Colorado is one of the best states in America for road tripping and camping. A bold statement, I know, but once you see the diversity and beauty I’m sure you’ll agree!
The Rocky Mountains straddling the middle of the state give way to the vast desert and red rock plateaus in the west. In the south, the landscape turns arid, and small rural towns give it a unique character. Colorado’s diverse scenery just doesn’t stop!
Home to the largest amount of “fourteeners” (mountains higher than 14,000 feet) in the United States, Colorado is a beacon for outdoor enthusiasts from all over the world. In summer, the state offers camping, mountain biking, and hiking; and in winter it is one of the best places for snowboarding and skiing in the United States.
Below are 10 best stops for your Colorado road trip where you will find some of the most beautiful scenery in the Centennial State:
Denver is the largest city in Colorado and is a perfect jumping off point for your adventures in the Rockies.
Over the last decade, Denver has grown from a sleepy town into one of the most vibrant cities in the western USA. Today it boasts world-class breweries (go on a tour if you have time), restaurants for all tastes, and plenty of historical landmarks ( Larimer Square, Union Station, and 16th Street Mall are among the most popular ones ).
And if you crave some culture, visit the Denver Art Museum, or the famous Denver Mint – a museum that chronicles the history of gold and silver coin production back in the days of Colorado’s mining boom. Finish your day in the RiNo (River North), a former industrial area that has undergone a transformation and is now one of the coolest parts of the city with street art, bars, restaurants, and cafes.
Nicknamed “The Mile High City,” Denver sits a mile above sea level and has over 250 days with sunshine per year, so it’s a good idea to bring some sunscreen. It’s a pedestrian-friendly city, and since you will be walking a lot, the last thing you want is to get a sunburn before your big road trip.
PRO TIP: To continue your Colorado road trip from Denver, you can either continue south along Interstate-25 before arriving at Great Sand Dunes National Park and continuing west from there, or you can also head north toward Rocky Mountain National Park with a stop in Boulder and then hop on Interstate-70 and also continue your journey from there.
2. Rocky Mountain National Park (with a stop in Boulder)
Rocky Mountain National Park is an unmissable stop on your Colorado Road Trip Itinerary. It’s one of the most scenic national parks in the state and it offers breathtaking scenery at any time of the year.
But don’t rush to get there: As you drive to RMNP, you will pass Boulder, a college town with a grand outdoor culture and a booming tech scene.
After checking local stores and grabbing a bite along Pearl Street, explore hiking trails around the Flatirons – stunning rock formations that dominate the landscape of this town. Or take a challenging hike to Mount Sanitas to test your stamina.
Now onto Rocky Mountain National Park! I recommend allocating most of your day for Boulder and arriving at Rocky Mountain in the evening, so you have at least one day to explore this majestic place. After a long day of hiking, you can stay in Estes Park, the gateway to RMNP, however, make sure to book your room in advance as it’s extremely popular during the high season!
3. Colorado Springs/Garden of the Gods
Located at the foothills of Pikes Peak mountain, Garden of the Gods is about 1 hour and 20 minutes south of Denver.
Garden of the Gods is a combination of incredible scenery, relatively easy hiking trails, and quirky rock formations that overlook Pikes Peak. Often referred to as one of the most popular hikes in Colorado, Garden of the Gods has over 15 miles of hiking trails that range from easy to moderate.
One of the best things about the Garden of the Gods is that it is free!
The owner of the park, Charles Perkins, wanted to donate this place to the public, however, he died before he could do that. Later, his family fulfilled his wish by donating the park to Colorado Springs.
Garden of the Gods is beautiful at any time of the year, however, summer tends to be the busiest season, as with many other places in Colorado. Winter is a great time to snap some cool photos as the red rocks get covered with white powder creating wonderful scenery throughout the park. Fall brings some beautiful colors and milder temperatures, and spring is warm enough but not yet crowded.
PRO TIP: If you want to take good photos, try to visit the Garden of the Gods during golden hour on a bright sunny day when the bright red rock formations will create a beautiful contrast with the blue sky.
And if you are still craving adventure after wandering around the Garden of the Gods, you can get to the top of Pikes Peak that can be accessed by car or by foot.
4. Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
Colorado isn’t all forest, mountains, and lakes!
Head to Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve in southern Colorado and you will find the highest mountains of sand in all of North America! Located at the backdrop of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, these majestic sand dunes stretch for 30 square miles.
Sand sledding and sandboarding are some of the most popular activities here. So grab a sand sled at one of the area’s rental stores and slide down a tall sand dune! Or take a leisurely hike along a sand dune, have a picnic, and set up your camping spot for the night to enjoy this enigmatic and tranquil place.
Thanks to its remote location in rural Colorado, the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is also one of the prime locations for stargazing, with many dark enthusiasts coming year-round.
The Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is located about 35 miles away from Alamosa. While it’s often dry and warm during winter, winter brings cooler temperatures, so be prepared!
5. Mesa Verde National Park
Located in the southwest corner of Colorado, Mesa Verde National Park was created to preserve the archaeological sites that chronicle the heritage of the Ancestral Pueblo people who lived here from 600 AD to 1300 AD. Translated as “Green Table”, Mesa Verde offers a combination of centuries-old history that can be seen in hundreds of cliff dwellings.
