Colorado is home to some of the most breathtaking landscapes in the world. From its snowy peaks to red rock canyons, Colorado is a sightseer’s dream come true. Folks from all over flock here for vacation spots like Denver and Telluride; however, there are many more little-known destinations that offer the same spectacular views as their larger counterparts. If you’re looking for an epic road trip, check out these lesser-known but equally beautiful destinations in Colorado!
While we have visited Colorado multiple times for ski trips, weddings, and just mini weekend getaways. This was the first trip that involved an official road trip taking us around the entire state to some of the most beautiful places we have ever seen.
About this trip
This Colorado Road Trip is set up to be fully adjustable for any length of time and any style of travel. The main purpose of this itinerary is not to tell you what to do step by step but to show you everything that Colorado has to offer and hopefully spark interest in some places you hadn’t thought about before.
Colorado is not short on things to see and explore, with 4 widely popular national parks it is easy to focus just on that. On the other hand, have you ever heard of the Colorado National Monument and its massive towering granite formations? Have you seen the Switzerland of the U.S. in Ouray which has in our opinion the greatest 4th of July weekend in the country. (Yes, we know those are fighting words)
We say this to paint a picture of what Colorado has to offer outside the basic national parks and ski resorts. Now, don’t get us wrong, we will be including all 4 National Parks in our itinerary and we do love skiing and snowboarding in the Rockies. At the same time, the pandemic restrictions and the ever-increasing popularity of Colorado heading down the road less traveled offer something more than crowded viewpoints and long lines.
Best time to do this trip
Now, the first question you may ask: when is the best time to do this trip? While we love winter road trips just like our Utah Mighty Five Road Trip, summer road trips give different opportunities. Colorado is fabulous in the winter, but unless you are used to snowy mountain roads in the dead of winter look elsewhere. Realistically this road trip is ideal from May to August due to great weather and the fact that everything is open.
Once you start approaching the colder months you start getting closures at popular parks such as Rocky Mountain National Park, you also start getting highway closures across certain stretches of the Rockies due to snow and ice. Crossing Independence Pass is a must-do while doing a summer road trip and that is just not possible during the winter months.
Where to stay
Depending on how adventurous you are and how far your budget goes the options are endless for a great Colorado Summer Road Trip. Our reality is that Victoria is not the camping kind of person so we normally end up staying at hotels and Airbnb’s during most of our travels.
While some people might love the idea of camping while on a road trip across Colorado, there are a few things to take into consideration. The first thing is if you are flying and renting a car there is quite a lot of extra gear you might have to bring with you in order to camp comfortably unless you truly are an ultralight camper. The second thing is the time of year, and summer is quite a busy season in Colorado so a lot of campsites fill up fast!
Another important consideration for camping in Colorado that Gus would emphasize, especially for travelers who have never camped at altitude or in the mountains, is the weather. Summer afternoon thunderstorms in Colorado are pretty much clockwork and this comes from experience camping across multiple parks in the Rockies. If you are camping be prepared to get wet or stay in your tent most afternoons or sometimes sleep in your car if the lighting is bad. We do not say this to discourage anyone but, to be honest and set expectations for those who choose to camp.
Gus can definitely say he’s had some of his favorite camping trips involving non-stop rain showers but being stuck in a tent with a good book also makes for a fun trip.
The itinerary will be broken down by the cities and towns we set up as a home base for the trip, followed by our top recommendations in that area.
- Colorado Springs
- Garden of the Gods
- Wind Cave
- Pikes Peak
- Estes Park
- Mt. Elbert
- Highest town in the United States
- Aspen/Glenwood Springs
- Maroon Bells
- White Water Rafting
- Hot Springs
- Grand Junction
- Colorado National Monument
- Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
- Best 4th of July in the United States
- Silverton Day Trips
- Million Dollar Highway
- Mesa Verde National Park
- Great Sand Dunes National Park
Colorado Road Trip Itinerary
Our Colorado Trip starts in Colorado Springs. Gus drove up from Texas and made that home base for two days to explore. If you are also coming up from Texas, we highly recommend a pitstop in Amarillo since it is drivable from all four major cities and gets you within close distance to Colorado. While you’re in Amarillo, definitely hit up the Big Tex Restaurant and try and eat a 72oz steak! (Or watch the people attempt it on the center stage).
