As a Colorado local who works and travels all over the state for my job as an adventure elopement photographer, I find myself on our mountain passes, highways, and back roads on a frequent basis. From my work and travels, I’ve compiled a list of my favorite places in Colorado, and have developed a Colorado road trip itinerary from them.
One thing to note: Colorado is absolutely massive. You can live here for decades and still only see a fraction of the state. All of this to say: to have a true Colorado road trip experience, I recommend dedicating at least a couple weeks to seeing these places.
This guide is built for travelers who plan on flying in through Denver International Airport. That said, you can certainly mix up the order of the itinerary if you’re driving into Colorado.
Another thing to note: this Colorado road trip itinerary does mention a few things to do in cities, but that’s not really what this road trip focuses on.
We’re all about outdoors adventures, and the stops on this Colorado road trip cater to that. You don’t need to be an avid hiker or anything, but if your goal is to maximize outdoors time, this Colorado road trip guide is for you.
This Colorado road trip itinerary is all about seeing the great outdoors. Colorado is an outdoor adventurer’s paradise. We have epic hikes and overlooks for advanced hikers and novices alike.
While I certainly will mention a few in-town things to do, the focus of this Colorado road trip itinerary will be on seeing the outdoors beauty of our great state.
As I mentioned earlier, Colorado is huge. And this road trip itinerary includes a lot of miles (a full Colorado road trip itinerary can easily break 1,000 miles).
I don’t want you to feel rushed during your travels, which is why I recommend dedicating at least 2-3 weeks for your Colorado exploration.
A lot of Colorado’s mountain passes that connect the mountain towns to each other are only open in the summer months. Outside of summer, travel time increases significantly because you have to take less efficient alternate routes and deal with dicey road conditions.
July and August are some of the best months to plan your Colorado road trip around, since that’s when Colorado is most accessible, driving-wise. That’s what this Colorado road trip itinerary is built around.
My Colorado road trip planner will walk you through an optimized route where you’ll get to see some of my favorite places in my home state. This Colorado guide is crafted with local expertise, from a Coloradan who regularly travels all over the state.
Personally, I don’t think spending too much time in Denver is worth it, especially if your primary goal is outdoors exploration. An afternoon is all I’d spend in the city.
That said, Denver does have some great coffee shops and restaurants for a quick pick-me-up before you begin your Colorado road trip. I’d recommend only dedicating an afternoon to hanging out in Denver. These are my personal favorite non-touristy spots to go:
For cocktails, I’m absolutely in love with the vibe of Death & Co. It’s in the lobby of the Ramble Hotel, and normally I’m not one to recommend a hotel bar, but damn, the drinks at Death & Co are something else. Worth it.
For a bite to eat, I won’t reinvent the wheel, especially since everyone has such varied taste. Eater has written a great article on the best restaurants in Denver to get you started. I’d highly recommend starting with this as your guide and finding something that matches the cuisine you’re going for.
I have the pleasure of calling Fort Collins home, and personally love the laid-back culture here. Fort Collins, Colorado has some of Colorado’s best local craft breweries, and some incredible restaurants to check out.
For outdoors adventures, my favorite place to watch the sun rise or set is over at Horsetooth Reservoir. There are plenty of bike and hiking trails in the area, and you can take a picnic basket down to the shoreline and enjoy the water.
One of my favorite things to do right outside of Fort Collins is take a drive up the Poudre Canyon. You can also go white water rafting up there (Rocky Mountain Adventures is great for this), or you can keep driving an hour and a half and make your way all the way up to the top of Cameron Pass.
I love how serene the drive up the pass is, and it’s a lesser-visited part of the state, which means you have a much better chance at peace and quiet.
For coffee in Fort Collins, my #1 spot to go is Bindle Coffee. I used to be a barista while in college, so I can tell a good shot of espresso from a bad one pretty quickly. Bindle is one of the only coffee shops I’ve been to in Fort Collins who consistently pulls stellar shots of espresso.
Right next door is also one of my favorite restaurants in Fort Collins: The Farmhouse at Jessup Farm. They have the most amazing comfort food you can imagine. My other two FoCo restaurant favorites are Himalayan Bistro and Bahn Thai.
As for breweries, that’s what Fort Collins is famous for. Stock up on your favorites to bring with you on your Colorado road trip adventure (there’s nothing like a summit beer, am I right?!).
A few to visit include: Odell (Sippin’ Pretty is my favorite beer here), Funkwerks (they specialize in some epic sours), and Horse & Dragon (I love their Sad Panda Coffee Stout), and of course New Belgium.
