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  • Enjoying craft brews in the outdoor beer garden at Denver Beer Co.
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    Start in Denver, The Mile High City

  • Watching an elk on a glorious autumn day in Estes Park
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    Estes Park: Outdoor Adventure for All

  • Snowmobile adventures on a winter day in mountains surrounding Grand Lakes
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    Grand Lake: A Rocky Mountain Town with Soul

  • Sunrise over the red rock formations at the Colorado National Monument near Grand Junction
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    Grand Junction: Naturally Dramatic

  • Viewing the Painted Wall of the Black Canyon in Gunnison National Park
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    Montrose: Journey to the Steep Black Canyon

  • Ruins of the Square Tower House, carved by Ancestral Puebloans, in Mesa Verde National Park
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    Mesa Verde: Discover Ancient Pueblo Indian Culture

  • The Star Dune, the tallest dune at 229 meters in Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
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    Alamosa: Real, Laid-back and Uncrowded

Exploring Red Rocks Park & Amphitheatre outside Denver
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Visit Denver

Colorado Road Trip: Surrounded by Nature on the National Parks Loop

By Idoia Gkikas

  • Route distance:
  • Suggested Time:
    1-2 weeks

When it comes to outdoor adventures, Colorado beckons explorers, no matter the season.

In addition to world-renowned skiing, whitewater rafting and hiking, Colorado has four national parks and eight national monuments that encompass a tremendous variety of activities, wildlife, landmarks and natural beauty. Starting in the gateway city of Denver, you’ll experience the great outdoors like only Colorado can deliver, from lush forests and roaring rivers to windy plains and massive sand dunes. Before you go, make sure you phone or camera has plenty of space for photos.

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Enjoying craft brews in the outdoor beer garden at Denver Beer Co.
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Start in Denver, The Mile High City

Fly into Denver International Airport (DEN), which offers nonstop and connecting flights from around the world. Denver is known for its laid-back atmosphere, craft beer and culinary scenes, beautiful scenery and attractions for all ages. With hundreds of craft breweries, Colorado is a top contender for the ultimate beer state in the USA. Visit the state’s first brewpub, Wynkoop Brewing Company (cofounded by the current governor, John Hickenlooper), for a free brewery tour. They’ll even show you which beers pair best with menu items. Foodies should save room for the historic Denver Union Station, a transit hub that has taken on a new life as an artisan food haven. Next Door American Eatery is great for a healthy meal (vegan, dairy-free and gluten-free options are plentiful), followed by a hand-made ice cream cone at Milkbox Ice Creamery. End your visit at Red Rocks Park & Amphitheatre, a legendary music venue equally known for its fascinating geological formations. Arrive early to explore the hiking trails, take pictures and check out the Colorado Music Hall of Fame. It’s a can’t-miss stop for nature lovers and photographers alike, and there’s no charge to visit, making it a perfect stop before the drive to Estes Park.

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122 km
1.5 hours by car
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Watching an elk on a glorious autumn day in Estes Park
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Estes Park: Outdoor Adventure for All

Visited by millions of people each year, Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) is one of the USA’s natural treasures and the fourth most visited national park in the country. Estes Park, known as the base camp for RMNP, is a year-round tourist destination with a walkable downtown that’s home to diverse restaurants, unique shops and festive events. Park your rental car, because convenient (and complimentary) shuttles transport you around town and into RMNP. Outdoor activities are too numerous to list, but consider horseback riding, rock climbing, wildlife viewing, camping, biking and nearly 600 kilometers of hiking trails. Take the family-friendly Alluvial Fan Trail hike, the scene of a massive flood that left a fanned-out field of massive boulders, rocks and sediment. You’ll gain a new appreciation for the power of nature. Winter brings snowy fun, from sledding to cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. Ranger-led programs and guided tours are excellent ways to learn about the park from experts. When you’re done for the day, relax with a local craft beverage and a hearty meal at one of Estes Park’s many restaurants featuring locally sourced cuisine. The mountain views from the town’s outdoor patios are breathtaking, and wildlife sightings are plentiful.

76 km
1.5 hours by car
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Snowmobile adventures on a winter day in mountains surrounding Grand Lakes
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Grand Lake: A Rocky Mountain Town with Soul

The drive to your next stop is along Trail Ridge Road, RMNP’s “highway to the sky” and likely one of the most dramatic drives you’ll ever make. The road crosses the Continental Divide and transitions from thick forest to windy tundra above the tree line at 3,700 meters elevation. The road closes in the winter, but the community of Grand Lake is easily accessible by alternate routes. Grand Lake is considered the western gateway to RMNP, and you can expect an equal abundance of activities in nature. Winter sports are especially noteworthy, including snowshoeing, Nordic skiing and ice fishing, but the snowmobiling is so epic, it’s known as the Snowmobiling Capital of Colorado. Local outfitters offer rentals and guided tours of 482 kilometers of groomed and backcountry trails. Even the town streets are designated snowmobiling trails in the winter. When the snow melts, enjoy the plethora of warm-weather fun at Colorado’s largest natural lake: fishing, sailing, kayaking, stand-up paddle boarding and sunbathing, all with gorgeous views of Mount Craig (also called Mount Baldy) as a backdrop. Take the short hike to Adams Falls before you leave. The series of cascading waterfalls is great for pictures and the hike is appropriate for all fitness levels.