There are a lot of ways to tackle a road trip through Colorado and the two main deciding factors will be the time of year and if you fly or drive into the state.
As mentioned above, the time of year will decide how much mountain driving, if any, you will actually be able to do. And depending on whether you drive or fly you will decide which route you take since the most affordable airport in Colorado normally ends up being Denver International.
Moving forward, we will be assuming you are taking this road trip during the summer months or even late spring or early fall as this means that all-mountain passes will be open and we only need to worry about summer thunderstorms.
Our favorite route tends to be the one with the least zig-zagging since we always do our best to maximize our time and not waste it driving back and forth. Running this trip in a loop is our recommendation and how we normally tackle our other road trips, this is similar to our Utah Mighty 5 Road Trip loop. Even though driving through the Colorado mountains doesn’t tend to be the worst way to spend a day.
Starting in Colorado Springs or Denver is a great spot since it offers close proximity to the airport and plenty of options for lodging without worrying about small-town issues.
While staying here you will want to make time to visit Garden of the Gods, which offers some amazing hiking and driving to Pikes Peak, which is one for the books.
The base camp of the Rocky Mountain National Park and a beautiful mountain town, Estes Park, is a necessary stop on any Colorado Road Trip.
The activities this little town in northern Colorado has to offer are a shocking surprise. The main purpose of stopping here is of course to visit Rocky Mountain National Park, one of the most fun parks in Colorado. If you have never been to Rocky Mountain National Park, then add it to your list for some top-notch Colorado hiking.
Find our favorite hikes at Rocky Mountain National Park here!
If you want to experience altitude without having to get out of your car, then Leadville is right up your alley. As the highest incorporated city in North America at 10,152 feet above sea level, you will quickly find out how you respond to altitude.
Leadville is the home to some of the hardest ultramarathon and mountain bike races in the world. It also serves as a base camp for a lot of people trying to summit Mt. Elbert, the highest point in Colorado and the highest summit in the Rocky Mountains.
As much as Gus loves Leadville there really isn’t much to do unless you are interested in hiking some of the highest peaks or saying you’ve been to the highest city in North America. It does offer a rest stop if you are on your way through Independence Pass to Aspen so make sure to grab some pizza at High Mountain Pies.
Aspen, Basalt, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs
Summer in Colorado is hard to beat in terms of outdoor activities and weather but if you are looking for a little slice of mountain paradise, look no further than these four towns. If you are coming from Leadville then driving Independence Pass on Highway 82 is an essential drive for anyone at least once. The drive takes you across the continental divide at 12,095 feet above sea level and is a very unique experience overall.
*Make sure to check the weather since it does close randomly due to how exposed the area is.
One of the big attractions for outdoor enthusiasts in the area is Maroon Bells which offers some beautiful hikes but a word of warning is that they do require reservations in the summer so book early!
If you are looking at changing it up from hiking, our other two recommendations while in the area is to look at white water rafting in Glenwood Springs along with swimming in some of the many hot springs in the area. Iron Mountain Hot Springs is one of Gus’ favorites since they are right on the river and offer high-end amenities at an affordable price.
If there is one place in Colorado that doesn’t get as much love as it deserves, that is Grand Junction. While it does not have the glamour of Estes Park or Aspen it still offers plenty for outdoor lovers and has a cute downtown area filled with breweries and live music.
One of the big highlights of Grand Junction is its proximity to the Colorado National Monument which we really enjoyed hiking, a pleasant surprise. The site managed by National Park Service offers amazing views of towering monoliths and canyon walls that will boggle your mind. It also offers close access to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. While this is not the closest place to stay to visit the park, it does offer most accommodation when Montrose or Ouray fills up.
