots of tips.
North Rim Road Drive
Most important is to know that North Rim Road is closed to vehicles in winter. Is open from mid-April to mid-October only. It’s a gravel road and a more remote area. Less crowded than South Rim.
Start your drive from North Rim Ranger Station. Nearby is North Rim Campground – from here you have one of the best viewpoints – Chasm View. A short and easy hike leads to Chasm View.
But it is worth seeing all the viewpoints along the road. There are only a few of them, so you need at least 1-2 hours to visit the North Rim of Black Canyon with photos. Other viewpoints are The Narrows View, Balanced Rock View, Big Island View, Island Peaks View, and Kneeling Camel View.
Hike to Exclamation Point
If you have more time and want to hike, we recommend the hike to Exclamation Point. For us, it is the best trail and the most beautiful viewpoint on both sides of the park. There are several other trails in the park. But the view from the Exclamation Point is breathtaking. We can compare it to Toroweap Overlook in Grand Canyon.
The trail starts next to North Rim Ranger Station. Take North Vista Trail and follow signs to Exclamation Point. The point is at an altitude of 7702 feet (2348m). It is not a difficult hike. It will take you 1-1.5 hours in total. If you have more time, you can extend it and walk further to the North Vista Trail.
If you want to go down to the canyon floor, you need a permit. But it is technically tough to descend. The walls are almost vertical. There are no marked trails.
Where to eat?
In Delta, we can recommend Daveto’s Italian Restaurant and El Tapatio Mexican Restaurant. In Hotchkiss, we had lunch in Pat’s Bar and Grill.
Where to stay?
Another option would be to go to Grand Junction (it’s about 1 hour 30 minutes of driving and 55 miles) and stay there for 2-3 nights. Because the next two days, we’ll be focusing on this area before we go to the South Rim.
But, if you need to shorten your Colorado road trip to 10 days, skip Grand Junction attractions. This part of Colorado you can combine with a road trip to Utah.
Day 6 Colorado Road Trip – Colorado National Monument and Grand Junction area
Colorado National Monument
Spend this day in the Grand Junction area of western Colorado. The landscape is completely different here. Is dominated by the highlands and deserts of the Colorado Plateau. And it’s pretty hot.
We suggest starting your day at the Colorado National Monument. This place is so interesting that we described it in detail in a separate post. So, you can check more photos and tips for your inspiration.
There are two roads to the Park. The most interesting views and most exciting rock formations you find on the Fruita side. But it’s worth driving the whole road serpentine. It’s only 23 miles. Whether you enter from Grand Junction or Fruita, the views will be amazing. There is an entrance fee to the park. But if you have an annual America the Beautiful card, you don’t have to pay an admission fee.
It is worth spending about half a day visiting the park. This is enough to drive the road and make a few short hikes. We recommend some of the best hikes here.
If you want only to drive the whole route and observe the rock formations from the viewpoints, 2 hours is enough. You can check what overlooks are the best here.
Things to do in Fruita and Grand Junction
We suggest spending the afternoon resting in Fruita and Grand Junction. Both places are worth stopping by. The area is also full of beautiful vineyards. We can recommend a local Mesa Park Vineyards. It’s a charming, photogenic place, and the wines are outstanding.
If you travel with kids is worth visiting the Museum of Western Colorado: Dinosaur Journey Museum in Fruita.
Where to eat in Gran Junction?
There are lots of nice places. We can suggest you visit Rockslide Restaurant & Brewery, Spoons Bistro & Bakery, and Tacoparty.
Where to stay in Grand Juncton?
We stayed in Days Inn by Wyndham Grand Junction, and we can recommend it. But it wasn’t in the center. There is a wide selection of accommodation also in downtown.
Day 7 Colorado Road Trip – Rattlesnake Arches Trail
We recommend a less known place for this day. Colorado’s hidden gem – Rattlesnake Arches Trail. It is located close to the Colorado National Monument but very difficult to access. It requires a 14-mile round trip hike from the Pollack Bench trailhead. Or by the Black Ridge access roads, which offers a shorter hike (6,2 miles go and back), but a challenging drive accessible only for 4×4 cars and experienced drivers.
