Colorado Road Trip on the way to Colorado Springs

An Awesome Colorado Road Trip Itinerary For Your Bucket List

A Colorado road trip is one for the bucket list!

The State is an absolute treasure trove of natural beauty, boasting 4 National Parks and the Rocky Mountains. You’d be right if you’re thinking Colorado hit the outdoor adventure jackpot! But that’s until you realize these places are just the start of all the things to see and do in Colorado.

It’s impossible to see every last corner of this spectacular state in one visit, but this awesome Colorado road trip itinerary is the best way to cover a lot of ground and maximize how much you can see and do.

From National Parks to Colorado scenic byways to historic mountain towns with great eats, a Colorado trip will not disappoint!

How to Plan an Awesome Colorado Road Trip Itinerary
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Colorado Road Trip Itinerary

Of course, you could spend countless days exploring all Colorado has to offer and still leave hoping for a return visit.

The Colorado itinerary below was based on having just over 1 week in Colorado. I also visited in the Fall to see the spectacular Colorado Fall foliage. This meant I planned a route to give the best chance of seeing the fall colors at their peak.

You could certainly decide to do this Colorado road trip itinerary loop in reverse if it’s better suited to your travel plans. Each stop has plenty to see and do making it easier to extend your trip if you have more time.

Lastly, some of the Colorado scenic passes are only open from late spring to late fall. (Check local road advisories for specific dates as they’re subject to the weather.) Road trips in Colorado outside of this time will likely have to be adjusted for winter weather road closures.

Day 1- Fly into Denver.

Denver Colorado skyline

If you don’t live near Colorado, you’ll need to fly into the region. Unlike my Oregon Coast road trip itinerary, this Colorado itinerary is a loop, which makes it more cost-effective and convenient when searching for cheap flights and booking rental cars. 

For all my road trips, I use a tool like Kayak to search rental car costs because it compares prices on many sites all at once. You can reserve a car at the best available price without paying upfront and use this car rental hack to hopefully save even more!

Consider the time of year of your trip. Colorado is in the mountains. There are steep, curvy roads across the state. I rented a small SUV with 4-wheel drive and packed a few road trip essentials for a successful trip.

ProTip: Since my Colorado road trip was focused more on the outdoors and the small towns and cities along the way, I didn’t include time to explore Denver.

But the city has a vibrant food and craft beer scene, as well as popular places like the Denver Botanical Gardens and the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. Save money by bundling ticket costs into the Denver Mile-High Culture Pass for entry to 7 Denver attractions if you decide to stay for a couple of days.

Once you’ve picked up your rental car, head northwest for the 1.5-hour drive from Denver to Estes Park, Colorado. Estes Park is the gateway town to Rocky Mountain National Park. You’ll find everything you need from food to gas to lodging.

The earlier you arrive in Denver the more extra time you’ll have to explore Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park. 

But even if you arrive after dark, the night drive from the airport to Estes Park is straightforward. If you feel comfortable, I recommend doing the drive when you arrive so you can settle in and get ready for a fresh start in the morning.

If you get to Estes Park and have some time, check out:

10 Fun Things to Do in Estes Park

Where to Stay:

I recommend the Best Western Plus Silver Saddle Inn along the main road in town. The hotel includes breakfast, which is always a plus so you can fuel up before a day of hiking and outdoor adventures.  The hotel is on the main road through town and is just about 3 miles from the entrance of Rocky Mountain National Park.

ProTip: If you’re planning a Colorado road trip in October like me, visit Rocky Mountain Park at the start of your trip. The park is in the northern part of the state and combined with the elevation, the leaves turn earlier than points further south. Watch for early winter weather systems, too, that can cause roads and hiking trails in the park to close.

Day 2- Rocky Mountain National Park

Estes Park Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park is set in the heart of the Rocky Mountains. Jagged peaks, grassy meadows, evergreen forests, and mountain lakes reveal themselves around every bend as you drive into the park’s main access point, the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center.

One of the main highlights of the park and the Estes Park area is the abundance of wildlife. And since the elk and other herds are up early, so should you if you’d like the best chances at seeing them. 

On your way to the National Park, consider a quick detour to drive near the Estes Park Lake. You might just see a herd of elk make its way along the shores, grazing for breakfast.

