National Parks and the Colorado Peaks

Colorado has some of the most staggeringly beautiful landscape in the world, and you will be seeing all it has to offer as you travel the state along the spine of the Rocky Mountains, then down into the desert basin, before heading North again to Pikes Peak.

#thisismyroute

Prepared by:
Florian

States: 
Colorado

Start/End: 
Denver, Colorado

Total miles:
1,260

Suggested days: 
At least 14

Type: 
scenic road trip

Recommended for: 
First-timers to the United States, honeymooners, photographers, road trippers

Suggested season: 
Spring through Fall

Overview

This route is for outdoor and road trip lovers in the heart of the Rockies. Colorado’s iconic national parks and monuments are true gems highlighting Colorado’s most diverse landscape. It covers the 4 iconic national parks, such as Rocky Mountain, Black Canyon, Mesa Verde, Great Sand Dunes as well as the famous Colorado National Monument and the iconic 4,300m Pikes Peak. You will start in Denver, then drive above a 3,500m high tundra over the Continental Divide, the highest paved mountain pass in North America. Be prepared to shoot the best photos, including elk, mountain peaks, alpine lakes, lush forests, desert flowers, natural hot springs, colorful canyons following the Colorado & Gunnison rivers. It continues through the colorful “Southwest” with its vast high country desert landscapes, local arts, native American roots and climbing on one of the world’s tallest sand dunes.

How to Prepare

We recommend around 8-14 days to really explore what Colorado has to offer during the warm seasons between May and October. Also, there will be lots of amazing photography spots and short hikes. Be aware of thunderstorm and changing weather patterns as the Rocky Mountains are known for snow, rain, heat and frost just within one day. Bring plenty of water as the majority of this trip will be in the high desert where you should drink at least one gallon per day to stay hydrated.

DAY 1: arrival in denver

1 hour 40 minutes/97 miles

Arrive at Denver International Airport and take the shuttle to pick up your rental car. You can drive into downtown and enjoy the famous “Mile High City” where the capital building is exactly 1 mile above sea level (1,609m).

Best quick bite:

Adelitas Cocina y Cantina

Best place to see Denver:

Mile High Stadium

Best people watching:

16th Street Mall
Best place to stock up on gear:
REI Flagship Store
Best place to grab dinner:
Anywhere in LoDo
Best place for a local brew:
Wynkoop Brewery

DAY 2: The Front Range

2 hours

When you wake up the next day, you should make a quick visit to the Capitol, then drive along the “Front Range Mountains” toward Loveland. Explore local arts there in the sculpture park and try one of Colorado’s local beers. We recommend getting the Loveland Craft Beer Passport for beer tasting. If you are into shopping, you might want to check out the Centerra Outlets as this offers one of Colorado’s best bargains. Otherwise, the Devil’s Backbone is a unique one hour hike along an impressive red canyon ridge. Later in the afternoon, drive through the Thompson River Canyon and arrive in Estes Park. Stay overnight in downtown and explore the local restaurants.

Best place to grab a quick bite:

Cafe Athens

Best place to get outside:

Devil’s Backbone Open Space

Best place to shoot photos:

Sculpture in the Park

Best place to shop:

The Promenade at Centerra

Best place for dinner:

Door 222

Best place to get a breakfast burrito:

Tata’s Burritos

DAY 3: Rocky Mountain National Park

4 hours

In the morning check out one of Estes Park’s local coffee stores and bakeries. Also, you might want to do a quick visit at the famous Stanley Hotel, where Stephen King wrote his book “Shining”. Then, head towards the entrance of Rocky Mountain National Park, the fee is $20 per vehicle. Right at the beginning, watch for the famous Rocky Mountain Elk or some bighorn sheep. It is one of the best places to shoot wildlife on your entire trip. You might want to do one of Colorado’s best day hikes, such as the 5km hike to Emerald Lake. As an alternative you can also do a ghost tour at the Stanley Hotel. In the afternoon, take the Trail Ridge Road, it is the highest pass in North America. Take lots of scenic photos above the tree-line and continue over the Continental Divide to Grand Lake. You might see a moose in that area so watch out. You can see the Colorado River as a little creek, the water lifeline for the Southwestern U.S.. Continue on Hwy 40 toward Steamboat Springs. Stop in Hot Sulphur Springs and enjoy the mineral Hot Springs during the evening. You can stay here overnight or keep going toward Steamboat Springs.