Besides the things to do, Grand Junction also offers the most accessible airport in the area. While small it does offer some of the most affordable flights in the area, especially when compared to Aspen Airport. Since Vic doesn’t get as much time off as Gus, this allowed her to fly in and meet him along the way on his road trip.
Now there is not enough time for us to express our LOVE for Ouray and how we agree that it is arguably the best little mountain town in the United States. If there is a better place to celebrate the 4th of July then we have never seen or heard of it.
Ouray is nicknamed the Switzerland of America because of the high mountains surrounding the town that give it a unique environment and amazing views. In the summer there is plenty of hiking and in the winter, it turns into the ice-climbing capital of the United States.
The main highlight for us is the small-town vibe, which is extra special around its annual 4th of July celebrations. These celebrations are one of a kind as the entire town shuts down for the parade through the main street, which is followed by the most epic firefighter water hose fight and then a beautiful firework display that is hard to beat.
While in Ouray you also have the option to drive up the Million Dollar Highway to visit Silverton, an old mining town that offers fun outdoor activities with a lot of them geared towards ATV or off-road vehicles. Even if you are not interested in Silverton the drive up Million Dollar Highway is second to none and offers views of the San Juan Mountains that are breathtaking!
The last or first stop of this road trip depending on how you start will be Durango in southern Colorado. Durango is a great place to set up a base camp on your way to visit Mesa Verde National Park and the Canyon of the Ancients National Monument.
There are a lot of ways to tackle a Road Trip through Colorado but we cannot recommend it enough, at least to make a few if not all stops mentioned above. Colorado has so much to offer everyone that even if you are not the biggest hiking enthusiast the small mountain towns offer a charm that is hard to beat.
I always imagined Colorado to be hot and dry in Summer so was surprised when you mentioned that it gets a lot of heavy rain downpours. I also never knew that leadville here, is the highest city in the USA – you learn something new every day.
Hot springs swimmimg, white water rafting and ice climbing are all things I’d never associate with Colorado, so it has a lot more than I thought.
Denver has always been on my list to see (I’m a bit of a city boy at times), so it looks like that’s where I would head to fly in to see the rest of the Parks and attractions.
Colorado truly has something to offer everyone, we cannot recommend it enough.
Denver is such a fun city to visit and there is endless stuff to see and do especially with so many other cities so close like Boulder, Colorado Springs and Estes Park.
This is an outdoor lovers destination that I usually only hear about for skiing, but you’re right – there is endless things to do. I would love the hiking, biking, hot springs swimming- yes please! But I would likely travel in the shoulder season to beat the dry heat and crowds of the summer and not in winter with the skiers.
Shoulder season is the way to go for sure but definitely get unpredictable weather where it can still snow in March or April! But outdoor heaven for sure!
Estes Park looks unreal, what a shot! How long did you take overall for the trip? What’s a budget I should factor in? I agree with Renee and Barry, the itinerary has a wonderful mixture of outdoor activities, hiking and spending time in charming towns.
Carolin | Solo Travel Story
Estes Park is a must for anyone who likes the outdoors! I took about 2 weeks total but definitely can be stretched out further. Budget wise it depends on accommodations primarily but if hotels is what you do it can add up quickly especially some of the small mountain towns like Ouray can be really expensive.
Can’t wait to visit more of Colorado. Grand Junction looks like a great stop, what amazing views. And Ouray is just such a nice looking town, I love that small town vibe
Grand Junction and Ouray are hidden gems in Colorado to us, something about the small town vibes and mountains then desert around you make them so unique!
What a fabulous itinerary for a Colorado road trip! I was thinking about doing a mini 4-5 day road trip out there myself later on this year or next year. Colorado has so many spectacular views and landscapes, it’s not hard to see how you can take a road trip and explore a lot of it.