This place offers the second largest concentration of arches in the United States after Utah. Rattlesnake Canyon is amazing. We wrote a detailed article about this trek. Please read it to see if this is the hike for you. And make your own decisions.
If for some reason you cannot or do not want to go to Rattlesnake Arches, you can go hiking in the Colorado National Monument, explore the Grand Junction area, or go earlier to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon of the Gunnison. You can adapt your Colorado itinerary for a longer stay in Denver, the Rocky Mountain, or any other place of your choice.
Day 8 Colorado Road Trip – South Rim of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
From Grand Junction to South Rim Visitor Center in Blac Canyon of the Gunnison National Park you have 75 miles and about 1 hour 30 minutes of driving via US-50 E.
South Rim Road Drive
In this Colorado Itinerary, we suggest stay one day in the Park. It’s remote, not too crowded, and beautiful. So don’t forget to pack your lunch and water for a day. At the rim, you are 8,000 feet (2,500m) above sea level. So, take precautions, drink plenty of water, use sun protection. It can get windy, so don’t forget to bring a warm sweatshirt.
The road is much longer than at the North Rim. And you need at least 3 – 4 hours to drive the road and take some pictures from the viewpoints. Some overlooks are right on the road. For some of them lead to short trails lasting several minutes—worth your effort. The best viewpoints are on the end of the road – Painted Wall View, Chasm View, Dragon Point, and Sunset View. Close to Visitor Center is Gunnison Point.
Because the canyon is very narrow, it is also very dark, hence its name. That is why the best light is there at noon when the sun is at its highest. More about Black Canyon of the Gunnison you can read in our separate article.
South Rim Hikes
If you have time, you can consider some hikes. The best is Rim Rock Trail and Oak Flat Trail. You can also hike to Warner Point from the last stop on the road – High Point. But, in our opinion, you have the best views from the overlooks.
The inner canyon is a wilderness area. You must have a permit for all wilderness activities including climbing, hiking, and kayaking in the Gunnison River.
Where to eat in Montrose?
In Montrose, we ate in Jimmers Steak-BBQ Bar & Grill.
Where to stay in Montorse?
The South Rim is 15 miles east of Montrose. And this town is the best place to stay overnight. At the park, you can stay at South Rim Campground.
If you don’t want to hike in the park, and have more time, consider staying overnight near Ridgway or Ouray. You will be closer to the next day’s attractions.
Day 9 Colorado Road Trip – The San Juan Skyway and Mesa Verde National Park
The San Juan Skyway Scenic Byway has 236 miles lengths across southwestern Colorado. This loop travels through Durango, Mancos, Dolores, Stoner, Rico, Telluride, Ridgway, Ouray, and Silverton. One of its parts is “The Million Dollar Highway.” It takes at least 7 hours to make all loop. But we split it for two days to connect with visiting Mesa Verde National Park. Along the San Juan Skyway, you can admire over 100 peaks over 13000 feet. The drive spans elevations from 6,200 feet near Cortez to 11,008 feet at Red Mountain Pass.
During the drive traversing the heart of the San Juan National Forest, Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre, and Gunnison National Forests.
So below are our tips on how to plan this day in your Colorado itinerary. Thanks to this, you will see everything this scenic byway has to offer. It’s a long and intense day, so start it early after breakfast.
Montrose to Cortez Drive via San Juan Skyway
From Montrose to Ridgway is about 30 minutes of driving via US-550 S. In Ridgway, turn right onto CO-62 W / State Hwy 62 / Sherman St. Continue on CO-62 W / State Hwy 62, then take CO-145 S. The road from Ridgway to Cortez is 108 miles and will take you at least 2-3,5 hours with shortstops.
On the way is worth stopping for a while in Telluride, Rico, and Dolores.
Visiting Mesa Verde National Park
Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center is only 10 miles and 15 minutes driving from Cortez. You need at least 3-5 hours to visit Mesa Verde National Park. The best light on cliff dwellings is in the afternoon and before sunset. More photos and tips from Mesa Verde you can find in our detailed post.