Visitors can learn about the history of this place and explore hundreds of ancient cliff dwellings as part of a guided tour (tickets can be purchased at the park’s visitor center), or take a self-guided tour of the Step House at Wetherill Mesa at your own pace.
And if you don’t feel like walking around the archaeological sites, you can visit many viewpoints and overlooks along the 6-mile Mesa Top Loop Road on the Chapin Mesa.
It’s a great way to understand the unique history of the area because all of the sites are arranged in chronological order. If you’re left wanting more, check out the Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum – a great alternative to being outside when it gets too hot in summer.
When you tour the park, don’t touch the dwellings. These ancient structures are fragile and can be easily damaged.
And if you decide to go for a hike, Chapin Mesa also has several trails such as Spruce Canyon trailheads and the Petroglyph Point Trail.
Telluride has become one of the premier destinations for winter sports in North America. After mining in the region waned by the 1970s, the town was reinvented with the help of locals who built the area’s first ski resort. But Telluride’s spirit of Old West continues to live on to this day and you can feel it the moment you step in the city’s downtown.
Today this small town is considered one of the top places for recreation in Southwest Colorado, thanks to its Victorian-era charm, hiking, mountain biking in the summer, and skiing and snowboarding in winter. People from all over the world come here to experience the incredible atmosphere.
But besides being an outdoorsman’s paradise, Telluride is also a major destination for festivals during summer months. Some of the most prominent events here include Mountainfilm, Telluride Bluegrass Festival, and Telluride Film Festival.
Telluride accommodations come at a premium price, especially during the high season. Check out nearby towns Ridgeway, Ouray, or Montrose for budget-friendly options. And if you would like to camp, head to the gorgeous Alta Lakes outside of Telluride.
Chances are you have probably heard of Aspen even if you have never been to Colorado. While Aspen is a great place to visit at any time of the year, it’s skiing that has made it so famous.
People from all over the world come here to hit the famous Aspen slopes in areas such as Aspen Highlands, Aspen Mountain, and Snowmass Ski Resort among others.
However, it’s not just the winter season that offers plenty of things to do. In fall, visitors come to snap photos of the iconic Maroon Bells, the two majestic peaks reflected in the still waters of the Maroon Lake – one of the most photographed places in Colorado; or hike the Rio Grande Trail – one of the easiest trails near Aspen.
8. Glenwood Springs
Aspen’s neighbor to the north, Glenwood Springs, is home to world-famous hot springs where you can soak in mineral-filled waters. The town also offers a vibrant outdoor and cultural scene. Visitors enjoy rafting down the river through the scenic Glenwood Canyon, biking the 14.4-mile Glenwood Canyon Recreation Trail, and hiking the area’s scenic trails.
Hanging Lake is one of the most beautiful hikes near Glenwood Springs, however, it has fallen a victim to its own popularity, as it began attracting thousands of visitors on a daily basis. As a result, local officials created a reservation system and a host of rules that didn’t exist years ago.
If you want to enjoy Hanging Lake, I recommend making your reservation for a weekday.
9. Independence Pass
One of the highest paved passes in North America, Independence Pass, is a must for anybody who comes to Colorado. Located at an elevation of 12,095 feet, it begins near Leadville, stretches all the way to Aspen, and traverses through the Continental Divide.
While the pass is only 32 miles, take your time when going over it. The views along the way are breathtaking and the two lane-road winds along sharp curves. While the road is closed in winter, it’s one of the most popular destinations in Colorado during summer with holidays and weekends being the busiest days.
In addition to enjoying the scenery along the way, you can also enjoy several trails located right off the pass. One of the best hiking trails in the area is called Lost Man Trail that provides access to the beautiful alpine meadows and lakes.
Breckenridge and Frisco are a classic Colorado stop in the heart of the Rocky Mountains.
Located near several fourteeners (or mountains with the elevation higher than 14,000 feet), Frisco is a year-round vacation spot that used to be a mining town in the old days. Whether you want to enjoy a hike to Quandary Peak (East Ridge is the easiest route that is perfect for beginners, while West Ridge is more suitable for experts), have some fun at Frisco Adventure Park skiing or tubing, Frisco has it all!
The neighboring Breckenridge is a small mountain town with the charming Main Street where you can find stores, pubs, and restaurants among other things. And while most people have come to associate Breckenridge with skiing, the town also offers many other activities such as whitewater rafting, mountain biking, and hiking. In addition, the town has a rich mining history and many well-preserved buildings from that era.
If you are visiting Breckenridge in summer, hiking is an absolute must. The area is home to hundreds of incredible hiking trails with gorgeous wildflowers and alpine lakes which make this destination so popular.
Similar to Telluride and Aspen, Breckenridge hotels can be pricey. Luckily, there are plenty of options for dispersed camping in the area. In addition, you can also try nearby Frisco and Silverthorne.
While these locations are great for those who are just starting to explore Colorado, you could spend weeks or even months exploring this scenic state. Whether you come to Colorado in winter to enjoy skiing or snowboarding in the Rockies, or hike and mountain bike in summer, you will be blown away by the beauty of the state.
About the author: Daria created The Discovery Nut, a travel blog focused on adventurous destinations around the world, to share her favorite places and to encourage everyone to get out of their comfort zone and explore more. “If it’s a scenic destination with gorgeous nature and amazing culture, it definitely sounds like a Discovery Nut kind of place!”