The Ultimate Colorado Road Trip Itinerary For Nature Lovers

November 5, 2020

This road trip itinerary will take you on a picturesque Colorado road trip around the state’s best National parks. See the state’s best natural beauty with this curated travel guide.

Driving directions:

Denver to the Garden of The Gods– 70 miles (120 km) 

Garden of The Gods to Great Sand Dunes – 230 miles (370 km) 

Great Sand Dunes to Mesa Verde– 200 miles (330 km) 

Mesa Verde to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison– 240 miles (380 km)

Black Canyon of the Gunnison to Rocky Mountain– 450 miles (720 km) 

Rocky Mountain to Denver– 70 miles (120 km) 

2000 miles (3200 km) in total

Before you go

Are there any National Parks near Denver?

Yes! Denver itself is known as a city that provides a great mix between urban life and natural beauty, and the Rocky Mountain National Park is only around 90 minutes away from the city center. This park is a must on any Colorado road trip.

What National Parks are in Colorado?

Colorado is home to four different National Parks:

  • Great Sand Dunes
  • Mesa Verde
  • Black Canyon of the Gunnison
  • Rocky Mountain

This Colorado road trip itinerary will take you across all four of these parks, along with some other great attractions!

Road Trip Extension to Utah

Why not combine this road trip with a drive around Utah and the state’s spectacular parks, such as Zion or Bryce Canyon? When in Mesa Verde, you can continue west into Utah and explore some of the best natural beauty in this part of the US! Click here for the itinerary.

Denver

Denver colorado, often called the mile high city, seen from above. Aerial view of the city, rocky mountains in the distance, clear skies
Photo by David Mark

Your road trip begins in Denver, the largest city in all of Colorado. For maximum convenience, Rentalmoose recommends picking up your rental car directly from the Denver International Airport. Unless you’ve driven here in your private vehicle, of course.

What is Denver known for?

Denver, often referred to as the Mile High City due to its elevation precisely one mile above sea level, is a fascinating city where culture meets the outdoors. The city’s countless outdoor attractions are overlooked by the iconic Rocky Mountains. Proximity to parks makes Denver the perfect destination for a road trip.

Continue reading to check out some of the best attractions for nature lovers in and around the city of Denver.

Denver City Park

The City Park is a peaceful park near downtown Denver that dates back to the 1880s.

Some of the attractions within the City Park include a selection of trails ideal for a stroll or cycling, a golf course, tennis courts, and the world-class Denver Zoo.

If you’d like to spend your day actively, consider renting a bicycle from Wheel Fun Rentals directly within the park.

Admission to the City Park is free of charge, though some of the attractions inside may require a ticket. Tickets to the Denver Zoo have to be booked online, consult the official website for details.

Red Rocks Park and Amphitheater

The Red Rocks Amphitheater is a one-of-a-kind attraction that’s an absolute must during a road trip in Colorado. Come by for one of the live shows (check the calendar on the venue’s website) or to simply enjoy the spectacular backdrop.

If you get hungry, grab a bite to eat at the Ship Rock Grille, all while taking in the spectacular views.

Roxborough State Park

Roxborough State Park is a great scenic getaway around 40 minutes away from Downtown Denver. Admire red rock formations as you stroll along the winding hiking trails. Choose from a large network of trailheads, each ranging between .5 to 8 miles in length. For more details, check out the park’s official website.

Admission to this state park costs $9 per vehicle.

The Fort Restaurant

A day of exploring the city will surely make you hungry. In this case, head over to The Fort Restaurant, dubbed Denver’s favorite Western eatery. This restaurant features delicious regional dishes with an elegant twist.

Tasty food aside, The Fort is worth visiting even just for its authentic decor.

Check the restaurant’s website for opening hours, reservations, and the menu.

Four Seasons Denver

Consider spending the night in town before continuing on your road trip. Luxury seekers should check-in at the elegant Four Seasons Denver. The 5-star property features upscale rooms and suites, as well as countless amenities such as a rooftop pool, a spa, and a fitness center. Add in a perfect location in the heart of the city, and you get one of the best stays in town.

Warwick Denver

Travelers on a slightly tighter budget should consider spending the night at the Warwick right in the heart of Denver. This classy property features modern rooms & suites, along with facilities such as an outdoor pool.

