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5 Best Road Trips

Best of Colorado Road Trip Featuring 5 National Park Sites

Fantastic towns, high peaks and national park sites dominate this tour through Colorado.

Wander the state that has inspired artists, writers and a national anthem on this mesmerizing Colorado road trip.

Katherine Lee Bates wrote the lyrics to America the Beautiful standing atop Pikes Peak in Colorado. “Oh beautiful, for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain. For purple mountain majesties, above the fruited plain.”

The song that has become an American anthem was meant to sum up the country as a whole, but standing atop Pikes Peak, Bates knew what anyone who visits Colorado quickly realizes: here you’ll find some of the best the U.S. has to offer.

Longs Peak at sunrise in Rocky Mountain National Park
Longs Peak at sunrise in Rocky Mountain National Park (Photo: Depositphotos)

This road trip covers the best of the best as you visit all four Colorado national parks and countless incredible sights in between. See the spacious skies of Denver, before driving north towards Lyons and Estes Park on the doorstep to Rocky Mountain National Park, passing amber-colored fields along the way.

The park is home to spectacular peaks that are the embodiment of purple mountain majesties. Catch sight of them on Trail Ridge Road, before staying outside the park in Grand Lake. Head west towards Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park where you’ll discover a fruited plain on the road between Hotchkiss and Paonia, dotted with vineyards producing Colorado wine.

Make your way south to Mesa Verde and then east to Great Sand Dunes, seeing the incredible scenery by train as you ride up and over Cumbres Pass near Alamosa.

As you circle the state, you’ll experience what so many have come to love about Colorado. From peaceful deserts to crashing waterfalls, from tiny hamlets to college towns and from sand to snow that clings to the highest peaks even in the summer, you’ll discover a feeling that can only be described as magic.

Road Trip Map

Start: Denver

A Denver Local’s Perfect Day in the Mile High
As more and more people discover how great Colorado is, my childhood friends and I joke that we’re unicorns, having been born and raised in the Denver area. There’s nowhere I can make recommendations on with quite as much authority as Denver.

Rocky Mountain National Park

Hikers at Emerald Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park
Hikers at Emerald Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park (Photo: Getty Images)

Home to herds of elk, majestic moose and Longs Peak that summits at 14,000 feet, Rocky Mountain National Park is a hiker’s and wildlife-watcher’s paradise. In the summer, you’ll travel across the park on its highest road, Trail Ridge Road that connects the park’s two gateway towns, Estes Park on the east and Grand Lake on the west. The road is closed in winter due to snow, at which time visitors travel south to reach the opposite side of Rocky.

Boutique Basecamps on the East Side

Great Getaways at Lyons
Looking for a small historic town near Rocky Mountain National Park but far from crowds? Head to Lyons, a charming 2,000-resident artsy town with great cuisine. Here’s 10 reasons to stop.

Unplug at the YMCA
Choose between the Estes Park Center on the park’s east side or Snow Mountain Ranch on the west side for great activities and lodging options welcoming to families and pets.

In the Park

2-Days in Rocky Mountain National Park
Only have 48 hours? Make the most of your time by following our itinerary covering both sides of the park.

2-Day Eco-Friendly Rocky Mountain National Park Itinerary
We’ve put together ideas for a two-day vacation to help you become a more sustainable traveler.

GyPSy Guide Tour App
Download the Rocky Mountain National Park tour app that’s like listening to a tour guide in your car. GyPSy Guide automatically plays interesting and entertaining commentary as you go.

West Side Stories

Grand Adventures
Leaning up against Rocky Mountain National Park’s west side, Grand County, home to Winter Park Mountain Resort and Grand Lake, offers unparalleled outdoor opportunities. See our list of thrilling, nature and water adventures.

Sun Outdoors Rocky Mountains Retreat
Just 20 minutes from the park’s West Entrance, which sits in Grand Lake, Colo., lies Sun Outdoors Rocky Mountains, a new 200-acre resort with unparalleled amenities for the area. There’s actually so much to do on property that it may be hard to leave it.

Central City

Hidden Colorado Gems in Central City
When gold was discovered in Central City, Colo., in 1859, it transformed a pine-forested area tucked in the mountains into one of the West’s fanciest cities. Known early in its history as “the richest square mile on Earth,” it was home to an opulent opera house and one of the most luxurious hotels in the West.

