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Colorado is known for sunny days and snowy ski slopes. It is also a spectacular place to take a drive. Your most difficult part of planning a Colorado vacation may be narrowing down the places you want to visit. From diverse national parks to charming mountain towns, Colorado road trips have something for everyone. Here, a Colorado local shares her family’s favorite road trip destinations.
Denver is a great starting point for any Colorado road trip. It has the biggest airport and a revitalized downtown area. But there are plenty of smaller airports spread throughout the state. You may want to plan your flight around the areas of the state that you want to see.
Let’s start with the majestic national parks that grace this Centennial state. From surfing sand dunes to exploring ancient history, any of these parks are some of the best road trips in the USA to show you unique dramatic landscapes.
Roadtripping to National Parks and Monuments
Great Sand Dunes National Park
In this southern Colorado national park, the tallest sand dunes in North America sit in contrast to the stunning Sangre De Cristo Mountains. During spring and early summer the Medano Creek runs through, sometimes creating a beach scene.
Great Sand Dunes National Park is easily its own road trip destination. There are plenty of other unique activities to do in the area from sandboarding to visiting an alligator farm to relaxing in hot springs.
Rocky Mountain National Park
Located in northern Colorado, Estes Park is a mountain town known for outdoor activities. It is just a few miles to Rocky Mountain National Park. so it’s easy to make Estes Park your home base for exploring the impressive Rocky Mountain National Park.
If you like to hike, bike, camp, fish or just generally take in the mountain environment, this may be the place for you. From pristine mountain lakes to roaring water falls and mountain peaks over 14,000 feet tall this landscape is impressive.
My must-do recommendations for this road trip:
- Take Trail Ridge Road from Estes Park to Grand Lake.
- Spot wildlife along the way.
- Hike Bear Lake Trail.
- Stop at the Visitor Center and the Continental Divide.
- Take a guided tour of the Stanley Hotel, famous for inspiring Stephen King’s novel, The Shining.
TravelingMom Tip: Be sure to make sure the road is open before heading out. And, for a unique Colorado family vacation, stay at the YMCA of the Rockies!
Mesa Verde National Park
Of all my travels throughout Colorado, Mesa Verde may have been the most surprising place I have visited. The history here is ancient, perhaps some of the oldest in the United States. Around the end of the 12th century Ancient Puebloans built impressive cliff dwellings in this area. The best known of these, Cliff Palace, is thought to the largest such structure in the U.S.
It is a fantastic place to learn lesser known history of North America. The landscape is impressive too. My kids like to climb into the cliff dwellings.
TravelingMom Tip: Add on a visit to Durango for a train ride, Ouray Pagosa Springs or Telluride for hot springs while you are in this area of Colorado. And, if you are brave, drive the million dollar highway to Silverton.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
About and hour and a half from Grand Junction and less from Montrose or Gunnison, Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is one of Colorado’s less crowded national parks.
The Visitor’s Center and overlooks are all fairly accessible. Each rim offers unique spectacular views. Here you can challenge yourself to a strenuous hike, or even rock climb.
Want More Off the Beaten Path Colorado? Check Out Crested Butte Ski Resort (P.S. It’s Cheaper Too!)
Colorado National Monument
Located between Grand Junction and Fruita, Colorado National Monument is something of a hidden gem. The panoramic view from the Colorado Plateau is often billed as one of the great landscapes of the American West.
Roadtripping to Colorado’s Mountain Towns
These are all best experienced as a weekend getaway, though depending on where you are coming from you might be able to to it in a day trip. These are also some of the best places to spot Colorado wildflowers. Definitely check out some of these Colorado road trips through the mountains!
Cañon City is home to the impressive cliffs of the Royal Gorge. Visitors flock here to see the Royal Gorge Bridge and for whitewater rafting the Arkansas River. But there is so much more.
Taste wines at the award-winning Winery of Holy Cross Abbey. Ride the Royal Gorge Route Railroad through the gorge.
Challenge yourself by Climbing a Via Feratta route up the cliffs of the gorge. Explore the area on one of the newly developed hiking trails or mountain biking trails. Cruise Skyline Drive for a unique view of town and the surrounding landscape.
Check out the coolest rock shop you could imagine, the Gold Mine Rock Shop. Learn about dinosaurs through the interactive dinosaur displays of the Royal Gorge Dinosaur experience.
And be sure to rest your head in the comfortable luxury Royal Gorge Cabins. Or, for a luxury camping experience stay in one of ther glamping tents.
