Reposted from theworldonmynecklace.com
If you have a few weeks and want to find out the best places to go on your Ultimate Colorado Road Trip, beyond the obvious tourist sites, then this Colorado Itinerary is for you! Read on for the most comprehensive Colorado Road Trip Itinerary to see the best of the state.
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Colorado is a land of epic mountains, abundant wildlife, historic mountain towns, natural hot springs, striking red rocks, more sunny days than Florida, and the BEST beer.
I always knew I would love Colorado, and it is no surprise that it is now one of my favorite places in the world, and a place that I am very lucky to call home – well, part of the time at least #nomadlife.
Since I first arrived in Colorado four years ago, I have been all over the state, crisscrossing road trips through the desert and over gravel mountain passes, up 14’ers, soaking in hot springs, to numerous charming mountain towns and haunting ghost towns, on beautiful and challenging hiking trails, and to more breweries than I can count.
There is so much to explore in Colorado that you could travel the state for a year and still not experience everything. It is an outdoor lovers’ dream that I just can’t get enough of, and there is so much Wild West history here too.
It is also a state that is best explored with your own set of wheels, you simply won’t see the best of Colorado without a vehicle. It is one of the best US Road Trips you can do, in a country that is made for road-tripping.
I have been wanting to put together a Colorado road trip itinerary for the longest time, an epic Colorado itinerary that will take at least three weeks to do, but would be better suited for a month or more of travel.
This ain’t no Denver/Vail/Colorado Springs jobbie, this is the real deal, super detailed, massive circular (kinda) road trip route that will take you to the best of the state, including hot springs, breweries, mountain towns, ghost towns, scenic drives, and awesome hiking trails – amongst other things.
It includes my favorite places to eat, the best drinking holes in town, and a handful of accommodation options per place, including budget hostel or camping options, vacation rentals, and a nicer lodge or hotel option, focusing on independent businesses that are historic or charming, rather than chain hotels.
We have done a lot of incredible housesits all over Colorado, and this is an excellent way to travel as you get free accommodation and get to stay in someone’s home, which I think is so much nicer than staying in a hotel.
There are always loads of Colorado housesits on Trusted Housesitters. Sign up through my link to get 30% off your first year of membership – you can search for housesits before signing up.
Because it includes hiking trails and mountain passes that are only open from June/July till September/October, this road trip is designed for the summer and fall months.
This is the road trip that will make you fall head over heels for Colorado, and I warn you – once you have followed this Colorado road trip itinerary – you may just end up moving there.
So here it is, my super-duper, gigantic Colorado itinerary for an epic summer or fall road trip!
Ultimate Colorado Road Trip Itinerary
Colorado Road Trip Route
Check out my Colorado road trip interactive map here.
Here is my Colorado road trip route, with every overnight stop included as well as places to visit along the drive. As most people will be flying in and starting from Denver, this is where my Colorado itinerary starts and ends.
Denver – Boulder – Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park – Grand Lake – Hot Sulphur Springs – Steamboat Springs – Glenwood Springs and Hanging Lake – Grand Junction and Colorado National Monument – Montrose and Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park – Crested Butte – Telluride – Ouray – Silverton – Durango and Mesa Verde National Park – Pagosa Springs – Great Sand Dunes National Park – Valley View Hot Springs – Salida – St Elmo Ghost Town – Buena Vista – Aspen and Maroon Bells – Leadville – Vail – Frisco – Breckenridge – Georgetown – Idaho Springs and St Mary’s Glacier – Denver
There are a few places that I really love in Colorado that I wasn’t able to fit into this route without a lot of backtracking, but check out my other Colorado posts to find out more.
This is the perfect route in my eyes, but everyone is different and likes different things. You can pick and choose from this Colorado itinerary and cut some things and add others to make it the perfect Colorado road trip for you.
I know not everyone has weeks to explore Colorado, so if you have less time and are looking for the best road trips from Denver for one week or even less, get in touch – I would love to help you out and give you some suggestions for the amount of time you have.
My Perfect Colorado Itinerary for 3 + Weeks
Denver 2-3 Days
Even if you aren’t a fan of big cities, I recommend spending at least two days in the city and surrounds of Denver.
The Greater Denver area is home to nearly half the population of the whole state, and I think to get a good understanding of Colorado you need to experience where so many Coloradans live.
I already have a detailed post about how to spend three days in Denver, so go and check that out for more details on places to go, where to stay, and where to eat in the city. Also, check out my Denver suburbs guide with a more in-depth look at what to do, eat, and drink in Denver’s best neighborhoods.
Denver highlights include soaking up 19th-century history in Larimer Square and LoDo, having an out-of-this-world experience at Meow Wolf, brewery and restaurant hopping in the Highlands, biking the riverside trails around the city, street art hunting in RiNo, hiking or catching a show at Red Rocks, hiking in Golden and tubing the river, and exercising and picnicking in expansive Washington Park.
Where to Stay in Denver: For budget options, Hostel Fish or Ember Hostel and The Brown Palace Hotel and Spa or The Crawford Hotel for refined luxury. If you prefer vacation rentals, then check out RiNo Luxury Flat, City Park One Bedroom, and Urban Refuge Carriage House.
Where to Eat in Denver: So many places! Go to Snooze or Sassafras for brunch, sample some creative small plates at Root Down where the focus is eating local, grab a burrito bowl at Illegal Pete’s, eat at a former mortuary turned eatuary – Linger, try delicious Native American fare at Tocabe, and make sure to check out a few of the food halls that Denver is known for including Avanti, The Denver Central Market, Zeppelin Station and Denver Milk Market to name a few.