Self-Guided Tours in Mesa Verde
The best way to visit the park when time is limited is a self-guided tour. Start your trip from Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center and take a map. The route into the park is a steep, narrow, winding mountain road. But very scenic. The Spruce Tree House and The Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum (currently closed) are 21 miles (34 km) from the park entrance. Drive slowly. You will get overlooks that provide spectacular views—the elevations in the park range from 6,900 feet to 8,572 feet.
The best-preserved cliff dwelling is Spruce Tree House. You have fabulous views of Spruce Tree House from viewpoints near the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum.
Take also Mesa Top Loop Road, which is a 6-mile (10 km) drive. Along the road, you’ll find short, easily accessible paved trails to view archeological sites, including surface sites and overlooks of cliff dwellings—the ancient homes and villages of the Ancestral Pueblo people who lived there for more than 700 years. Highlights include Square Tower House Overlook and views of Cliff Palace from Sun Point View and Sun Temple. The Mesa Top Loop Road is open daily from 8:00 am to sunset.
You can also visit Far View Sites Complex, Step House, and Badger House.
Cliff Dwelling Tour Tickets
It’s important to know that you can enter most cliff dwellings only on a ticketed tour with a ranger. The one cliff dwelling that you can visit without a tour is Step House on Wetherill Mesa.
So, purchase your tickets well in advance. You can do it via recreation.gov or by calling 877-444-6777. Tickets are available 14 days in advance, 8:00 am MST, on a rolling daily window. For example, tickets for May 2nd will be available starting April 18th at 8:00 am MDT. More information you will find on the NPS website.
This Colorado itinerary is intense so adapt it to your needs if you want to spend more time in the Park.
If you fail to book tickets for the tour, don’t worry. It’s hard to get them in high season. But the self-guided tour and lots of viewpoints in the park, and short trails will give you plenty of excitement and will take at least 4 hours.
If you fail to get a ranger tour ticket, you can consider a commercial Mesa Verde Express Tour with a guide. You will learn details about the rise of unusual houses on the cliffs. You will hear how people lived in them, what they did, and much more. Thanks to this, you will gain valuable knowledge. The tour takes 4.5 hours, a departure from Mancos, so it is perfect if your time visiting Mesa Verde is limited.
Hiking in Mesa Verde National Park
If you have more time, you can choose some trails in the national park. Short and easy is Point Lookout Trail. Longer is Long House Loop, which is 6 miles roundtrip. Detailed maps and descriptions you will find on the website.
Where to eat in Cortez?
Try Mexican and Southwestern meals in La Casita De Cortez or American cuisine in the Farm Bistro.
Where to stay in Cortez?
Day 10 Colorado Road Trip – The Million Dollar Hwy and Durango
The canyon-clinging stretch of spectacular roadway between Silverton, Durango, and Ouray is called “The Million Dollar Highway.” It’s for sure one of the most spectacular drives in the USA. The winding US Highway 550 runs all the way from New Mexico to Colorado. This is a part of the San Juan Skyway loop. This highway was built in the late 1880s. The Million Dollar Highway section connects Ouray and Silverton and is lined with many small adventure towns and ghost mining villages. It’s only 25 miles (40 km). Between Durango and Silverton, the Skyway loosely parallels the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. The road climbs up to 3 very high mountain passes. The views are stunning. It’s beautiful.
The only problem with this all loop is that you have to drive and back one part to connect it with Mesa Verde. That’s why we split it for two days. And we suggest repeating the part from Durango to Ouray because it’s absolutely stunning. So, if you have to shorten your Colorado itinerary to 10 days, and you have to choose one part of the San Juan Skyway loop, choose The Million Dollar Highway. From Montrose go directly to Durango via Ouray and Silverton, visit Mesa Verde National Park, and drive back to Durango.
The Million Dollar Hwy to Ouray
So, early in the morning from Cortez drive directly to Durango. Skip stop in Durango (we suggest visiting it in the afternoon). And from Durango go to Ouray. From Cortez to Ouray, you have 116 miles and about 2 hours and 30 minutes of driving with breathtaking views.
Stop in Silverton and Ouray. This second town is called also “the Switzerland of America”. Enjoy curves, waterfalls, fabulous views, and clean mountain air.