Next: Garden of The Gods, 1 hour

Garden of The Gods

spectacular red rock formations in garden of the gods park in colorado springs near Denver. Pikes peak can be seen in the distance.
Photo by B Wellensiek

The first leg of the journey is a short drive to the Garden of The Gods, a State Park near Colorado Springs. The drive from Denver to the Garden of The Gods will take you around an hour. Admission to the park is free of charge, and it is not to be missed during a Colorado road trip!

Consult the park’s official website for current opening hours as well as any closures.

What to do at Garden of The Gods?

Visitor Centre

Begin your visit to this public park by dropping by to the visitor center. In here, you can pick up a map of the park with a highlighted 15-mile trailhead network within the park.

Once you’ve picked up your map, drive inside the park and admire the spectacular rock formations from the comfort of your car. There are lots of different photo opportunities and lookouts throughout the park. Follow the one-way Juniper Way Loop.

Kissing Camels

After you drive into the park, a walking tour of the Kissing Camels rock formation is an absolute must during your road trip. Drop your car off at the car park and follow the paved trailhead. The moderate hike is wheelchair accessible and provides breathtaking views along the way.

Siamese Twins

Next, continue along the one-way Juniper Way Loop, then turn into Garden Drive. Next, leave your car at the Spring Canyon car park and follow the Palmer Trailhead until you reach the Siamese Twins rock formation. The elevated rock formation is known for panoramic views of the rocks, as well as Pikes Peak in the distance.

The Palmer Trail is a little more challenging than the previous, paved trailhead. The hike is around 0.5 miles (800 meters) round trip.

Balanced Rock

The final must-see point in the Garden of The Gods is the Balanced Rock formation at the southern tip of the park. The gravity-defying rock formation is hard to miss- it’s directly next to the road. Stop by for a great photo opportunity.

Balanced Rock is a popular tourist attraction in Garden of the Gods park in Colorado Springs near Denver.
Photo by Beverly Lussier

Don’t forget to post your photos from this trip online using #rentalmoose for a chance to win a free rental car!

Pikes Peak Highway Scenic Drive

Before you continue to the next point on this road trip, consider driving up the scenic Pikes Peak Highway up to the summit of America’s Mountain. It is the essential point of any road trip in Colorado, it’s one of the best scenic drives in the country!

The scenic drive is open all year round, as long as the weather allows it. Admission costs around $15 per adult as of October 2020. Check this website for current information on pricing and closures.

Next: Great Sand Dunes National Park, 2 hours 40 minutes

Great Sand Dunes National Park

Great Sand Dunes National Park are a spectacular sight not to be missed on a Colorado road trip.
Photo by Mike Goad

The second leg of this road trip is a drive from the Garden of Gods to the Great Sand Dunes National Park, into the heart of Southern Colorado. It should take you below 3 hours to complete this leg of the journey.

The admission fee to the park is $25 per vehicle for a 7-day visit. Note that the fee is not charged when the visitor center and entrance station is closed.

Check for current closures and updated pricing information on the park’s official website right here.

What are the best things to do in Great Sand Dunes National Park?

These are some of the best must-see attractions in the newest National Park in the United States.

Hike the sand dunes

Pass the Visitor Center and enter the Great Sand Dunes National Park. Drop your car off at the large car park off of Medano Creek Road and explore the dunes on foot!

The great thing about this National Park is that pets are, unlike most parks, allowed to roam the area with you.

If you want the absolute best panoramic views of the area, hike the 750-feet (230 meters) High Dune. Don’t forget to post your photos online using #Rentalmoose for a chance to win a free rental car for your next road trip.

Rent a Sand Board

Sandboarding and sledding are great activities for all ages. Rent your equipment from the Oasis Store and hit the dunes! It’s an experience like no other to be able to go sledding in the sand.

A full-day board rental costs around $20 as of October 2020.

Drive down the Medano Pass

If you came here in a 4WD vehicle, why not drive down the Medano Pass Primitive Road? The 22-mile road will prove challenging for any off-roading enthusiasts, and a great adventure for the entire family. Pass through creeks, admire the panoramic views, and don’t get stuck in the sand!

A 4×4 vehicle with high ground clearance is required to drive the Medano Pass Primitive Road. For current conditions, check the park’s website and consult the Visitor Center before departing.

Are you a fan of camping? There are 21 camping sites along the pass, each one is free of charge. Free spots are given out on a first-come, first-served basis.