Where to Drink in Denver: Again, so many places! Have pickle shots at the Retro Room, amazing craft beer at Denver Beer Company, Little Machine, Ratio Beerworks, New Terrain in Golden, Strange Craft, and Goed Zuur – a sour and wild beer-only bar, libations in the sun on the roof terrace at Avanti, and giant frozen margaritas on the patio at Rio Grande. And don’t miss one of the best speakeasies in the country – Williams and Graham.
Boulder 1-2 Days
Drive Time to Boulder: 30 minutes/27 miles
Boulder is both a mountain town and a college town and is a liberal place that is a great stop for eating and hiking, and a must on any Colorado Itinerary.
If you are short on time I recommend spending at least one day there, checking out the shops and buskers on pedestrian Pearl Street, wandering along pretty Boulder Creek, eating at one or two of the excellent restaurants in town, grabbing a beer at a local brewery, and doing a hike – Royal Arch in Chautauqua Park and the Mount Sanitas Loop are my favorites.
Where to Stay in Boulder: Boulder Adventure Lodge, Basecamp Boulder, or Hotel Boulderado. For vacation rentals, check out this Cabin on Boulder Creek, or this South Boulder Studio.
Where to Eat in Boulder: The beautiful, hand-painted Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse which was gifted by Tajikistan offers delicious teas and food from around the world, the Avanti food hall which has an awesome roof terrace with mountain views and various restaurants including a pizza place, Korean, and pupusas, and try the best pizza in Boulder at Pizzeria Locale.
Where to Drink in Boulder: There are tons of great breweries in Boulder, I would recommend Sanitas Brewing Co., VisionQuest, and Twisted Pine. Also make sure to check out the awesome Rayback Collective which has a cafe, bar, food trucks, and live music on site – it’s a great place to get a couple of hours of work done before knocking off for some beers.
Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park 2-4 Days
Drive Time to Estes Park: 50 minutes/37 miles
After stopping for a look around and a drink at Oskar Blues in the cute town of Lyons, you will arrive in touristy but very pretty Estes Park – the gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park.
You can either explore Estes Park for a couple of hours and then head into Rocky Mountain National Park to camp, or you can base yourself in Estes Park – it’s up to you and they are both good choices.
Pro Tip: If you are planning to visit the four National Parks in Colorado as well as Colorado National Monument – they are all in this itinerary – then get the America the Beautiful Annual National Parks pass.
The pass lasts for one year, covers your vehicle and anyone in it, and costs $80. It will save you $35 in entry fees compared to purchasing passes to each park separately, and you can use it for one year at National Park sites all over the U.S. Buy it at the entrance gate to Rocky Mountain National Park.
In Estes Park, make sure to visit the infamous Stanley Hotel, the inspiration for The Shining, and reputed to be haunted. To avoid the entrance fee, park your car in town and walk up there to look around for free.
Estes Park is a great place to get your Colorado souvenirs, and if it is a rainy day, catch a movie at the historic Park Theatre, the oldest theater west of the Mississippi.
Rocky Mountain National Park
There is so much to see in Rocky Mountain National Park that you could spend weeks hiking the different trails. For a short visit of only a couple of days, I recommend doing the Gem Lake trail, which is in a section of the park very close to Estes Park, then heading into the park via the Beaver Meadows Entrance.
The most trafficked part of Rocky Mountain National Park is the area around Bear Lake, and you need to go as early as possible if you want to get a park there, otherwise, you can park at the park and ride and take the free bus.
Spend at least a day in the Bear Lake area, making sure to do the hike to Emerald Lake via Dream Lake, the short Bear Lake trail, and the longer trail to Sky Pond if you have time – my favorite trail in the park.
On your last day in Rocky Mountain National Park, spend a day driving Trail Ridge Road, stopping at viewpoints, the Alpine Visitor Center, and doing the short Alpine Ridge trail and Tundra Communities Trail.
For a longer hike, the Ute trail is very worth it, even if you just do a section of it.
On the other side of Trail Ridge Road, stop to do the short but interesting hike to the Holzwarth Historic Site, and perhaps a longer hike on the western side of the park – I have hiked to Cascade Falls on the North Inlet Trail and it is a beautiful hike.
If you want to spend a couple of extra days in Rocky Mountain National Park, consider visiting the lesser-known Wild Basin area of the park. To get to Wild Basin, you need to take State Highway 7 from Estes Park towards Allenspark, before turning off to get to the entrance station.
One of the top hikes in the Wild Basin area is to Ouzel Falls, if you are hot after your hike make sure to take a shower under the falls. I have heard great things about the Chasm Lake hike too. Stop in Allenspark for a beer and pizza at Rock Creek Tavern and Pizzeria before heading back to Estes Park.
Where to Stay in Estes Park: Estes Park Adventure Hostel offers dorm accommodation and a communal kitchen right by town. Hotel options are Murphy’s River Lodge, Blue Door Inn, or The Stanley Hotel. For vacation rentals, stay in this charming rustic studio cabin, or this cozy downtown one-bedroom loft.
Alternatively, camp at one of the campgrounds on the eastern side of Rocky Mountain National Park – Moraine Park or Glacier Basin. It is best to book these online in advance as they are full most nights in summer, especially weekends.
Where to Eat in Estes Park: For good BBQ, try Smokin’ Dave’s BBQ & Brew, have a massive breakfast at Big Horn Restaurant, and have some beers and pub grub at The Wapiti Colorado Pub.
Where to Drink in Estes Park: After a day of hiking, try some local beers at Rockcut Brewing Co., Avant Garde Aleworks, and Lumpy Ridge Brewing Co.
Grand Lake 1-2 Days
Drive Time to Grand Lake: 1 hour 40 minutes/46.5 miles
Grand Lake is the gateway to the western side of Rocky Mountain National Park, and is a bit more rustic and less touristy than Estes Park.
