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The Ultimate Colorado Road Trip Itinerary

Vibrant landscapes, epic adventures, craft beer culture, and an addiction to the outdoors are all things you’ll find in Colorful Colorado. So why not go on a Colorado road trip?

I went on my first Colorado road trip in the fall of 2020 and completely fell in love with the state. It’s definitely the most authentic (and socially-distant) way to experience all that Colorado has to offer. You’ll have more flexibility, access to scenic drives, and storage for adventure gear. What are you waiting for?!

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Table of Contents

  1. Pre-Trip Considerations
  2. Tools and Supplies
  3. 16 Bucket-List Destinations and Itineraries
    1. Denver
    2. Boulder
    3. Breckenridge
    4. Nederland
    5. Rocky Mountain National Park
    6. Estes Park
    7. Colorado Springs
    8. Great Sand Dunes National Park
    9. Buena Vista
    10. Silverton
    11. Ouray
    12. Telluride
    13. Mesa Verde
    14. Durango
    15. Black Canyon of the Gunnison
    16. Crested Butte
  4. Road Trip Routes

Planning Your Colorado Road Trip

colorado road trip

Things To Consider:

  • Best times to visit. Every season has different perks, but I’d recommend going between May and October. In the spring, you can enjoy the wildflowers, and in the fall, the gorgeous autumn colors. June and July are extremely touristy, so keep that in mind.
  • What you like to do. There are SO many things to see and do in this magnificent state ranging from mountain experiences (hiking, climbing, etc.) to aquatic adventures (rafting, canoeing, etc.) to snow activities (skiing, snowboarding, ice climbing, etc.) Your activity preferences will determine when and where you go, so be sure to consider this first!
  • Your budget will determine the length of your drive, the places you stay, and the types of activities you do. If you’re on a budget, consider car camping your way through the state and taking advantage of the many free outdoor activities.
  • Your vehicle is an important consideration. While having a 4×4 vehicle with 4-wheel-drive isn’t a total deal-breaker, it definitely opens up your possibilities for where you can go in Colorado. If you don’t have one, be prepared to research where you can and cannot drive.
  • Depending on what you want to do, there are some permits and reservations to obtain beforehand – especially during COVID-19. Here are a few things you’ll need to plan for beforehand:

Tools & Supplies

Before embarking on your Colorado road trip, you’ll need to purchase some supplies to make your trip as safe and enjoyable as possible. Here are some essentials:

If you’re car camping, check out my camping essentials blog post for a list of everything you need!

Colorado Road Trip: Destinations

1. Denver 

With its lively atmosphere and eclectic mix of activities, you’ll want to spend at least one full day in the mile-high city.

What To Do:

  • Check out the Red Rocks Amphitheater. And yes, it is exactly what it sounds like – a concert venue nestled in massive red stone. You’ll get a wonderful view of the city up here and there are some nice little hikes in the surrounding area.
    colorado road trip
  • Walk down the pedestrianized 16th Street mall and explore the historic Lower Downtown area (“Lodo”).
  • If you have time to go on a little day trip, I highly recommend hiking St. Mary’s Glacier. It’s about an hour outside of Denver and is an absolutely stunning hike, perfect for beginner/ intermediate hikers. The hike leads you to a gorgeous alpine lake, and if you’re feeling particularly adventurous, keep climbing up the glacier for an absolutely stunning view!

Where To Eat:

  • El Five is a crowd-pleaser with delicious tapas and a gorgeous city view.
  • Izakaya Den is a yummy sushi spot that people rave about.
  • Skyline Beer Garden is a haven for beer and foodie lovers. It’s basically a beer festival that happens all year round!

 

2. Boulder 

Just an hour north of Denver is the trendy, hip city of Boulder. This is a place that will satisfy both nature seekers, city lovers, and party-goers. It’s got it all!

What To Do:

colorado road trip

  • Hike the Flatirons. This is an absolute must. There are different routes to choose from based on difficulty, so don’t be intimidated by the giant slabs of rock! I hiked from the Chautauqua Trailhead, which is a very popular starting point, and you can also start at the Enchanted Mesa Trailhead. Here’s some more info on the different trails.
  • Stroll down Pearl Street Mall. This is the hub of Boulder’s shopping and dining scene. It’s got tons of trendy shops, cafes, bookstores, restaurants, and overall good vibes.
  • Go thrifting! It wouldn’t be a trip to Boulder without visiting one (or a few) thrift stores. Some of the popular ones are Common Threads, Rags, and Boulder Sports Recycler.

