COLORADO IS ONE OF THE BEST STATES in the country to just relax and take it all in. Whether starting in Denver and the front range, down in the southern part of the state near Durango or Walsenburg, or in the high country, there is no shortage of options for fun and creative road trips. Travel deep and don’t be shy about pulling over frequently to investigate the surroundings. Often, a short hike off the highway will lead to an unexpected surprise or view. The drives here can all be done in one day. Some are quick, on others, an overnight stop or return trip will make the experience even better.
1. Denver to Salida via US 285.
From central or south Denver, hop on Hampden Ave, which becomes the US 285 highway west of Santa Fe Drive. Leave early in the morning- the mountains look absolutely surreal during the golden hour, climbing into them as the highway weaves through Morrison and Bailey. Cruz In provides the breakfast burrito fix without having to the car, about 45 minutes from Denver- if you get to Bailey you’ve missed it. The drive is pleasant, rolling over easy mountain passes that provide views of the South Park flat as well as the Pike and San Isabel National Forests. Fairplay is the town that the show South Park is loosely based on. Visit the South Park City museum in town and walk the ‘main street’.
Stop again in Johnson Village and do a 1.5-hour rafting float or ATV tour with American Adventure Expeditions. Drive past the majestic Collegiate Peaks west of the highway, detouring onto the Collegiate Peaks Byway for photos or a quick hike if there isn’t time for rafting. In Salida, relax at Moonlight Pizza and Brewpub. The small mountain towns off US 285 are not nearly as crowded as those off I-70, meaning the cultural experiences will be more authentic, cost less, and involve significantly less waiting time. Total drive time- 2.5-3 hours, depending on the season.
2. Denver to Glenwood Canyon via I-70.
The fact that the Colorado Department of Transportation constructed an Interstate Highway thru Glenwood Canyon while leaving natural features such as Hanging Lake and the Colorado River in their natural state, is a testament to modern engineering and construction. This portion of I-70 covers only twelve miles but provides enough stunning views, hiking opportunities, rafting, and general natural bewilderment that passing multiple days in the canyon isn’t just doable, it’s tempting. Start from the East, either by leaving Denver on I-70 or meeting up with the highway prior to Gypsum. In an instant, the scenery changes from a leisurely drive through open fields to impossibly steep cliffs. Pull off on Exit 125 and make the two-mile hike to Hanging Lake. Notice how for much of the canyon, the westbound lanes are actually on top of the eastbound lanes. On the other side, stop at the No Name Rest Area. Grab a drink at the No Name Bar and Grill and talk about what just happened- the first time driving through Glenwood Canyon is an unforgettable experience.
3. Durango to the Four Corners Monument via US Highway 160.
After making a dent in a plate of The Cure from Durango Diner, head west out of town towards Cortez. Shortly after entering Montezuma County, follow signs to Mesa Verde National Park. Here, discover stunningly well-preserved ancestral Puebloan ruins including the Cliff Palace- perhaps the park’s most famous attraction. Most sights can be viewed by car and/or short walk but some require a bit of time and effort to get to. It can be crowded- which is why going in the morning is the best option.
After leaving the park, jump back on Highway 160 west and continue to the town of Cortez. A late lunch, or perhaps its dinner, and delicious craft beer can be enjoyed at Main Street Brewery. From there, the Four Corners Monument is about 40 minutes south by continuing on Main Street as it veers left and heads out of town. If a gambling fix or overnight stay is in order, check out the Ute Mountain Casino and learn about the legend of Sleeping Ute Mountain. At the Four Corners Monument, stand in four states at the same time (Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico) – the only place it is possible to do so.
4. Salida to Pueblo via US Highway 50.
Two main attractions make this drive stand out. First and foremost is Royal Gorge Bridge & Park. Plan to spend a few hours here- there is a lot to do! This beautiful gorge formed by the Arkansas River’s consistent wear on the granite landscape over the past 3 million years, is dubbed the ‘Grand Canyon of the Arkansas River.’ It has a maximum depth of 1,250 ft. Visitors can cross the gorge by breathtaking pedestrian bridge or aerial tram. Another activity is the Royal Skycoaster- basically a watered down version of bungee jumping, or the zip line.
The other amazing thing about the drive is Highway 50 itself, winding through pristine mountains along the Arkansas River and providing numerous spots to pull over and take photos. Once you reach Pueblo, celebrate the day with drinks and dinner along the Riverwalk at Rosario’s.
