From sandy hills to deep canyons, ancient cliffside dwellings to 14,000 foot mountains, the terrain in the Colorado national parks is as diverse as it is breathtaking. We’ve come up with the perfect route to see it all. Whether you’re starting in Denver, Colorado Springs, or anywhere else on the loop, use this trip guide to see some of the best sites Colorado has to offer and check out a few bonus destinations along the way.
Because we’re headquartered in Colorado Springs, that’s where we’ll start the trip. As mentioned, you can start anywhere on the loop for a similar experience to see the Colorado national parks.
From Colorado Springs, head south on Interstate 25 towards Pueblo and the first stop on the road trip, the Great Sand Dunes National Park. This leg of the drive will take roughly 3 hours, but you’ll eventually reach the largest sand dunes in North America, with some towering nearly 750 feet.
The Great Sand Dunes National Park is a great place to hike and an even better place to try your hand at sandboarding. Just make sure you plan to bring footwear built for trudging through hot sand.
Leaving from the Great Sand Dunes National Park, head west on US 160 towards Mesa Verde National Park. During this beautiful four-hour leg of the road trip, you’ll pass through awesome Colorado towns like Pagosa Springs and Durango. If you’ve got the time, stop and stay. Both of these places are filled with outdoorsy things to do and beautiful scenery.
NEARBY: Our Wolf Creek Ski Area Profile!
Eventually, you’ll hit the next stop on the list, Mesa Verde National Park. Home to the famous Cliff Palace, this national park has also been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site thanks to the many protected Ancestral Puebloan archaeological sites in the area. If you’re looking for a place to stay in the region, the town of Cortez is where you’ll find it.
RELATED: Colorado’s Cliffside Palace!
After you’ve got your fill of what’s been called “the best cultural attraction” in the Western United States, you’ll head north towards the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, also known as Colorado’s darkest canyon. However, don’t forget to stop in Telluride on the way. Here you’ll be able to see things like Colorado’s tallest free-falling waterfall, Bridal Veil Falls, as well as the Via Ferrata, one of Colorado’s craziest hikes.
After Telluride and passing through a little town called Ridgway, you’ll make your way to Montrose and eventually the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. You won’t be surprised that this destination attracts over 200,000 visitors each year when you see just how deep a 2,722-foot canyon really is. While some of the rock around the canyon is a darker color, the name actually originates from how some spots in the canyon only see sunlight for 33 minutes a day. That’s just how dramatic the terrain of this canyon is.
RELATED: Colorado’s Darkest Canyon!
Whether you’re hiking or rock climbing, don’t leave until you see the Black Canyon of the Gunnison’s famous Painted Wall. Stretching over 2,250 feet tall, this wall is also the tallest sheer cliff drop in the state.
From the Black Canyon, head towards the last stop on your tour of the Colorado national parks—Rocky Mountain National Park. This leg will be the longest at around 7 hours, though this will be the leg that takes you past some of the prettiest mountains in the state.
The first noteworthy destination you’ll pass after leaving Montrose and the Black Canyon of the Gunnison is the Curecanti National Recreation Area, home to the Blue Mesa Reservoir. The road weaves past several bodies of water over bridges and cutting through endless rocky hills. You’ll pass the sleepy town of Gunnison, nearby to Crested Butte, before going over Monarch Pass, which summits at 11,312 feet. Just don’t forget to turn onto US 285 when you hit Poncha Springs.
US 285 heads towards Breckenridge, and the views are absolutely stunning. You’ll pass several Colorado 14ers including Mount Antero, Mount Princeton, Mount Harvard, and Mount Belford before hitting Fairplay and hopping onto Highway 9.
RELATED: How the 14ers Got Their Names
Highway 9 will take you through Alma, the highest incorporated town in America, and then over Hoosier Pass at 11,542 feet. Breckenridge is a great place to stop for a quick lunch or for an entire night, as it is a mountain town built to handle a vibrant local tourism industry. With a few great breweries, diners, and venues, there’s generally plenty of nighttime entertainment for those that need a break from nature. That being said, this area is also home to some of the best hiking in the state, especially during the Aspen color changes in the fall.
RELATED: The Perfect 35.5 Hours in Breckenridge!
You have two options when you head out of Breckenridge: 1) You can either hop on I-70 through Frisco to cut 30 minutes off your trip, or 2) you can head up Swan Mountain Road, which is the scenic route. For the sake of this road trip, we’re taking the scenic route, and you should too. This road will take you around Dillon Reservoir, the world’s highest deep-water marina before passing both Keystone and Arapahoe Basin ski resorts.
You’ll then head over one of the most scenic mountain passes in the state, Loveland Pass. Be sure to pause at the summit for some incredible photo ops! Once you head over the pass, you’ll hop on I-70 to meet up with the other route option, headed towards Denver and Colorado’s favorite national park, Rocky Mountain National Park.
Roughly 3 hours after leaving Breckenridge, you’ll roll into one of America’s most famous natural attractions, Rocky Mountain National Park. Here you’ll find some of the most breathtaking Colorado destinations such as Dream Lake, Longs Peak, and the stunning Trail Ridge Road. Obviously, this a great place to hike. If you’d rather stay seated, the Trail Ridge Road drive is a great way to see some of the best sites the park has to offer while you’ve still got air conditioning.
Rocky Mountain National Park is also a stop on this road trip that’s worth visiting for a couple days. Estes Park has plenty of accommodations nearby, including the Stanley Hotel, a stunning building known for inspiring Stephen King’s, “The Shining.”
RELATED: The Hotel of Horrors in Estes Park
By this point, you’ll be exhausted and ready to sleep in your own bed. Head from Rocky Mountain National Park to Denver and then to Colorado Springs. This final portion of your trip will take roughly 3 hours.
If you try out this trip or any other trips designed by the OutThere Colorado crew, be sure to share your experience with us with the #OutThereColorado hashtag! Keep gettin’ out there, Colorado!
Here’s a map of the full trip:
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