Colorado consistently makes it onto the American’s top 10 favorite states list and for good reason! A Colorado National Parks road trip will show you mountain peaks, deep canyons, archeological sites, and the tallest sand dunes in North America.
With panoramic views at each of the the National Parks of Colorado and every mountain town in between, this state is a great place for a road trip. We loved our time in Colorado and can’t wait to return!
Colorado National Parks Road Trip Stops
Colorado is home to four National Parks and nine National Monuments. Our Colorado road trip includes five epic destinations. Participate in a variety of outdoor activities, take a scenic drive, and make time for wildlife viewing with this incredible Colorado itinerary.
This Colorado road trip itinerary includes stops in Denver, Rocky Mountain, Colorado National Monument, Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Mesa Verde, and Great Sand Dunes National Park.
Arrive at Denver International Airport and pick up your rental car! We highly recommend completing your Colorado road trip in a KuKu Campervan rental. This will allow you the most freedom while also saving you tons of money.
After you pick up your rental, you have a choice. Stay in Denver for the evening and begin the road trip tomorrow or head straight to Rocky Mountain National Park.
If you choose to stay in Denver, take a look at these cool activities:
- Meow Wolf Denver, an immersive art experience
- Denver Museum of Nature & Science, a municipal natural history and science museum
- The Denver Zoo, an 80-acre non-profit zoological garden
Rocky Mountain National Park
Denver ➡️ RMNP (1:20 | 66.4 Miles)
Rocky Mountain National Park is an absolute beauty! We recommend spending three nights here so you can truly experience two full days in the park.
Rocky Mountain National Park operates under a timed entry permit system between May 26th and October 22nd. This means that you will need a timed entry permit to enter the park between 9 AM and 2 PM. An additional permit is required to enter the Bear Lake Corridor between 5 AM and 6 PM.
Snagging a permit can be tricky. If you’re unable to come up with one, check out my article on how to get around National Park timed entry permits. It is possible and you can do it! This is the only Colorado National Park road trip location with timed entry.
Best Things to Do in Rocky Mountain National Park
Spend an entire day in the Bear Lake Corridor. Adventurous souls seeking a long day hike should look into Sky Pond (9.4 miles) or Flattop Mountain (8.2 miles). If 12-ish miles is your jam, hike the Sky Pond Loop which includes Lake Haiyaha, Dream Lake, and Nymph Lake as well! If you’re looking for something a bit easier, check out the Bear Lake Loop (.7 miles) or Sprague Lake Loop (.8 miles and ♿).
Be sure to spend some time at the highest National Park visitor center in the United States, the Alpine Visitor Center. Driving Trail Ridge Road to get there is a must! The highest continuous paved road in North America is full of scenic pull-offs and trailheads. We recommend the short hike to the lookout areas on Alpine Ridge Trail (.6 miles) and/or The Ute Trail (3 miles) from the visitor center parking lot.
Any extra time should be spent in the valleys as this is an amazing place to spot wildlife! We were able to see a Moose, Bull Elk, and a few deer at Poudre Lake heading from the Alpine Visitor Center toward Kawuneechee Valley. Additionally, Grand Lake, just outside the west entrance to the park, is an amazing family-friendly location for hiking, lake activities, and accommodations.
Best Place to Stay in Rocky Mountain National Park?
In a park like Rocky Mountain, I recommend staying inside the park. It’s large and popular, meaning the lines to enter the park can get long and getting from one location to another can take a long time.
Campgrounds on the east side of the park include Aspenglen, Glacier Basin, and Long Peak. This area of the park tends to be the busiest. Timber Creek Campground on the West side of the park is a little more low-key and laid back.
If you’re looking for nearby towns to stay in, look to Estes Park (East Entrances) and Grand Lake (West Entrance) for your closest accommodation options.
Colorado National Monument
Colorado National Monument ➡️ Black Canyon of the Gunnison (1:45 | 84.8 Miles)
You can visit Colorado National Monument as a drive through or make a day out of it to do some hiking! Located in Grand Junction, these red rock landscapes, deep canyons, and towering sandstone monoliths really highlight the beauty of the Colorado Plateau. It’s definitely a place you should include on your Colorado National Parks Road trip itinerary if you can make it work.
Rim Rock Drive spans from Ranger Station’s Entrance all the way down to route 340 near the Colorado National Monument Visitor Center. It includes seven scenic overlooks and the trailhead for a variety of hikes.
Top 3 Hikes in Colorado National Monument
- Devils Kitchen Trail
At 1.9 moderate to easy miles, this hike provides bretahtaking views with minimal effort!
- Monument Canyon Loop
The entire 4.5-mile loop is worth it for the views and the big horn sheep.
- Canyon Rim Trail to Window Rock
An easy 1.8-miles will lead you to along a cliff edge to stunning views of Monument Valley.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison
Colorado National Monument ➡️ Black Canyon of the Gunnison (1:45 | 84.8 Miles)
Exploring Colorado’s least visited National Park is an absolute treat. Around 300,000 people visit Black Canyon of the Gunnison every year, putting it on the least 20 visited National Parks in the United States list every year.