ProTip: If you plan to do most or all of this Colorado itinerary, buy the America the Beautiful Pass to get free entrance to any National Park, National Monuments, and more for a whole year. After visiting just a few parks, the $80 pass will pay for itself. You should also find out ahead of time if you qualify for any other ways to save money on National Park entrance fees

Rocky Mountain National Park is divided into east and west sides by the Continental Divide. Trail Ridge Road (U.S. 34) is open from Memorial Day until mid-October-ish (as weather permits). You won’t want to miss the views from this scenic drive! 

Trail Ridge Road View Rocky Mountain National Park Colorado

Trail Ridge Road is the highest paved road in the entire country and, as you can imagine, comes with spectacular mountain panoramas, grassy tundras, and alpine lakes. There are pull-offs along the way so you can safely stop to take photos and to just relish in the unbelievable views.

Driving this road, looking for wildlife, and of course, making time for a hike combines for a perfect day in Rocky Mountain National Park. Remember to pack water and lunch/snacks for the day. Estes Park has plenty of places to stock up before you enter the park. 

Day 3- Independence Pass to Aspen to Maroon Bells

Independence Pass Colorado

Check out of your Estes Park hotel bright and early for full-day bursting with everything that makes road trips in Colorado fantastic.

The goal today is to drive along Independence Pass, a Colorado Scenic Byway, which is part of State Highway 82. This mountain pass climbs 12,095 feet, across the Continental Divide and through swaths of National Forest. 

Independence Pass opens each year around Memorial Day until about mid-October or early November depending on the weather. Its elevation isn’t the only thing that’ll leave you gasping, either!

The road, complete with hairpin curves and narrow lanes, comes with terrific views of the Rocky Mountains, ghost mining towns, scenic overlooks, and in Fall, the Aspen Trees blaze in golden yellow. 

If you’re sticking to this Colorado trip planner, plan a half-ish day of sightseeing and road-tripping before following Independence Pass into the town of Aspen.

Independence Pass Colorado

Outside of ski season, Aspen is a pretty mountain town with a walkable downtown. It also makes a great place to stop for lunch. Even on a weekday in Fall when I visited, the restaurants in town were bustling with diners, especially those with an outdoor seating area. 

Remember, even here in the town, you’ll feel the elevation. So don’t rush it and drink plenty of water. 

After lunch and a short stroll through town, dedicate some time to visiting Maroon Bells. Not only is it a great spot to get out of the car to walk and do a short hike, but the landscape is also gorgeous in summer when all the wildflowers are in bloom and in Fall when the leaves turn.

Maroon Bells Colorado

From early June to early October, the only way to access the Maroon Bells area is by bus. The Aspen Highlands Visitor Center has parking and buses that take you the 8 miles to the natural wilderness area. Outside of these times, private cars can drive directly from Aspen to the Maroon Bells parking area.

Once you arrive, the easy Maroon Lake Scenic Trail and the more moderate Crater Lake Trail are the most popular trails for day visitors.

By late afternoon, head west to historic Glenwood Springs, a mountain town famous for its hot springs and revitalized downtown area with plenty of restaurant choices for dinner.

Where to Stay:

Finish the day in Glenwood Springs, about 50 minutes from Maroon Bells and Aspen. I had a comfortable stay with breakfast included at the Holiday Inn Express. I also looked at the Hampton Inn and the Residence Inn but both were slightly higher priced for my dates and I was also trying to maximize an IHG promotion.

I stayed in Glenwood Springs because overall hotel prices are cheaper than Aspen. It also positioned me close to the start of the next day’s drive. 

ProTip: Glenwood Springs had a super cute downtown with great eateries. I highly recommend getting some tacos from Slope and Hatch, arguably the best in all of Colorado!

Day 4- McClure Pass to Kebler Pass to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

Colorado road trip Kebler Pass

If your road trip in Colorado is during the Fall, this could end up being one of your favorite days of the whole trip! Even in summer, today’s travel along 2 of Colorado’s Scenic Byways will have you taking photos at every turn.

After breakfast at your Glenwood Springs hotel, head back east on CO-82 towards Carbondale for about 20 minutes. Then, turn right (south) onto State Highway 133, also known as the McClure Pass.

This pass is part of the West Elk Loop which takes you through arguably some of the prettiest areas of forest, parks, and wilderness in all of Colorado. Climbing more than 8,000 feet, this scenic drive is a road-trippers dream!