Best short hike:

East Meadow

Can’t miss it:

Ouzel Falls

Grab a bite on the road:

Mustachio’s On The Lake-Granby

Best place to stretch your legs-Kremmling:

Radium Hot Springs

Best place to soak your muscles-Steamboat Springs:

Strawberry Park Hot Springs

Best place to grab a drink:

O’Neil’s Tavern and Grill

DAY 4: Down the colorado River

2.5 hours

During the morning it is the best time to take scenic photos from the Colorado River Headwaters outside of Kremmling. When in Steamboat, enjoy a good mountain breakfast at one of the local restaurants along the Yampa River. If you like adventure, this is your chance to do some of the finest downhill mountain biking in Colorado, right at the Steamboat ski resort base. During the afternoon, continue following the Colorado River until you enter the Glenwood Canyon. Instead of mountain biking, you can do the 5km Hanging Lake trail inside the canyon, one of Colorado’s top 3 scenic waterfall trails. Stay overnight in Glenwood Springs and soak in the Hot Springs next to the Hotel Colorado.

Best place to take a photo:

Rabbit Ears Pass

Best scenic drive:

Colorado River Headwaters Scenic Byway

Best place to go for a hike:

Hanging Lake Trail

Best place to soak your muscles:

Glenwood Hot Springs Pool

Where the locals go for dinner:

The Pullman

Drink local:

The Brew Garden

DAY 5: Aspen and White river National Forest

3.5 hours

Try to get up early today and experience one of Colorado’s true gems: Maroon Bells in Aspen. You might need to take a shuttle from Aspen into the narrow valley given that there are so many visitors during the summer, but it is worth it. After that do a quick walk through Aspen and experience the life of millionaires shopping in Aspen’s most expensive boutique. When time permits, keep driving to the top of Independence Pass where you can take some of the best photos of Colorado’s 14ers. Later in the afternoon, drive back to Glenwood Springs, then head to Colorado’s Wine Country, Grand Junction.

Great place for a hike:

Maroon Bells

Best place to shoot a photo:

Independence Pass

Best place to grab a quick bite:

White House Tavern

Can’t miss it:

Grand Mesa

Best place to see a wild horse:

Little Book Cliffs Wild Horse Area

Where the locals eat:

The Ale House

DAY 6: Colorado National Monument and the Black Canyon

2.5 hours

Get a cup of morning coffee in downtown Grand Junction, then head toward the Colorado National Monument. When entering the monument, stop by at the viewpoints of the edge to see Colorado got its name, from the red colors. These amazing colors are part of the famous “Colorado Plateau” that is the entrance to Southwest covering a desert further south toward the Grand Canyon. You can do a quick hike along the Window Rock to get the best views. When back in Grand Junction, experience some wine tasting at one of the local wineries. Along the Colorado River it is ideal to grow grapes and other fruits, such as Peaches. Head toward Montrose a true mountain town in Western Colorado, then enter the Black Canyon National Park on the north rim. Take the best photos from the suggested view points. If you have time left, you can take Hwy 50 toward the best view point to get both rims on the photo. When you return, stay overnight in Montrose.

Best photo op at dawn:

Window Rock

Best short hike:

Canyon Rim Trail

Grab a quick bite:

The Camp Robber

Best hike in the Black Canyon:

The Painted Trail

Best scenic drive:

The South Rim of Black Canyon

Best place to grab coffee:

Cimarron Roasters

DAY 7: The Million Dollar Highway

2.5 hours

During the morning after breakfast, head toward Ridgeway, then keep going toward Ouray. Walk around this small town, you will feel like in Switzerland, with beautiful mountain peaks. Ouray also has amazing hot springs. There is one brewery that is famous for its “Ouray Beer”, which is a good place for lunch. Keep going south and take the famous Million Dollar Highway, a narrow and steep mountain road that connects Ouray with Silverton. It is one of the most scenic mountain roads North America, with great views into the majestic San Juan Mountain range, the most southern 14ers in the United States. When in Silverton, take a quick walk throughout the mining town and explore an Old West mining town that is still connected via the Durango Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. When arriving in Durango, enjoy the downtown area and experience the Old West by staying overnight at the Strater Hotel.

Best place to shop local:

Ago Gallery

Best hike:

Spud Lake Trail

Best photo spot:

Red Mountain Pass

Best point of interest:

Old Hundred Gold Mine

Best way stretch your legs:

Animas River Trail

Can’t Miss it:

Chimayo Stone Fired Kitchen

DAY 8: Mesa Verde National PArk

Ancient Pueblo dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park show the true history of national parks is that of all people.
1.5 hours

When being in downtown Durango, check out the Jean-Pierre Bakery, it is a true french bakery with great coffee, breakfast and the finest pastries. One of Southwest Colorado’s true gems is Mesa Verde National Park, a preserved indian village in the rocks where you can explore how native Americans lived in the high desert country. It is unique to see the rock southwestern desert rock formations and we recommend taking a guided tour throughout the villages to learn everything about the southern Ute tribe. The region called Mesa Verde Country is famous for the native americans and their local arts and crafts, so when driving along the highway, stop at their stores and shop for local crafts. If you have an extra day, we also recommend checking out the Durango – Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, it is a true Old West Colorado experience, to take this historic trail in a very scenic setting, looking at the 14er peaks of the San Juan Mountains. As an evening experience, check Durango’s local food restaurants along main street, where live music and events are very popular year around. As an alternative, we recommend heading east toward Pagosa Springs and staying overnight at the Springs Resort, one of the best hot springs experiences in Colorado.