Most people make time for the South Rim. It’s the easiest to access and has the most scenic overlooks, including the famous painted wall. It also has a road that will bring you down into the canyon for trail and fishing access.
The North Rim is much quieter than the South Rim and provides ample hiking opportunities and camping. Similar to the South, the North Rim has a scenic drive with a handful of beautiful overlooks. Since only a fraction of Black Canyon’s visitors make it to the North Rim, you will have a unique experience in comparison to other National Park enthusiasts!
If you want to do both, I would recommend planning on spending two and a half days at the park. The drive from one rim to the other will take you between 2 and 3 hours. If you’ll only be exploring one rim, one full day should do the trick!
Best Things to Do on the South Rim of Black Canyon of the Gunnison
On the South Rim there are two different ways you can explore the Gunnison River at the bottom of the canyon. One includes reserving an in-person permit for one of three difficult routes that bring you down the canyon into the inner canyon.
If this hike is simply too much for you, you can also drive East Portal Road into Curecanti National Recreation Area for river access and bottom-up canyon views. Vehicles over 20 feet are prohibited from taking this route.
Best Things to Do on the North Rim of Black Canyon of the Gunnison
As the steeper side of the canyon, the North Rim of Black Canyon is home to some stellar views. With short hikes like Chasm View (.6 miles) and Exclamation Point (3 miles). If you’re looking for an incredibly unique view, take a strenuous hike up Green Mountain (7 miles). This route will provide you with a bird eye view of the canyon so you can see just how close the two rims are to one another!
Where Should I Stay in Black Canyon of the Gunnison?
Both the North and South Rim have developed campgrounds inside the park. You can reserve your site at South Rim Campground at recreation.gov from mid-May to mid-September. The North Rim Campground is more remote with 13 first-come first-served sites.
The East Portal campground is located at the bottom of the canyon and can be accessed from the South Entrance. There are 15 first-come first-served sites with potable water available to visitors.
There is also free and dispersed camping just outside the South Entrance. The BLM land located about 1.5 miles south of the entrance has ample opportunities for boondocking. If you’re looking to boondock near the North Entrance, there’s a National Forest Camping Area on the West Elk Scenic Byway.
Mesa Verde National Park
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park ➡️ Mesa Verde National Park (3:05 | 153.2 Miles)
Get ready for an adventure rich in culture, history, and stunning views. Mesa Verde National Park will take you on a journey back in time to the thriving Ancestral Pueblo communities of the Mesa. This is an incredibly unique park, and an absolute must on your Colorado National Parks Road Trip.
A day and a half should allow you enough time to explore Wetherill and Chaplin Mesa. With cliff-dwelling tours, archeological sites, hikes, and overlooks aplenty you could certainly plan for additional time!
It’s important to keep in mind, when traveling in the park, that the scenic drive is steep, narrow, and winding. It takes some time to get around the park! But luckily, the views make up for it.
What Should I Do With a Day and a Half in Mesa Verde National Park?
Spend your morning traveling from the Black Canyon of the Gunnison to Mesa Verde. Plan to arrive before noon and schedule a tour of the Long House for around 2 PM. The drive from the visitor’s center to the parking area will take you just under an hour.
Once you arrive at the Wetherill Mesa, you should explore the area. Check out the 1-mile Step House Trail, the only free, self-guided cliff dwelling the park has. Additionally, Wetherill Mesa has a number of educational sites, including the Badger House Community and Nordenskold Site #16, that you can explore.
If you are traveling with bikes, this is a great place to unload them and pedal around. You can ride all the main paved trails on Wetherill Mesa!
On your next, full day in the park, visit Chapin Mesa. Start your morning off with a hike on the Petroglyph before the sun gets too hot! Enjoy stunning views of Spruce Treehouse, a fun hike, and neat petroglyphs on the cliff walls.
After your hike, grab some lunch at the Spruce Tree Terrace Cafe and check out the Ancestral Pueblo ceramics, mugs, jewelry, and sandals in the Archeological Museum.
Schedule another ranger-guided cliff tour for after lunch. The Balcony House Tour is for true adventure seekers, featuring steep cliff faces, a 32-foot ladder, and an 18-inch wide tunnel.
For anyone looking to test their fitness, we recommend the 90-minute Mug House Tour which includes rock scrambling, Adobe Cave, and Ancestral Pueblo Rock Art.
If you’re looking for something more mellow, check out Cliff Palace. We also highly recommend the overlook for this cliff dwelling because it is magical!
Where Should I Stay When I Visit Mesa Verde?
If you’re looking for hotel-style accommodations, the Far View Lodge is a great option. Located at the center of the park and providing relaxed accommodations with phenomenal views, Far View Lodge is open from Spring through Fall.
The Morefield Campground is located a few miles from the park entrance. With over 260 campsites, it rarely fills and incudes coin-opperated laundry and complimentary showers!
