The Best Road Trips in America: The Best of Colorado

  • The Best Road Trips in America: The Best of Colorado

    Hit up the highlights of Colorado and the Rocky Mountains on this 10-day road trip.

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  • Road Trip Itinerary: The Best of Colorado From Denver and Back Again

    This drive will bring you to all four of Colorado’s national parks, three major ski towns, and four different hot springs. You will visit Colorado’s wine country and go on two of the most popular hikes (or more, if you’re up for it). You will be awed by some of Colorado’s natural wonders, such as the Royal Gorge, the Cave of the Winds, the country’s tallest sand dune, and the Garden of the Gods. And you’ll also stop by tourist favorites, like Estes Park, Trail Ridge Road, and Grand Lake, all while keeping the driving time to three hours or less per day, so there’s plenty of time to explore and enjoy all that Colorado has to offer. Note: This drive includes mountain driving, and some of the roads may not be open during winter, so it’s better suited for warmer weather (or prepare for some potential closures and detours).

    At a Glance:

    Starting Location: Denver, Colorado

    Ending Location: Denver, Colorado

    Miles Traveled: 1200

    Suggested Duration: 10 nights

    States Visited: Colorado

    Jesse Wong

  • Stop 1: Denver to Grand Lake, Colorado

    Stop Locations: Denver, CO to Grand Lake, CO

    Total Travel Time: 3 hours

    Total Miles: 115 miles

    Recommended Route: Start your Rocky Mountain road trip by heading north through the hip college town, Boulder (where you can stop and eat on the Pearl Street Mall if time allows); past the charming mountain town of Lyons; and up the mountain to the gateway to the national park, Estes Park.

    Along the Way:

    Town: Estes Park boasts a postcard-worthy old town lined with shops and restaurants; wildlife, in particular elk, often wander the streets. Estes also boasts a solid craft beer and distillery scene and the famous, dramatic Stanley Hotel, where it’s said author Stephen King was inspired to write The Shining .

    Eat & Drink: While the old town area is fun for window-shopping, ice cream, and taffy, fill up at the alehouse Latitude 105, a bit off the walking path, where you can find gourmet burgers and Colorado-fresh menu items.

    Nature: Rocky Mountain National Park is one of Colorado’s four, with 415 square miles of incredible trails, mountains, and wildlife. Take a scenic drive up Trail Ridge Road, the highest paved road in any national park, as well as North America’s highest paved through-road.

    Upon Arrival:

    Do: Whereas Estes Park is the gateway to the Rocky Mountain National Park to the east, Grand Lake is considered the park’s western gateway. The heart of this small mountain town is Colorado’s largest natural lake.

    Eat & Drink: Locally run Sagebrush BBQ and Grill is where to go for tasty BBQ, as well as a relaxed Western atmosphere: peanut shells on the floor, games on the TVs, cowboy decor on the walls. You can even dare to try “Rocky Mountain oysters” here, which aren’t oysters at all. They’re fried bull testicles.

    Stay: Grand Lake must be experienced in a cabin. Grand Lake Cabin Rentals are upscale cabins walking distance to the shores or check AirBNB for private cabin rentals right on the lake.

    Breakfast: The Blue Water Bakery Cafe is a relaxed bakery and cafe (with scrambles, burritos, and more) with beautiful lake views and coffee.

    Robert O Hull/Shutterstock

  • Stop 2: Grand Lake to Vail, Colorado

    Stop Locations: Grand Lake, CO to Vail, CO

    Total Travel Time: 2 hours

    Total Miles: 110 miles

    Recommended Route: Mountain driving can be challenging if you’re new to it, but it’s oh so scenic. Head south toward Colorado’s stretch of famous ski towns, but stop for a dip in the natural springs to ease your muscles along the way.

    Along the Way:

    Town: Relax in the natural mineral water at the Hot Sulphur Springs Resort and Spa in Hot Sulphur Springs. Here, seven natural springs emerge from a large fissure, filling more than 20 pools and baths at various temperatures.

    Upon Arrival:

    Do: Vail is one of the nation’s biggest and most popular ski destinations—with more than 5,200 acres and about 200 trails, but it’s a five-star outdoor adventure year-round. You’ll also find fine dining, a charming Swiss-inspired downtown, the Walking Mountains Science Center, and great hiking.

    Eat & Drink: Vail has such a great food scene that it’s tough to narrow it down, but Mountain Standard is at the top. Enjoy well-prepared New American food and local beer in a cozy restaurant on the banks of the river, right in the heart of downtown.

    Stay: Although Vail is known for its ample luxury lodging options, our favorite way to stay is just outside of town in nearby Wolcott, in luxury “glamping” tents by Collective Retreats. Relax away from the crowds under unobstructed stars before retreating to your comfortable bed underneath a chandelier; toilets and running water are included in this camping experience.