Kebler Pass Colorado

On top of the natural beauty closing in on your car from all sides, you’ll come across ghost towns and historic sights like the Redstone Coke Ovens where you can stop to stretch your legs and take photos.

Turn onto County Road 12 going east towards Crested Butte. This road is known as the Kebler Pass. This dirt road (but still easy to drive on even with 2-wheel drive) is closed in winter and reopens some time at the end of May until November when the snow has melted.

The Kebler Pass takes you through the spectacular Gunnison National Forest with its millions of Aspens that put on an absolute jaw-dropping show in the Fall.

The pass is also home to all kinds of wildlife which can appear at any time like this moose and her baby!

Kebler Pass Colorado Moose with her baby

How long you spend on these passes is up to you, but we made it to the wild west looking town of Crested Butte for an early-ish to-go lunch stop, and that was with lots of stops to take photos and at least 20 minutes of awing over the moose we spotted.

ProTip: Be sure to gas up and grab water and snacks before leaving the Glenwood Springs/Carbondale area. The McClure and Kebler Passes have very little (if any) services along the way.

Leave Crested Butte along Co-135 South, also part of the West Elk Loop, heading towards the South Rim of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. 

Blue Mesa Colorado
Be sure to stop for a quick look at stunning Blue Mesa. There’s a scenic pull-off along the way!

If you’ve never heard of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, be prepared to be wowed at the power of nature! The canyon was cut and sliced by the Gunnison River of millions of years into the dramatic canyon you see today. The deepest parts of the gorge get just a couple of minutes of sunlight on any given day!

Depending on your timing, drive along the South Rim Road and see as many over the overlooks as you can. Don’t miss Gunnison Point, Chasm View, Painted Wall View, and Sunset View.

black canyon of the gunnison national park Colorado

Most overlooks include a short walk to the vista point. But if you’re looking for a bit more of a walk, save a half hour to travel on foot along the Rim Rock Nature Trail accessed from the South Rim Visitor Center.

For a detailed National Park guide, check out:

6 Top Things to Do in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

When your National Park visit is finished, drive 20-30 minutes to the town of Montrose. It’s the gateway town to Black Canyon of the Gunnison. It has a small, old-time downtown area with shops and restaurants. Montrose has gas stations and hotels, as well.

Where to Stay:

The Hampton Inn in Montrose is a traveler-favorite. This Hilton brand hotel includes a free breakfast and is just a couple of minutes away from the downtown restaurants and just near gas service stations.

Day 5- Telluride to the San Juan Skyway to Durango 

Colorado foliage on the way to Telluride
Foliage on the way to Telluride

The drive today starts by going 1 hour and 20 minutes from Montrose to Telluride. Part of this drive covers a section of the San Juan Scenic Byway.

Getting to Telluride will require a little backtracking later on but it’s worth the time whether you’re visiting in summer to hike or in the Fall to Ohh and Ahh over the brilliant golden yellow of the Aspen trees. 

Set your GPS to Mountain Village, Colorado, where you can park and take the gondola for free directly into Telluride. The 8-mile ride takes about 15 minutes and gives you a birds-eye panoramic view of the spectacular San Juan Mountains. 

Telluride Colorado

Once in Telluride, spend the morning hiking the Bear Creek Preserve Trail. The trailhead is accessible from town. Along the way, you’ll be treated to a view over the town of Telluride and waterfalls at the end. The hike is 2.5 miles one way to the falls and does climb steadily upwards, even going past a section where an avalanche once took out part of the forest.

To reach the falls, it’ll take about 1 hour 10 minutes. Just be mindful that the elevation could slow you down, especially if you stop for breaks.

If you’d rather not hike, stroll through the old mining town, stopping into shops and eateries as you go. 

After spending the morning in Telluride, opt for a grab and go lunch if you finished hiking and haven’t eaten since breakfast. Then, take the gondola back to your car to continue your road trip.

The San Juan Scenic Byway is a loop in southern Colorado, nicknamed the Million Dollar Highway. It’s one of the most scenic drives in all the U.S, and even more so in the Fall when the colors of the leaves set the mountain peaks on fire.

Colorado Road Trip on the way to Durango

Your final destination today is Durango but you don’t want to miss the scenic section of the Skyway in between Ouray and Silverton, especially.  From Mountain Village, backtrack to the north and east on CO-62 to ultimately land on US 550 South starting in Ridgeway, the top of this scenic byway loop. 