The town isn’t large so a couple of hours looking at the shops, checking out the lake, and eating at one of the restaurants there should suffice, although if you get in late after driving Trail Ridge Road, it’s a good overnight stop.
Stay longer if you want to base yourself there to do some of the trails on the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park – the East Inlet trail is meant to be a stunner.
Where to Stay in Grand Lake: Shawdowcliff Mountain Hostel or Grand Lake Lodge. For vacation rentals, stay at this affordable Grand Lake condo, or this quaint lakefront mountain view cabin. If you want to camp, Elk Creek Campground and RV Resort is right by town.
Where to Eat in Grand Lake: Sagebrush BBQ and Grill for great BBQ in a rustic setting, Grand Pizza for a massive range of specialty pizzas.
Where to Drink in Grand Lake: The Worlds End Brewpub has the best selection of craft beers on tap in town, and a nice patio to enjoy them in the sun.
Hot Sulphur Springs – Half day
Drive Time to Hot Sulphur Springs: 30 minutes/25 miles
If you are a hot springs junkie like I am, make sure to stop at the small town of Hot Sulphur Springs on the way to Steamboat Springs for a few hours, to take a dip in the pool complex of the same name. This is one of my favorite hidden gems in Colorado.
There are 22 pools and private baths, all of different temperatures, and it is a relaxing and unassuming place that doesn’t get a load of tourism. But don’t expect anything fancy.
You can stay at the Hot Sulphur Springs Resort as an alternative to Grand Lake, and you get unlimited access to the pools from check-in to check-out. The Canyon Motel in town is also a great option.
For vacation rentals, stay at this Modern-Rustic Luxury Rock House, or this Hot Sulphur Springs Cottage.
Steamboat Springs 1-3 Days
Drive Time to Steamboat Springs: 1 hour 20 minutes/70 miles
Beautiful Steamboat Springs gets missed off many a summer Colorado Itinerary and that is such a shame, because it is one of the most beautiful mountain towns in the state, and it’s home to one of the best hot springs: Strawberry Hot Springs.
I recommend spending at least one night in Steamboat Springs, to look around town, grab a beer at one of the brewpubs or breweries, eat a meal at one of the excellent restaurants, and hit the hot springs – evening is best.
Stay even longer and you can check out some of the hiking trails near town too – Fish Creek Falls is probably the most famous. This winter resort town is just as good in summer.
Where to Stay in Steamboat Springs: Stay at the Chalet Val d’Isere Bed & Breakfast, or The Steamboat Grand. For vacation rentals, stay in this quaint and luxurious studio, or this downtown condo with balcony. Alternatively, stay at Strawberry Hot Springs in a caboose, a cabin, or camping.
Where to Eat in Steamboat Springs: Winona’s for giant cinnamon rolls and big breakfasts, and Creekside Cafe and Grill for their very reasonable happy hour menu for snacks and drinks, and their garden patio overlooking a creek.
Where to Drink in Steamboat Springs: Mountain Tap Brewery for great local beer and wood-fired pizza, Storm Peak Brewing Company for eclectic craft beer, and The Barley Tap and Tavern for locally sourced beer and spirits.
Glenwood Springs 1-3 Days
Drive Time to Glenwood Springs: 2 hours 15 minutes/115 miles
Glenwood Springs is a historic town that is famous for its hot springs. My favorite part of town is the riverfront and Grand Avenue near the river.
Grab some food from one of the restaurants in this area, and if you love eclectic fashion, then check out the awesome Elizabeth Dean Boutique.
Skip the main Glenwood Springs Hot Springs and go to Iron Mountain Hot Springs instead, located on a hillside overlooking the river. These peaceful hot springs pools are absolute heaven and you should spend an afternoon and evening soaking here.
Calming music plays, and you can hop around the different pools of different temperatures.
Another big Glenwood Springs attraction is the hike to Hanging Lake, arguably the most famous hike in Colorado. Check here for up-to-date information about prices and reservations.
There are lots of other hikes in the area too, including the short hike to Doc Holliday’s grave, and the Roaring Fork River trail – both of which you can begin right in town.
Where to Stay in Glenwood Springs: Ami’s Acres Campround close to town, Hotel Denver, or Starlight Lodge. For vacation rentals, stay at Casa Del Sol with mountain views, or this modern one-bedroom in downtown Glenwood Springs.
Where to Eat in Glenwood Springs: Smoke Modern BBQ for delicious BBQ and mac and cheese, Grind for a wide range of burgers, beers and boozy shakes, and 19th Street Diner for a classic American Diner experience.
Where to Drink in Glenwood Springs: Casey Brewing Taproom for excellent craft beer – especially the sours, Glenwood Canyon Brewpub is a cozy spot for a local craft beer, and Doc Holliday’s Saloon is a historic western-themed tavern with drinks and pub grub.
Grand Junction and Colorado National Monument 2-3 Days
Drive Time to Grand Junction: 1 hour 20 minutes/87 miles
Grand Junction is the most populous city on Colorado’s Western slope and is the gateway to Colorado’s wine region.
Although Grand Junction is a pleasant city in itself and a great place to wander around and explore, the main reason people visit this college city is because of its proximity to Colorado National Monument.
Spend at least a day hiking and driving the scenic roads through the red rock desert of underrated Colorado National Monument – my favorite hike was the Monument Canyon and Wedding Canyon loop trail.
Also, make sure to visit pretty Palisade, home to some of the best peaches in the country and surrounded by wineries, farm stands, breweries, and even a distillery – visit the best by following the self-drive Fruit and Wine Byway routes.
