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Explore Colorado's Natural Beauty with this 12-Day Road Trip Itinerary


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Colorado has it all- national and state parks, ski resorts, hot springs, historic and cultural cities... you name it. Perfect for adventure seekers and nature lovers, the state offers a ton of opportunities to enjoy the great outdoors. While you can never go wrong with a short trip to the Centennial State, you might feel like you're still missing out on all there is to see. To help alleviate that fear, we created a 12-day itinerary for the ultimate Colorado road trip, great for first-time travelers and seasoned vets alike.

We recommend you contemplate a couple of things before embarking on this fun journey. If you're traveling any time other than summer, consider renting a four-wheel-drive vehicle to safely drive through potentially tough weather conditions. Our Colorado road trip itinerary also includes camping in some places, so make sure to reserve those sites ahead of time as if you were booking hotel stays.

Day 1-2: Denver to Estes Park

Lake Estes in Estes Park, Colorado. Rocky Mountains landscape.

tupungato via Getty Images

Start your road trip in the Mile High City. Spend the day exploring all that Denver has to offer including its historic monuments, flourishing art districts, beautiful parks, and an excellent food and drink scene. We have a few recommendations if you don't know where to start. After spending the night in Denver, head 30 minutes north to the mountain town Boulder. Here is where you'll start to see more of the natural beauty that Colorado is known for such as the Flatirons and Boulder Creek. You can go hiking, biking, or rock climbing in Boulder, but after, you should make your way to Estes Park just an hour away. See the famous Continental Divide while driving on Trail Ridge Road, and take the Estes Park Aerial Tramway up to Prospect Mountain's summit. End your night by staying at the famous Stanley Hotel, where the Shining was filmed.

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Day 3-5: Rocky Mountain National Park to Grand Junction

Dream Lake at sunset, Rocky Mountain National Park, showing sunlit mountain peaks and lake with reflections

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Just 10 minutes from Estes Park is Rocky Mountain National Park. Spend your day on the park's beautiful hiking trails to check out some of its favorited features such as Bear Lake, Longs Peak, Grand Lake, and Alberta Falls. And if you're up for it, spend the night by camping underneath the stars. In the morning, you'll drive just over two and a half hours to Glenwood Springs for more outdoor activities. Hike Hanging Lake Trail in Glenwood Canyon, a heavily trafficked trail that features a breathtaking waterfall-fed lake worth navigating the crowds. Then relax from all the exploring you've been doing by dipping into one of the famous hot springs including Glenwood Hot Springs, Iron Mountain Hot Springs, and South Canyon Hot Springs. Start the fifth day of your Colorado road trip by driving an hour and 15 minutes to Grand Junction on the state's Western Slope. Go hiking or biking to see all the red rock formations and the Colorado National Monument, and if you're a thrill-seeker, book a whitewater rafting tour.

Day 6-8: Ouray to Silverton

View of a paved cure in the Million Dollar Highway in Colorado with trees and layers of mountains in the background.

Tracy Keeney via Getty Images

Next, you'll drive two hours to the old mining town of Ouray. Located in the San Juan Mountains, this small town has a rich history worth checking out in the Ouray Historic District. Have a nice lunch to fuel up before hiking the scenic Ouray Perimeter Trail. It features five bridges, four waterfalls, and amazing views along its six miles. But spend the night in Ouray instead of heading to Silverton, even though it's only 45 minutes away. You'll want to make the scenic drive on the Million Dollar Highway to Silverton during the day and have some wiggle room in case it's closed. Driving in the winter might be tricky, so you'll want to check the Colorado Department of Transportation website for road closures. If Highway 550, Red Mountain Pass, is closed on your road trip, you can detour by taking Highway 145. Although this can add almost four hours to your trip time, the detour allows you to see the picturesque alpine getaway Telluride. Taking a little break from all the outdoor exploration, you can walk down the lively Main Street where there is great dining, shopping, and entertainment. From there, Silverton is an hour and 45 minutes away. The city is a prime spot for leaf-peeping and seeing gorgeous fall colors. But if you make it to Silverton without having to stop in Telluride, you'll have time to spend the day on the famous Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad to sit back and enjoy the beautiful sights of the San Juan National Forest.

Day 9-12: Great Sand Dunes National Park to Colorado Springs

First morning light - Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve in Colorado

marekuliasz via Getty Images

From Silverton, you'll drive four and a half hours to the must-see Great Sand Dunes National Park. Featuring the tallest sand dunes in North America, this park is a sight to behold. It's open year-round 24-hours a day and presents grasslands, wetlands, forests, alpine lakes, and desert tundra. Bring your snowboard to try sandboarding down these big sandy hills and spend the night camping on them too. The next morning, make the two-hour drive to Pueblo. You'll spend the day among the Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde National Park, which are some of the most preserved cliff dwellings on the North American continent. And your last stop before reaching your starting point is Colorado Springs, just 45 minutes away. You'll discover a plethora of incredible outdoor activities, cultural monuments, and popular attractions including the Garden of the Gods and Pike's Peak. Spend the afternoon and a portion of your last day in Colorado Springs before making an easy hour and 15 minute drive to Denver.

And there you have it -- an all-encompassing road trip through the grand state of Colorado. You will experience multiple mountain ranges, endless forests, scenic drives through canyons, waterfall hikes, hot spring soaks, and whatever else your adventurous heart desires.

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Editor's note: This article was originally published on October 20, 2021.

 

Lauren Pineda is based in Austin, Texas, and found her love for writing in local music journalism. She now enjoys writing about all the hilarious mishaps and adventures that happen when traveling somewhere for the first time and prides herself on being a budding traveler with an ambitious drive to learn more about the places she visits. Instagram: @lt.jpeg

Where are your favorite outdoor places to explore in Colorado? Share your answers with us on our Wide Open Roads Facebook!

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