339 km
4 hours by car
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Sunrise over the red rock formations at the Colorado National Monument near Grand Junction
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Grand Junction: Naturally Dramatic

After a scenic trek across the western half of Colorado, your destination of Grand Junction is, not surprisingly, incredibly photogenic, but also a different side of Colorado than you’ve seen so far. The can’t-miss park here is Colorado National Monument, whose deep canyons, scenic outlooks and red rock spires are unlike anything else you will find in Colorado. In addition to exploring a variety of hiking trails, many visitors drive or bike the scenic 37-kilometer Rim Rock Drive. It’s a challenging route, but the views are truly stunning. Spend the night in downtown Grand Junction to take in the culinary scene (featuring fresh, local ingredients), family-friendly attractions and walkable Main Street. You won’t run out of things to see, do and experience here. Look for whimsical sculptures (including fountains and a dinosaur riding a bicycle), sit down for a cold beer (Grand Junction has three breweries) or a locally made wine (Grand Valley is home to more than 20 wineries). Pick up a unique memento from a local shop before heading to Montrose.

98 km
1.25 hours by car
05
Viewing the Painted Wall of the Black Canyon in Gunnison National Park
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Montrose: Journey to the Steep Black Canyon

Vast, largely undeveloped plains follow you to Montrose, a welcoming mountain destination with a friendly atmosphere, outdoor recreation and a quaint downtown lined with colorful storefronts. Grab your camera and head to Black Canyon National Park, named for the dramatic, deep gorge carved by the Gunnison River over the course of 1.7 billion years. The canyon walls are so tall that the bottom of the gorge receives only minutes of sunlight each day. It’s hard to believe that the park isn’t more heavily traveled – the vistas are absolutely jaw-dropping. Take the scenic South Rim drive and pull off at the overlooks for dizzying views of the river far below. For avid anglers, nearby Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area offers Gold Medal trout fishing on the Gunnison River. As night falls, you can watch the twinkling ribbon of the Milky Way rise into the sky at Black Canyon, an International Dark Sky Park. Camp overnight or go for more modern lodging in town. You’re in for a real treat at your next destination, Mesa Verde.

227 km
3 hours by car
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Ruins of the Square Tower House, carved by Ancestral Puebloans, in Mesa Verde National Park
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Mesa Verde: Discover Ancient Pueblo Indian Culture

The drive from Montrose passes through the San Juan National Forest, passing the legendary ski resort at Telluride. Stop in the town of Dolores to stretch your legs and visit the Anasazi Heritage Center, dedicated to the history of the Pueblo, Ute and Navajo Native Americans – it’s the perfect preview to Mesa Verde National Park, home to some of the best-preserved, ancient Pueblo cliff dwellings. Purchase tickets at the visitor center for the Cliff Palace tour, the park’s largest cliff dwelling, or the Balcony House tour, an incredible adventure that will have you climbing ladders and crawling through tunnels. You can also opt for the self-guided driving tour on Mesa Top Loop Road, featuring 12 scenic overlooks on the 10-kilometer loop. Keep an eye out for some of the park’s diverse wildlife: deer, coyote, foxes, elk and exotic reptiles among them. Insider tip: Bring binoculars! If you’re visiting between April and October, make reservations at the Far View Lodge. The sweeping views of the desert and colorful sunsets can’t be beat. There’s no cell service and no TVs. If it weren’t for the free Wi-Fi, it would be a true break from modern life.

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295 km
3.5 hours by car
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The Star Dune, the tallest dune at 229 meters in Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
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Alamosa: Real, Laid-back and Uncrowded

About halfway between Mesa Verde and Alamosa is Pagosa Springs, the world’s deepest geothermal hot springs – set aside an extra couple of hours to experience the rejuvenating waters. Your last stop is Alamosa, home to Great Sand Dunes National Park and the tallest sand dunes in North America. It’s difficult to do justice to the unusual scenery here; the massive dunes are surrounded by evergreen spruce and pine forests, wetlands, grassy plains and towering 3,900-meter mountain peaks. Don’t miss a chance to experience sandboarding or sandsledding. You can rent equipment outside of the park. The weather – especially the wind – changes quite a bit here: Your best bet is to hike the dunes early in the morning, then plan for a forest hike and cooling off afterward in Medano Creek (depending on seasonal water flow). Enjoy a hike at Zapata Falls and soak in the stunning views of the dunes and San Luis Valley. This road trip ends about halfway between Denver and Albuquerque, New Mexico. Enjoy the final drive of this journey through Colorado’s unforgettable parks, then catch a flight home from either city.

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The Broadmoor Pikes Peak Cog Railway travels to Pikes Peak’s summit

Destination

Colorado Springs

Denver Union Station at dusk

Destination

Denver

The historic Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad train hugs a mountain

Destination

Durango

Winding road through the Colorado National Monument landscape

Destination

Grand Junction

View out from Balcony House, a 13th century cliff dwelling at Mesa Verde National Park

Destination

Cortez

Hiking along the Blue Lakes Trail in the Mount Sneffels Wilderness area

Destination

Telluride

Fly-fishing on the East River

Destination

Gunnison Valley