Nestled in the centre of the American Rockies and with the highest average elevation of any US state, Colorado is a mecca for epic outdoor adventures, from its dense concentration of windy 14ers and world-class ski resorts to its scalding natural hot springs and sprawling alpine deserts.
We spent several weeks exploring Colorado in our van this October, and although the weather didn’t allow for as many summits as we’d hoped, we discovered magic in corners of the state that hadn’t even crossed our radar during planning!
This itinerary packs some of Colorado’s many highlights and our favourite hidden gems into a whirlwind 2-week road trip, including Rocky Mountain, Black Canyon of the Gunnison & Great Sand Dunes National Parks; Denver & its 150+ craft breweries; the relaxation hub of Glenwood Springs; and the most photographed mountains in the country, Maroon Bells. Check out all of our insider tips, free camping spots, and specific recommendations below!
Looking to extend your road trip? Check out these posts:
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Colorado road trip logistics
Best time to visit Colorado
Colorado is a year-round destination offering spectacular scenery and unique experiences during all 12 months, from winter skiing to summer hiking. For this particular itinerary, however, I’d definitely recommend visiting Colorado outside of the winter months, since snow as early as September can disrupt travel plans.
The best time for hiking in Colorado is August or September, since the trails should still be ice-free and the days are at their longest and warmest, but for a more general itinerary like the one described below (with high deserts, hot springs, AND mountains), I’d advocate that September or October is actually a better time to visit Colorado:
The aspen turn gold for about a month each autumn & you’ll have a good chance of seeing them during this window
The summer storms (which tend to dump rain in the early afternoon) have mostly stopped by September
Most summer travellers are back to school or work, but the ski resorts haven’t opened, so late autumn is a very quiet time in Colorado (= lower prices, better availability, fewer crowds)
The afternoons are mostly sunny and warm (60-70F), although it can drop to or below freezing at night
Getting to Colorado
This road trip itinerary begins in the greater Denver area (near the border with Wyoming) and travels south as far as Great Sand Dunes National Park in Alamosa, CO. If you’re flying into Denver or driving from any northern/western state, you can follow the order of stops described below, but those travelling from New Mexico or Texas will likely want to reverse the itinerary and travel towards Denver.
Denver International Airport welcomes daily flights from every major US city, and has heaps of car hire options right in the Arrivals terminal.
For the best deals on plane tickets AND rental cars, I use Skyscanner to compare between dozens of airlines/rental companies and even check for specials offered on third-party travel sites.
Camping in Colorado
Like most of the American West, Colorado is a treasure trove of dispersed BLM camping and scenic Forest Service pull-outs. If you’re travelling in a van, RV, or other self-contained vehicle, your options for free camping will feel somewhat endless, and indeed many of the sites we stayed at in Colorado were among our all-time favourites!
To find campsites when we’re on the road, we use iOverlander, an awesome crowd-sourced camping app that collates reviews from travellers across the world to provide up-to-date info on millions of campsites and their access, amenities, price (where relevant) & heaps of other useful info.
The iOverlander appfor iPhone or Android even works (with minor limitations) without service! This is always the first place we look for campsite info when we’re researching a new place, and is an invaluable resource for every road trip.
For specific camping recommendations, be sure to check out Where to stay beneath each destination below!
National Parks Pass
This itinerary features 3 national parks (Rocky Mountain, Black Canyon of the Gunnison, and Great Sand Dunes), and therefore it’s definitely worthwhile to invest in an annual parks pass. Even if you don’t visit a single national park outside of this itinerary, it’s still cheaper to get an annual parks pass for $80USD than it is to pay for individual entry passes (which range from $30-35 per park)!
Purchase your America the Beautiful Pass directly at an NPS visitor centre or entrance station, at Recreation.gov, or even in-store or online from outdoor retailers like REI.
General tips for travelling in Colorado
Current conditions: Weather can change quickly in Colorado, so before driving over any high mountain passes or rough dirt roads, be sure to consult relevant road condition alerts on CDOT.
Altitude: No where in the country is an awareness of altitude as relevant for the average traveller as in the Rocky Mountains— 75% of American land above 10,000ft is located in Colorado and even Denver is an entire mile above sea level. Limited people experience minor lightheadedness and breathlessness in the city (no need to worry, this isn’t altitude sickness!), but in the mountains, few will escape some sort of noticeable physiological effect related to the elevation. Take it easy before tackling your first 14er to avoid serious altitude sickness.
