Itinerary: Rocky Mountain National Park and the Colorado Plateau

The Colorado Plateau is an amazing geographical wonder, stretching through four states, it is a vast area of wind-scoured deserts, red sandstone cliffs, tumbling rivers stunning wildlife and soaring mountain peaks. With this trip, you will get to experience everything it has to offer, with a little Rocky Mountain exposure thrown in for good measure.

#thisismyroute

Prepared by:
James

States: 
Colorado
Start/End: 
Denver, Colorado

Total miles:
1,100

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 perfect for those who want to experience the beauty of the open road and some of America’s most untamed areas. In other words, you will get to experience a true American road trip that includes old western towns, intriguing American culture and unimaginable scenery. You will begin by arriving at Denver International Airport.  Denver is an amazing town, and you should plan on spending a few days here, but not until the end of your trip. The reason why is because after your epic road trip, you’ve earned the right to spend a few days pampering yourself in style in this oasis of the mountains. But we would recommend getting your trip started by hitting the road and heading straight to Rocky Mountain National Park. After your trip through this amazing place, you will begin working your way down along the western slope of the Rocky Mountains to the Colorado Plateau. The Colorado Plateau is largely made up of high desert, with scattered areas of forests and tumbling rivers. Get in, buckle up and shift that car into drive, this is going to be the trip of a lifetime.

How to Prepare

We recommend approximately 14 days for this trip in order to experience each town and activity without feeling too rushed. You have a lot of miles to cover, but we suggest spending at least one day in each stop. This itinerary is full of suggestions of some of the best places to stop, especially during your longer days on the road. Leave some days unplanned as you’ll want to spend extra time in the places that you find most interesting. These areas can be crowded in the summertime, and for good reason. There are lots of events and the weather is beautiful. If you want to avoid crowds we suggest traveling at the end of spring or the beginning of fall. If you can’t make that happen, then we suggest visiting the smaller towns on the weekends and the National Parks and bigger towns on the weekdays. Wintertime is still beautiful in these places, however, many roads are closed and you cannot drive into some of the parks. One thing to keep in mind as well, is that in the Four Corners region, the summertime temps can often exceed 100 degrees.

#1 arrive in Denver, explore the front range

The Flatirons in Boulder, Colorado.

We suggest arriving early into Denver, renting your car from the airport and setting out east on Highway 7 towards Boulder, Colorado. This area of Colorado, known as the Front Range, can get congested. We recommend leaving the city and heading out to explore smaller towns like Boulder, Longmont and Loveland. Don’t worry, you’ll have a chance to roam in Denver at the end of your trip if you choose. 

Boulder is well known as a laid back college town with plenty to do and lots of eclectic shops and restaurants. Tucked into the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, acres of vast open space roll into Boulder’s quaint cityscape. Explore pine-scented trails, taste the flavors of “America’s Foodiest Town,” tour 24 craft breweries, stroll historic Pearl Street and soak up this creative community’s lifestyle. 

Don’t head towards Estes Park without checking out Longmont and Loveland. Everything you love about Boulder will be similar in these communities, except with less people. You may even want to spend a night in one of these towns, as there’s limited lodging near Rocky Mountain National Park during the busy seasons.

Best Short Hike-Boulder:

First and Second Flatiron Loop

Best place to shop-Boulder:

Pearl Street Pedestrian Mall

Best place to watch the sunset-Longmont:

Union Reservoir

Best place to stay:

Little Red Treehouse Airbnb

Best place for dinner-Loveland:

Door 222 Food & Drink

Best place for breakfast-Longmont:

Lucile’s Creole Cafe

#2 estes park & Rocky Mountain national park

1.5 HOURS – 72 MILES/115 KM

Estes Park is a quintessential Colorado Mountain town with stunning views of Rocky Mountain National Park, which it borders. Spend some time in Estes Park itself, visiting the City Center and the river walk along the Big Thompson River. Estes Park is full of festivals in the summer, so plan your trip accordingly. Later, hop back in your car for a tour through Rocky Mountain National Park and the surrounding Arapahoe National Forest. Driving through the park will give you views of the majestic Rocky Mountains, tumbling streams and towering ponderosa pines. If you’re able, we recommend going on a long hike in the park to one of the many alpine lakes. Plan on spending a night in Estes Park before continuing on. There are many options (you can never go wrong with camping), but for a more comfortable experience, we recommend Nicky’s Resort or The Stanley Hotel. 