 

3. Breckenridge

Perched in the Rocky Mountains at 9,000 feet is a city that captures the essence of Colorado all year round. From the hikes to the breweries to the world-class ski runs, this might become one of your favorite spots in Colorado.

What To Do:

  • Go hiking! Some of the best ones are:
    • McCullough Gulch
    • Mohawk Lakes
    • Bakers Tank
    • Crystal Lake
    • Blue Lakes to Monte Cristo Gulch. You might see some mountain goats on this trail!
  • If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, consider hiking the DeCalibron – a series of four fourteeners (peaks at more than 14,000 feet). Mount Democrat is the first of these peaks, and it was the first fourteener I’ve ever done!

  • Spend a day in town! There are so many fun restaurants and breweries to enjoy in the gorgeous main area. I particularly love Breckenridge Brewery; it often has live music during the day and has a large outdoor seating area.
  • If you’re planning a winter or early spring trip, definitely go skiing here! Breckenridge has some of the best runs in the state, if not the entire country.

Where To Camp:

 

4. Nederland

This tiny mountain town along the Peak to Peak Highway is an incredible hidden gem just 16 miles west of Boulder. The second I drove into Nederland, I immediately fell in love with its quaint atmosphere and gorgeous scenery – the town motto is “life is better up here” (at 8,000+ feet) and I can understand why!

What To Do:

  • Nederland is a common pit stop for adventurers exploring the surrounding Indian Peaks and James Peak wilderness areas. Check out Lost Lake via Hessie Trailhead and the many photo ops along the Peak to Peak Highway!
  • Go on a morning hike to Lake Isabelle. It’s about an hour outside of Nederland on the way to Rocky Mountain National Park, and is one of the most gorgeous hikes I’ve ever done. It is quite difficult, so come prepared with snacks and adequate gear.

  • The Train Car Cafe is a charming little spot in Nederland. It’s actually an old train car converted into a coffee shop/ restaurant, and their fresh homemade donuts are to die for! The workers are also super friendly. I came here several times to get some work done.

Where To Camp:

 

5. Rocky Mountain National Park

Ahhh, RMNP. Where do I even begin? The natural wonders of Colorado are condensed quite beautifully in this epic national park – not to mention the stunning mountain drive on the way in.

It’s the perfect place for photographers, adventure seekers, and young families alike. I can’t say enough good things about this spot – I could have stayed here for weeks!

colorado road trip

*Note: You need to reserve your spot in advance due to COVID – I’m talking weeks, even months in advance. It’s super popular so get your reservation now!

What To Do:

  • Within the national park itself, here are some of the most popular hikes that I absolutely loved:
    • Dream Lake
    • Emerald Lake
    • Mills Lake
    • Bear Lake

  • There are some awesome fourteeners in this national park if you’re prepared to scale one, but do not underestimate how challenging they are. Long’s Peak is a great one to consider doing.
  • Drive along Trail Ridge Road and take in the iconic scenery that makes Rocky Mountain National Park the natural wonder that it is. I highly recommend going in the morning to watch the sun rising over the mountain peaks and sleepy elk. (They are everywhere!)

Where To Camp:

  • Pole Hill Road was was by far the most treacherous yet beautiful spot I’ve stayed at and is only a 10-minute drive from Estes Park. You need a 4WD vehicle with high clearance to get up – read my full review here!
  • You can camp in the park itself, but you’ll need a reservation far in advance. Here is where you can do that.

 

6. Estes Park

Located at the eastern entrance of Rocky Mountain National Park is Colorado’s most famous mountain village. This magical town is sprinkled with unique shops and candy stores, surrounded by magnificent mountains, and is practically overrun by elk and deer (no complaints there!)

This is a stop that you cannot miss on your Colorado road trip!

What To Do:

  • Visit the iconic Stanley Hotelfamous for inspiring the very hotel in the horror film The Shining.

  • Ride on the Estes Park Aerial Tramway to the top of Prospect Mountain. Unfortunately, it was closed when I went due to COVID, but it looks like a wonderful activity to do once it reopens!
  • Take a walk around Mary’s Lake for some beautiful views and lots of nearby elk.
  • Go off-roading! There are some great trails nearby to take a Jeep or ATV down. Check out some of the tour rentals here.