Zapata Ranch

If you want to spend more time in the area, consider checking-in at the Zapata Ranch. The working ranch features upscale accommodation, great cuisine, and a wide array of activities. Explore the natural wonderland during a horseback tour, or give rock climbing a shot. After dusk falls, enjoy stargazing at one of the darkest skies in the country.

Note that the Zapata Ranch requires a 2-night minimum stay during the winter, and at least three nights during the summer season.

Best Western Movie Manor

It is no secret that Colorado is filled with quirky stays and attractions, and the Movie Manor is definitely one of them. Located less than an hour west of the Great Sand Dunes, the Best Western Movie Manor is an absolute must-see for any cinema enthusiast on this Colorado road trip.

This is possibly the world’s only drive-in cinema with an attached motel. Yes, you read that right. Instead of a small TV in the room, guests can peek outside the bedroom window and enjoy a movie screening.

UFO Watchtower

If you’re a fan of quirky attractions like the Movie Manor, be sure to drop by the UFO Watchtower. It only requires a small detour on the way to the drive-in motel, yet it is arguably even quirkier. The small watchtower features panoramic views of the San Luis Valley, infamous for UFO sightings.

Admission, as of October 2020, costs $2 per person. For the ultimate quirky experience, spend the night at the campground by the tower for just $15 per tent.

Next: Mesa Verde National Park, 4 hours 20 minutes

Mesa Verde National Park

cliff dwellings in mesa verde national park, colorado.
Photo by Kristy Lee

This is the longest leg of this Colorado road trip. The drive will take you around 4 and a half hours.

Rentalmoose insider tip: This part of Colorado is very close to Utah. Take a look at this national park travel guide to Utah and extend the trip further.

The fee to enter Mesa Verde National Park is $20 per car between May & October and $15 outside of those months. Take a look at the park’s official website prior to visiting to see current information on pricing, closures, and any safety alerts.

What to do at Mesa Verde National Park?

These are the must-see attractions in Mesa Verde during your Colorado road trip.

Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum

Pay a visit to the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum when visiting this Colorado park. That way, you can learn about the history of the region before exploring it for yourself.

The museum itself dates back to 1922, when it replaced a small cabin that had previously stored the park’s precious artifacts. It’s one of the oldest archeological museums in any national park in the US.

You can check the opening hours on the park’s website.

Petroglyphs

Did you know that Mesa Verde National Park is home to some of the best-preserved Petroglyphs in all of Colorado? You can admire them along the Petroglyph Point Trail. The moderate hike is around 2.4 miles (3.9 km) long. The hike begins right next to the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum.

Cliff Dwellings

Don’t miss Mesa Verde’s famous cliff dwellings, the park is known for these sites that date back as far as the 13th century.

The best way to see these dwellings is during a guided tour. You can book your tour in advance at the park’s official website, or pop by the Visitor Centre at the park’s entrance. Note that the tickets are given on a first-come, first-served basis. It’s best to book them online during peak season.

The most popular dwellings in this park are:

  • Cliff Palace
  • Long House
  • Balcony House

COVID-19 Update: As of October 2020, the Cliff Dwelling tours are suspended until further notice. Check the park’s website for updates.

Mesa Top Loop Road

If you have a limited amount of time, be sure to at least drive around the scenic Top Loop Road within the Mesa Verde National Park. The 6-mile driving road features at least 12 different stops along the way, either to admire archeological sites or to enjoy the panoramic views from overlooks.

Don’t be fooled by the road’s short length. Expect to spend plenty of time here, you’ll be stopping practically every few hundred yards to take in the breathtaking landscape.

Metate Room

Before departing, consider booking a table at the Metate Room restaurant for dinner. This upscale eatery features a selection of delicious meals served with a panoramic view of the park.

Rentalmoose insider tip: Walk-ins may be possible based on availability, though it is highly recommended to book a table in advance!

Spend the night

Looking to spend extra time in Mesa Verde? Stay the night at one of the park’s lodges. The Metate Room is located within the Far View Lodge.

If you’re traveling on a tighter budget, check out some accommodation alternatives in Cortez, a town just a stone’s throw away from Mesa Verde. Consider checking-in at the Holiday Inn, for example.

Next: Black Canyon National Park, 3 hours 30 minutes

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

black canyon of the gunnison, stunning canyon and rock formations seen during a colorful sunset in colorado.
Photo by rjdoc

The 3-and-a-half hour drive to Black Canyon is one of the most scenic highways in this part of Colorado. The road, full of exciting turns and elevation changes, will take you across green hills and mountains.