No Colorado road trip is complete without visiting the classic Rocky Mountain National Park. However, be warned: the park is very busy in the summertime. I always recommend visiting on a weekday if you can, and getting into the park before sunrise.
Depending on when you visit, you may need to acquire a timed entry ticket. If you’re visiting in the summer months and Trail Ridge Road is open, I highly recommend driving it.
Trail Ridge Road typically opens on Memorial Day weekend, but the past couple of years it’s been a tad later than that. It usually closes towards the end of October, but can also shut down more sporadically due to winter conditions in the tundra.
It’s the highest continuously paved road in the US (at over 12,000 ft elevation) and has some truly epic mountain views. There are plenty of great pull-offs where you can step out and enjoy the views.
Please be aware, though, at this elevation you’ve entered what’s called the alpine tundra. The grass-like stuff you see on the ground is extremely fragile, and walking off trail can be devastating for the area (some plant life actually take hundreds of years to grow up there). Only walk on trails or solid surfaces like rocks when you’re in this area.
If you plan on visiting Bear Lake, Dream Lake, or Emerald Lake, I’d recommend getting to the Bear Lake Trailhead at least a couple hours before sunrise to ensure you can snag a coveted parking spot (no seriously, they fill up fast). Also in the Bear Lake Corridor is Sprague Lake, an easy loop trail that is great for anyone new to hiking and looking for something very accessible.
If you’re an experienced hiker and have the proper gear and training, Rocky Mountain National Park is also home to Long’s Peak, one of Colorado’s many 14’ers. Even if you don’t hike all the way to the top, one of my personal favorite sights along this trail is Chasm Lake. Definitely work the trek.
With Rocky, the key is starting as early as possible. I’ve arrived to trailheads at 4 AM and still seen lines, especially in the summertime. It’s a common occurrence, so be prepared for the early wake-up call.
If early mornings aren’t your vibe, and you want to sleep in on your Colorado road trip, going in to the park right before sunset can also be a solid way to snag a parking spot at your favorite trail.
The Indian Peaks Wilderness is one of my favorite places to explore when I want epic hikes and gorgeous mountains, all very close to the Front Range. The alpine lakes in the area are truly other-worldly to witness, with their jagged peaks and snow-capped tips.
The high alpine never really gets hot, even in the thick of summer, so if you’re hiking at sunrise or sunset, definitely bring a light jacket with you to stay warm. My favorite area to explore is the Brainard Lake Recreation Area, which has several epic hikes once you enter the gates.
Summer of 2021, beginning on June 11, they’ve instituted a timed entry system where you need to reserve your entry time and location within the hours of 5AM and 8PM.
This is a pretty popular area, and has only grown in popularity in recent years, so I recommend reserving your ticket as soon as you possibly can.
Next up on your Colorado road trip, you’ll make your way up i70 and head into Frisco and Breckenridge. They’re neighboring mountain towns, with plenty to do in the area.
Whether you’re looking for great restaurants, off-roading (I’d highly recommend driving Boreas Pass from Breck), or want to take a nice lakeside hike, these two towns have tons of options.
As you head out of Breckenridge and go southbound, definitely take the drive up to the top of Hoosier Pass (Hoosier Pass Loop is a shorter trail under 3 miles round trip that you can do when you get up there). I’m a sucker for a good mountain pass drive, and I love doing this one.
While Boreas Pass is a dirt road, Hoosier is fully paved, so depending on your comfort level on rugged mountain roads, Hoosier may be a better fit.
This might come as a surprise to some, but most of Colorado’s best hiking is not in national parks. To find many of the best trails, it’s worth scoping out trails in National Forests and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) areas.
These hiking trails will frequently be less crowded than trails of similar length/difficulty in national parks, and often have scenic rewards that exceed what will be found in the more crowded parks.
This is no exception in the Frisco/Breckenridge area, where it’s well worth visits to the nearby national forests. The White River National Forest features 2,500 miles of trails, and the southern bounds of the sprawling Arapaho National Forest is also a short drive away from town.
Next on your Colorado road trip, you’ll make your way towards Twin Lakes and Aspen. After passing through Copper Mountain on the way out of Frisco, you’ll depart i70 and follow a scenic mountain highway.
The route will take you through through Leadville, which at over 10,000 ft elevation, is the highest incorporated city in North America.
Twin Lakes is a great escape into the outdoors. Whether you’re into camping, canoeing or kayaking, hiking, off-roading, or fishing, Twin Lakes has it all. While more of a pass-through town, I personally think it’s a great add-on to any Colorado road trip.
You’ll notice some of my favorite places in Colorado are the places you drive past when getting from one big mountain village to another. These are the hidden gems, and my personal favorite locations.