Where to Stay in Grand Junction: Camp at Saddlehorn Campground in Colorado National Monument or stay at Hotel Maverick or the Grand Vista Hotel. For vacation rentals, stay at this affordable suite near downtown, or the charming Sweet Apple Cottage.
Where to Eat in Grand Junction:The Goat and Clover Tavern for English pub food, Pablo’s Pizza for inventive pizzas.
Where to Drink in Grand Junction: Edgewater Brewery and The Rockslide Brew Pub for local craft beer, and The Feisty Pint for generous happy hours and Colorado beer, cider and spirits.
Montrose & Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park 1-2 Days
Drive Time to Montrose: 1 hour/61 miles
Montrose itself is not terribly exciting, but it is the gateway to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park and has a handful of good restaurants and breweries.
There is also an excellent living history museum – Museum of the Mountain West – that includes a number of 19th-century buildings, and all kinds of stuff from the past 150 years that the owner has painstakingly collected over his lifetime.
The entry fee includes a two-hour tour of some of the restored buildings and it was fascinating.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is one of the least visited National Parks in the U.S. and comprises a very deep canyon of distinctive black rock.
It is a small park at only 231 acres, but there is enough to keep you busy for a day or two – from various viewpoints to hiking trails.
Where to Stay in Montrose: South Rim Campground in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. In Montrose, stay at Stay Wise Inns of Montrose or Double G Ranch & Guestlodge. For vacation rentals, stay at this rustic mountain cabin, the beautiful Black Canyon Cottage on a private ranch, or this unique rustic treehouse.
Where to Eat in Montrose: Crash Burger for simple but delicious burgers, and Colorado Boy for inventive and delicious pizza.
Where to Drink in Montrose: Horsefly Brewing Company for local craft beer, burger and wings on their sunny patio, and Phelanies for top-rate cocktails.
Crested Butte 2-3 days
Drive Time to Montrose: 1 hour 45 minutes/92 miles
Crested Butte is my second favorite mountain town in Colorado – only just edged out by Telluride, and if you have the time then you should definitely add Crested Butte to your Colorado Itinerary, despite it being a big detour to get there.
Crested Butte is a vibrant and pretty mountain town that is surrounded by some of the most scenic wilderness in the U.S., with Maroon Bells right on its doorstep.
In the fall, drive Kebler Pass, Ohio Pass, or Cottonwood Pass for breathtaking fall colors, and hike Gothic Mountain for a summit hike with epic views and wildflowers.
Nearby Gothic Ghost Town is worth checking out, originally a silver mining town it now has a second life as a facility for the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory.
Where to Stay in Crested Butte: Crested Butte Hostel, Cristiana Guesthaus, or Nordic Inn. For vacation rentals, stay at this private guesthouse on Elk or The Alley House, both in downtown Crested Butte.
Where to Eat in Crested Butte: McGill’s for their hearty breakfasts, awesome pitas at a great price from Pitas in Paradise, upscale pub grub at Public House, Sherpa Cafe for your Indian fix, awesome bagels from Butte Bagels, Secret Stash for perfect pizza.
Where to Drink in Crested Butte: Camp 4 Coffee for great coffee and breakfast burritos, The Dogwood for incredible craft cocktails, Brick Oven Pizzeria and Pub for their excellent beer selection and sunny patio, and local beer at The Eldo Brewery.
Telluride 2-4 Days
Drive Time to Telluride: 3 hours/157 miles
Telluride is one of my absolute favorite mountain towns in Colorado, and although it is a bit out of the way, you should definitely have Telluride on your Colorado Itinerary. This town is so dang gorgeous and has a vibrant and active community.
Telluride is also home to a number of festivals in summer, with the Telluride Bluegrass Festival being one of the biggest. If you want to visit during a festival, make sure to plan your tickets and accommodation in advance.
There are tons of things to do in Telluride and you should definitely hit up some hiking trails, take the gondola up to Telluride Ski Resort from town, and visit the nearby Alta Ghost Town.
Check out this post I wrote for more details about what to see and do in Telluride.
Where to Stay in Telluride: The Bivvi is an excellent affordable option with dorm and private rooms. Town Park Campground for camping right in town, Inn at Lost Creek in Mountain Village, or the New Sheridan Hotel. For free camping, stay at beautiful Priest Lake. If you want a vacation rental, this charming studio with a hot tub and this cute studio are both great choices and both are right downtown.
Where to Eat in Telluride: Award-winning Brown Dog Pizza for delicious Detroit-style pizzas, Smuggler Union Restaurant and Brewery for a range of craft beers and pub-style food, and Baked in Telluride is the best budget option in town and had excellent pastries, soups, and sandwiches. If you are in Telluride on a Friday, don’t miss the weekly Farmer’s Market.
Where to Drink in Telluride: Telluride Brewing Company for inventive beer, Stronghouse Brewpub for craft beer, and rustic Last Dollar Saloon for its massive range of beers and awesome margaritas. For great coffee, go to High Alpine Coffee.
Ouray 1-2 days
Drive Time to Ouray: 1 hour/50 miles
Rivaling Telluride in beauty, Ouray is another gorgeous historic mountain town that is absolutely picture-perfect and has a number of hiking trails nearby. It is a must-add to a Colorado Road Trip!
Other than just wandering around the town and swooning at the colorful flower boxes and historic buildings, I highly recommend you visit the Wiesbaden Hot Springs and Vapor Cave for a relaxing experience at a great price. This is one of the most unique hot springs in Colorado.
Wiesbaden is actually a lodge but you don’t have to stay there to visit the pools. There is a hot pool outside, and then under the lodge there is a small natural hot pool inside a cave with a waterfall – so cool!