    Breakfast: Breakfast made to order is part of your stay at Collective Retreats, or head back into Vail for champagne brunch at the French brasserie, Vintage. Bacon-wrapped figs, crab benedicts, croques, and huckleberry bacon French toast are highlights, of course, paired with breakfast cocktails.

    Kruck20/iStock

  • Stop 3: Vail to Aspen, Colorado

    Stop Locations: Vail, CO to Aspen, CO

    Total Travel Time: 2 hours

    Total Miles: 100 miles

    Recommended Route: The mountainous drive from Vail to Aspen isn’t far, but it passes right through Glenwood Springs. Take an extended break here for hot springs, hiking, and a locally crafted cocktail.

    Along the Way:

    Town: Glenwood Springs is home to the world’s largest hot springs pool, as well as several other places to relax in natural mineral water. Iron Mountain Hot Springs is on the banks of the Colorado River, and the Yampah Vapor Caves will take you underground to a dark and steamy hideaway.

    Nature: One of Colorado’s most beloved hikes is Hanging Lake Trail in Glenwood Canyon. This National Natural Landmark is a series of blue waterfalls spilling into a crystal lake; this wonder appears to be magically suspended off the edge of a cliff.

    Eat & Drink: The Colorado Ranch House, a Western-inspired, modern-American restaurant serves cocktails made with alcohol from the nearby Marble Distilling Company, as well as unique spins on classic dishes (duck wings, an elk quesadilla). Locally sourced protein is the heart of this menu. Try the Rocky Mountain ruby red trout.

    Upon Arrival:

    Do: One of the world’s most famous ski destinations is Aspen Snowmass, but that’s not all Aspen offers. Have a picnic in the scenic John Denver Sanctuary, a waterside garden on the Roaring Fork River, and stroll through Aspen’s hoppin’ downtown.

    Eat & Drink: The Wild Fig, right off the walking mall, feels like a European brasserie in Colorado. A must-do: Order Fish in a Bag, the fish of the day expertly prepared and served in a brown paper bag.

    Photo Opp: One of the most photographed views in the nation is the famous Maroon Bells national landmark in Aspen. Hike these popular mountains (there are several different trails of varying difficulty levels) or simply snap a selfie with them in the background.

    Stay: Aspen is for luxury, so do it right and book a stay in one of the Cuvée properties: ultra-luxe estates that come with personalized details, like dinner prepared by a private chef, an in-room massage or a champagne bubble bath.

    Breakfast: Grab breakfast or brunch at Aspen Over Easy Breakfast Club, a quirky diner with classic and innovative dishes, fresh-squeezed juice, and some tasty breakfast cocktails, including a bacon-infused whiskey “Bloody Albert.”

    kan_khampanya/Shutterstock

  • Stop 4: Aspen to Palisade, Colorado

    Stop Locations: Aspen, CO to Palisade, CO

    Total Travel Time: 2 hours 30 minutes

    Total Miles: 115 miles

    Recommended Route: Let the exploration of the mountains continue, as you venture past ski city and into wine territory.

    Along the Way:

    Detour: If you don’t mind adding another hour on your drive, one of the most scenic drives in Colorado is up Independence Pass, on Colorado Highway 82 and up and over the Continental Divide. In the fall, the yellow aspen leaves seem to transform the entire mountain into glittering gold.

    Upon Arrival:

    Do: Palisade is home to most of Colorado’s vineyards and a quarter of the state’s wineries. Do a winery tour, taste small-batch wine, and also pick up some fresh peaches, another one of Palisade’s claims to fame.

    Eat & Drink: Palisade is famous for its wine, but it also has a local brewery, the Palisade Brewing Company. Test your grit by finishing dinner with the El Diablo Savory Cheesecake, made with ghost peppers, habanero peppers, jalapenos, sriracha, and pepper jack cheese, topped with an ancho/chipotle pesto.

    Shopping: Pick up a pie at Palisade Pies, a family-owned pie shop that bakes pies packed with fresh fruit from their own orchard. On Sundays, don’t miss the farmers market, where you can peruse produce, wine, and other local goods all in one spot.

    Stay: Immerse yourself in Palisade’s wine at Wine Country Inn, which features breakfast and afternoon wine receptions (with private label wines) and vineyard views.

    Breakfast: Start the day with pastries (and sweet rolls and pie) made with local fruits at the Slice O’ Life Bakery.

    Teri Virbickis/Shutterstock

  • Stop 5: Palisade to Ouray, Colorado

    Stop Locations: Palisade, CO to Ouray, CO

    Total Travel Time: 2 hours 30 minutes

    Total Miles: 120 miles

    Recommended Route: All mountain drives through Colorado are scenic, so keep your camera on hand. Along the way, it’s worth the 30-minute detour to stop and see another national park.