Best short hike:

East Meadow

Can’t miss it:

Hike Mt. Ida

Best scenic drive:

Trail Ridge Road

Take a road, not for the faint of heart:

Old Fall River Road

Best place for a little history:

Holzwarth Historical Site

Best place for a picnic:

Hermit Park open space

#3 Silverthorne & Dillon

2.5 HOURS – 107 MILES/172 KM

After exploring the park you’ll head southwest and go for a scenic tour through the Arapahoe National Forest to another town on a lake, Silverthorne and the Dillion Reservoir. Silverthorne is going to be your base to explore some of the most famous resorts in the world. Silverthorne is within striking distance of world famous towns like Breckenridge, Vail, Copper Mountain and Keystone. Silverthorne itself is a great town, as are the sister cities that hug the shores of Dillon Reservoir, Frisco and Dillon. In fact there is so much to do in this area, that you may want to seriously consider a few days here.

Best hike:

Lilly Pad Lake

Best Shopping:

The Outlets

Best place to get a little history:

Sally Barber Mine Trail

Can’t Miss it:

Dillon Farmer’s Market

Best place for dinner:

Sauce on the Blue

Best Local Beer:

Dillon Damn Brewing Company

#4 Glenwood Springs & Aspen

1.5 HOURS – 90 MILES/145KM

The road to Glenwood Springs can either be a short direct route (taking about an hour), or a longer, much more scenic route through Leadville, over Independence Pass and through Aspen. It is up to you, but both routes have their benefits. If you want to take advantage of all the fun things there are to do in Glenwood Springs, then take the more direct route. If you want to stand on the Continental Divide at 12,000 feet and get a great view of Colorado’s 14,000 foot peaks, then take the pass. This route, at 3 hours, will still give you plenty of time in Glenwood Springs, or allow you to roam the streets of Aspens if you so desire. If you do take the Aspen route, take time to see the majestic Maroon Bells, and afterward grab a bite to eat at the White House Tavern. Regardless of when you arrive in Glenwood Springs, your first stop should be to the Visitor’s Center. They can help you on your visit, and even tell you where notorious gunslingin’ lawman, Doc Holiday, is buried.

Best place to ride a roller coaster:

Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park

Best place to get some history:

Glenwood Springs Frontier Museum

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

#5 Grand Junction and the Colorado National Monument

1.5 HOURS – 87 MILES/140 KM

From Glenwood Springs, it’s a very short drive into Grand Junction. Which means you will have plenty of time to explore the wonders of Colorado National Monument. This is an area of desert high land on the Colorado Plateau, with pinion and juniper forests. Sheer-walled canyons cut deep into sandstone and granite–gneiss–schist rock formations. The park hosts a wide range of wildlife, including red-tailed hawks, golden eagles, ravens, jays, desert bighorn sheep, and coyotes. Nearby are the Book Cliffs and the largest flat-topped mountain in the world, the Grand Mesa. Before you head off, however, you need to make two stops in Glenwood Springs. The first is to Jilbertitos to get the best breakfast burrito on the plateau, and the second is to Deja Brew to get your morning coffee fix. Then, it’s time to lace up your hiking boots.

Best place to start:

Saddlehorn Visitor Center

Best photo op:

Window Rock

Best short hike:

Canyon Rim Trail

Best scenic drive:

Rim Rock Drive

Best place to shop in Grand Junction:

Historic Downtown Grand Junction

Best place for dinner:

Rockslide Restaurant and Brew Pub

#6 Delta, Montrose and the Black Canyon of the Gunnison

1.5 HOURS – 88 MILES/141 KM

The Black Canyon of the Gunnison is one of the most underrated national parks in the US, which makes it a great place to enjoy solitude. First we recommend finding a place to stay. Both Delta and Montrose are within striking distance to the Black Canyon, and both are great towns that are each worth a visit. If you choose Delta, a great place to stay would be the Riverwood Inn—it’s right along the river. If you are in Delta for the night, grab a burger and brew at Needle Rock Brew Pub. If Montrose is your huckleberry, a great little overnight is the Black Mountain Motel. Grab a steak at Ted Nelson’s Steakhouse. When you get to the Black Canyon, you can make the day as strenuous or as moderate as you choose, but the first place you should stop at is the South Rim Visitor Center to get you acquainted with park.

