Colorado always claims a top spot when it comes to summer road travel, and this year, with so much travel focused on drive markets, is no exception. There are four different National Parks in the state, all located in opposite directions — making a National Parks road trip a slam dunk choice. I’ve visited all of the Colorado parks multiple times, and have finally dialed in my perfect itinerary and pit stops.
Here’s my guide to the perfect Colorado National Park Road Trip:
Denver to Great Sand Dunes National Park
I would start in Denver — and depending on when you can snag timed entry tickets for Rocky Mountain National Park — either start or end there. Assuming RMNP is your last stop, begin by heading south from Denver via 285 towards Great Sand Dunes National Park. The drive is 3.5/4 hours, but there is a lot to see along the way. I always stop in Buena Vista (there are great hot springs and a ghost town just outside the city), or even a slightly longer detour to Rye and Bishop’s Castle — a one-man-made castle in the middle of San Isabel National Forest. Then on to the Sand Dunes.
Great Sand Dunes doesn’t have any reservation system to enter this year, but is getting increasingly popular thanks to its towering dunes, mountain backdrop, and proximity to Denver. So if you’re planning on camping, I’d reserve as far in advance as possible (all sites in the park are now reservation only). If you can’t get a spot, there are chain hotels and food in nearby Alamosa.
Great Sand Dunes National Park to Mesa Verde National Park
From Great Sand Dunes, head east towards Mesa Verde National Park. It’s about a four-hour drive via US-160. This route takes you right through Pagosa Springs where you can stop to soak at one of the famous hot springs then stop at nearby Chimney Rock National Monument on your way to Durango. You’ll likely want to stay and explore in Durango for the night before heading to Mesa Verde.
You can buy a ticket for a cliff dwelling tour (the only way to see all but one of the dwellings) starting 14 days before your visit at 8am MST here.
Mesa Verde National Park to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
From Mesa Verde you will head Northwest towards Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park in Gunnison. This leg will wind through some of the most scenic spots in the United States. The drive is just 3 hours, but you’ll want to make several stops. I recommend stopping in Telluride before driving on to Ridgway. From there — if you have some time — I would absolutely detour to drive the “Million Dollar Highway” from Ouray to Silverton and back. It is some of the most jaw-dropping scenery I’ve ever encountered. Truly takes your breath away.
Once you get to Black Canyon you won’t have to worry about reservations — it is still a fairly underrated park, but I imagine won’t be for long.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park to Colorado National Monument
Colorado National Monument isn’t one of the 63 currently designated “National Parks” in the National Parks system, but it is a National Monument that packs more of a punch than some that do have the designation.
It is a great stop-off on a Colorado NPS trip, just an hour and a half from Black Canyon. Even just a drive-through is worth your time here to see the steep red rock canyon walls.
Colorado National Monument to Rocky Mountain National Park
The drive from Colorado National Monument east to Rocky Mountain National Park could be as short as four hours to over four days, depending on your schedule. There is so much to see and do. I usually recommend stopping/staying in Palisade just outside of Grand Junction — the wine country of Colorado. There are over twenty wineries along with cideries, breweries, and of course hikes.
From there, continue along I-70 and stop at Rifle State Park. It’s just off the highway and just a few steps from the (often very busy) parking lot brings you to a beautiful triple waterfall. You can continue on to three hiking trails through the park before heading back towards your ultimate destination.
Now you have a choice to make — continue on the direct route (continue on I-70 east) — or detour through the purple mountains majesty. If you have the time, I think you know which one to pick.
My favorite detour is to the roaring fork valley. There you have endless options on the road towards Aspen. If you can get a ticket, Maroon Bells is a must and possibly a more iconic view than any of the National Parks in the state. I always lunch at the Aspen Art Museum rooftop cafe or stop at the eclectic Woody Creek Tavern just outside town (Hunter S. Thompson’s favorite bar), then spend some time driving over Independence Pass. It just opened for the season and is truly one of the most breathtaking drives I know of on this planet.
From there, you land in Twin Lakes — another one of my absolute favorite places in the state to hike, wade into the water, and camp. From there, head back down to the interstate, stopping in Silver Plume for a drink at Bread Bar before heading north on 119 where you can stop at in Black Hawk or Brainard Lake Recreation Area (but only with reservations this year) and then on to Rocky Mountain National Park.
Rocky Mountain National Park back to Denver
Rocky Mountain National Park is legendary. It is vast and awe-inspiring and all of the things that you think of when you think of a Colorado road trip. It requires timed entry tickets this season to enter and another for the road to Bear Lake (where many beautiful hikes originate).
You really can’t go wrong here. Drive Trail Ridge Road, hike around Bear Lake, watch for wildlife or just sit and take it all in.
When you’ve picked your jaw up off the floor it’s time to head back to Denver. Drive through Lyons and Boulder to get your last view of the Rockies before heading home, reflecting on the fun you had, and planning your next adventure.