From groves of aspens and towering peaks to red rock mesas and deep canyons, Colorado is a famously scenic state—especially when seen from behind the wheel. Whether you’re looking to take a deep dive into the Centennial State’s ski culture or sample its history through national parks and hot springs, here are five of the best Colorado road trips to take no matter the time of year.
Trail Ridge Road
- Distance: 48 miles
- Start: Estes Park
- End: Grand Lake
Though only 48 miles long, Trail Ridge Road is one of the most appealing stretches in the state. Starting in Estes Park on the eastern side of Rocky Mountain National Park and ending in Grand Lake on the western side, this road (the highest paved road in North America at 12,183 feet) crosses the Continental Divide with a series of switchbacks. Along the way, travelers will see forests of aspens and ponderosa pine, alpine tundra, fields of wildflowers, rock mounds left behind by melting glaciers, and potentially wildlife, like moose, elk, bighorn sheep, marmots, and ptarmigans. From the pullovers at the highest points, you can see as far as Wyoming to the north on clear days (and even on cloudy days, you’ll be able to take in the majesty of the Rockies).
If you’re going to do the drive, we recommend making a day of it. Stop for a picnic in a mountain meadow or near the banks of the Colorado River. Go for a hike—Ute Trailhead (an intermediate eight-mile round-trip trek) is one local favorite. And visit the Alpine Visitor Center to chat with rangers and mosey around the store.
Where to stay
- Book now: Estes Park Resort
Found on the shore of Lake Estes, Estes Park Resort offers 55 rooms and suites and 32 single-family cabins. On-site amenities include a game room, a spa center, a gym, lakeside firepits and barbecues, and the Dunraven Italian restaurant. Guests can also follow the Riverwalk to downtown Estes Park, where there are numerous art galleries, breweries, and eateries.
San Juan Skyway
- Distance: 236 miles
- Start: Durango
- End: Durango
If you like history, hot springs, and national parks, this route in southwestern Colorado is an excellent place to start. Considering it’s 236 miles, you’ll need at least two or three days to do the byway justice.
Start in Durango, which has an airport, spending time exploring the historic downtown full of cafés, art galleries, and breweries. Go for a soak at Durango Hot Springs Resort & Spa, or take a bike ride along the Animas River Trail.
Afterward, head north. If you’d like to stop somewhere for a bite or a drink en route, consider The Nugget Mountain Bar, an old miner’s cabin turned bar (think old-school chairlift swings and a bar made of skis), or one of the many restaurants in the Purgatory Ski Resort Village. Along the way, look for the passenger steam train that connects Durango to Silverton, a two-street town established as a mining settlement in the 1800s. There you can visit the historic train depot, walk down Blair Street (a former red-light district), and visit the San Juan County Historicial Society Mining Heritage Center.
Then it’s on to the magnificent 25-mile stretch known as the Million Dollar Highway. Be warned: This route will take time to traverse because it ascends and descends three of the tallest mountain passes in the United States, with plenty of hairpin turns. You can break up time in the car with stops at the top of Red Mountain Pass, the abandoned mining town of Ironton, and the overlook of Bear Creek Falls. We recommend spending the night in Ouray, enjoying the local hot springs and checking out the Victorian-era buildings downtown, before heading onward.
The next day, make your way toward Ridgway. If you’re a fan of western films, you might recognize the pint-size community from the 1969 John Wayne movie True Grit—you can even visit the True Grit Cafe, where scenes from the movie were filmed.
The next town you’ll meet is Telluride, a ski town in a box canyon surrounded by dizzying peaks. There’s much to do here, including hiking to Bridal Veil Falls, riding the free gondola, exploring the Telluride Art District, or climbing the via ferrata.
On the last day of your journey, plan to do some hiking. Near Rico, in the Dolores River Valley, are myriad trailheads, and in Dolores, you’ll find the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument. If time allows, make a detour to Mesa Verde National Park, home to some of the best-preserved Indigenous cliff dwellings in the Southwest, near Cortez, before heading back to Durango.
Where to stay
If you can spend two nights on the road, we recommend overnighting in both Ouray and Telluride.
In Ouray, consider the Western Hotel & Spa, housed in a 132-year-old historic building. The hotel recently underwent an extensive renovation but kept many of the mining-era artifacts (like the original art, stained glass windows, and hand-painted wallpaper). Each of the 16 guest rooms features gas fireplaces, custom wool rugs, and kitchenettes. A new restaurant and saloon also focus on wood-fired dishes and a Nordic spa with hot and cold plunge pools.
In Telluride, opt for the Madeline Hotel & Residences, part of the Auberge Resorts Collection. The resort includes 96 rooms and 29 condos, each with views of either Mountain Village or the San Juan Mountains.
West Elk Loop
- Distance: 205 miles
- Start: Carbondale
- End: Carbondale
What are you hoping to experience during your Colorado vacation? Hiking, biking, fishing, climbing, or general outdoor activities? Creative districts and art scenes? Indigenous, ranching, or mining history? You’ll find all that on the West Elk Loop.
