Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links. At no cost to you, I might earn a small commission if you make a purchase through the links in this article.
Colorado is one of the most scenic states in America. From the snow-capped Rockies in the heart of the state to the deserts on the western side to the tallest dunes in North America, Colorado boasts some of the most diverse landscapes you’ve ever seen. It takes months to discover Colorado, but you can do it in a shorter time if you plan your Colorado Road trip right!
I’ve done many road trips in Colorado. And let me tell you: it can be hard to narrow down the list of places to visit. That’s why I put together this article to help you plan your Colorado road trip.
Where to start your Colorado Road trip?
Most travelers begin their Colorado road trip in Denver, the largest city in the Centennial state. Denver is home to the largest airport in Colorado (DEN), which has connections to many other destinations in the United States. You can also rent a car at the airport in Denver for your Colorado road trip.
Renting a car in Denver
I recommend renting a vehicle with DiscoverCars for your Colorado road trip. I have used DiscoverCars many times in my travels, and it offers some of the most competitive prices with a good selection of cars from compact ones to bigger SUVs.
Where to stay: The Crawford Hotel at Union Station
Where to eat: City O’City
Denver is the largest city in the state and is a perfect starting point for your Colorado road trip. It boasts a variety of restaurants and is well known for its breweries! Taking a guided beer tour is an excellent option to sample local brews!
Read my complete guide to the best things to do in Denver to plan your trip!
You can spend a few days discovering Denver neighborhoods like Lower Downtown (also called LoDo), where you can find the Union Station; and Larimer Square. Also called the Mile High City, Denver is a perfect place to get used to the high altitude before continuing your Colorado Road to the Rockies.
Denver is also home to many great museums like the Denver Art Museum, Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, Clyfford Still Museum, and even Selfie Museum.
Best things to do in Denver
- Visit Meow Wolf – one of the newest and coolest museums in Denver, Meow Wolf is a must if you like interactive and creative art space.
- Spot cool graffiti in RiNo – The River North known as RiNo is a gentrified area of Denver where you can find many cool graffitis and restaurants. It’s popular for going out thanks to many hip bars and cafes.
- Check out the Botanical Garden – Home to North America’s largest collection of plants from climates around the world, Denver’s Botanic Gardens are a popular stop for many visitors.
- Stroll along the 16th Street Mall – a 1.25-mile-long pedestrian area in the city’s downtown. Here you can explore restaurants and stores.
- Colorado State Capitol – If you want to get a glimpse into the history and politics of Colorado, check out its state capital located in the heart of downtown.
PRO TIP: Check out some of the most beautiful hikes near Denver. Nearby towns like Evergreen, Idaho Springs, and George Town are within one hour of Denver and offer great outdoor opportunities.
Where to stay: Hotel Boulderado
Where to eat: Leaf
Boulder is a Denver’s smaller cousin that sits at foothills of the Rockies.
Boulder has also been named one of the best places to live in the United States, and it’s not hard to see why. Boulder offers year-round opportunities for rock climbing, hiking, mountain biking and a great restaurant scene with dozens of eateries for all tastes.
To begin your trip, go Pearl Street Mall, the main thoroughfare of the city where you can enjoy local beer, shop for some souvenirs and grab a tasty bite.
To burn some calories, hit one of the many trails in Boulder where you can enjoy the views of Denver in the distance on one side and snowy Rockies on the other.
Best things to do in Boulder
- Hike the Flatirons – a popular spot for hiking, rock climbing, and mountain biking. The 2.5-mile hike through the meadow in Chautauqua Park will bring you to the first and second set of Flatirons – and further up, if you want a good challenge.
- Test your stamina at Mount Sanitas – a steep trail with the quick elevation gain.
- Eldorado Canyon State Park – Outside of Boulder, you will find the incredible Eldorado Canyon State Park that boasts views of the snow-covered Continental Divide.
- Go up the Flagstaff Mountain – this 5.4-mile trail will treat you to spectacular views of Boulder.
- Savor delicious tea at Dushanbe Tea House – one of the most popular restaurants in Boulder, this colorful tea house is a perfect place to discover the cuisine of the Central Asian Country.