Alternatively, Orvis Hot Springs is another great local hot spring set in a beautiful garden with a few outdoor pools, as well as private indoor pools which are included in the price. It is clothing optional.
A popular and very beautiful trail nearby is the Blue Lakes trail near the town of Ridgway to the north. This eight-mile out-and-back hike is moderate to difficult but so worth it to see these gorgeous lakes! For shorter hikes in town, hike along the river or do the Ouray Perimeter Trail.
Where to Stay in Ouray: Amphitheater Campground, Wiesbaden Hot Springs and Lodgings, Imogene Lodge, or Timber Ridge Lodge. For vacation rentals, this renovated historic home in the heart of downtown, and this modern studio apartment on the river.
Where to Eat in Ouray: Brickhouse 737 for eclectic American cuisine and cocktails – this is one of my favorite restaurants in Colorado!, Colorado Boy Southwest Pub for killer artisan pizza and Southwestern cuisine.
Where to Drink in Ouray: Ouray Brewery for award-winning beers on their rooftop with mountain views, or enjoy beers at Mr Grumpy Pants Brewing.
Silverton 1-2 days
Drive Time to Silverton: 45 minutes/24 miles
The drive from Ouray to Silverton on the Million Dollar Highway is one of the most beautiful in the country, especially in mid to late September when the fall colors are at their peak.
Silverton is a real wild west mountain town that is not polished like Telluride or Ouray, and in that lies its charm.
With unpaved streets and more historic buildings than you can shake a stick at, a walk around Silverton will make you feel like you have stepped back in time to the Gold Rush days.
This is another favorite Colorado road trip stop.
The best place to learn about the storied history of Silverton is at the San Juan County Historical Museum, which has loads of info about the founding of the town and mining history in the area, and it incorporates the old county jail.
Like most mountain towns in Colorado, there are a number of hiking trails nearby and it’s a great base if you want to get into the wilderness. I am dying to do the Ice Lake Basin trail myself.
Where to Stay in Silverton: Teller House or the Grand Imperial Hotel. For camping, stay at Molas Lake Campground or Silverton Lakes RV Resort. For vacation rentals, stay at Stellar House in downtown Silverton, or this unique tiny house that is also downtown.
Where to Eat in Silverton: Rocky Mountain Funnel Cake Factory for decadent funnel cakes, The Bent Elbow for excellent American dishes, Handlebars Food and Saloon for their extensive menu and western decor, Eureka Station for pasties.
Where to Drink in Silverton: Golden Block Brewery for local brews, The Bent Elbow for their old-timey bar.
Durango and Mesa Verde National Park 2-3 days
Drive Time to Durango: 1 hour/48 miles
Durango will feel like the big smoke compared to the mountain towns you have been visiting, but it’s still a lovely small city with beautifully restored historic buildings and a lively student population.
Mesa Verde National Park is only a 40-minute drive away so unless you are wanting to camp in the park, Durango is a great base as there are a number of good restaurants, breweries, and bars in town.
Mesa Verde National Park is one of the highlights of this whole Colorado road trip itinerary, especially if you are into history like me. The cliff dwellings here are simply spectacular, and are some of the best-preserved archeological sites on the whole continent!
Along with doing some hiking and visiting the viewpoints over the different cliff dwellings, you absolutely have to visit at least one of the cliff dwellings up close and personal. I highly recommend taking tours of Balcony House and/or Long House and doing the self-guided tour of Step House.
For hikes in Mesa Verde National Park, I enjoyed the Spruce Canyon trail, the Point Lookout trail, and the Soda Canyon trail.
Along with visiting Mesa Verde National Park, another popular attraction in Durango and one of the most beautiful train journeys in the country is between Durango and Silverton – the Narrow Gauge Railway.
I am yet to do this myself but I have heard great things! You can do the return train journey with two hours spent in Silverton in one nine-hour day trip.
Make sure to save an afternoon and evening to soak at the excellent Durango Hot Springs which has over 20 different pools to choose from and a restaurant onsite.
Where to Stay in Durango: Morefield Campground in Mesa Verde National Park, or stay at The Strater Hotel or the General Palmer Hotel in Durango. For vacation rentals, stay at this cozy treehouse condo or this urban homestead in downtown Durango.
Where to Eat in Durango: Grab sliders, pizza, or tacos from one of the eateries at 11th Street Station which also has a bar and live music. Neopolitan pizza from Fired Up Pizzeria.
Where to Drink in Durango: Awesome craft beer at Ska Brewing Co or Steamworks Brewing Company. Cocktails at the Old West-style Diamond Belle Saloon where the wait staff dress in period clothing.
Pagosa Springs 1-2 days
Drive Time to Pagosa Springs: 1 hour 10 minutes/60 miles
Pagosa Springs is a pleasant town set on the San Juan River and is most famous for its hot springs. There are a couple of different options in town, and if you love hot springs and want to try more than one.
I recommend the relaxing Overlook Hot Springs with various pools over three levels, and The Springs Resort and Spa which has pools sitting right on the river and is the premier hot springs complex in town (the price certainly reflects this).
If you want to stay longer, there are plenty of activities in the area like hiking, tubing, kayaking, fishing, and mountain biking to keep you busy.
Where to Stay in Pagosa Springs: Pagosa Riverside Campground, The Springs Resort and Spa, Fireside Cabins, or The Nightingale Motel. For vacation rentals, stay at this charming studio with mountain views, or this cozy downtown studio.
Where to Eat in Pagosa Springs: The Peak Deli for delicious breakfasts and sandwiches (the best breakfast burrito in Colorado!), Mountain Pizza and Taproom for pizzas and pour-your-own beer taps, Root House for coffee drinks and cafe fare.