Where To Eat:

  • Kind Coffee was my safe haven throughout my time in Estes Park. The coffee and breakfast selection is delicious, the people are truly “kind”, and the prices are surprisingly affordable! I could not recommend this place more.

Where To Camp:

 

7. Colorado Springs

On your drive down to the Great Sand Dunes, stop in Colorado Springs for some more natural wonders and awesome photo opps. It’s a bit touristy, but I enjoyed driving through it on my Colorado road trip.

What To Do:

  • If you do one thing in Colorado Springs, it’s got to be Garden of the Gods. The 300-foot sandstone rock formations look like something out of a sci-fi film, hence the name.
  • The most famous mountain here is Pike’s Peaktowering at 14,115 feet high. You can attempt to complete the 13.5-mile hike, but there are also guided tours and biking adventures to the top as well.

 

8. Great Sand Dunes National Park

This was definitely in my top 3 things I did on my Colorado road trip. The Great Sand Dunes are truly a natural wonder and such a unique part of Colorado’s landscape! Keep in mind that many of the activities and campgrounds here are only open during the spring and summer seasons (April through early October).

What To Do:

  • Sandboarding or sledding on the sand dunes (open during high season.) They are $20/day from the Oasis Store – about 4 miles from the dunes – and are first-come-first-served so get there early!
  • Hike up to High Dune, and consider making the trek to Star Dune – it’s the highest dune in North America! Hiking the dunes is open year-round.

  • Go to Zapata Falls! A quick little hike down a rocky trail will lead you to this gorgeous waterfall. Fun fact: my sister and I “showered” here after our trip to the sand dunes when we were camping nearby!
  • Go off-roading in Medano Pass or White Shell Mountain. Check to see if these roads are open when you come.
  • Check out the nearby town of Alamosa. Just 30 minutes from the dunes are some fun little shops, cute restaurants, and even a tiny airport if you need to go somewhere.

Where To Camp:

  • I stayed on free dispersed land on White Shell Mountain (GPS: 37.527, -105.5935) and absolutely LOVED it. See my full review here!
  • Reserve a spot in the campgrounds in and around the park itself. Piñon Flats is inside the park itself, and Zapata Falls and Oasis Campground are just outside. Check availability and openings here.
  • In the dunes! It’s first-come-first-served to get a permit, but if you get one, you can sleep under the stars on the dunes themselves. Here’s a video of some travelers who camped in the dunes – they include everything you need to know!

 

9. Buena Vista

If you want to knock some fourteeners off your list, this is the perfect place to do that! Buena Vista is nestled in the Sawatch Mountain Range which has more fourteeners than any other range in Colorado. I highly recommend coming in October to see the aspen trees in full bloom!

colorado road trip

What To Do:

  • Like I said before, the many fourteeners in the area is a major draw for adventurers and hikers around the country. I hiked Mount Huron and absolutely loved it (great for beginners), and next on my list is Mount Elbert!

  • Go white-water rafting if you’re here in the warmer seasons! Browns Canyon Rafting and Wilderness Aware Rafting are two highly-rated companies to book with.
  • Soak in the nearby hot springs! There are several to choose from, just make sure to check availability and rules during COVID.

 

10. Silverton

This beloved old mining town is western history meets mountainous adventure. I couldn’t get over how quaint and charming it was! You definitely feel like you’re stepping back in time in Silverton.

What To Do:

  • Ice Lakes Basin is the reason I came to Silverton in the first place. The hike was quite challenging, but I have never seen such crystal blue water in my life. I’m dying to go back and camp next to the lakes! Here’s a detailed guide to this difficult but rewarding hike.

  • Explore historic downtown – most of which has actually been deemed a National Historic District. I couldn’t get enough of this area!
    colorado road trip
  • Go skiing. Silverton has some unreal backcountry ski runs that you can experience without the resort crowds. Learn more here.

Where To Eat:

  • Brown Bear Cafe was definitely my go-to in the short time I was in Silverton! I ate here twice in one day – my pre-hike breakfast and post-hike lunch.

11. Ouray

Nestled in the San Juan Mountains of Southwestern Colorado is none other than Ouray, Colorado. This tiny mountain town is often called the “Switzerland of America” and is a sanctuary for both the outdoor lover and the relaxation enthusiast.