Best hike in the Black Canyon:

The Painted Trail

Best scenic drive:

The South Rim of Black Canyon

Challenge yourself:

Hike into the Canyon

Best hike in the Black Canyon:

The Painted Trail

Best slightly scary drive:

East Portal Road

Best place to watch the sunset:

Sunset View

#7 The Million Dollar Highway

1.5 HOURS – 75 MILES/120 KM

To hit the next stop on the itinerary you’ll want to head toward Ridgeway, then keep going toward Ouray. Walking around this small town you’ll feel like you’re in Switzerland, with beautiful snow-capped mountain peaks. Ouray also has amazing hot springs. There is one brewery that is famous for its “Ouray Beer.” Keep heading 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 in North America, with great views into the majestic San Juan Mountain range. When in Silverton, take a quick walk throughout the mining town and explore an old western 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

#8 Canyon of the Ancients and the cortez

Canyon of the Ancients National Monument
2.5 HOURS – 118 MILES/189 KM

Next you are going to see the amazing Canyon of The Ancients. The monument contains the highest known archaeological site density in the United States, with rich, well-preserved evidence of native cultures. Before you head here, we would recommend finding a place to stay in Cortez for the night. There are a number of great options, but the Retro Inn is just the about the coolest place to stay in the four-corners region. From Cortez, it’s a short drive to the monument, and you should plan to spend most of your day there, as there is a number of things to see. This cultural landscape contains more than 6,355 recorded sites that reflect all the physical components of past human life: villages, field houses, dams, reservoirs, great kivas, cliff dwellings, shrines, sacred springs, agricultural fields, petroglyphs and sweat lodges. Some areas have more than 100 sites per square mile—so don’t forget your camera! After getting your fill, head back to Cortez and check out The Farm Bistro for dinner.

Must stop:

Canyon of the Ancients Visitor Center and Museum

Can’t miss it: 

Lowry Pueblo

Archaeological Wonder:

The Great Kiva

Best place to stretch your legs:

Sand Canyon Trail

Best place for photography:

Sand Canyon Pueblo

Where the locals go for breakfast:

Beny’s Diner

#9 South Fork and the San Juan Mountains

3.5 HOURS – 174 MILES/280 KM

From Cortez, you will head back through Durango to the little western town of South Fork. First, you should get some coffee—and Fahrenheit Coffee Roasters in Cortez has some of the best. As you work your way along Highway 160, you’ll be driving through some of the most quintessential Colorado Plateau landscape. Upon entering the town of South Fork, nestled on the banks of the Rio Grande, you will notice one thing: this is an outdoorsy town. There are a lot of things to do here, both inside the city limits and in the surrounding mountains, so perhaps your best stop will first be the South Fork Visitor’s Center. From here you can get all the info you need to make the most of this charming Colorado mountain town. As always, there are a number of places to stay in South Fork, but the Foothills Lodge and Cabins is be our #1 pick.

Best short hike:

Treasure Falls

Best outdoor recreation:

Rio Grande National Forest

Great place to stock up on gear:

8200 Sports

Catch some white water:

Mountain Man Rafting

Best place to learn about Colorado gold mines:

Last Chance Mine

Best place for beer and a burger:

The Old Firehouse

#10 Alamosa and the Great Sand Dunes National Park

1 HOUR – 48 MILES/77 MILES

This may seem like a very short driving day, but with good reason. After the short drive, your day will be spent traversing the enormous sand dunes in Great Sand Dunes National Park. In order to get to the sand dunes you will pass through Alamosa, which will give you a chance to find a place to stay and drop off your gear. Our recommendation would be to get a room at the Alamosa Inn. From Alamosa, it’s a 40-minute drive to the park. One not-to-be missed experience in the park is to take a ride down the dunes. It’s called sandboarding or sand sledding, and there are a number of places you can rent boards and sleds from. Kristi Mountain Sports in Alamosa is one local place to rent from and they’ll give you all the advice you need.

First stop:

Visitor’s Center

Best short hike:

Mosca Pass Trail

Can’t miss it:

Zapata Falls

Go for a swim:

Mendano Creek

Best kept secret:

COLORADO GATOR FARM

Best place for dinner:

San Luis Valley Brewing Company

#11 Colorado springs

3 HOURS –  165 MILES/265

Colorado Springs is a beautiful city just south of Denver. The town is nestled near the base of Cheyenne Mountain and Pikes Peak, which the highest summit in the southern Front Range. Colorado Springs is also known for the Garden of the Gods—a geological wonder that resembles dinosaur backs coming out of the ground. You don’t want to leave town before at least taking a stroll through the park. Since Colorado Springs will be your last stop before hitting the big city of Denver, we recommend that you take a float down some rapids, if you haven’t done so already. The Royal Gorge on the Arkansas River is just the place to do this. There are many outfitters waiting to take you down the river, but Raft Masters is among the best. Don’t feel like rafting? That’s okay, there are numerous other activities for your stay in Colorado Springs.

Best place for a hike:

Pikes Peak via Barr Trail

Best kept secret:

The Broadmoor Seven Falls

Best place for a stroll:

Garden of the Gods

Catch the sunset:

Mesa Overlook

A must-do adventure:

Local Via Ferrata

Best place for dinner:

Restaurant 1858

back to Denver

1.5 HOURS – 70 MILES/112 KM

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 LoDoSoDo, 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. 

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