Where to Drink in Pagosa Springs: Riff Raff Brewing Company for craft beer in a Victorian house.
Great Sand Dunes National Park 1-2 days
Drive Time to Great Sand Dunes National Park: 2 hours 10 minutes/108 miles
Great Sand Dunes National Park will make you feel like you are on the planet Tatooine, but without Luke Skywalker. You probably wouldn’t expect to see so much sand when you are so far from the ocean, but there it is. This is definitely one of the more unique stops on this Colorado Road Trip Itinerary!
This offbeat National Park is home to the tallest sand dune in North America, and you can hike up it. But if you don’t have nine hours, then hike up the highest dune on the first ridge instead, and then slide back down if you have something to slide on.
Along with all that sand, Great Sand Dunes National Park is also home to wetlands, grasslands, alpine forests, and tundra, and there are numerous hiking trails that will allow you to explore the diverse landscapes in the park.
In spring and early summer, cool off in Medrano Creek – it is only flowing during this short window each year.
Where to Stay for Great Sand Dunes National Park: For camping, Piñon Flats Campground in the park or Great Sand Dunes Oasis RV Park just outside the park. Nearby hotels are Great Sand Dunes Lodge or Mountain View Motor Inn in Garland. For a vacation home, stay at this artsy Southwest house in Alamosa.
Where to Eat & Drink in Great Sand Dunes National Park: The only place to eat within 25 miles of the park is the Great Sand Dunes Oasis Restaurant. It’s best to bring your own food for your visit.
Valley View Hot Springs 1-2 days
Drive Time to Valley View Hot Springs: 1 hour 10 minutes/66 miles
If you manage to book a slot to visit or stay a night, you should definitely add the remote Valley View Hot Springs to your Colorado itinerary.
These rustic, clothing-optional hot springs are managed by a land trust, and you have to make sure you book in advance because only a certain number of people are allowed in each day.
Ring a week in advance to book and make sure you will be there on the day you say because the cancellation fee is hefty.
But believe me, this special place is worth the hassle. I met the most friendly and interesting people soaking in the various natural pools and the views are incredible down over the San Luis Valley.
Bring your own food because there are no restaurants or stores nearby. Be warned – if you are not comfortable around nudity then it is probably not the place for you, although it is perfectly acceptable to wear a bathing suit if you feel more comfortable.
Salida 1-2 days
Drive Time to Salida: 45 minutes/38 miles
Another day, another beautiful and historic mountain town – there really are so many in Colorado! Salida is home to Colorado’s largest National Historic District with 136 preserved buildings that have a wild west past.
You can either drop in for a short visit to Salida to check out the pretty main street and go for a stroll by the river or stay longer to do some hiking, mountain biking, or world-class white water rafting.
If it’s hot, you can swim in the river right in town, then grab a local beer at one of the town’s breweries.
Where to Stay in Salida: The Salida Inn and Hostel, American Classic Inn, or Silver Ridge Lodge. For vacation rentals, stay at cute Tenderfoot Cottage or turn-of-the-century Dvora’s Guest House, both downtown.
Where to Eat in Salida: Amicas Pizza Microbrew for wood-fired pizzas and beer brewed onsite, Tacos El Tapatio for authentic Mexican food. Brown Dog Coffee Company for good coffee and breakfast burritos in cozy surroundings.
Where to Drink in Salida: Try local craft beer at Soulcraft Brewing, Tres Litros Beer Company, and Moonlight Pizza and Brewpub. The Biker & The Baker is a great choice for wine and cocktails, and Benson’s Tavern and Beer Garden for drinks and live music.
St Elmo Ghost Town – Half Day
Drive Time to St Elmo Ghost Town: 50 minutes/32 miles
My favorite ghost town in Colorado, St Elmo is also one of the best-preserved in the American West. It is absolutely worth going a little out of your way to visit, whether you love history, photography, hummingbirds, or just exploring beautiful places.
On arrival, grab a pamphlet to take a self-guided walk of this late 19th Century historic town, where 43 buildings remain, including a saloon, a courthouse/jail, mercantile, and private homes.
Summer is an excellent time to visit if you love hummingbirds because there are dozens of them buzzing around the various feeders by the General Store in town.
There are also lots of chipmunks, I love those little cuties! In fall, the gold of the aspens surrounding the town is absolutely spectacular.
Another couple of ghost towns that are definitely worth visiting in the area are Vicksburg and Winfield.
Located in Clear Creek Canyon just north of Buena Vista, these two ghost towns are great for a wander and there is dispersed camping all along the gravel road. You can easily do this drive in a 2WD.
If you want to stay at St Elmo, you can camp at Iron City Campground right by it.
Buena Vista 1-3 days
Drive Time to Buena Vista: 40 minutes/20 miles
Buena Vista is another one of my favorite mountain towns, and I love the friendly locals, the cute downtown, and the proximity to hot springs, hiking trails, and other outdoor adventures.
I don’t see Buena Vista on many a Colorado Itinerary, but I think it should be on them all.
My favorite things to do in Buena Vista are to hang out around town looking at the boutiques and people-watching at a bar or cafe, walking along the river in fall to admire the fall colors, hiking alpine trails in the stunning Collegiate Peaks – like the popular Ptarmigan Lake, and soaking at one of the hot springs nearby – I love Cottonwood Hot Springs, but Mount Princeton Hot Springs is another popular option.
Like Salida down the road, Buena Vista is one of the best places in the country to go white water rafting so if that is something you are interested in, you should get on a rafting trip here.
I did a rafting trip through Browns Canyon National Monument and absolutely loved it!
Whether you are only passing through or you decide to stay a few days, you are going to love Buena Vista – we are even thinking of buying land here we love it so much.
