This Colorado road trip takes you to all four national parks inside the state as well as other scenic and beautiful destinations in the area. Along your way, you’ll also have the opportunity to visit and learn about destinations with significant cultural importance.
Your road trip will start in Denver, the capital and largest city in Colorado and the ideal starting point for any road trip around the state. Resting near the foothills of the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, Denver is an enormous economic hotbed of the U.S. mountain time zone. The urban Front Range area is home to around 80 percent of Colorado’s population, and the Denver metro area has grown into one of the 20 largest in America.
Settled in the mid-19th century at the height of the Gold Rush, Denver now features a diverse cultural and gastronomic scene. Institutions include the Denver Art Museum, Denver Museum of Nature & Science, and the Center for Colorado Women’s History. The city boasts dozens of neighborhoods with distinct flair such as the Art District on Santa Fe and the hip Five Points District. With more than 300 days of sunshine per year, it’s a popular base for nature lovers wishing to spend time in the outdoors.
Rocky Mountain National Park
Next you will cross the Continental Divide into Rocky Mountain National Park which provides awe-inspiring glimpses of the snow-capped Rockies. Visitors can explore numerous alpine and subalpine environments to grasp the diversity of the mountain range. Reaching elevations of over 12,000 feet, Trail Ridge Road is the primary transport network coursing through the park. The All-American Road opens your eyes to evergreen forests, alpine meadows, and unforgiving tundra. Connecting Estes Park and Grand Lake, the 48-mile byway is an unforgettable journey through the heart of the Rockies.
There are more than 300 miles of hiking trails that delve deeper into the interior wilderness of the Rockies. Longs Peak is one of Colorado’s beloved fourteeners that gives daring climbers a challenging expedition. Alpine lakes dot the landscape, and the Bear Lake Trailhead gives you access to Bear Lake, Dream Lake, and Emerald Lake. Shadow Mountain lake lies just outside the park and attracts boaters, jet skiers, and kayakers. Craggy spires form an unbelievable backdrop at Sky Pond, and the rock scramble to Chasm Lake brings you face to face with rugged peaks.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
The next stop on your road trip will bring you to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. The sheer drop of the Precambrian rock in Black Canyon of the Gunnison continues to win the admiration of trekkers and rock climbers. Looking downward at the steep gorge feels like you’re staring straight into the abyss. Carved by the Gunnison River, the canyon has one of the most dramatic drops anywhere in North America. Drive along the north or south rim for breathtaking views of the striated black cliffs towering above the canyon floor.
Hiking trails that follow the rims are tame, but experienced trekkers will find grueling challenges deep in the canyon. Voyages into the depths of the Gunnison wilderness should not be taken lightly, and you should pack the necessities to survive any emergency. If you prefer the comfort of your vehicle, the scenic South Rim Drive and North Rim Road provide stunning overlooks of the vertical canyon walls.
You’ll find all sorts of wildlife that thrive in the rocky outcrops, juniper woodlands, and wetlands hugging the Gunnison River. The waterways provide world-class trout fishing, and camping in the depths of the Black Canyon creates an otherworldly stargazing experience.
Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
Continue on to Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. For thousands of years, sediments from the Sangre de Cristo Range filled the San Luis Valley to create the tallest sand dunes in North America. Ancient Native American tribes lived in the valley for centuries and the mountain watershed supports incredibly diverse ecosystems. In addition to the rolling dunes, you’ll find alpine woodlands, riparian zones, and tundra. Intense woods in higher elevation zones form crooked trees, and wildflowers thrive above the treeline.
The versatile ecosystem creates a whirlwind of outdoor recreation opportunities throughout the year. Sandboarding and sand sledding are allowed anywhere there’s no vegetation, and gear is available to rent just outside the park. The 30 square mile dune field doesn’t have hiking trails but can be explored by intrepid trekkers. However, there’s a warning about sand surface temperatures reaching dangerous levels and the possibility of dangerous weather. To reach the dunes, you’ll have to cross the Medano Creek, and the stream is an enjoyable place to swim during peak flow.
Mesa Verde National Park
The next stop on your journey is Mesa Verde National Park which is situated in southwest Colorado. Mesa Verde National Park preserves one of America’s greatest archaeological discoveries. The ancient Pueblo groups that thrived in the region for hundreds of years and their cliff dwellings offer insight into Native American culture. For an explanation about the Pueblo way of life, visit the Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum to view lots of intriguing exhibits.
To explore the archaeological sites, take the Mesa Top Loop Road to find accessible trails to the historic homes and villages. In total, discover a dozen sites that include overlooks of cliff dwellings that supported the Pueblo people for centuries. Wander the Petroglyph Point Trail to view rock carvings or climb to the Sun Point Overlook for sweeping canyon vistas. Continue your journey through time by hiking the Farming Terrace Loop to see how the Pueblo cultivated the land.
Canyons of the Ancients National Monument
Continue on to Canyons of the Ancients National Monument. Protected by the Bureau of Land Management, Canyons of the Ancients preserves America’s most extensive collection of archaeological sites. Located in southwest Colorado, the monument has more than 6,000 sites of cultural and historical value. Remnants of the ancient civilizations showcase the way of life and unique heritage of numerous native tribes. You’ll find cliff dwellings, petroglyphs, religious shrines, rustic villages, and other aspects of Puebloan culture. The Canyons of the Ancients Visitor Center and Museum consists of exhibits, artifacts, and historical records of the Four Corners region to educate visitors on the cultures that once inhabited the area.
Colorado National Monument
Finally, your road trip will end at the Colorado National Monument. The arid plateau in western Colorado presents some of the grandest landscapes within the state. Embark on the 23-mile Rim Rock Drive for stunning images of towering monoliths, rocky cliffs, and red rock canyons. As you course along the Colorado River, you’ll climb from the Grand Valley floor to uninterrupted views of the western sky.
Cars and bicycles share the roadway, and you should drive with caution due to the sharp hairpin turns. Hiking trails cut through the sheer canyon walls and offer glorious vistas of sandstone cliffs and craggy spires. The Monument Canyon Trail is one of the numerous paths that show you the geologic wonders of the diverse ecosystem.
When to Go
While Colorado offers thrilling activities all four seasons, the best time to visit will depend on your preferences. Summers are dry and hot, while winters produce cold, snowy weather. Spring and fall produce mild temperatures, but you’ll find lots of fluctuations due to elevation changes. Since many byways will be closed from November until April, May-October is the ideal time for your road trip.