GPS navigation: For everything from short day hikes through the national park to long overnight backpacking trips (and millions of routes in between), I use the AllTrails app to navigate on all of my outdoor adventures! At just $30/year, this is the cheapest GPS you’ll ever own, but also the easiest to use (it runs off your smart phone, so there’s no learning curve with fiddly buttons or uploading tracks from the computer) AND the most up-to-date (other hikers can leave comments and even their own GPS tracks for you to download). This is by far the best app I’ve ever invested in, and far better than any GPS device I’ve used!
Emergency beacon: While hiking and road-tripping through remote areas of Colorado, I’d also recommend carrying a PLB or emergency beacon. With my Garmin In-Reach Mini, I can send a message to family if we’re delayed in the mountains OR if our van breaks down in the middle of no where, receive accurate weather updates, and call for help in case of a true emergency— no matter where you are in the world, Garmin will patch you through to the relevant local authority for support (sheriff, police, SAR, Coast Guard, etc). The unit itself is a few hundred dollars, on top of which you’ll need to pay a monthly subscription fee (we pay $10/month for the cheapest plan, and you can toggle this on and off at your leisure), but BOTH of my parents have been injured in the mountains and rescued through use of a Garmin In-Reach, so don’t underestimate the importance of satellite communication!
*Overview: 2-week Colorado itinerary
With several weeks, you can brewery hop through Denver and surrounds, hike through 3 amazing national parks, relax in hot springs, and squeeze in heaps of amazing roadside gems! Here are the stops I’d recommend, described below in more detail:
Fort Collins & Boulder
Rocky Mountain National Park
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Great Sand Dunes National Park
Use the interactive Google Map above to explore all the stops & specific points of interest along this itinerary. You can also download the map for easier use while travelling by clicking on the square icon in the upper right corner of theimage!
1 | Denver
Colorado’s mile-high capital city has become an epicentre for arts, culture, and really-bloody-awesome craft beer, and with impressive peaks in every direction, I really loved exploring the front range.
Even if you aren’t usually into visiting cities, it’s worthwhile to check out the street art, live music, and more than 150 breweries splattered across Denver!
What to do in Denver
Cerebral Brewing: This science-themed brewery makes an extensive range of great beers, from IPAs to sours to stouts, and was recommended by just about every bartender we spoke to across the city.
Dos Luces Brewery: We are so happy we stumbled across this super unique and very underrated spot that brews Colorado blue corn into traditional Incan chicha and Mayan pulque (ancient styles of beer somewhat similar to a modern barrel-aged sour). Everything we sampled was excellent and it was just so different!
Fiction Beer Co: This quaint brewery is literary-themed, with the bar mounted atop hundreds of hardbound books and the beers all named for beloved works of fiction. They also have an awesome selection of board games, and it would be all too easy to spend an entire afternoon on the shaded patio.
Station 26 Brewing Co: An awesome and incredibly aesthetic brewery housed in an old fire station, brewing consistently excellent beer.
TRVE Brewing Co & Music City Hot Chicken: Not only is TRVE one of the best breweries in Colorado (their watermelon saison is perfection), but the small chicken shop attached at the back serves THE BEST fried chicken I’ve ever had in my life. I ate there (and at their Fort Collins location) four times in a single week and honestly wish I’d managed more— you can choose your own spice level, but the “incendiary” is highly recommended! For something extra special, visit the FC location on a weekend morning and order from the breakfast menu for treats like fried chicken biscuits and monte cristo sandwiches.
Denver Biscuit Co: 11/10 breakfast join serving house-made biscuits with everything from spicy fried chicken to gravy and sausage. Again, worth getting at least once!
Local 46: The real highlight of this Tennyson St bar is the massive outdoor beer garden, built around ancient tree trunks and bursting with plantlife, which regularly hosts local bands for some funky outdoor tunes.
Recommended time: 2-4 days
Getting there: Denver International Airport welcomes daily flights from every major US city, and has heaps of car hire options right in the Arrivals terminal.
Where to stay: There are hundreds of affordable hotel options scattered throughout Denver, but if you’re hoping to camp for free, your best bet is patronising a local brewery (with their own parking lot) and then politely asking to stay overnight— in our experience, this has been extremely successful, and even when we got a “no”, it was often accompanied with a better recommendation for free camping nearby!