TravelingMom Tip: Before you head out white water rafting, be sure to check our our river rafting tips.
The drive through Glenwood Canyon alone is an impressive sight. And, there are some wonderful hiking trails in the canyon. Reservations are required of you want to hike to Hanging Lake, one of Colorado’s most famous and popular hikes, but there are plenty of other fun and free things to do in Glenwood Springs.
Glenwood Springs is home to several natural hot springs including the oldest and largest hot springs pool in the U.S. In addition you will find the Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park another great place for family fun.
There’s lots of history in the area. This was a popular gangster vacation destination during prohibition. The downtown area is very cool. And, there are lots of great restaurants in Glenwood Springs.
Aspen may be known as mining town turned home to the rich and famous. But neighboring Snowmass is home to family fun. This charming mountain resort town was built up the side of the mountain making almost all lodging ski-in, ski-out. More recently Snowmass Village was re-developed to be the town’s epicenter of activity.
The Collective Snowmass features a robust summer lineup of weekly programming including chess club, comedy nights, bingo nights, and yoga with King Yoga. The Collective also features yard games, splash pads, fountains, harvest dinners at Mix6, and pop-up events.
On mountain, the whole family can enjoy the Breathtaker Alpine Coaster, the rock climbing wall, or other exciting activities deep in the Lost Forest.
Set in the White River National Forest, Vail is home to one of the largest ski resorts in the US. It is a popular area for skiing, mountain biking, fly fishing and outdoor concerts. The Bavarian cobblestone villages are walking villages dotted with shops, restaurants, art galleries and parks. Gore Creek cuts through town and is a play area for kids and adults alike.
The mountain itself offers mountain bike trails, plus the mountain top playground of Epic Discovery. After riding the gondola up the mountain for a scenic ride, visitors can ride an alpine coaster, challenge themselves on ropes courses or soar over the mountain on zip lines.
The town is also home to an unending variety of events including a great orchestral line up at Bravo! Vail Music festival. But the Gerald R Ford Amphitheater is not the only place you will find outdoor music. Visitors may also stumble across music at the farmers market, Solaris Plaza or while walking through the villages.
Our favorite family-friendly lodging option in Vail is the Antlers at Vail, set on Gore Creek with views of Vail Mountain and a fun year-round pool and hot tubs.
TravelingMom Tip: Read on for many other fun things for families to do in Vail during the summer.
Home to Grand Lake, Shadow Lake, Lake Granby and Winter Park Resorts this area is not just known for winter sports but also as a mecca for summer activities. The quaint town of Grand Lake offers an entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park.
While here be sure to spend a night in one of the cabins at the historic Grand Lake Lodge, or enjoy dinner there at Huntington House Tavern with one of the best restaurant views in Colorado.
The cabins at nearby Snow Mountain Ranch are also a fantastic place for families to stay. The property is expansive with so much to do from hiking and horseback riding to ziplining and playing at the parks.
Roadtripping to Colorado’s Cities
The cities also have lots to offer to as Colorado road trip destinations. With locations in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains they offer access both to outdoor mountain activities as well as the amenities of a city.
Located north of Denver, in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, has access to all kind of outdoor recreation. It is near both Golden Gate Canyon State Park and Eldorado Canyon State Park. The red rock formations of the Flatirons are Boulder’s most iconic landmark.
Home to University of Colorado it also has its share of museums. But Boulder is much more than just a college town.
One of the most popular attractions is completely free: Pearl Street. This is the place to find history, sights and fun. Kids can play on climbable animal sculptures or splash in the spray pad. Signs scattered throughout the mall tell the fascinating history of the area.
Twenty-two craft brewers, many with charming outdoor patios make Boulder a paradise for beer lovers. There’s even a bike tour of the breweries.
Home to Pike’s Peak and Garden of the Gods, Colorado Springs is another great road trip destination. Here you’ll want to hike, bike and see waterfalls. It boasts a fantastic zoo, the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo.
Colorado Springs is also home to the Olympic & Paralympic Training Center where visitors can take a tour and explore the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame Rotunda. And, if it’s views you’re looking for, drive west of Colorado Springs to Buena Vista for stunning photos of the Collegiate Peaks.
The Cog Railway re-opened in May of 2021 taking visitors to the top of Pike’s Peak for a bird’s eye view of the area. Soon to open in 2021 is a new Summit Complex offering unobstructed views from the east to the southwest.
TravelingMom Tip: Here’s how to explore the Garden of the Gods by horseback.