Colorado State Parks

Rifle Falls State Park in Colorado
Rifle FallsPhoto by Doskocil courtesy of Colorado Parks and Wildlife

See a Triple Waterfall
Playing in the rainbows of mist from its 70-foot triple waterfall offers a respite from the summer heat as do shady campsites along the river at Rifle Falls State Park. Even for a day trip, make sure to bring a flashlight to explore the caves along the Coyote Trail, one of which has a 90-foot room. Read more about this park included in our list of 8 favorite Colorado state parks.

Colorado National Monument

Rim Rock Drive in Colorado National Monument
Rim Rock Drive in Colorado National MonumentDepositphotos

On the central edge of Colorado sits Colorado National Monument, a spectacular, crumbling stretch of land filled with decaying red rock and deep canyons. Best known for its vistas from the 23-mile scenic drive (or road bike ride) on Rim Rock Drive, the park also is a great place to hike, watch wildlife (such as desert bighorn sheep, coyotes and golden eagles) and stargaze.

Singletrack, World-Famous Pizza and a Headless Chicken in Fruita
The charming city of Fruita is the place to headquarter your trip to Colorado National Monument. An outdoor adventurer’s paradise, it’s still held on to its small-town feel. And, best yet, its vibrant downtown is located just minutes from the monument’s entrance.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

Painted Wall at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Painted Wall at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National ParkiStock

Carved through solid granite over countless millennia, the canyon walls of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park plunge an awe-inspiring 2,700 feet to the river below in western Colorado. Intrepid hikers and rock climbers can venture into the depths on several very steep, unmaintained trails. Other visitors prefer to peer into the chasm from a network of trails lining the north and south rims. Anglers love this place for its gold-medal water for trout fishing.

Find Adventure in Every Direction in Montrose, Colorado
Gateway to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Montrose is where trails, water sports and local food abound.

Best Small Towns on Colorado’s Western Slope are in Delta County
Explore the uncrowded side of Colorado in small towns like Delta, Cedaredge and Paonia at the doorstep of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.

Mesa Verde National Park

Cliff Palace Tour at Mesa Verde National Park
Cliff Palace Tour at Mesa Verde National ParkGrant Ordelheide

48 Hours in Mesa Verde
Only have 48 hours to explore Mesa Verde National Park? Stick to our detailed itinerary to hit all the most important stops. There’s more to do beyond the main attraction of touring ancient cliff ruins. Take a hike, gaze from a fire tower or have dinner with a view.

Living History Surrounding Mesa Verde National Park
See incredible archaeological sites beyond Mesa Verde, sip local wines and learn about Native American culture in southwestern Colorado’s Mesa Verde Country.

Canyons of the Ancients National Monument
Twelve miles from Mesa Verde, this national monument often falls off travelers’ radar screens, making it a fantastic place to discover solitude and ancient history.

Two Hidden Towns Along the Silver Thread Scenic Byway

Charming Creede
One of Colorado’s best-kept secrets, Creede offers incredible theater, downtown charm and fun outdoor activities. Take a stroll through this colorful historic downtown nestled in one of the most striking mountain settings you’ll ever see.

Keeping Up with South Fork
Bring a car, ATV, jeep or bike. The area offers hundreds of miles of trails designated for motorized traffic and scenic drives. These trails and roads will take you to mountain peaks and amazing vistas of the San Luis Valley, to creek bottoms and dense forest growth.

Scenic Train Ride

Take a Journey through Time on the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad
Board the train for a full day of jaw-dropping views from Antonito, Colorado to Chama, New Mexico. If you didn’t know better, you might think you’d been transported back to 1880.

Great Sand Dunes National Park

Great Sand Dunes National Park in Springtime
Great Sand Dunes National Park in SpringtimeSheba Olenik

48 Hours in Great Sand Dunes National Park
Make your time in the park count with our detailed itinerary. This other-worldly park boasts the tallest sand dunes in North America.

Only in Alamosa
This unique town in southern Colorado is home to a beach with mountain views, a huge bison herd and some of the most unique craft beer you’ll find in the state. Here are our favorite things that you can only do in Alamosa.

4 Places to Shoot in Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve
It’s hard to understand this park’s scale. But don’t be daunted—we asked professional photographer Andre Costantini where to approach the dunes for the best photos.

Hike Through a Forest to Mosca Pass at Great Sand Dunes National Park
Escape the summer heat on this shady trail overlooking the giant dunes in southeast Colorado.

End: Denver

Rent an RV with Outdoorsy
Do this road trip in an RV to stay close to nature. Or check out Destination Delivery: Have an RV delivered directly to a campground or parking site to camp in style without having to get behind the wheel.