[ READ NOW: Top 5 Things To Do In Ouray, Colorado ]

What To Do:

  • You have to go off-roading/ ATVing in Ouray. My family and I rented a 4-person ATV from Colorado West Jeep Rentals & Tours and drove the Imogene Pass trail through the San Juan Mountains up to 13,000 feet.
    ouray colorado
  • The Via Ferrata is (Italian for “iron path”) is an extreme climbing route along giant slabs of rock. Using ropes, harnesses, and a dash of courage, the climber attaches themself to the steel cables anchored to the rock and travels along the route. I highly recommend for anyone daring and adventurous! We rented our gear from San Juan Mountain Guides.

  • The hot springs are one of the main attractions to Ouray. Orvis Hot Springs is the best place for a true hot spring experience, but keep in mind that it is clothing optional! Read more about my experience and tips here.
  • The San Juan Highway is one of the most spectacular drives in the entire country. It’s a 235-mile loop through the San Juan Mountains, leading you through gorgeous scenery, abandoned mining towns, and eventually ending up in Silverton and Durango. Definitely drive at least part of this during your time here!
    ouray colorado
  • I never got to do them, but Cascade Falls and Box Canyon Park are two very popular hikes in Ouray.

Where To Eat:

  • The Ouray Brewery was so much fun we kept coming back for more! It has a festive rooftop area with gorgeous views of the town and surrounding mountains, and the downstairs is decked out with lights and unique decor. The bar has swings instead of barstools which is a fun touch!
  • The Gold Belt Bar and Grill is right down the road and has a great atmosphere, outdoor patio, and delicious food.

[ READ NOW: Top 5 Things To Do In Ouray, Colorado ]

12. Telluride

To me, Telluride is the southwest version of Breckenridge. It’s got it all! From the lively downtown atmosphere to the endless outdoor activities, Telluride is an absolute must-see on your Colorado road trip.

colorado road trip

What To Do:

  • Take the free Gondola ride over the San Sophia Ridge and into the Mountain Village. The views are absolutely breathtaking and it is by far the best way to get around the area!
  • Spend an afternoon in Mountain Village grabbing a beer and a bite to eat while meandering through the many shops on Main Street.
  • Telluride is one of the most popular destinations for winter activities, whether it’s skiing, snowboarding, dog sledding, or snow mobiling. Definitely consider coming here on a winter vacation!
  • Hike to Bridal Veil Falls – Colorado’s highest free-flowing waterfall (365 feet) at the end of Box Canyon. You can drive or hike to the viewpoint, but I definitely recommend doing the hike. It’s quick and beautiful!

  • Hike through Bear Creek Preserve for a moderate nature hike with gorgeous mountain views.

Where To Eat:

colorado road trip

  • Brown Dog Pizza is by far the best pizza place in all of Telluride. It’s the perfect place to get a pie and pint after a long day of hiking; just prepare for a decent wait time since it’s extremely popular.
  • Baked in Telluride is a convenient and delicious little market where you can get homemade breakfast goods and comfort food.
  • Allreds is your go-to fancy restaurant if you’re celebrating a special occasion. It’s located at the top of the gondola at San Sofia Station and is open to the public for dinner only. The views are absolutely spectacular!
  • Bon Vivant’s festive atmosphere and outdoor seating is the perfect place for après-ski.

Colorado Road Trip: Destinations That I Haven’t Been To

These are a few spots that I have yet to visit, but are 100% worthy of going to on your Colorado road trip!

13. Mesa Verde National Park

Mesa Verde is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and for good reason. It’s one of the most unique and historically rich spots in the country! The Ancestral Pueblo people lived here from 600 to 1300 CE, and the 5,000 known archeological sites are heavily protected by the park.

I didn’t have time to travel here on my Colorado road trip, but it’s a place I definitely want to explore post-COVID!

Important Notes:

  • The cliff dwellings are only open in the late spring and summer seasons.
  • You may need to obtain a permit to film and/or take certain photos in the park.
  • Many of the activities you’ll want to do in Mesa Verde require a guide. Check out some of the guided tours here.

What To Do In Mesa Verde

14. Durango

Often called the “Hollywood of the Rockies”, Durango makes you feel like you’re walking through an old western film. Definitely consider spending at least a day here!

