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 a 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, so we suggest spending at least one day in each stop, but whether you want to extend these day is solely up to you and what kind of trip you want to have. This itinerary is full of suggestions of some of the best places to stop, especially during your longer days on the road. So plan your trip accordingly so that you experience the places that spark your interest the most. These areas can be crowded in the summertime, and for good reason. There are multiple 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, Monuments 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.

DAY 1: arrival in Denver

1.5 hours/72 miles

This is a shorter day for a good reason. We suggest arriving early into Denver and renting your car from the airport and setting out east on Hwy 7 Toll Road towards Boulder, Colorado. It is the perfect town to get prepared and excited to start your road trip. Don’t worry you will have a chance to explore the mile high city at the end of your trip if you choose. Boulder is well known as a laid back college town with plenty to do and plenty 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. After getting a touch of the “Boulder Lifestyle”, its time to head to Estes Park for the night. This is a great place to start your trip from, as you will be able spend some time in Estes Park and be right on the entrance to explore Rocky Mountain National Park

Best Short Hike-Boulder:

Wonderland Lake Loop Trail

Best place to shop-Boulder:

Pearl Street Pedestrian Mall

Best place to watch the sunset-Estes Park:

Hermit Park Open Space

Best haunted place to stay:

The Stanley Hotel

Best place for dinner:

Wapiti Pub

Best place for dinner:

The Egg And I

DAY 2: rocky mountain national park

Estes Park is a quintessential Colorado Mountain town with stunning views of Rocky Mountain National Park, which it borders. Spend the morning in Estes Park itself visiting the City Center and the great river walk along the Big Thompson River. Estes Park is full of great festivals in the Summer, so plant your trip accordingly. In the afternoon, hop back in your car for a tour through Rocky Mountain National Park and the surrounding Arapahoe National Forest. The route will give you views of the majestic Rocky Mountains, tumbling streams and towering ponderosa pines. Plan on spending a night here before continuing your adventure. There are many options, but for the best experience, we recommend the exquisite Nicky’s Resort. It’s a fun place to stay right on the border of the park.

Best short hike:

East Meadow

Can’t miss it:

Ouzel Falls

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:

Moraine Park Discovery Center

DAY 3: Granby

2 hours/60 miles

Say goodbye to Rocky Mountain National Park as you head over the spine of the Rocky Mountains and down onto the sparkling shores of Grand Lake, Lake Granby and the town of Granby itself. This is a great town and you are going to have a lot of fun experiences here. Grand Lake is located just to the north of the town itself, and you will drive right by it, so we would recommend a few stops here. The first will be to Never Summer Mountain Products to stock up on gear. The second stop we highly recommend would be at Squeaky B’s to get yourself a milkshake. You won’t regret it. From Grand Lake its a short drive into Granby.

Best family-centric hike:

Monarch Lake Trail

Go fish!: 

Fishing With Bernie

Can’t miss it:

A quick drive to Hot Sulphur Springs

Get on the water:

Indian Peaks Marina

Best place for dinner:

Mustachios On The Lake

Grab a local brew:

Never Summer Brewing Company

DAY 4: Silverthorne

4.5 hours/208 miles

Today you are going to take 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. But 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 packed into 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

DAY 5: Glenwood Springs

1.5 hours/77 miles

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, Independence Pass and Aspen. It is up to you which route to take, they both 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 top of the world, Independence Pass stands at 12,000 feet and gives you a great view point into Colorado’s 14,000 foot peaks. 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 Glenwood Springs 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

DAY 6: Grand Junction and the Colorado National Monument

1.5 hours/88 miles

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 land high 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 Jilibertos #1 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

DAY 7: Delta, Montrose and the Black Canyon of the Gunnison

1.5 hours/75 miles

The Black Canyon of the Gunnison is an amazing place, and you are going to have all day to explore it, but first we would recommend finding a place to stay before you head to this astounding National Park. Both Delta and Montrose are within striking distance to the Black Canyon, and both are great towns well worth a visit. If you choose Delta, a great place to stay would be the Riverwood Inn. It’s a great place 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 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

DAY 8: The Million Dollar Highway

3 hours/118 miles

During the morning and after breakfast, head toward Ridgeway, then keep going toward Ouray. Walk around this small town, you will feel like you are 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”, and 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 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 West town that is still connected via the Durango Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. Read more about the railroad here. When arriving in Durango, enjoy the downtown area and experience the Old West by staying overnight at the Strater Hotel.

Read more about Durango here.

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 9: Canyon of the Ancients and the cortez

1 hour/45 miles

Today 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. But 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, so make sure you book a room. From Cortez, it’s a short drive to the monument, and you should plan to spend most of your day here, for there is a number of things to see. This cultural landscape contains more than 6,355 recorded sites reflect all the physical components of past human life: villages, field houses, check 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. The number of sites is estimated to be up to 30,000, so don’t forget your camera. After getting your fill, head back to Cortez and the The Farm Bistro for dinner.

To read more about this remarkable area, read this blog.

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

DAY 10: Cortez to South Fork and the San Juan Mountains

3 hours 45 minutes/244 miles

From Cortez, you will head back through Durango to the little western town of South Fork. But first, you should get some coffee. And in Cortez, Fahrenheit Coffee Roasters has some of the best. Hit them up on your way out of town. As you work your way along Highway 160 to South Fork, you will be driving through some of the most quintessential Colorado Plateau landscape. So sit back and enjoy the ride. Upon entering the town of South Fork, nestled on the banks of the Rio Grande, you will notice one thing; this is an outdoor kinda 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 would 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

DAY 11: Alamosa and the Great Sand Dunes National Park

1 hour/50 miles

This may seem like a very short driving day, but with good reason. Today 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. It’s a nice place and has an indoor pool. From Alamosa it is a 40 minute drive to the park. One not-to-be missed experience in the park is to take a ride down the dunes. There are a number of places you can rent boards and sleds from, but we recommend a stop at Kristi Mountain Sports in Alamosa. They can set you up and give you all the advice you need.

Read more about Alamosa and the San Luis Valley here.

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

DAY 12: Canon City

2.5 hours/140 miles

Canon City is a great little town located in a mountain bowl along the Arkansas River valley as it flows east from the Rocky Mountains and the mouth of the Royal Gorge. It’s not called “The Gateway To Adventure” for no reason and you should take full advantage of the opportunities surrounding this delightful little city. As this is your last stop before hitting the big city of Denver, if you have not already done so, we would highly recommend that you take a float down some rapids, and the Royal Gorge and 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 Canon City. Stop in to the welcome center to learn all about them.

 

Best place for a hike:

Temple Canyon Park

Best kept secret:

The Winery at Holy Cross Abbey

Best place for a stroll:

Downtown Canon City

Catch the sunset:

Royal Gorge Bridge

Can’t miss it:

Royal Gorge Sky Coaster

Best place for dinner:

Canyon City MUGS

DAY 13 through 14: Denver

2 hours/114 miles

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. 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