2 | Fort Collins & Boulder
The greater Denver area is also home to two rapidly growing cities with their own burgeoning sense of culture (which, again, mainly revolves around beer). Spend a couple days exploring the colourful gardens, trendy eateries, and prolific microbrews of both Fort Collins and Boulder, and you’re guaranteed to be impressed.
Boulder is an easy 45min from Denver, but Fort Collins is a 1.5hr drive north, so it’s probably best to visit FoCo first and then pop into Boulder on your way down to Rocky Mountain National Park.
What to do in Fort Collins & Boulder
New Belgium Brewing Co: I didn’t expect much from this massive-scale national brewery in Fort Collins, but it ended up being an awesome experience, with heaps of funky beers on tap and super friendly staff who totally hooked us up.
Crooked Stave Taproom: This brewery in Fort Collins makes some of the best sour beer of all time, and you can taste most of it at their taproom!
New Terrain Brewing Co: An excellent brewery in Golden, CO that has a swelling underground following among local brewers.
Music City Hot Chicken: If you didn’t make it to MCHC in Denver, you’re in luck, because there’s also a Fort Collins location serving our very favourite fried chicken!
Recommended time: 2-4 days
Getting there: From Denver, it’s a 45min drive to Boulder towards the Rocky Mountains and a 1.5hr drive to Fort Collins farther north.
Where to stay: As per our last recommendation, we often ask to stay at local breweries overnight after having bought drinks and/or food inside, and this was easier than ever in Boulder and Fort Collins since more breweries have their own car park (compared to Denver breweries, which often have street parking).
3 | Rocky Mountain National Park
Preserving a small but particularly beautiful portion of the American Rockies (just 415-square-miles of a 3,000mi range), a trip to Colorado simply isn’t complete without venturing into its most iconic national park.
The high-alpine environment of Rocky Mountain NP is the perfect microcosm for the glacial activity and extreme conditions that have shaped this section of the continent, and it’s fascinating to learn about the unique natural environment supported by the third longest mountain chain on earth.
In the brief moments where you aren’t admiring mountain views, there’s also a delightful abundance of wildlife roamingthrough meadows and alongside the road, all visible from your car window.
For most, 2-3 days should be enough to tick off a few of the popular hikes and enjoy a couple scenic drives in Rocky Mountain National Park; make sure to grab your annual parks pass, or you’ll end up spending $35 for a 7-day pass.
What to do in Rocky Mountain National Park
Bear Lake: At the end of Bear Lake Road, this short but popular walk leads to a small alpine lake and a beautiful view of the Rockies.
Chasm Lake (9mi; 2500ft return): In good conditions and with proper experience, summiting the NP’s tallest mountain, Longs Peak, should be at the top of your list. If you’d prefer something less intense (or when weather conditions don’t allow, as they often don’t after September), the hike to Chasm Lake at the base of Longs Peak is a worthwhile alternative with dramatic views and plenty of intrigue!
Trail Ridge Road: Spanning the park from east to west, this high-elevation paved road offers countless viewpoints and trailheads from which you can hop out of the car and venture farther into the alpine tundra. Many Parks Curve is a particular favourite for landscape photography!
The Stanley Hotel: Just outside of the main entrance of Rocky Mountain National Park, Estes Park and its historic hotel are among the most famous locations in all of Colorado. Although The Shining with Jack Nicholson wasn’t filmed here, it was set here, as Steven King actually stayed at The Stanley while writing the original novel. Unsurprisingly, they play to the supernatural pretty heavily now and even offer ghost tours through the property. It costs $10 to park on-site, but they offer a $5 coupon that can be used for food/drink, so I’d suggest checking out the bar or the newly opened brewery and chicken resturaunt, The Post!
Avant Garde Aleworks: This is a small but very lovely brewery in Estes Park, within a few minutes’ drive of the entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park. We actually camped in their carpark for multiple days and they were totally accomodating, but PLEASE buy something inside and get permission from whoever’s working before camping overnight.
Recommended time: 2-3 days
Getting there: The main entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park in Estes Park, CO is only 1hr from Boulder along well-maintained roads.
Where to stay: See Avant Garde Aleworks above!
Read more: COMING SOON
4 | Glenwood Springs
Travelling several hours from Rocky Mountain National Park into the middle of Colorado, Glenwood Springs is the perfect stop-over to recoup from days of breathless hiking at elevation.
The town itself isn’t particular exciting, but it does boast several highly-rated hot springs and you can typically buy hourly or day passes to access the facilities without being a guest (so if you camp for free, you’ve more than earned your spa day!)