Rocky Mountain National Park
Where to stay: Discovery Lodge
Where to eat: Ed’s Cantina and Grill
Check my complete guide to the best things to do in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) is one of the best day trips from Denver and one of the most popular stops on a classic Colorado Road Trip. RMNP is home to some of the best hikes in Colorado, alpine lakes, and snow-capped mountains.
A gateway to the Rocky Mountain, Estes Park is a charming town with many attractions such as the haunted Stanley Hotel, where you can book the ghost tour, the Estes Park Aerial Tramway, and Open Air Adventure Park. If you have extra time, spend a day in Estes Park. One of my favorite activities in Estes Park was kayaking on a small lake.
As of 2021, you need a reservation to visit Rocky Mountain National Park. To reserve a time slot, go to the Recreation.gov.
PRO TIP: One place near Rocky Mountain National Park that should be on your radar is the Indian Peaks Wilderness – an area popular for multi-day trips and backpacking. One of the most stunning hikes in the Indian Peaks Wilderness is Mirror Lake that’s typically tackled in two days.
(Optional Stop) Breckenridge
Where to stay: The Lodge at Breckenridge
Where to eat: Piante Pizzeria
Breckenridge is a popular weekend getaway for Denver residents. Many people come here to ski in winter and hike and camp in summer.
Breckenridge sits near Frisco, Dillon, and Silverthorne, that can be accessed by a 15-minute drive. Dillon Reservoir, a small lake not far from Breckenridge, is popular for kayaking and paddle boarding in summer.
✅ Don’t forget to wear layers when heading to Colorado mountains! Check out this article to find out what to wear in Colorado
Some of the best hikes in Breckenridge are Quandary Peak, one of the most popular Colorado’s 14’ers; McCullough Gulch Trail – a popular trail with spectacular backcountry views right outside of Breckenridge; Boreas Pass, and Mohawk Lakes.
Other fun things to do in Breckenridge are taking Breckenridge Gondola, exploring the Historic Main Street, where you can learn about the early days of Breckenridge; and visiting local distilleries where you can sample authentic Colorado beer.
Breckenridge also offers mountain biking, camping, rock climbing, and zip lining. It’s a true adventure paradise, and, if you are an avid hiker, you should include it on your Colorado itinerary.
An obligatory stop on your Colorado road trip is Independence Pass. The highest road in North America is at more than 12,000 feet.
This 32-mile stretch connects Leadville and Aspen and boasts panoramic views of the Rockies and the Continental Divide, a natural boundary that separates North America’s river systems.
While the pass is closed in winter, it’s a popular stop for summer road trips in Colorado. June and July is the best time to visit Independence Pass if you want to see the blooming wildflowers.
Where to stay: Tyrolean Lodge
Where to eat: Pyramid Bistro
Aspen is one of the most famous mountain towns in Colorado. It’s home to ski resorts, hiking trails and the most expensive real estate in Colorado. Winter and summer are the busiest times in Aspen, but fall is equally beautiful when thousands of aspen trees turn gold.
Check my complete guide to the best things to do in Aspen.
A former silver-mining town, Aspen is home to interesting history and unbeatable outdoor opportunities. In summer, you can enjoy paragliding in Aspen, which you can book with one of the local tour companies.
The Aspen area is also home to Maroon Bells, the most photographed peaks in North America. From middle to late September, these iconic mountains are framed by the golden colors of aspen trees.
Where to stay: Hotel Glenwood Springs
Where to eat: Zheng Asian Bistro
Glenwood Springs is a close neighbor of Aspen and is a popular stop on a classic Colorado road trip, thanks to several natural attractions.
The town sits right off Interstate-70, which makes it a convenient stop on your itinerary. Most travelers know Glenwood Springs as home to some of the best hot springs in Colorado. But there’s a lot more to do here, and you should spend at least a day in this beautiful town.
Located on the Western Slope, Glenwood Springs is a year-round destination where you can enjoy rafting on the Colorado River and exploring many hikes like the 6.8-mile Grizzly Trail.