One note about fishing: Colorado takes fishing license violations very seriously, and you can face serious fines if caught fishing without a license.
The mountain pass connecting Twin Lakes and Aspen crosses the Continental Divide and is a very scenic drive, packed with great pull-offs with epic mountain views. It’s one of my favorite drives to do in the summertime, and one that I do multiple times a year (it really never gets old!).
One thing to note is that the pass is closed for the winter, usually October through May, though an early or particularly severe winter can shift either end of that range in or out.
Once in Aspen, two of the best things to see are the beautiful old ghost town of Ashcroft and the classic Maroon Bells (if you’ve seen photos of Colorado, there’s a good chance what you saw was actually a photo of the bells).
Ashcroft is an old silver mining outpost that was abandoned in the 1880s. While this Colorado road trip itinerary is intended for the summer, if you find yourself in this area during autumn, there are tons of Aspen trees that make this area come alive with blazes of yellow and orange.
Maroon Bells is one of the most popular sites to see in all of Colorado. Every morning, photographers line the shores of the lake waiting for sunrise to light up Maroon Peak and North Maroon Peak in a beautifully warm bath of alpenglow.
If you have not had the opportunity to experience this magnificent site, you should go see it. However, it is necessary to warn that Maroon Bells is extremely busy. To beat the worst of the crowds, it’s worth arriving at least a few hours before sunrise and on a weekday, but even so crowds should be expected.
That said, Aspen is not a cheap place to lodge in. If you’re looking for a less expensive place to stay, Leadville is about an hour and a half drive away (when the pass is open), and offers convenient-enough access to most of what Aspen has to offer. Plus it has a more laid-back vibe, which I personally love.
Buena Vista is quite possibly my favorite part of Colorado, so there’s no way I could leave it off of my Colorado road trip itinerary. It’s such an underrated town that packs a punch. Whenever I have free time, I almost always find myself drawn to Buena Vista.
There are a few different companies that offer whitewater rafting excursions on the Arkansas River that runs alongside town. I’ve had a blast doing these, and it’s the perfect way to cool off in the summertime.
The Sawatch Mountain Range near Buena Vista is home to 15 of Colorado’s 14’ers (peaks that are at or above 14,000 ft elevation above sea level). So if you’ve trained to take on these peaks and are acclimated to the elevation and difficulty of hiking at altitude, Buena Vista is essentially a hiking paradise.
Right outside of town is my favorite free campsite, right across from the Avalanche Trailhead (one of the many access points for the famous Colorado Trail that connects Denver to Durango). There are also tons of other camping options nearby, including a KOA right on the edge of town.
If you want to stay at a hotel, my personal favorite boutique hotel is the Surf Hotel and Chateau. It sits right alongside the Arkansas River, and it has an amazing restaurant and bar in the lobby. Snag one of their rooms that have a porch view (the hotel has an epic New Orleans-style wraparound porch).
Or you can get one of the chateaus behind the hotel for a more private experience. I’ve written a review all about the Surf Hotel if you want to see what it’s all about. 10/10 would recommend.
There are also a few hot springs in Buena Vista, and if you want to stay the night at one of them, Mt Princeton Hot Springs is great. They have adorable little cabins you can rent, too. That said, a lot of the hot springs you’ll come across are swimming pool-like hot springs and not the primitive type.
If you’re looking for primitive hot springs, you’ll need to do a big more digging. A lot of those are local secrets and won’t be publicly listed online (and for good reason!).
Buena Vista may be my favorite mountain town in Colorado, but Crested Butte comes in a very close second.
When you’re doing your Colorado road trip during the summer months (which is what this itinerary is built around), I’d highly recommend taking my favorite route that connects the two towns (take State Hwy 306, which then turns into CO Rd 209, and hang a left on CO Rd 742 when you get to the Taylor Park Reservoir). What Colorado road trip is complete without epic mountain drives, right?
Taylor Park Reservoir is a beautiful spot to stop for lunch before making your drive into Crested Butte. Bring your fishing gear or opt to go stand up paddle boarding.
Once in Crested Butte, there are a million different things to do. If you go during mid-July, Crested Butte has their annual wildflower festival (CB is lovingly referred to as the wildflower capital of Colorado).
Personally, I love starting my mornings in Crested Butte with a coffee in town before I make my way into the mountains. Arguably the most popular coffee shop in CB is Camp 4 Coffee.
If you want to swing by an adorable coffee shop with an incredible mission, definitely head over to the Coffee Lab in Mt Crested Butte. All proceeds from their coffee sales are given to the Rocky Mountain Biological Lab, whose mission it is to study and protect the local high altitude ecosystem.