What to do in Glenwood Springs
Yampah Vapour Caves: For all of Glenwood Springs’ many hot pools and spa facilities, none is more worthwhile or completely unique than the Yampa Vapour Caves, a convoluted underground network of rock caves naturally heated by spring water to 112F at 100% humidity. The experience is somewhat like a steam room, drenching you in sweat and heating your muscles to blissful mush, but also distinctly different, with crystals sparkling on the dimly lit walls and the sound of bubbling water and hissing steam unmistakable (and surprisingly ambient) overhead. $17 buys you 2hrs in the caves, plus a piping hot (or cold, as you might prefer) shower.
Iron Mountain Hot Springs: Although nearby Glenwood Hot Springs holds the illustrious title of “world’s largest hot spring pool”, Iron Mountain is far nicer for couples or singles who want the privacy and relaxation of multiple small pools (16, to be exact!) rather than a single swimming pool full of children. Entrance is pricey at $28 for 2.5hrs, but the riverside location is amazing and we even saw a bald eagle catch a fish directly out of the water just 20ft from our hot pool, so it’s essentially a Nat Geo documentary and a spa day all in one.
Snowmass & Aspen: Two of Colorado’s most popular ski resorts are located less than an hour from Glenwood Springs, and even out of season, the views are beautiful and the towns are charming to explore.
Casey Brewing: A highly regarded brewery in Glenwood Springs that specialises in sour beers and has probably never made a bad beer in their entire career.
Smoke Modern BBQ: Immediately next door to Casey Brewing in downtown Glenwood Springs, this (very underrated) BBQ joint is INCREDIBLE, particularly the brisket burger and corn muffins.
Outer Range Brewing Co: As you drive from Rocky Mountain to Glenwood Springs, you’ll pass through Silverthorne, where I’d highly recommend stopping in at this amazing multi-level brewery full of comfortable couches, equipped with fast wifi, and even serving the BEST thai spicy fried chicken burgers to compliment their top-tier IPAs and inventive sours.
Recommended time: 2 days
Getting there: From Estes Park (at the entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park), it’s a 3.5hr drive to Glenwood Springs, passing through Silverthorne about half-way.
Where to stay: Outside of paid options in Glenwood Springs, there’s a 24hr parking lot just outside of the town centre (a few minutes’ walk from Casey Brewing) where we were able to boondock for several days without disturbance.
5 | Maroon Bells
Located only a short drive from Aspen are the most photographed twin peaks in the entire country: the Maroon Bells. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more staggering alpine vista than you’re greeted with mere feet from the Wilderness car park, and once you hike beyond this viewpoint, the scenery only improves.
Due to the high volume of visitors (and therefore a need to protect against over-tourism), the Forest Service has implemented a reservation system for Maroon Bells from May to October, either to drive your own car to the trailhead ($10) or catch the shuttle from Aspen Highlands ($16; more details under Getting There below).
Reservations sell out ages in advance, so if you don’t manage to nab one online, either head to Aspen Highlands for a standby ticket (when available) or check out any of the Maroon Bells listings on AllTrails, since people will post and sell reservations they aren’t using— the latter is how we got our reservation just 1 day in advance, and there was no issue with the name not matching!
What to do at Maroon Bells
Maroon Lake: It’s about 3min from the carpark to the shores of Maroon Lake, so it’s possible to experience this iconic view of the Maroon Bells without any real hiking. For the best photos, you definitely want to get to Maroon Bells early (and since the parking permit requires you to enter before 8am, that should be no problem). The alpenglow and reflection off the glassy lake is just incredible in the early morning, plus there are no shuttle bus crowds yet!
Maroon Lake Scenic Loop (3mi; 120ft return): A flat stroll past Maroon Lake and towards the Bells provides even more spectacular views of this area.
Crater Lake (3.6mi; 500ft return): For a slightly longer but still very manageable hike, continue straight at the fork and ascend along the right shore of Maroon Lake up to a second, higher lake at the base of the Maroon Bells. The lake is often dry in late autumn, but if you are lucky enough to have snowy peaks, I promise you won’t even notice the lack of water!
Recommended time: 1 day
Getting there: Maroon Bells is about 12mi out of Aspen, so the 2 main options for getting there are a parking permit ($10), which allows you to enter anytime between midnight-8am & then depart at your leisure, OR a shuttle ticket ($16pp), which runs from Aspen Highlands 8am-3pm & returns until 5pm. In nice weather, you can also cycle to Maroon Lake with no reservation. The inbound journey will require a little bit of effort, but then you’ll pretty much coast all the way back to Aspen!