Best place to shop ultra local:

Notah-Dineh Trading Company

Best hike:

Petroglyph Point Trail

Can’t Miss it:

The Cliff Dwellings

Best way to see the dwellings:

A ranger led tour

Can’t miss it:

Pagosa Springs thermal pools

Best local brew:

Riff Raff

DAY 9: Great Sand Dunes National Park

2.5 hours

Check out one of Pagosa Spring’s coffee places like the River Pointe Cafe, then head further east over to Wolf Creek Pass. Stop on the mountain pass and take a photo of you standing on the continental divide. Then head toward South Fork and then Alamosa, toward the entrance of the Great Sand Dunes National Park. This national park is so amazing that it is a must to hike on one of the dunes to get the best views of sand dunes and the 14ers in the back. If you have a snowboard, you can ride the sand dunes as well. It is an amazing place to take one of Colorado’s most unique photos. Later, head toward Buena Vista. You can plan here an extra day if you are interested in Colorado’s best rafting on the Arkansas river. You can either do this from Salida or in the Royal Gorge Canyon. The Royal Gorge Canyon is famous for its rapid waters that will provide you a thrill experience on the water. Stay overnight either in Buena Vista with a barbecue and local beer next to the Arkansas river.

Best short hike:

Mosca Pass Trail

Can’t miss it:

Dune sledding

Best kept secret:

Colorado Gator Farm

Catch the sunset:

Royal Gorge Bridge

Can’t miss it:

Royal Gorge Sky Coaster

Best place for dinner:

Brown’s Canyon Riverside Grill

DAY 10: pikes Peak Country

2 hours

Check out one of Pagosa Spring’s coffee places like the River Pointe Cafe, then head further east over to Wolf Creek Pass. Stop on the mountain Get an early morning coffee and head on Hwy 24 toward Colorado Springs and enjoying the high country Pike National Forest and the scenery of Pikes Peak, the iconic Colorado 14,114 foot mountain. You should stop by in Cripple Creek to see a true 10,000 foot mining town community where some casinos resemble the story of Colorado’s Old West. Then head toward Manitou Springs and take the Cog Railway to experience a train ride to the top of Pikes Peak.
Take lots of photos from the peak and the train experience. If you have some time left of the day, check out the Garden Of The Gods outside of Colorado Springs, it is an absolute must see in Colorado. If possible, you can do the Garden Of The Gods Loop trail during evening or early morning the next day to get the best colors of the red plateaus. A great place to experience is the Garden Of The Gods Trading Post for some more shopping about local arts and crafts in the area. Enjoy the downtown dining in Colorado Springs. If you have a special partner, we recommend staying one extra night at the Broadmoor Hotel, it is one of America’s finest hospitality experiences, with great views on Cheyenne Mountain

Best short hike:

Garden of the Gods

Hike boldly:

Summit Pikes Peak via Barr Trail

Get to the top in style:

Pikes Peak Cog Railway

Shop local:

Garden of the Gods Trading Post

Can’t miss it:

Cripple Creek

Best place to stay:

The Broadmoor

DAY 11: Colorado Springs

2 hours

If you have an extra day, you can explore the iconic attractions in Colorado Springs: Pikes Peak, the US Olympic Training Center which offers free admittance and tours, Airforce Academy, Garden Of The Gods or the Royal Gorge Bridge near Canon City. We recommend visiting all of those attractions as they resemble well the Colorado experience and a great connection between the Old Colorado and the New Colorado. There are some good German restaurants in Colorado Springs, such as Edelweiss German Restaurant or Uwe’s German Restaurant. Ideal for hiking is the Cheyenne Mountain State Park as well as the Red Rock Canyon Open Space.

Shop local:

North Tejon Street

Can’t miss it:

Glacier Homemade Ice Cream

Fun place for dinner:

Jack Quinn’s Irish Pub

DAY 12 through 14: Denver

Exchange your country boots for your city shoes because you are now in the Mile High City. Denver is known for its foodie paradise, vibrant neighborhoods, music scene, thriving beer culture, amazing art and sporting life. During your visit you may hear many expressions such as LoDo, SoDo, RiNo and many more. That is because Denver is broken up into ten different neighborhoods. So whatever you are looking for during your vacation, you will find it within one of the neighborhoods, each with its own unique style and flair. Find out more about Denver here

Historic neighborhood:

Larimer Square

Best museum:

Denver Art Museum

Haven for Art Lovers:

The Art District on Santa Fe

Shopper’s Paradise:

Cherry Creek

Can’t miss it:

Union Station

Best place to find amazing food:

South Pearl Street and Old South Gaylord
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