    Along the Way:

    Nature: Colorado has more national parks than almost any other state, so check another one off the list. The Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is named for its black rocks lining a steep gorge—some of the steepest cliffs in the country.

    Eat & Drink: Toast the canyon with a drink (and pizza, sausage, salad, and more) at the High Alpine Brewing Company in Gunnison, a brewery located above 7,700 feet in altitude.

    Upon Arrival:

    Do: This stunning town, nicknamed the “Switzerland of America,” is enveloped by mountains on all sides. This region boasts five different hot springs (including a vapor cave and nude, adult-only hot springs resort) and great hiking; in the winter, you can ice-climb a frozen waterfall at the Ouray Ice Park.

    Eat & Drink: Taco Del Gnar, in nearby Ridgway, serves some of the tastiest and most creative street-style tacos in Colorado, such as a Korean BBQ taco with kimchi and mango chutney; cod with daikon slaw, ginger miso, wasabi aioli, and rice noodles; and a chicken thigh taco with Thai peanut sauce.

    Stay: Stay at the Box Canyon Lodge & Hot Springs. The rooms are simple, but this rustic hotel has its own private hot springs, with a mountainside deck lined with hot tubs.

    Breakfast: Head to the Ouray Wing Company for a monstrous portion of chicken and waffles. You’re welcome.

    Jay Krishnan/Shutterstock

  • Stop 6: Ouray to Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

    Stop Locations: Ouray, CO to Mesa Verde National Park, CO

    Total Travel Time: 2 hours 45 minutes

    Total Miles: 130 miles

    Recommended Route: On your peaceful drive from Ouray to the third national park in Colorado, stop by Telluride and see for yourself why Tim McGraw wrote a love song about it.

    Along the Way:

    Town: Telluride is a European-influenced, historic town that’s considered one of the best ski destinations in North America for its 300 inches of snow in the winter, and just as many days of sunshine per year. It’s also home to one of Colorado’s biggest annual music events, the Telluride Bluegrass Festival.

    Eat & Drink: For dinner, take the Gondola up the mountain to Allred’s for the town’s best food and views. For an inexpensive and casual lunch, the local institution, Baked, serves fresh-baked goodies (sandwiches, pizza, donuts).

    Upon Arrival:

    Do: Explore ancient history at Mesa Verde, home to about 5,000 archeological sites. This national park has some of the best-preserved Ancestral Pueblo cliff dwellings in the country.

    Eat & Drink: By far, the best place to eat in the park is the Metate Room, a Southwestern but upscale restaurant attached to the Far View Lodge. Order a glass of wine and request a table outside on the rooftop to watch the sun go down.

    Stay: The Far View Lodge is the only hotel in the national park. Rooms are small, but oversized windows with views that go on for eternity make it feel like you’re sleeping under the stars.

    Breakfast: A quirky breakfast joint is the Silver Bean in nearby Cortez: a drive-through cafe housed in a repurposed, retro silver Airstream.

    Sopotnicki/Shutterstock

  • Stop 7: Mesa Verde National Park to Pagosa Springs, Colorado

    Stop Locations: Mesa Verde National Park, CO to Pagosa Springs , CO

    Total Travel Time: 2 hours 20 minutes

    Total Miles: 115 miles

    Recommended Route: This highway route eastward in southernmost Colorado passes several scenic mountains.

    Along the Way:

    Nature: You can see Chimney Rock from the highway, a national monument and an archeological site that was considered sacred by the Ancestral Puebloans. Stop and hike to the top; a half-mile will reward you with 360-degree panoramic views.

    Upon Arrival:

    Do: It’s time for another dip. Pagosa Springs has the world’s deepest geothermal hot spring, certified by the Guinness World Records. You can’t swim there (it’s more than 1,000 feet deep), but you can enjoy its waters in many pools nearby.

    Eat & Drink: Riff Raff Brewing Company is a local brewery powered by the geothermal heat. How often can you say you had a beer that Mother Nature helped brew?

    Stay: The Springs Resort and Spa features more than 20 different pools that you can enjoy before heading back to your room.

    Breakfast: The Pagosa Baking Company boasts hand-baked goods and fresh, healthy breakfast offerings, from breakfast burritos to quiche.

    SeanXu/iStock

  • Stop 8: Pagosa Springs to Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado

    Stop Locations: Pagosa Springs , CO to Great Sand Dunes National Park, CO

    Total Travel Time: 2 hours

    Total Miles: 110 miles

    Recommended Route: It’s time to hit up Colorado’s fourth and final national park, in quirky San Luis Valley, which is full of roadside attractions.