Another popular stop in Glenwood Springs is Hanging Lake – a natural area nestled in the cliffs of the Glenwood Canyon. Don’t forget to book a permit to access it.
Where to stay: Hotel Maverick
Where to eat: Namaste Nepal Restaurant
After spending time in Glenwood Springs, head to Grand Junction, the largest town in Western Colorado.
While Grand Junction doesn’t have the spectacular Rockies, it’s a good starting point for your adventures in southwest Colorado. If you are short on time, you can spend a night in Grand Junction before continuing, but if you have a day, there are a couple of fun things to do in Grand Junction.
Check my complete guide to the most spectacular places to visit in Southwest Colorado
Best things to do in Grand Junction:
- Dominguez Canyon – spanning four miles, this scenic area boasts many well-preserved Native American petroglyphs.
- Two Rivers Winery – located just west of downtown Grand Junction where you can sample locally produced wine
- Colorado National Monument – Colorado National Monument is one of the most popular places to visit in Grand Junction. It’s home to steep-walled canyons, mesas, and plateaus with millions of years of history
- Grand Mesa – The largest flat-top mountain in the world, Grand Mesa sits nearly 6,000 feet above the valley floor. Located about 40 miles east of Grand Junction, it is worth a stop, if you want to get a respite from the summer heat of Grand Junction.
The Black Canyon of the Gunnision
Where to stay: Hampton Inn Montrose
Where to eat: Bluecorn Cafe
Most visitors who come to Colorado visit Rocky Mountain National Park.
But not many know about the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, a hidden treasure about 1 hour and 20 minutes south of Grand Junction.
The Black Canyon of the Gunnison is breathtaking, but the crowds are much thinner than in other popular destinations across the state. Although it doesn’t have hundreds of miles of scenic hiking trails, the jaw-dropping views of the canyon make for it.
GOOD TO KNOW: The Black Canyon of the Gunnison is not close to any other popular place in Colorado. If you visit it on a weekday, you might even have the whole place to yourself, especially if you come here in the afternoon.
Like Grand Canyon, this park has North and South Rims, with many overlooks and shorter hikes, and East Portal that takes you down to the river.
The Black Canyon of the Gunnison is an international Dark Sky Park. It means you can see spectacular dark skies here if you stay camping for the night. If you don’t have a camper, you can spend the night in Montrose, the closest town to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison.
PRO TIP: If you want to visit several national parks in Colorado, get America the Beautiful Pass. The pass costs $80, while the entrance to most national parks is $45. It allows you to visit all parts of the U.S. National Parks System.
Where to stay: Mountain Lodge at Telluride
Where to eat: La Cocina De Luz
Telluride is my favorite place in Colorado, and I can’t recommend it enough for your Colorado road trip! Located in the San Juan Mountains, Telluride is pretty remote, and it takes time to get here. But the effort is well worth it: Telluride is a getaway to adventure with incredible opportunities for hiking, mountain biking, and camping.
You can spend weeks exploring some of the best spectacular places near Telluride like the Blue Lakes Trail, Sneffels Highline Trail, or numerous mountain passes in the high country. Plan at least a couple of days in Telluride for your Colorado itinerary.
To learn more about the best things to do in Telluride, check my complete guide.
Where to stay: Ouray Inn
Where to eat: Brickhouse 737
Nicknamed “Switzerland of America,” Ouray is a short drive from Telluride that makes a perfect stop on your Colorado itinerary.
If you love the outdoors, there are plenty of things to do here. The area boasts many hiking trails (one of the best areas for hiking in the Bear Creek National Recreation Trail); historic mining ghost towns, camping, and off-roading.
If you have a day in Ouray, hike the Perimeter trail that follows the outline of this town and provides access to some of the best things to do in Ouray like Box Canyon Falls Park, and several waterfalls.
Ouray is one of those towns you should visit in summer, as you can drive on the San Juan Skyway; or The Alpine Loop, one of Colorado’s 26 scenic byways. Alpine Loop is a 63-mile track connecting Lake City, Ouray, and Silverton and requires four-wheel drive. Another popular summertime activity in Ouray is hiking the Yankee Boy Basin and biking the Ridgeway Area Trail System.