Where to Stay in Buena Vista: Cottonwood Hot Springs Lodging for rooms, cabins, dorms and camping, Five Peaks, or Surf Hotel & Chateau. For vacation rentals, stay in this cute one-bedroom in the trendy South Main district, or this sweet cabin in the heart of BV.
Where to Eat in Buena Vista: The Buena Viking Food Truck is very popular with locals and visitors for their amazing burgers and sides, or try the pizza at Elkhorn Pizzeria.
Where to Drink in Buena Vista: Eddyline Brewery for local brews, art-filled local hot spot Buena Vista Roastery Cafe for craft coffee and tea drinks and baked goods.
Aspen, Maroon Bells and Independence Pass 2-5 Days
Drive Time to Aspen: 3 hours 15 minutes/162 miles
This is another big detour in this Colorado road trip itinerary. I have tried to take you on a mostly circular route but you shouldn’t miss Aspen and Maroon Bells – it’s worth the detour, I promise.
Take at least half a day to drive over scenic Independence Pass, the highest paved pass in North America which is only open in summer and fall.
Stop for photos or hike the Interlaken trail at Twin Lakes to the remains of a once luxurious resort, enjoy epic views at the Continental Divide Viewpoint, and learn about mining history at beautiful Independence Ghost Town.
This is also one of the best fall color drives in Colorado, and once you start the descent from the Continental Divide into Aspen, the golden display of aspen trees covering the mountains on both sides of the road will knock your socks off.
Aspen is a former mining town, turned hedonistic counter-culture town, turned ritzy mountain resort with some of the most expensive real estate in the country.
Unfortunately only the rich can afford to live in Aspen now but it is still a beautiful place to visit, with the gorgeous historical buildings and colorful flower baskets that you see in a lot of mountain towns in Colorado.
There is also a lot to do around Aspen with some incredible mountain biking, hiking, and rock climbing.
No matter what, spend at least half a day in nearby Maroon Bells – Snowmass Wilderness, which is one of the most beautiful wilderness areas in the whole country. There are a number of hiking trails from short strolls to multi-day adventures.
Where to Stay in Aspen: Difficult Camping Ground, The Gant, or Tyrolean Lodge. For vacation rentals, stay at this newly remodeled studio condo or this similar studio – both in the heart of Aspen.
Where to Eat in Aspen: White House Tavern for premium sandwiches, snacks, and craft cocktails in a 19th Century Miner’s cottage, Grateful Deli for lovers of sandwiches and The Grateful Dead.
Where to Drink in Aspen: Hooch Craft Cocktail Bar for elevated cocktails, Aspen Brewing Co for local craft beer and pizza.
Optional: Backpacking Trip in Maroon Bells 2-3 days
If you are looking to add a multi-day hike to your Colorado road trip itinerary, I highly recommend doing one in Maroon Bells.
Two of the most popular hikes are the Four Pass Loop which takes three or four days to complete, and the two-day return hike to remote Conundrum Hot Springs.
But I recommend doing the Aspen to Crested Butte hike over West Maroon Pass and back on East Maroon Pass with a night in Crested Butte. If you do this you could cut the big detour to Crested Butte earlier in the road trip out.
This was one of the best hikes I have ever done with incredible mountain scenery, wildflowers and wild berries everywhere, and you get to spend an afternoon and evening exploring the beautiful Crested Butte.
I wrote a detailed guide to this hike here. You can do this in two days or take your time as we did.
Leadville 1-2 days
Drive Time to Leadville: 2 hours 40 minutes/129miles
At this point of your Colorado road trip, you have been to a lot of mountain towns that were former mining towns and are full of history – but Leadville is one of the best.
Like Silverton, the buildings in Leadville’s historic downtown have been somewhat restored, but it still retains a real Wild West vibe and has a rough and readiness to it that I love.
Leadville sits at over 10,000 feet and the winters here are especially harsh, this attracts a special type of person and there sure are some colorful characters that call Leadville home.
If you are a fan of spending hours browsing through cavernous antique stores with old stuff piled everywhere (who doesn’t?!) then don’t miss Western Hardware Antique, and the Old West memorabilia at the Silver Dollar Saloon has to be seen to be believed.
If you are interested in the history of Leadville, make sure to visit the Matchless Mine and Baby Doe’s cabin, do a tour of the Healy House Museum and Dexter Cabin, and visit the National Mining Museum and Hall of Fame.
The second-highest mountain in the lower 48 states, Mount Elbert, is right by Leadville too so if you want to bag a 14’er this one is a great choice.
Where to Stay in Leadville: For camping, stay at the Molly Brown Campground by Turquoise Lake, or Elbert Creek Campground if you are looking at summiting Mount Elbert. Another great budget option is to rent an ensuite room at The Mountain Hideaway Lodge, this is where we stay when we are in Leadville and we love the jacuzzi and sauna, the shared kitchen, and how close it is to town.
Hotel options include Inn the Clouds Hostel & Inn and The Abbey. For vacation rentals, stay in one of Leadville’s tiny houses – my top picks are this one, this one, and this one.
Where to Eat in Leadville: Treeline Kitchen for classic American plates done really, really well, and inventive cocktails. High Mountain Pies for great pizza.
Where to Drink in Leadville: The Legendary Silver Dollar Saloon for drinks in an Old West watering hole, and Two Mile Brewing Company for local brews.
Vail 1-2 days
Drive Time to Vail: 1 hour/38 miles
Drive Highway 24 via the cute town of Minturn to perhaps the most famous Ski Resort in the U.S. – Vail.