Head south until you reach Durango. Along the way, take in the millions of acres of the San Juan and Uncompahgre National forests, traverse the mountain peaks, and if you’d like, stop at historic wild west towns like Silverton and click away at scenic overlooks.

ProTip: If you’d rather not hike in Telluride, you could always go straight to Durango from Montrose. (Although, I recommend making a stop in the historic town of Silverton along the way.) The 2 1/2 hour drive along US 550 South allows you to drive part of the San Juan Scenic Skyway and then have more time to enjoy historic Durango.

Durango, Colorado in the State’s southwest corner offers the best of the American Southwest, complete with its historic steam train and downtown saloon. Durango is lined with shops, breweries, and restaurants. We stopped into the Derailed Pour House on Main Street for some delicious “Derailed” tacos.

Where to Stay:

The main road through Durango is lined with shops, restaurants, and hotels. The Hampton Inn Durango is along this road, just a couple of miles from the heart of downtown. The hotel was quiet, comfortable, and once again, came with breakfast.

Day 6- Mesa Verde National Park

Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde National Park in Fall
Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde National Park

Today is all about the archaeological wonders found within Mesa Verde National Park. The Park is just 40 minutes from Durango and unlike any other National Park in the country!

Before your day in Mesa Verde National Park, though, you’ll need to make advance reservations. Many of the ancient cliff dwellings can be seen from overlooks from the park’s main roads. But for a closer look, you’ll need to join a ranger-led tour. These tours book quickly so reserve as soon as you know the date of your visit.

Luckily, the National Park Service has made this much easier to reserve tour times online ahead of time instead of (Ugh!) waiting in line on the day of your visit or trying to get to the park a few days before your actual visit.

Also, be sure to have your America the Beautiful Pass! It easily pays for itself if you plan to visit even just 2-3 National Parks or National Monuments in 12 months.

Cliff Palace, Balcony House, and Long House are the most popular ancient Puebloan people cliff dwellings to see. These people lived and worked along these cliffs before disappearing around the year 1300.

Tours of the cliff dwellings are generally held between April and October, but check dates and times for your visit. No ranger-led tours are offered in the winter but the roads through the park are open, weather permitting.

If you’d like to do more than 1 cliff dwelling tour, follow these NPS guidelines for how much time to have between each tour.

Mesa Verde National Park Colorado

You should also plan to drive the park roads in the Far View and Mesa Top Loop areas to view more of the Park’s archaeological sites from scenic overlooks.

Once your visit is done, head back out to US 160 East and make the 3 1/2 hour drive to Alamosa.

If you’re road tripping in the Fall and missed some of the peak colors further north, you might be in luck!

The Aspen trees on this section of the drive turn later since the southern part of the state is warmer later into the Fall. Even in mid-October, the yellow leaves were at their peak brightness. I found myself pulling over several times to take photos and marvel at the brilliant color!

Where to Stay:

Situated right on US 160, the Comfort Inns & Suites Alamosa is the perfect place to stop for the day and position for tomorrow.

Alamosa’s biggest asset is its convenient location relative to the highway and Great Sand Dunes National Park. There are also some fast food options and gas stations near the hotel. Complimentary breakfast is included with your stay. It’s easily the cleanest and most comfortable place to stay in Alamosa.

Day 7- Great Sand Dunes National Park

Great Sand Dunes National Park Colorado

Colorado’s National Parks are each unique in their own way and Great Sand Dunes National Park is no different. Surrounded by mountain peaks and mountain rivers, North America’s highest sand dunes are just 40 minutes from Alamosa. Again, be sure to have your America the Beautiful Pass!

The most incredible thing about Great Sand Dunes National Park is the sand, of course! The sand shifts with the wind and the elements, so every day the landscape looks different. 

Spend the day sand-boarding, driving to the park’s scenic viewpoints, and if you’re looking for a workout, hike in the sand to the top of High Dune. (The National Park also has a few forest trails, too, if you’d rather.)

When you’re ready to move on, set your navigation to Colorado Springs, Colorado. It’s 2 1/2 hours from Great Sand Dunes and has some of Colorado’s most famous sights and attractions.

Also, keep your camera ready. By now you know that a drive is never “just a drive” in Colorado.

Colorado Road Trip on the way to Colorado Springs
You can’t drive past views like these and not stop!

Where to Stay:

The Best Western Plus Peak Vista Inn & Suites in Colorado Springs is located just off the highway and near food options and gas stations. (Delivery to the hotel is also available.)

