Colorado is one of the most scenic corners of America. Any road trip in the Centennial State should concentrate on the mountainous areas in western Colorado, where you will discover beautiful scenery with this beginner’s, eight-point itinerary. Start from the southwestern tip, in Mesa Verde, or begin in Denver and head west.
This Colorado Road Trip Itinerary Traverses The Best of the Centennial State
1. Mesa Verde National Park
Mesa Verde is a ruin once inhabited by Native Americans, abandoned around 1276 AD. The site is world-famous for its cliff dwellings and is located in the far southwestern region of Colorado, near the four corners. If you can tolerate heights, the ladder tour is the best way to experience the cliff dwellings and kivas. You can see the park in one day, but should extend your trip if you’re interested in the hiking trails, camping opportunities, and guided tours.
Durango is also in the southwestern part of the state and the portal to a relaxing and scenic train ride. This hip mountain town sports microbrews and great food. Stay overnight before climbing aboard the Silverton-Durango rail, which will whisk you through stunning mountain scenery. If you are lucky enough to choose late September and early October you will be greeted by blazing yellows aspen trees that paint the mountainsides.
Telluride is tucked away in Box Canyon, and can be difficult to get to, but is worthy of any Colorado road trip. Telluride once had sizable mining population recognizable in the town’s architecture. This region of Colorado is also known for the majestic, snow-capped San Juan mountain range. In all seasons, but especially in summer and fall, Telluride hosts a plethora of festivals. We recommend camping in this area, lodging is often hard to find and overpriced. If you stay in Telluride, the gondola will take you up to the Mountain Village, where rates are more reasonable and the ride into town looks over the vast canyon lined with aspen trees. Plan on at least two days in Telluride, and if you have an extra day, check out Ouray.
4. Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Heading out of the southwest, drive north toward Grand Junction and stop for a day of sightseeing at the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. A deep, foreboding canyon with spires rising up alongside a rafters paradise below, you can schedule a rafting trip—if you dare. For a quick day trip, you can view the canyon or hike the trails.
5. Glenwood Springs
From Black Canyon of the Gunnison, head towards Grand Junction and hop on I-70 or take Highway 133, a slower but incredibly scenic mountain highway that spits you right out into Glenwood Springs. Spend a luxurious night in Glenwood Springs at the old, healing hot springs where Doc Holliday lived his final days. In this area, you can find Hanging Lake, just off I-70, which is less than 3 mile hike of steep proportions to one of the prettiest lakes in the state.
Take a few days to camp and hike in the Aspen/Snowmass area, as you head east. This is a ritzy set of ski towns but if you camp you’ll save a bundle. Food isn’t cheap but staying at least one overnight is recommended to hike areas within the Maroon Bells wilderness. This area is world-renowned and full of celebrities for a reason with beauty comparable to the Swiss Alps. We highly recommend tackling the dizzying heights of Independence Pass, sitting over 12,000 feet, on the way out of Aspen.
After cresting Independence Pass, head to Leadville, Colorado. This old mining town is known for its high elevation and charming small town ambience. At over 10,000 feet, it’s one of the highest towns in the U.S. After an afternoon in town, drive east to stay overnight in Breckenridge. Less pricey than Aspen or Leadville, Breckenridge welcomes summer and fall travelers before ski season arrives.
From Breckenridge, make your way to Denver for an energizing change of scenery. The entertainment options in this bustling and hip capitol city are nearly endless. Visit the Tattered Cover bookstore, take in a sporting event or arthouse film, or just hang out on 16th street and people watch. The dining scene is top quality and a nice way to ease back into civilization at the end of your Colorado road trip.