Where to stay: Unless you’ve managed to secure a backpacking permit for Maroon Bells, you’ll have to camp outside the Wilderness— there are some pull-outs along Castle Creek Road as you approach from Aspen, but it’s nothing very private and I’m not 100% sure if it’s even allowed. Another alternative is arriving to Maroon Bells anytime after midnight (when the parking permit begins) and sleeping in the carpark to ensure you’re at the lake by sunrise.
Read more: COMING SOON
6 | Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Black Canyon of the Gunnison is the least visited park in Colorado and actually has one of the lowest visitor rates for any national park in the country, but what it lacks in renown, it more than makes up for in grandeur.
This isn’t the deepest or largest canyon in the US, but it is the steepest and narrowest, with parts of the river below only getting sun for 33min each afternoon. These long, dark shadows lend the entire landscape a dramatic quality that is hard to find even in the Grand Canyon, and we were blown away by the untouched and unrefined beauty of the North Rim, which seems to be something of a hidden gem.
With 2 days, you can also explore the South Rim of the park (located nearly 2hrs away, near the town of Montrose), which boasts dozens more viewpoints and trails— but don’t expect to beat the quiet, rugged beauty of the North Rim.
What to do in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
North Rim Drive: Along the 7mi North Rim Drive that winds amazingly close to the canyon’s edge, there are 5 excellent viewpoints: The Narrows, Balanced Rock, Big Island, Island Peaks, Kneeling Camel. All are totally worth a quick stop and none require more than a few hundred metres of walking!
Chasm View Trail: From North Rim Campground, head out on the short Chasm View trail (allow 30min) to admire soaring views over Black Canyon.
North Vista Trail: Follow this easy trail to Exclamation Point (3mi; 360ft return) or tack on some additional distance to the summit of Green Mountain (7mi; 1230ft return) to see an area of the park few visitors every do!
Chrysalis Barrel-Aged Beer: En route to Black Canyon, you’ll travel through the small town of Paonia. We’d recently read an article about about a brewery here, which described how they’d struggled to survive through the pandemic as a new small business, and were totally moved by their story and their connection with the local community. What we didn’t count on was how AMAZING their barrel-aged sour saisons would be (which you can take home for a whopping $8 per 32oz growler fill)! We loved visiting this brewery and would rate it among our top finds.
Needle Rock Natural Area: Also near Paonia as you drive towards Black Canyon, Needle Rock is a large volcanic plug forced up from the earth’s surface millions of years ago and slowly eroded into the jagged rock stack we see today— worth it to stop and take a few pictures!
Recommended time: 2 days
Getting there: Black Canyon’s North Rim is 3hrs SW of Maroon Bells and 45min south of Paonia. Several miles of the park access road and ALL of the North Rim Drive (the only road through this section of the park) are unpaved gravel— but in decent weather, any vehicle (including sedans and 2WD) will manage.
Where to stay: In the off-season, North Rim Campground is completely free; during other times of year (or if you like to get a bit more off the grid), there’s also great dispersed camping on BLM land just 4mi outside the park entrance (accessible to 2WD and completely free).
Read more: COMING SOON
7 | Great Sand Dunes National Park
Located in the far east of Colorado’s high desert, Great Sand Dunes National Park protects the tallest dunes in North America— but it’s the Rocky Mountain backdrop that really makes this place unique, blending both desert and alpine scenery into a single magical setting.
Little more than a short road, a campsite, and 2 large carparks, Great Sand Dunes is absolutely minuscule compared to most other national parks. It doesn’t really have (signed) hikes and can’t offer much in the way of quick viewpoints, but as the country’s largest “sandbox”, this park is still more fun than just about anywhere.
And that’s exactly how I’d recommend spending 1-2 in Great Sand Dunes National Park— wandering through the sand in search of beautiful patterns, captivating camera angles, and steep dunes that just begged to be leapt from. Hang around for sunset and you’ll be treated to even more spectacular colours and dramatic shadows!
Recommended time: 1-2 days
Getting there: Great Sand Dunes National Park is located near Alamosa, CO, 4hrs from the North Rim of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park and 3.5hrs from the South Rim.
Where to stay: About 20min south of the entrance to Great Sand Dunes National Park, there are dozens of free dispersed campsites on BLM land just beyond the Blanca Peak Trailhead and leading up towards the mountains.