If you’ve shied away from the Best Western brand because you prefer a more upscale brand, this location in Colorado Springs will challenge that perception. Clean, spacious rooms, a full complimentary breakfast, and fantastic hospitality will leave you wishing you had more time to spend in Colorado Springs.

ProTip: Look for Best Western promotions. They’ve been known to offer 1 free night certificate after staying 2 nights in a U.S. Best Western.

Day 8- Pikes Peak to the Garden of the Gods to Home

Colorado Springs Pikes Peak

The action doesn’t stop on the last day of this Colorado road trip itinerary!

One of the great things about Colorado Springs is it’s less than 1 1/2 hours from Denver International Airport. You can easily spend part of the day in Colorado Springs and then make the drive straight to the airport for a late afternoon or evening flight back home.

Start the morning at Pike’s Peak, nicknamed American’s Mountain, reaching up over 14k feet! You can begin your ascent by car at 9 a.m. There’s limited parking at the top due to construction so there are shuttle vans to bring you the last few miles. 

I recommend the shuttles because the higher you climb, the less oxygen there is. If you’re not used to altitude this high, expect to feel a little dizzy and lightheaded. (This is also why summit visits are generally on the shorter side.)

Most visitors to Pike’s Peak visitors station spend some time admiring the views and tasting the famous Pike’s Peak donuts, before starting back down. The spectacular views from above the clouds sweeping over the entire Colorado Springs area are not to be missed!

If you’d rather ascend Pike’s Peak with a guide, check out this 4×4 Jeep Tour.

Colorado Springs Garden of the Gods

Once you’re breathing easy again, drive to the Garden of the Gods Park. It’s a top place to visit in Colorado Springs and a great way to stretch your legs before heading back to the airport and onto a flight.

Garden of the Gods Park is full of the signature red rock formations for which the southwestern United States is known. Depending on your timing, walk through the gorgeous red Garden Rock area. Or hike one of the trails, independently or on a guided walk.

Garden of the Gods is free to visit and could easily take up an entire day. The Visitors Center has information and child-friendly, interactive exhibits, too, that explain the geology of the park.

When it’s time, hit the road back to Denver International Airport to catch your flight home and reflect on a successful road trip through the beautiful State of Colorado!

ProTip: Colorado Springs has plenty to see and do. If you have the time, stay another night to see top sights like the United States Air Force Academy and the Old Colorado City Historic District. 

Want to extend your Colorado road trip?

Grand Canyon things to do

If you’re looking for a variation on this itinerary that includes additional states and National Parks, and one-of-a-kind natural landmarks, here are a few ideas.

  • From Durango and Mesa Verde National Park, you could plan a Colorado to Utah road trip for a Utah National Parks adventure. Moab, Utah is the gateway town for both Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. It’s less than a 3-hour drive from Mesa Verde.
  • Monument Valley is also just 3 hours from Mesa Verde. The orange rocky landscape is the emblem of the American Southwest.
  • Antelope Canyon and Horseshoe Bend are natural wonders not far from Monument Valley. Why not plan extra time in the area to take a guided tour?
  • And if you’ve made it this far, consider adding days to do part of this Arizona road trip. You can visit iconic landmarks like the Grand Canyon’s South Rim and uncover parts of Route 66 in nearby Flagstaff.
  • When you’re done, you can fly out of Las Vegas but not before a night in Sin City!

So, what are your Colorado road trip ideas? 

How to Plan an Awesome Colorado Road Trip Itinerary
Save this guide for later. Pin it!

2 thoughts on “An Awesome Colorado Road Trip Itinerary For Your Bucket List”

  1. I loved Alamosa in the brief time I got to pretend like a local. I recommend pizza at San Luis Valley pizza, pub food at the SLV brewery, or greasy Mexican (can’t miss the green chili) at Calvillos. There is a super convenient HI express you can stay at so you’ll pass Kristi Mountain sports to pick up your sand sled on the way to the dunes. Be careful not to leave too much skin exposed in the summer – it sure is hot! The best time to go is right after an unexpected snow – the dunes are extra gorgeous when they’re layered that way!!
    If the weather waylays you, check out the cute town of Creede instead of heading straight to CO springs.

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      Thanks so much for reading, Artie. Appreciate the tips, too. They’ll come in handy for others planning this road trip. 🙂

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