Don’t forget to visit the famous Ouray hot springs, one of the best hot springs in Colorado, to relax after a day of exploring.
One Million Dollar Highway
One Million Dollar Highway is a portion of the San Juan Skyway and is considered one of the most beautiful drives in Colorado. One Million Dollar Highway covers the first twelve miles south of Ouray until the Uncompahgre Gorge to the summit of Red Mountain Pass. It’s a common stop on a Colorado Road Trip. But come prepared – this drive has many hairpin turns and sharp drop-offs with no guardrails.
Many travelers take this highway to connect to Silverton and other parts of Colorado like Durango and Mesa Verde National Park.
Where to stay: Teller House
Where to eat: Avalanche Brewing Company
Silverton is a National Historic Landmark in Southwest Colorado. It’s perhaps one of the most worthy stops for your Colorado Itinerary.
Located along San Juan Skyway, Silverton is a place to unplug and enjoy the unspoiled mountain views. If you want to escape busy places like Telluride and Ouray, spend a couple of days in Silverton to enjoy some of the best hikes in Colorado like Ice Lakes Basin and Columbine Lake, or explore the scenic backcountry.
Mesa Verde National Park
Where to stay: Far View Lodge
Mesa Verde National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site famous for its vast collection of dwellings and artifacts left by the Ancestral Pueblo people.
The park boasts about 5,000 archaeological sites and over 600 cliff dwellings built into the cliff sites that were preserved when Pueblos occupied the area.
If you are a history buff, this is by far one of the best places to visit in Colorado, that’s worth a lengthy drive to the southwest corner of the state.
After learning the history of the ancient cliff dwellings, check out overlooks along the 6-mile Mesa Top Loop Road on Chapin Mesa, an area that has several hikes.
The cliff dwellings inside this national park are fragile, so make sure not to touch them.
Great Sand Dunes National Park
Where to stay: Hampton Inn Alamosa
Where to eat: Locavores
The Great Sand Dunes National Park is one of the most striking natural sites in Colorado that spans over 30 square miles. Not many people know that Colorado has dunes, so this is a huge surprise for many travelers.
Not only will you be able to hike around the shifting dunes, but you will also see Star Dune, the tallest dune in North America at 750 feet!
You can have a lot of fun sandboarding or using a sled to slide down the dunes. Stop in the nearby town Alamosa, which has several rental shops. Stay for the sunset to watch the dark shadows fall over the area.
Take your camera and snap a few photos of the clear dark sky. The Great San Dune is located in a rural area away from the sources of light pollution, a factor that ensures it has incredibly dark skies.
Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve in Colorado is one of the best West Coast national parks.
Where to stay: Cozy Dream Cottage
Where to eat: The Burrowing Owl
Colorado Springs is the second largest town in Colorado, and although many people treat it as a stop for visiting the Garden of the Gods, it offers many cool things to do.
Colorado Springs is 1 hour and 20 minutes from Denver and many people come here for a weekend. Home to Pikes Peak and many hiking trails, it’s a great place to spend a day or two on your Colorado road trip.
Best things to do in Colorado Springs
- Garden of the Gods the Gods – Garden of the Gods’ trails range from easy to moderate and don’t require advanced hiking skills. You can also take one of the Segway tours that will allow you to sightsee this place.
- Manitou Incline – a popular hiking trail outside Manitou Springs. The trail gains 2,000 feet in elevation over 2,744 steps in less than one mile.
- Pikes Peak – One of Colorado’s 52 fourteeners (mountains with an altitude of at least 14,000 feet), Pikes Peak stands 14,115 feet tall. Unlike most fourteeners in Colorado, Pikes Peak can be accessed via Pikes Peak Highway – an alpine road at 14,115 feet; or Pikes Peak Cog Railway, the highest locomotive-carrying railway in the United States.