When you drive south from Carbondale, the first town is Redstone. It was originally the headquarters of a coal-mining operation but now has an impressive makers’ culture. Along the main street are dozens of fine-art galleries, handicraft stores, and eateries. Then it’s Marble, a hamlet where the stone for the Lincoln Memorial and Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Washington, D.C. was mined. One of the main attractions is, understandably, visiting the quarry.
The road then climbs over McClure Pass through the Upper North Fork Valley to reach Somerset, Paonia, and Hotchkiss, a trio of farming towns where you’ll likely see roadside stands selling cherries and peaches.
Next is the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, known for incredibly narrow canyons chiseled by the Gunnison River cutting through the rock over millions of years. It’s just past the town of Crawford.
For those looking to make an overnight somewhere, we suggest Crested Butte, as you’ll likely get in late, and there’s much to do, including paddleboarding on Meridian Lake, attending a performance at the Center for the Arts Crested Butte, horseback riding at Fantasy Ranch, and visiting the boutiques, bookshops, and breweries that make up downtown.
Where to stay
- Book now: Eleven Scarp Ridge Lodge
Formerly a miner’s saloon, this historic building has been transformed into Eleven Experience’s flagship property. Each of the rooms has a different personality, having been decorated with Wild West antique decor (four-poster beds, wooden hope chests, and jute rugs). Other amenities include a movie lounge, games room, bar, a spa with hot tubs and sauna, and a gym.
- Distance: 38 miles
- Start: Colorado Springs
- End: Colorado Springs
It’s not the longest road trip, but Pikes Peak is a full-day adventure and perhaps one of the easiest ways to get atop one of Colorado’s famous fourteeners. The views from the top of the 14,115-foot-tall mountain are so impressive that they inspired the song “America the Beautiful.”
It’s a road trip you might want to pack Dramamine for—there are 156 hairpin twists and turns in the road, making it challenging to look for the elk, bighorn sheep, marmots, and deer that live on the mountain.
Along the way, there are myriad pull-offs, including three lakes, which are popular kayaking and fishing spots. There’s also the Crystal Reservoir Visitor Center at mile six and the Glen Cove Inn (a dinner and gift shop) at mile 13. The visitor center at the top of the mountain has new exhibits on how the road was built, the geology of the area, and the peak’s historical significance, plus a gift shop and grab-and-go eatery (do yourself a favor and get the doughnuts).
Because of the mountain’s popularity, there is now a reservation system. From May 27, 2023, through September 2023, visitors need to book a time slot on drivepikespeak.com. Tickets cost $15 for people age 16 and older and $5 for children.
Where to stay
- Book now: The Broadmoor
The Broadmoor has been attracting visitors to Colorado Springs for more than 100 years. The resort’s numerous pink-stucco Italianate Renaissance buildings encircle the 10-acre Cheyenne Lake, near the base of Cheyenne Mountain.
It was Spencer Penrose, the original owner of the Broadmoor, who completed the first automobile drive to the top of Pikes Peak. Each year since 1916, the Broadmoor has sponsored the Race to the Clouds, the second-oldest auto race in the United States after the Indianapolis 500.
Peak to Peak Highway
- Distance: 55 miles
- Start: Estes Park
- End: Denver
Designated a Colorado Scenic Byway (the first of the 26 that now exist and offer EV road trip adventures) in 1918, this route starts in Estes Park before heading to Allenspark, Nederland, Black Hawk, and Central City before ending in Denver, making it a great trip for those in the Front Range (especially in autumn when the aspen trees have turned golden). For much of the journey, you’ll drive along the Continental Divide, meaning the views are staggering the whole way.
After leaving Estes Park, you’ll first come across Allenspark, a former mining town turned recreation hub. Consider hiking to Calypso Cascades, a moderate 3.6-mile out-and-back trail, or making a detour to go fishing in Ralph Price Reservoir (both are in the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area, which has seven peaks, all taller than 13,000 feet). After another 25 miles, you’ll reach Nederland, where you can visit the Wild Bear Nature Center, see the Carousel of Happiness, hike the Caribou Trail (an easy 4-mile loop through Caribou Ranch Open Space), and try some local brews, like those at Knotted Root Brewing Company (known for its IPAs and sours). The next two communities are Black Hawk and Central City, both mining towns that became casino destinations. They are technically the end of the road, but you can carry on to Denver, Boulder, or Fort Collins, all less than an hour away.
Where to stay
- Book now: The Rally Hotel
The Rally Hotel is a fun, upscale choice in Denver. This 182-room hotel is across the street from Coors Field, home to the Colorado Rockies baseball team, so it makes sense that there are subtle nods to the national pastime, ranging from leather couches that evoke a catcher’s mitt to wall art that looks like the stitching on a ball. Found in LoDo (lower downtown), the hotel has quick access to many of the city’s best restaurants, bars, and shops—though it also has some lovely on-site amenities, including a fitness center, rooftop pool, and two Americana dining options.