Ouray is also famous for hot springs pools with spectacular views of the mountains. We suggest soak there for an hour or two and relax. We love it, and it’s only $18 per adult. Return from Ouray to Durango where we suggest to overnight.
Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad
There is also another solution. Durango is famous for the railway linking it to Silverton. It is one of the greatest attractions in this part of Colorado. So, instead of traveling by car, you can buy a trip to Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. The views are beautiful. But in high season, it is worth booking a trip well in advance.
But, you won’t see Ouray then. Therefore, if you choose this option, you can go to Ouray the day before. From Montrose, go to Ouray and return to Ridgway, and via Telluride to Cortez. It’s only 16 miles one way from Ridgway to Ouray.
Rafting in Durango
Durango is also a fabulous place for rafting and kayaking, one of the best in Colorado. You will find great deals at very favorable prices. Worth considering in Colorado itinerary at least 2 hours of rafting with lots of fun. Or a 2-hour kayaking tour on Animas River.
Where to eat in Durango?
In Durango, we ate delicious steaks in Ken and Sue’s, and we can higly recommend this charming place.
Where to stay in Durango?
Day 11 Colorado Road Trip – Pagosa Springs and Great Sand Dunes National Park
It’s 169 miles and 3 hours 30 minutes driving from Durango to Sand Dunes National Park via US-160 W. So, start your trip early in the morning.
Take a rest at Pagosa Springs
Along the way, you have the picturesque hot springs town of Pagosa Springs. It’s 60miles from Durango, via US-160 W. It’s worth staying here for an hour or two. The pleasure of immersing in hot springs costs $49 per adult and $25 per kid, which is why many people stay here all day. Here you can book your ticket. But, if you have to choose one of the hot springs – you will definitely have nicer views in Ouray, and they are much cheaper.
Visiting Great Sand Dunes National Park
You need at least 3-5 hours for a trip through the Great Sand Dunes NP, depending on your interests. There are no reservations to visit or limit on the number of visitors in the park and preserve. What you can do during your visit?
Hiking the Great Sand Dunes
You can go for a walk in the dunes. But pack plenty of water, wear sun protection, and a scarf and hat to protect you from sand particles. Hiking the dunes in the heat is much more tiring than hiking in the mountains. An hour – two is enough to climb to the top of one of the dunes and admire the views.
Sandboarding & Sand Sledding in Great Sand Dunes
They are trendy sports in the national park and provide a lot of fun. From the main Dunes Parking Area, it’s a minimum 0.7 mile (1km) hike to get to the small or medium-sized slopes. The top of the first high ridge is 1.25 miles.
Splashing in Medano Creek
Splashing at Medano Creek is very popular with children. It’s a seasonal stream. But always check the weather and water levels before you decide to have fun.
There are also free Ranger programs in the high season. So, you can check their schedule before your visit.
Medano Pass Primitive Road
If you have 4-wheel drive and driving experience in deep sand you can do Medano Pass Primitive Road. But it’s high-clearance 4WD only.
Hike to Zapata Falls
Another option is to hike to Zapata Falls. It is a short but beautiful trail outside the park area. It leads to a 30-foot waterfall. In May, the waterfall was still icy, but it is worth seeing this place regardless of the season. It was amazing to experience one day walking in the cold and admiring a frozen waterfall and moments later wandering into the sand of the desert. The trail also offers beautiful panoramic views of San Luis Valley and the Great Sand Dunes National Park. The Zapata Falls Recreational Area is approximately 3 miles south of the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve entrance. The sign and road for Zapata Falls will be on your right. The road is a rough gravel surface and steep for 3 miles to the parking lot. The hike distance is a 0.8-mile round trip.
Day 12 Colorado Road Trip – Westcliffe and Colorado Springs
Colorado Road Trip – Visiting Westcliffe
We suggest you add to Colorado Itinerary a less popular but charming town – Westcliffe.
From Great Sand Dunes National Park, take US-160 E and CO-69 N. It’s about 2 hours and 15 mins drive and 93 miles. The road is very picturesque, and the views of the mountains are simply spectacular. Picturesque Westcliffe is tucked between the Wet Mountains to the east and the Sangre de Cristo Range to the west. There are several cozy pubs and souvenir shops in the town. Just next door, it is also worth stopping at the historic Silver Cliff former mining camp with stunning views of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
After visiting Westcliffe, we suggest heading towards Colorado Springs. It’s an hour and a half driving and 77 miles via CO-96 E and CO-115 N. The road, like almost all routes in Colorado, is picturesque. If you have time on the way, it is worth stopping at Beaver Creek State Wildlife Area.