5. Walsenburg to Great Sand Dunes National Park and Alamosa via US Highway 160/State Highway 150.
The San Luis Valley is a unique part of Colorado in that the 122-mile stretch of the Rio Gran Rift basin, sitting at about 7,600 feet in elevation, is a high-altitude desert. It makes for some fun driving with incredible mountain views, without having to go over any rugged passes or deal with traffic. Temperatures vary greatly between day and night and the sunrises/sunsets are absolutely breathtaking. That said, it is definitely worth bringing a jacket in the summertime. Passing through the small towns of Fort Garland and Blanca, a crop of ‘fourteeners’ (14,000-foot mountains) such as Mt. Blanca, Mt. Lindsey, and Little Bear Peak can be viewed to the north. Many Coloradoans take pride in the number of fourteeners they’ve “bagged.” Stop for Gabe’s Burrito at Lu’s Main Street Café in Blanca, especially if hiking a peak is planned. Be sure to order an extra side of green chili- Lu sources the chilies from Pueblo and they are as good as you’ll find anywhere in the state.
57 miles from Walsenburg is the right turn onto Highway 150 to head to the Sand Dunes. Expect to pay a fee per vehicle to enter the park. Here, there are numerous options for hiking the dunes, taking photos, or camping/backpacking. Parking lots and signs make for easy directing. It is easy to kill a day or two hiking around the dunes, so be sure to bring food to grill over the fire pit at the campsite if necessary. Back out on Highway 160, Alamosa is a short drive away. A quick stop at the Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge is fun or do what I do and just head into town for a drink at the Purple Pig Pub. Dinner and drinks at San Luis Valley Brewing Company are never a bad idea either.
6. Fort Collins to Steamboat Springs via US Highway 287, State Highway 14, US 40.
The Poudre River Canyon is a hell of a sight to behold. Hit the road after eating breakfast at the Rainbow. About 24 miles in is The Mishawaka, an outdoor amphitheater hosting live music all summer, with intoxicated show goers often spreading to the dispersed camp sites along the river after each show to keep the party going. Most of the drive up to the town of Walden is through the Roosevelt National Forest– great views and plenty of shade to keep the drive from getting excessively hot. Stopping for a hike in State Forest State Park is never a bad idea- Clarke Peak is a challenge but the park also has many shorter hikes. Rabbit Ears Pass can be a tough go in the winter, but is typically passable. In summer it is possible to pull over onto County Road 199 and hike up to Rabbit Ears Peak- only about an hour one way. In Steamboat Springs, rent a tube and hit the Yampa River with some canned beer. If the wait isn’t too long at Slopeside Grill, their pub food is solid and the drinks are reasonably priced considering the place is right at the base of the ski hill. Otherwise, head downtown to Sunpie’s Bistro, but don’t mistake the term ‘bistro’ to mean fine dining. Cheap drinks and grub are their specialties.
7. Grand Junction to Durango via US Highway 50, 550.
Sitting underneath the traditional radar of Colorado tourism is the food and farming scene. Given the winter season and high altitude, the state actually has a lot to offer and this gorgeous drive through much of the western part of the state touches the outskirts of it. Delta County has a vibrant collection of wineries, many of which have tasting rooms. I’m a fan of Azura Cellars– and their tasting room is a short jaunt off Highway 50 through the town of Delta. Pass through Ouray, the Switzerland of America. Marvel at the steep cliffs and be happy it is a weekend- the champagne brunch at the Bon Ton is high altitude tradition for locals.
8. Walsenburg to Trinidad via State Highway 12- The Highway of Legends.
Start to finish, this drive can be done in two hours. That is not the right way to do it, however. At least once, pull over to view and photograph the Spanish Peaks. Near the former ski area of Cuchara is a great spot to view the White Peaks and West Spanish Peak, and grab a drink on the patio at Dog Bar & Grill. Hopefully, it is fall and the leaves are changing- there is not a better drive in the state to view the magnificent colors of the landscape as the season changes. A quick stop to do some fishing at Trinidad Lake should be in order, followed Chili Fries & Big Brother at Lee’s BBQ in Trinidad.
9. Peak 2 Peak Highway –Blackhawk to Estes Park.
Test your luck at the casinos in Blackhawk, the Vegas of Colorado, and then hit the road north towards Nederland. Have lunch with rugged mountaineers and volunteer firemen at the Stage Stop in Rollinsville. Then, wind along to Nederland. While Boulder gets all the credit for being the ultimate hippy haven, the tiny town of Nederland is actually where those who survived the sixties keep the spirit alive. Finding a Grateful Dead cover band playing at First Street Pub and Grill or the Pioneer Inn is not uncommon. Estes Park is home to the famous Stanley Hotel, where part of the movie The Shining was filmed. The town itself is lively- enjoy local spirits at Dancing Pines Distillery.
10. Oh My God Road – Central City to Idaho Springs.
Be forewarned- this drive is not for the faint of heart. The road itself is more like a trail, where drivers skirt along barely avoiding death for 8.46 miles over a rugged mountain pass. This can only be done in the summer. It is not paved, nor should the challenge should not be taken on without four-wheel drive capability and a very confident driver. For those who will be riding along, chilling the nerves over a pint at Dostal Alley before hitting the road is a good idea. Take plenty of photos, otherwise, people may not believe the story. Once in Idaho Springs, the legendary Mountain Pie at Beau Jo’s Pizza awaits.