    Along the Way:

    Roadside Attraction: Not far from the sand dunes is a strange sight to behold: the UFO Watchtower, the supposed point of two energetic vortexes that are said to attract aliens. Come see for yourself from the balcony and leave a tribute for extraterrestrial guests in the sprawling yard of trinkets out front.

    Another must-visit attraction nearby is the Colorado Gators Reptile Park ; yes, hundreds of alligators live in southern Colorado.

    Upon Arrival:

    Do: Otherworldly white sand dunes seem out of place with mountains in the background and a creek running through them. See the tallest sand dune in North America and sled down the sand on a “sand-board.”

    Eat & Drink: Many people pack a picnic to enjoy in the dunes (you can even camp here), but another good bet in the valley is the Crestone Brewing Company. Nothing fancy here, but the burgers and wings do the job.

    Stay: Zapata Ranch is Western lodging owned by The Nature Conservancy and home to about 2,000 wild bison, as well as one domesticated bison who you can pet through the fence. This stunning ranch is surrounded by more than 100,000 acres.

    Breakfast: Food is included in your stay at Zapata Ranch. You will want to dine here; it’s family-style and excellent.

    Rosalie Kreulen/Shutterstock

  • Stop 9: Great Sand Dunes National Park to Canon City

    Stop Locations: Great Sand Dunes National Park, CO to Canon City, CO

    Total Travel Time: 2 hours 30 minutes

    Total Miles: 150 miles

    Recommended Route: There are two routes to Canon City, both about the same distance, but Colorado 17 north to U.S. 285 is the most scenic. It will bring you to U.S. 50, which tracks the Arkansas River, the perfect introduction to this city that revolves around this powerful waterway.

    Along the Way:

    Upon Arrival:

    Do: The highlight here is the Royal Gorge Bridge, the highest bridge in the country and the world’s highest suspension bridge up until 2003. Walk across the bridge nearly 1,000 feet above the river, and then book a wild white-water rafting trip in the Arkansas River to experience the bridge from below.

    Eat & Drink: The Whitewater Bar and Grill is the ideal, casual restaurant to refuel after an adventure-packed day. The backyard is vast and features sand volleyball, a playground for kids, horseshoes, fire pits, hammocks, tons of tables with umbrellas — plus local beer, margs, and a full menu.

    Stay: Stay in the high-end, spacious Royal Gorge Cabins or the luxury glamping tents with amazing views of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

    Breakfast: Locals love Canon City Mugs, a local cafe that roasts its own coffee beans. Start the day with a homemade breakfast on the patio.

    PhotoTrippingAmerica/Shutterstock

  • Stop 10: Canon City to Denver, Colorado

    Stop Locations: Canon City, CO to Denver, CO

    Total Travel Time: 2 hours

    Total Miles: 115 miles

    Recommended Route: This highway drive will shoot you back to Denver quickly, but leave early and plan a full day in Colorado Springs along the way. If you can spare an extra day, stay at the Broadmoor, one of the finest hotels in the state.

    Along the Way:

    Town: In Colorado Springs you can immerse yourself in natural wonders at the Cave of the Winds, a 500-million-year-old underground cave system, and then see more mountain magic above ground at the Garden of the Gods, bizarre red rock formations that tilt and balance in seemingly impossible ways. While you’re here, take a train to the top of Pikes Peak, the most visited mountain in North America; hike Seven Falls, the “grandest mile of scenery in Colorado;” and visit the nation’s only mountainside zoo, the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, 6,800 feet above sea level.

    Eat & Drink: While there are plenty of incredible restaurants in Colorado Springs, including Colorado’s finest restaurant, the Penrose Room, a fun road-trip experience is to dine at The Airplane Restaurant. A 1953 Boeing KC-97 tanker was converted into a quirky, casual restaurant, and you can sit in the cockpit and dine in the cabin.

    Upon Arrival:

    Do: Wrap up your road trip with an artsy day-cation in Denver. Visit the Golden Triangle Creative District, where you can see more than 16 different galleries and museums, including the Denver Art Museum and Clyfford Still Museum.

    Eat & Drink: The most Colorado way to dine in Denver is at Elway’s, a steakhouse named after former Denver Bronco’s quarterback, John Elway. The wine list is solid, the food is filling and tasty and the atmosphere is sophisticated but far from stuffy, in true Colorado fashion.

    Stay: Complete your artsy day by staying at the Art Hotel, a modern hotel that also houses an impressive, curated art gallery. You may even find a famous piece of art in your room.

    Breakfast: You’ll love weekend brunch at Beatrice & Woodsley, a memorable restaurant decorated to feel like you’re sitting outside in the woods surrounded by aspen trees. The morning cocktails make this brunch stand out, such as one drink made with house-infused earl grey gin and honey-chamomile syrup.

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