Curious to see where the Rocky Mountain Biological Lab conducts their studies? They’re located in the old mining town of Gothic, which has been repurposed for this cause. Take Gothic Rd northbound out of Mt Crested Butte after grabbing your coffee. It’ll eventually turn into a dirt road that’ll wind alongside the East River and into the mining town of Gothic.
This road is one of my favorite ones to drive in CB and has several hiking trails you can swing by. That said, I’d advise having a AWD or 4WD vehicle when making the trek past Gothic.
If you keep going, eventually you’ll come across a turn off for Schofield Pass. Please note this off-roading pass is only for the most experienced off-road drivers and can be very dangerous. Proceed at your own risk. Alternatively, you can always hike this trail instead of driving it.
One of my other favorite parts of Crested Butte to explore is Kebler Pass, and I’d highly recommend adding it to your Colorado road trip itinerary. It is home to some of my favorite unmarked trails with epic aspen groves, and this is the place I like to go when I want to get away from crowds and find unknown trails (which CB has a lot of!).
Up the pass, you’ll also find two of my favorite campgrounds: Lake Irwin Campground and Lost Lake Campground. Personally, I don’t think any Colorado road trip is complete without camping, and summer is the best season to do it out here.
The nights at elevation still get pretty cool, and the days never really get hot. It’s kind of the ideal weather, and Crested Butte has hands-down some of the most scenic campgrounds in the state.
On your trek from Crested Butte down towards Southwest Colorado, you’ll come across a huge, beautiful reservoir: Blue Mesa Reservoir. There are plenty of places alongside the reservoir to park your car and hang out.
Blue Mesa Reservoir is actually technically Colorado’s largest lake, and there are plenty of recreational activities you can do on it, including boating, fishing, kayaking, and stand up paddleboarding.
There are companies in the Gunnison area that rent out boats, if you’re interested in getting out on the water. Personally, I think Blue Mesa is the perfect little afternoon pit stop on your Colorado road trip. No need to spend a whole day, but it’s a great afternoon hang out.
People spend so much time talking about Rocky Mountain National Park that the other Colorado parks tend to get overlooked, which is a shame if you ask me.
The views at Black Canyon of the Gunnison are enough to make you lose your mind, which is why it’s a must-see on this Colorado road trip itinerary.
There are plenty of shorter trails and overlooks that you can go to admire the canyon views. If you’re an advanced adventurer, you can actually hike down into the canyon (there are a few different routes to do this), but you need a wilderness permit to do it.
Please do not attempt this hike unless you’re prepared. It’s not for the faint of heart or for people who have a fear of heights.
While heading down toward Telluride (our next stop on the Colorado road trip!) you’ll pass through a little town by the name of Ridgway.
It’s an adorable little town where you can gas up, grab a bite to eat, and snag some beverages before heading into the more expensive Telluride. But food and gas is not the reason I’m recommending Ridgway: it’s the views.
When driving through Ridgway, you’ll come across some of my favorite views of the San Juan Mountains. Every time I pass through, I can’t help but pull my car over at every pull-off and parking lot just to snap some photos of the mountains. They’re just that good. So take this drive slow. Enjoy the route from Ridgway to Telluride. Soak it in.
I remember the very first time I saw Telluride. I was driving into the valley, mountains towering above the little town, and I was stopped dead in my tracks. Ever since then, there’s not a time that I drive into Telluride and don’t get that same feeling. It’s a gem of a place, and no Colorado road trip is complete without a visit here. It’s one million percent worth the hype.
The town of Telluride is actually super small. You can drive the length of it within minutes. But there’s also so much to do there. Telluride is home to some incredible boutique shops, restaurants, and cafes.
It’s famously known for its world-class skiing, but I’ll be honest: I think Telluride is best in the summer and early fall, when the area is most accessible for hiking and off-roading.
First things first: when you get into town, take the free gondola up the mountain to watch the alpenglow on the San Juan mountains at sunset. There’s no better way to start your Telluride adventures.
Or, if you’d rather hike after taking the gondola up the mountain, the See Forever Trail (5 miles RT 1696 ft elevation gain) is at the top, too.
Bridal Veil Falls is a Telluride classic, and if you’re into chasing waterfalls, I’d recommend swinging by. Just a heads up, though: you’ll want a high clearance 4WD vehicle to get up there, and the drive is not something I’d recommend if you’re not comfortable on dicey roads with drop-offs.
If you’re on a peak bagging mission and want to hike another one of Colorado’s epic 14’ers, the lovely Mt Sneffels is not too far away. You’ll actually take Yankee Boy Basin to get there (you’ll start in Ouray, CO), and that drive alone is a stunning one.