What To Do:

  • Take the iconic Narrow Gauge Railroad to Silverton. This is a National Historic Landmark that has run continuously since 1881!
  • Scenes from “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” “A Ticket to Tomahawk” and “City Slickers” and more were all shot in Durango. Walk by these spots for a little déjà vu moment!
  • Take a day trip to Mesa Verde National Park, just a 45 minute drive away.

15. Black Canyon of the Gunnison/ Gunnison National Park

Sadly, I didn’t have enough time to stop at this awesome natural wonder on my Colorado Road Trip. I drove right by it and vowed that I would go back someday! Here are some general recommendations:

What To Do:

  • Drive the South Rim for the most epic views and terrifyingly steep cliffs.
  • Make the short hike to Warner Point to see amazing mountain views and the Gunnison River.
  • For more recommendations, check out this blog post.

Where To Camp:

16. Crested Butte

What To Do:

  • Hike Rustler’s GulchI am absolutely dying to do this hike during the spring when the wildflowers are in bloom!
  • This is another great place for a ski tripConsider going here on your winter vacation!
  • Take the free bus to Mt. Crested Butte.
  • For more recommendations, check out this article.


Colorado Road Trip: Routes

There are a few different routes you can take on your Colorado road trip depending on your starting destination and the length of your trip. Let’s dive into each of those:

7-10 Day Colorado Road Trip

Each route is absolutely magnificent in different ways, so choose the one that best fits your interests.

Northeast Route

Day 1: Denver

Day 2-3: Breckenridge

*Going here requires a slight detour from the direct route. If you’re limited on time, you can skip Breckenridge and go straight to Boulder. This is a quicker, more direct route.

Day 4: Boulder

Day 5: Nederland

Day 5-7: Rocky Mountain National Park and Estes Park

[ READ NOW: How To Work Remotely On A Road Trip ]

Southeast Route

Day 1: Denver

Day 2: Colorado Springs. Stop here on your way to the Great Sand Dunes.

Day 3-4: Great Sand Dunes National Park

Day 4-5: Mesa Verde National Park and Durango

Day 5-7: Drive along the San Juan Highway, starting in Durango and stopping in Silverton and Ouray.

Day 8-9 (optional): Telluride. You have to drive all the way around Mount Sneffels to get here, so you can skip it if you’re pressed for time.

Southwest Route

Day 1: Black Canyon of the Gunnison

Day 2-3: Telluride

Day 5: Mesa Verde National Park

Day 6: Durango

Day 7-8: Ouray

[ READ NOW: 5 Things To Do In Ouray, Colorado ]

10-14 Day Colorado Road Trip 

Southern Route

Day 1-2: Denver

Day 3: Colorado Springs. Stop here on your way to the Great Sand Dunes.

Day 3-4: Great Sand Dunes National Park

Day 5: Buena Vista

Day 6: Crested Butte

Day 7: Black Canyon of the Gunnison

Day 8-9: Telluride

Day 10-11: Mesa Verde National Park and Durango

Day 12: Silverton

Day 13-14: Ouray

[ READ NOW: 5 Things To Do In Ouray, Colorado ]

Northern Route

Day 1-2: Denver

Day 3-5: Breckenridge

Day 6-7: Boulder

Day 8: Nederland

Day 9-13: Rocky Mountain National Park and Estes Park

[ READ NOW: 25+ Camping Essentials To Bring On Every Trip ]

2-3 Week Colorado Road Trip

This is almost the exact route I did on my Colorado road trip and it worked out perfectly!

Day 1-2: Denver

Day 3-4: Breckenridge

Day 5: Boulder

Day 6: Nederland

Day 7-9: Rocky Mountain National Park and Estes Park

Day 10: Driving day. Stop in Colorado Springs on your way to the Great Sand Dunes.

Day 11-12: Great Sand Dunes National Park

Day 13: Buena Vista

Day 14: Crested Butte

Day 15: Black Canyon of the Gunnison

Day 16-17: Telluride

Day 18-19: Mesa Verde National Park and Durango

Day 20: Silverton

Day 21: Ouray

 

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colorado road trip

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Top 5 Things To Do In Ouray, Colorado

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3 thoughts on “The Ultimate Colorado Road Trip Itinerary”

  1. This is an amazing guide, Crosby! I will definitely be using this guide when I travel to Colorado next. I really want to visit Ouray and Telluride, and return to Silverton. Thanks for taking the time to put this together!

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