If it’s free and dispersed camping you’re looking for, we have just the spot. About 5 minutes from the park entrance, just off route 160 on CR 34 there is BLM land with beautiful views of the Mesa. If the weather is wet, beware, four-wheel drive is needed.
Great Sand Dunes National Park
Mesa Verde National Park ➡️ Great Sand Dunes National Park (3:45 | 199 Miles)
Experience the tallest sand dunes in north america in one full day at Great Sand Dunes National Park. With a short list of amazing ways to experience the tallest dunes in the United States, you can really have an amazing visit in a short amount of time.
We enjoyed our time in Great Sand Dunes way more than we thought we would! The views were stunning and there were so many hikes we were able to enjoy.
One Day in Great Sand Dunes National Park
Begin your day with a morning hike. Try a short trail, like Zapata Falls (.9 miles), located just outside of the park for a unique perspective of the dunes. If a longer, more difficult trail is more your style, check out Mosca Pass (6.2 miles).
- Spend Time on the Dunes
Everyone does the dunes differently! Whether you’re looking to hike to High Dune, the highest dune in North America at nearly 700 feet, or rip down the sand on a sled or sandboard, you’re going to have a great time.
- Medano Creek
After a busy moring of exploring, relax at Medano creek. If it’s hot, splash around and take a swim, or simply eat a picnic lunch and enjoy the shady views. Check current creek conditions here so you can plan you adventure accordingly.
- Off Roading
If you’re in a vehicle that is capable, check out the primitive Medano Pass Road. A highway-legal (in the state of Colorado) 4WD, high clearance vehicle is required to safely attempt Medano Pass Primitve Road.
Where Should I Stay in Great Sand Dunes National Park?
Pinon Flats is the campground located inside of the park, and it is a beauty! Every site has beautiful views of the dunes with the Sangre Di Cristo Mountains in the background. All campsites must be reserved via recreation.gov.
There are a number of beautiful camping opportunities just outside of the park as well! Aside from the site located along Medano Pass Road, Zapata Falls Campground is a great option. These sites are located on BLM land less than 15 minutes from the park and provide amazing views of the dunes and mountains.
Drive Back to Denver, Colorado
Great Sand Dunes National Park ➡️ Denver (3:45 | 235.3 Miles)
The drive back to Denver will take you through Colorado Springs, the home of one of Colorado’s most-visited Natural National Landmarks. These unique sandstone rock formations really stand out against their mountainous backdrop. It’s a beautiful stop for a quick drive or a short hike.
If you’re fixing for a workout, train like an Olympian at the Manitou incline on your way back to Denver! Also located in Colorado Springs, the Manitou Incline includes 2,768 stairs to an epic overlook. After the 1-mile climb to the top, hikers will take a four-mile hike down the Barr Trail to return to their vehicles.
Add on to Your Colorado National Parks Road Trip Itinerary
If you’re looking to add to your Colorado National Parks Road Trip Itinerary, try dipping into Utah for a few days. Swing out to Moab after visiting Colorado National Monument for a few days of red rock canyon fun in the desert.
Arches and Canyonlands are really just a short drive from the Colorado border and can absolutely enhance your Colorado National Parks Road Trip. Extend your trip a few days to include these iconic locations.
Arches National Park
Arches National Park is located just outside of Moab. There are so many amazing ways to experience Arches.
You can spend one jam-packed day seeing all of the most popular sights, or break your visit into two days of adventure. Arches National Park operates under timed entry permits in the busy season; plan ahead and reserve your permit for the dates you plan to visit.
Devils Garden, Double Arch, and the Fiery Furnace are our favorite Arches National Park hikes! We have an epic Arches Trail Guide available to help you plan the best day in Arches National Park!
Canyonlands National Park
Canyonlands is often overlooked by those visiting Utah and the Moab area. With four unique districts, you can find whatever kind of adventure you’re looking for at Canyonlands National Park.
The Needles District is perfect for those seeking long, adventurous day and overnight desert hikes. Colorful spires of Cedar Mesa Sandstone dominate the area and leave you speechless. Canyon in the Sky is the easiest and most-visited district in the park. With a variety of stunning overlooks, short day hikes, and all around incredible views, this is a great destination for families and anyone short on time.
The Maze is the least accessible district as it is remote. Its trails and roads are incredibly difficult to navigate, so this area of the park is only reccommended to incredibly competent and self-sufficient outdoorsmen. The Colorado and Green rivers also run through the heart of the Canoynlands. Guided river trips, from half day excursions to full week floats, are available as well.
A Full Utah National Parks Road Trip Itinerary
Why not hit all of the Utah Mighty 5? If you’re hoping to visit Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, and Capital Reef National Park as well, you’ll have to add at least a week to your road trip. Promise it will be worth it!
Utah is an amazing state with scenic byways, desert solitude, rock climbing opportunities, and thousands of miles of hiking and biking trails.
Plan your Utah road trip loop today with the help of our full article, Two Week Utah Road Trip. Add the Colorado National parks road trip loop to the Utah National Park loop and have one, large epic trip!