You’ll notice, as is common in Colorado, that a location can be close, as the crow flies, but you usually have to drive around mountain ranges to get there (for example, Crested Butte and Aspen are technically only 20 miles apart, but it’s actually a near 4 hr drive to get from one to the other).
The Mt Sneffels trailhead is a perfect example of this. You’ll need to loop back around toward Ridgway and then over to Ouray to take Yankee Boy Basin up to the Mt Sneffels trailhead.
When looking for lodging options in Telluride, if you want to be within walking distance of the gondola and the in-town attractions, the historic New Sheridan Hotel is close to everything.
Hotel Columbia is quite literally right at the base of the free gondola. Seriously, you step outside and you’re there. The nearby town of Mountain Village also has a lot of lodging options, too (and the gondola connects Telluride to Mountain Village). Mountain Lodge Telluride is a great option up in Mountain Village.
Prefer a camping experience instead of a hotel? Hey, me too. I personally love camping, and there’s no better place for it than SW Colorado. Check out Priest Lake dispersed camping (the drive to this spot is other-worldly) or the Matterhorn Campground.
I absolutely love Telluride and am a firm believer that no Colorado road trip is complete without a trip here. Seriously, if you skip Telluride, you’re missing one of the most incredible places our great state has to offer.
Before making the drive on Ophir Pass from Telluride to Silverton, I need to give a quick warning. This is one of the most stunning drives you can do, but it’s also a nerve-wracking one. You’ll want a high-clearance 4WD vehicle to do it, and you’ll want to be experienced at off-roading.
If you are not, take the paved road from Telluride back to Ridgway, and then take the scenic Million Dollar Highway into Silverton. It’s still an absolutely gorgeous route (with some of my favorite overlooks in the state).
If you want the boutique hotel experience, you’ll definitely want to stay at the Wyman Hotel. Its mixture of modern and historic vibes is truly beautiful. The Avon is also an epic choice, with tons of historic charm.
As far as hiking is concerned, Silverton has some of the most epic alpine lakes in the entire state. I won’t go into detail in this Colorado road trip itinerary, as the list could literally go on and on, but if you rent a Jeep while in town and are comfortable with off-roading, your efforts will be rewarded.
Silverton is the lesser-known, but just as epic sister of Telluride, and it’s worth taking the time to find those hidden gems on the outskirts of town.
In case hiking more 14’ers on your Colorado road trip is something you’re interested in, Handies Peak (5.3 miles RT and 2440 ft elevation gain) is another one you can try your hand at.
My personal opinion? Great Sand Dunes is hands-down the best national park in Colorado. There, I said it. In fact, I love this park so much, I got married here. It’s home to North America’s tallest sand dune (at over 750 feet), and the whole place feels like what you’d expect to find in Morocco.
The best part? You get both sand dunes and the mountains, with the Sangre de Cristo range right behind massive dune fields. Seeing the light hit the peaks at sunrise and sunset is one of my favorite things to do at the dunes.
Hiking up to High Dune and racing down is sure to make your heart race. Or bring a sled and go sand sledding. If you’re feeling up to it, spend a night sleeping on the sand dunes. To do this, you’ll need to get a backpacking permit, which’ll allow you to sleep in the dunes backcountry (which is the region beyond the day use area).
There’s a couple different ways you can go back to Denver to wrap up your Colorado road trip. The first one will take you back to i25. But that route’s only slightly shorter and faster than the scenic route, which’ll take you on Colorado’s gorgeous 285. I’d definitely go this way if you can.
This route will take you past Kenosha Pass, where you can park and take a hike up at the top. There are tons of aspen trees up there, which glow the most incredible yellow in the fall and are a stunning green in the summertime.
And that wraps up our ultimate Colorado road trip itinerary! As you go through this trip, don’t forget to take stops along the way. Consider driving down a random dirt road. Stop at that epic road-side pull-off for a car picnic. Or opt to stay another day in a place that resonates with you and makes you feel free.
That’s the thing about Colorado: she surprises you in the most unexpected ways. Some of my favorite places in the state are accidental finds. They’re places I saw when trying to go from one mountain village to another. I hope that can be your experience, too.
Take a moment and breathe that mountain air as you watch the light turn the clouds above the mountains a cotton candy pink (one of my favorite sunset scenes!). I promise it’ll make your Colorado road trip that much more special and uniquely yours.
Outdoors enthusiast and advocate. Adventure elopement photographer. Dog mom extraordinaire. Girl who lives for the sounds of dirt beneath her hiking boots. Road trip fanatic.
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