The Beaver Creek canyon is a remote and quiet wilderness destination with great opportunities for birding and wildlife viewing. You can spot bighorn sheep, elk, deer, beavers, mountain lions, coyotes, foxes, rattlesnakes, and even bears.
And just in front of Colorado Springs, it is worth visiting Cheyenne Mountain State Park. Cheyenne Mountain offers superior facilities and recreational opportunities. Foremost among the park’s offerings is the trail system consisting of 28 miles of hiking and biking trails. Moreover, it’s a perfect place for camping.
Where to eat in Colorado Springs?
We can recommend Urban Egg a daytime eatery and excellent Carlos Bistro.
Where to stay in Colorado Springs?
Day 13 Colorado Road Trip – Pikes Peak and Manitou Springs
Pikes Peak Highway
The Colorado Road Trip would be incomplete without the famous Pikes Peak Highway. The serpentine rises the 14,115-foot (4,302 m) summit of America’s most famous mountain. It is worth adding this trip to your Colorado Itinerary. The road is paved but full of bends. The views are stunning. Detailed tips on how to prepare for the Pikes Peak Highway adventure you can read here.
The Pikes Peak Highway is a 19-mile one-way (31 km) toll road that runs from Cascade near Colorado Springs to Pikes Peak. It cost $15 per adult (16+), $5 per child ( 6 to 15 years old), or $50 per car (up to 5 passengers).
Reserve at least 3-4 hours for driving there and back, including taking photos and some stops to enjoy the beauty of nature. Remember to stay hydrated at this altitude. There are no gas stations along the highway. Start your trip early in the morning.
If you don’t want to go by car, you can book the Cog Railway to the top.
Relax in Manitou Springs
After the route to Pikes Peak, we suggest short rest in Manitou Springs. The town is beautifully situated, you can walk here for an hour or two. You will find plenty of good food, restaurants, shops, and other attractions. The best we suggest is below.
Visiting Manitou Cliff Dwellings
Manitou Cliff Dwellings would be a perfect option if you could not get your Mesa Verde National Park guided tour ticket. The site is not as impressive as the national park. It only has one cliff. But if you haven’t had the chance to get a closer look at the cliff dwellings – it’s worth adding it to your Colorado itinerary.
The visit will take you up to an hour or a half. Admission cost is $12.00 for adults and $7.50 for kids. In addition to cliff dwellings, you will find a fascinating museum and a good-quality gift shop.
Cave of the Winds Mountain Park
Another option to consider when visiting the Manitou Springs area is the Cave of the Winds Mountain Park. But if you’ve ever been to the phenomenal Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico, you might be disappointed in Cave of the Winds. Especially since the admission ticket is quite expensive. 45 minutes tour cost $25 for ages 13 & Up and $17 for ages 4-12. In our opinion, it’s worth adding to your Colorado itinerary only if you haven’t seen other spectacular caves before.
Colorado Road Trip – Garden of the Gods
Another attraction worth seeing located right next to Manitou Springs is the Garden of the Gods. It is a wonderful park with amazing red rock formations. Add it to your Colorado itinerary. There is a car route with numerous viewpoints and many hiking trails. Admission to the park is free. You need 2-3 hours to see this place. The park offers the possibility of cycling and rock climbing. There are also various educational events and programs that you can check on the official website.
Where to stay?
The best option is to stay for a last night in Denver. For sure is cheapest and city by night is also amazing.
Day 14 Colorado Road Trip – Return to Denver
Our Colorado itinerary is ending in Denver. Depending on how much time you have – go back to the first day and choose the attractions in Denver that best suit your interests.
You can consider Red Rocks Amphitheater and Mount Evans Tour, which offers spectacular views if you have all day.
We hope you found inspiration for your trip in our Colorado itinerary. We wish you a fabulous Colorado road trip.
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