Million Dollar Highway Scenic Drive

When going to the Black Canyon, check the driving directions carefully. The shortest route will be the 145, however, one of Colorado’s most scenic drives is just a stone’s throw away. Drive along the 160 to Durango, and head north along the Million Dollar Highway. The detour will only add 10 minutes to your trip, and it is well worth it!

This park got its name from the monstrous dark cliffs that plummet 2000 feet down (600 meters) into the Gunnison River. It’s an otherworldly view that’s a must-visit point on any Colorado road trip itinerary.

The entrance fee for the Black Canyon National Park is just $15 per vehicle. Check the park’s official website for current closures and safety alerts before coming.

What to see at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park?

These are the best attractions in Black Canyon National Park. The majority of the park can be seen by driving down the roads listed below.

South Rim Road

Begin with driving down the South Rim Road. This 7-mile road hosts 12 panoramic overlooks of the Black Canyon. Make sure to stop at the following overlooks for the best views in Black Canyon National Park:

  • Gunnison Point
  • Pulpit Rock Overlook
  • Chasm View
  • Painted Wall View
  • Sunset View

The South Rim Road finishes at the High Point, the short trailhead offers some more panoramic views of the surrounding area.

Note that the South Rim Road is closed beyond Gunnison Point during winter.

East Portal Road

The East Portal Road is an exciting driving road that will take you down to the Gunnison River. This steep road (16% grades) features lots of chicanes and tight hairpins. Once you’re down by the river, you can relax at the Curecanti National Recreation Area. Here, road trippers can enjoy activities such as fishing, camping, and picnicking.

During the summer, you can take part in a ranger-led boat tour of the Gunnison River.

Note that vehicles longer than 22 feet (6.7 meters) are not permitted to enter the East Portal Road. The drive is closed during winter.

North Rim Road

Before continuing to the next destination on your Colorado road trip adventure, drive down the North Rim Road. This road offers 6 different viewing points. The best viewpoints and overlooks along the North Rim Road are:

  • The Narrows View
  • Exclamation Point
  • Island Peaks
  • Kneeling Camel View

Much like the majority of this park, the entire North Rim Road remains closed throughout winter.

The Inn at Tomichi Village

After dusk falls, consider booking a room at The Inn at Tomichi Village. This well-rated property features cozy rooms with complimentary wifi, a pool, a gym, and free parking.

Next: Rocky Mountain National Park, 4 hours 40 minutes

Rocky Mountain National Park

Sunrise at crystal clear alpine Lake Haiyaha in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado. Beautiful pine trees and snow covered mountain in the distance
Lake Haiyaha by Skeeze

The last leg of this Colorado road trip is a drive up to the Rocky Mountain National Park. Follow the scenic driving road as you cross the mountains and approach Denver.

A 1-day pass to the Rocky Mountain National Park will set you back $25 per vehicle. For current closures and safety alerts, consult the park’s official website.

What are the best things to do in Rocky Mountain National Park?

Trail Ridge Road

Arguably, the best way to enter the Rocky Mountain National Park on your Colorado road trip is via Trail Ridge Road. This picturesque drive is one of 10 America’s Byways in Colorado, and a national All American Road. You can’t miss it!

Driving along the Trail Ridge Road, you will see unbeatable views of the Rockies virtually everywhere you look. Expect to make many stops along this 48-mile road, the route is packed with overlooks to take in the unbelievable views.

Old Fall River Road

The Old Fall River Road is a piece of local history, it was the first road constructed within this National Park back in 1920. The narrow road has a speed limit of just 15 miles per hour, it is definitely worth a drive if you have the time. The road passes through the subalpine forest and offers an intimate, one-on-one experience with the local nature.

Beware, the road is relatively safe for motorists but there are no guard rails.

Old Fall River Road is closed during winter.

Hiking- Bear Lake, Glacier Gorge & Emerald Lake Trail

Stretch your legs after hours of driving during this road trip. Drive up to the beginning of the Bear Lake Trailhead, right by the Bear Lake Comfort Station. From here, you can stroll around the picturesque Bear Lake, or choose from one of the other trails.

Alberta Falls is worth dropping by, too. Follow the Glacier Gorge Trailhead until you reach the spectacular waterfall. Alternatively, follow the 3.5-mile Emerald Lake Trail and see crystal-clear lakes along the way.

Check out more details about the local trailheads here.

Next: Denver, 1 hour 30 minutes

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