- Seven Falls – Seven Falls is a series of seven waterfalls with a height of 181 feet inside the narrow box canyon. While there are many other waterfalls in Colorado, Bradmoor Falls is the only waterfall that made it to the list of National Geographic international waterfalls.
Manitou Cliff Dwellings Museum – the remaining ruins of the Anasazi cliff dwellings that date 800 to 1000 years back, Manitou Cliff Dwellings is a museum under an open sky. The dwellings were originally discovered in the southwest region of Colorado near Mesa Verde National Park and were brought to Colorado Springs in the early 20th century to protect them from looters.
- Old Colorado – Old Colorado, is a small historic neighborhood located in the middle of Colorado Springs. It’s an excellent place to learn about Colorado’s mining history.
Check my complete guide to Colorado’s second-largest city.
How to plan your Colorado Road trip
- Pick the best places to visit in Colorado – Check my complete guide to some of the best places to visit in Colorado to plan your itinerary.
- Fly into the correct airport – Most travelers who come to Colorado fly straight to Denver International Airport. But it’s not the only option. You can catch flights to other destinations in Colorado from Denver like Aspen, Grand Junction, or Telluride.
- Choose the right timing – If you want to enjoy the outdoors, plan your Colorado road trip for the summer months. Winter and fall are equally beautiful in the centennial state. But you will be limited in terms of what you can do because of the colder temperatures and access to trails and scenic drives most of which close around mid-October and open in late May.
- Get travel insurance – buying travel insurance is a smart move, if you want to spend a couple of weeks on the road. SafetyWing is a good option as it will protect you in case of accidents, and hospital visits.
- Plan for weekdays – Colorado is popular, and many travelers come here for a road trip in summer. Weekends are super busy in Breckenridge, Aspen, and Boulder. For a better experience, plan your adventures around weekdays when it’s less busy, and you can enjoy the trails.
Frequently asked questions about a Colorado Road Trip Itinerary
How many days do I need for a Colorado road trip?
If you want to hit all of the stops recommended in this guide, plan no less than 2 weeks for your Colorado road trip. Two weeks is a perfect amount of time to see some of the most beautiful places in Colorado without rushing, and enjoy Colorado’s hiking.
But that doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy Colorado if you have less time. You just need to be smarter about how you spend your time and plan your trip for a specific area. For example, you can spend your trip in the Denver area or the Rockies.
What is the best time to Visit Colorado?
You can plan your Colorado Road trip for any time of the year. But it’s better to do it from May through late September when the weather is the best for hiking, camping, and mountain biking. While you can Visit Colorado in winter, you will not be able to spend as much time outside because of the cold temperatures.
Why plan you Colorado Road trip for summer?
Some of the best drives in Colorado like Independence Pass and One Million Dollar Highway, are also closed in winter, so you will miss out on these gems. After Memorial Day, the snow is gone at lower elevations, but it remains high in the mountains. If you want to hike, plan your itinerary after mid-June.
How to spend 3 days in Colorado?
If you have three days in Colorado, choose a specific part to avoid stretching yourself too thin. For example, you can spend three days in the Denver area, visit Boulder, and take a guided tour of the Rocky Mountain National Park, to make the most out of your trip.
How to spend 7 days in Colorado?
Seven days in Colorado gives you slightly more room to plan your road trip. You can explore the Denver area, take a day trip to the RMNP and spend three other days in Breckenridge or Aspen, where you can enjoy the spectacular mountain landscapes.
How to spend 10 days in Colorado?
Ten days in Colorado will allow you to see many gems of this state, but for an optimal Colorado road trip, I recommend at least 14 days. During 10 days in Colorado, you can explore the Denver area, spend some time in the Rockies and see the western part of Colorado.
The final word on planning your Colorado Road trip
Colorado is a vast and diverse state with some of the best outdoor opportunities in the United States. It takes months to explore Colorado, and you can still have a lot left on your plate after spending a while here.
My guide provides a tentative itinerary with some of the best stops for a classic Colorado road trip. If you want to learn more about Colorado gems, read my guide to some of the best places to visit in Colorado.
Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links. At no cost to you, I might earn a small commission if you make a purchase through the links in this article.