Vail is picture-perfect, but really – it’s more a ski resort than a real town. It doesn’t have the mining history of so many of Colorado’s mountain towns, and it shows. Rather than being full of historic buildings, it has been modeled to look like Switzerland or Austria, and although it is pretty, it’s all a bit fake if you ask me.
But – it’s still worth visiting as the setting is STUNNING and there are some great hiking and biking trails, including a lovely easy path that follows the river.
If you have ever wanted to hike with alpacas, you can do that in Vail, as well as horse riding, climbing, tubing, zip-lining, and riding an alpine coaster. And don’t miss the pretty Betty Ford Alpine Gardens.
Where to Stay in Vail: The Bunkhouse Hostel in Minturn, or Gravity Haus Vail or Tivoli Lodge in Vail. For vacation rentals, stay in the Birch luxury studio, or the Streamside Douglas one-bedroom villa.
Where to Eat in Vail: Up the Creek for relaxed dining by the river, Yeti’s Grind for coffee and breakfast burritos, Swiss Chalet Restaurant for fondue and Swiss eats.
Where to Drink in Vail: Vail Brewing Company and 7 Hermits Brewing Company for local craft beer, Shakedown Bar for drinks served with live music.
Frisco – Half Day
Drive Time to Frisco: 30 minutes/26 miles
On the way between Vail and Breckenridge, stop for a look around the lovely town of Frisco with its historic Main Street.
If you are into history, check out the free self-guided Frisco Historic Park and Museum which includes the Old Schoolhouse and Jail.
There are a number of hiking trails that start right in town, so stretch your legs on one of these before hitting the road again.
Where to Stay in Frisco: If you do decide to stay in Frisco, the Snowshoe Motel or Frisco Lodge are great choices. For vacation rentals, stay at Cedars Lodge studio condo, or this charming studio – both downtown.
Where to Eat in Frisco: Butterhorn Bakery for the best breakfast in town, 5th Avenue Grille for delicious New American cuisine, Ein Prosit for German beer and sausages. The Mint Steakhouse in nearby Silverthorne is also a great choice – you cook your own protein and it is in the oldest building in Summit County.
Where to Drink in Frisco: Outer Range Brewing Company and Highside Brewing for great local craft beer.
Breckenridge 1-2 days
Drive Time to Breckenridge: 20 minutes/10 miles
Breckenridge is one of the big ski resorts in winter, but in summer it is host to a whole lot of fun warm-weather activities like world-class mountain biking, hiking, scenic drives, summer dog sledding, zip-lining, paddle-boarding, and river rafting, to name a few.
If you are looking for a party, then Breckenridge is great for that too. With over 100 restaurants and bars in Breckenridge and a young and lively population, Breck knows how to party.
And like Vail, Breckenridge is also home to a large number of festivals throughout the year – there is always something going on.
If you are visiting in the fall, don’t miss driving at least some of Boreas Pass, and do some of the fall hikes in the area including Aspen Alley for golden aspens and mining history.
And whatever time of year you are visiting, make sure to add a visit to the Breckenridge troll to your Colorado road trip!
Where to Stay in Breckenridge: The Bivvi Boutique Hostel, Gravity Haus, or Mountain Thunder Lodge. For vacation rentals, stay at Peak 9 studio condo or this cute studio – both in downtown Breck.
Where to Eat in Breckenridge: Amazing Grace for killer breakfasts in a homey environment, American comfort food on the sun-soaked patio at The Canteen Tap House & Tavern.
Where to Drink in Breckenridge: Breckenridge Brewery & Pub for inventive beer and pub food, Broken Compass Brewery for their inventive and delicious craft beers – try their Ginger Pale Ale and Coconut Porter, and The Absinthe Bar for a wide selection of absinthe.
Georgetown 1-2 Days
Drive Time to Georgetown: 45 minutes/37 miles
Georgetown is a cute little town right off the I-70 near Idaho Springs, and is definitely worth a visit if you are into mining history or want to hike the closest 14’er to Denver – Mount Bierstadt.
The main street of Georgetown is full of historic buildings, and if you are interested in mining history – there are tours of the historic Capital Prize Gold Mine.
Drive the Guanella Pass Scenic Byway for stunning fall colors in September and gorgeous views all year round, and ride the Georgetown loop railroad on an old steam engine past several gold and silver mines from the past.
Where to Stay in Georgetown: Hotel Chateau Chamonix or Georgetown Mountain Inn. For vacation rentals, stay at The Cricket tiny house on Clear Creek, or in this super affordable and cozy one-bedroom condo.
Where to Eat & Drink in Georgetown: Cooper’s on the Creek for elevated Colorado fare, Guanella Pass Brewing Company for awesome local brews.
Idaho Springs – Half Day
Drive Time to Idaho Springs: 15 minutes/13 miles
Idaho Springs is yet another lovely historic mountain town and was founded during the Pike’s Peak Gold Rush in 1859. It is also one of the closest mountain towns to Denver.
As well as visiting the town itself, don’t miss hiking to nearby St Mary’s Glacier, and take a historic gold mine tour at Phoenix Gold Mine.
You can also drive to the summit of 14,270ft Mount Evans from Idaho Springs on the Mount Evans Scenic Byway.
Make sure to time your visit to have lunch at the excellent BeauJo’s for Colorado-style pizza. What is Colorado-style pizza you ask? You should find out for yourself, but I will say that it involves honey. Wash it down with a beer from popular Tommy Knocker Brewery.
And then from Idaho Springs, it is only half an hour back to Denver!
Phew, so that’s it for now! I still haven’t been everywhere in Colorado so the more places I go, the more I can add on to this giant Colorado Itinerary.
I hope this helps in planning your own Colorado road trip Itinerary, and that you come away loving Colorado just as much as I do.
If you liked this – check out some of my other Colorado posts: