Colorado Road Trip: Rocky Mountains, Denver, and Everything in Between

Colorado Road Trip: Rocky Mountains, Denver, and Everything in Between

Set in the western US, Colorado features a diverse landscape with Rocky Mountains as its prime gem. But the scenic beauty of this state doesn’t stop there – there are other parks, lakes, charming gold rush towns, and the vibrant capital, Denver.

It’s an ideal destination for nature lovers and history buffs, but it can also be a very romantic. Nevertheless, a road trip filled with physical activities and amazing sites can be exhausting, so make sure that you find a convenient place to stay so you can also properly rest during your trip. There are numerous hotels, cabins, and holiday homes in the area, but if you are on a romantic getaway, we would recommend going with an accommodation with a private Jacuzzi or with a hot tub in room.

In addition to good accommodation, we would also recommend taking sunscreen with you regardless of the season (especially if you plan on a lot of hiking or skiing), getting around with a car, ideally a larger car that can handle the somewhat difficult terrain (you can find many rentals in Denver if you’re flying in), and keep in mind that Rocky Mountain National Park's main road, Trail Ridge Road, closes roughly from October to late May due to heavy snowfall, so if you visit during those months your access to some parts of the park could be denied.

This is a 5-day Colorado road trip itinerary for visiting just the Rocky Mountains National Park and nearby places, but Colorado is a huge state and there is a lot more to see. If you have more time, we would suggest adding places like Vail or Aspen to your road trip.

Also, we haven’t included all towns of the Colorado Gold Trail (historic gold rush towns), so feel free to play around and visit Boulder, Black Hawk, Central City, Idaho Springs, Breckenridge, Fairplay, Alma, Como, or Leadville in any order you see fit. Each mining town has its own charm, a certain character, and unique legends and bragging rights, so if you wish to focus more on sightseeing than on hiking, we recommend fitting as many as possible in your itinerary.

LET’S GET ON THE ROAD! 

DAY 1: BOULDER AND ESTES PARK

Hopefully you’re staying somewhere near Denver, woke up early, and had a good night’s sleep, so you’ll drive up to Boulder in no time.

Boulder

Overlooking the mountains, this charming town offers bike paths, top-notch breweries, and cozy cafes that will tempt you to linger around for a few days, to go hiking and/or to leisurely savor the quiet life. But if you’re on a tight schedule, head straight to the heart of the city - the Pearl Street Mall, a pedestrian mall with dozens of independent shops, restaurants, street artists, and great vibes. If you worry about parking, just snoop around the residential streets around downtown and you’ll find free parking (but check if there’s a time limit on it).

And if you prefer to spend as much time in nature as possible, take a short hike up the Flatirons to ‘the Lost Gulch Overlook’,  a viewpoint that offers breathtaking views of the surrounding  forested foothills and mountains - a very romantic spot, especially at sunrise or sunset.

Boulder Canyon and Nederland

After Boulder, head west towards the quaint town of Nederland, through the Boulder Canyon. The road narrows between mountains and follows the Boulder Creek, usually full of cyclists and hikers, but easily accessible by car. Either way, don’t rush through the canyon; while you’re here take a short stop by the Boulder Falls. The lovely falls are set on the north side, visible from the street, and you can stop at a parking pull-out on the south side of the road. If you want to come closer, it’s only a short walk away, but be careful crossing the highway.

It’s less than a half hour drive from Boulder to Nederland, a small town with a mining past where you can explore the Nederland Mining Museum (free and very interesting) and choose between a few restaurants for a well-deserved break.

Brainard Lake and Estes Park

Leaving Nederland and heading towards Estes Park, you will join the Peak to Peak Highway, a highway that is part of the Scenic Byways of the United States and provides mesmerizing views of the surrounding forests and the Rockies. The landscape is simply breathtaking, but it’s not all this area has to offer.

If you still have a couple of hours of daylight left, take a detour about a halfway through and check out the Brainard Lake. This entire area is dotted with ​​mountain lakes so you can choose where to spend most of your time. If you wish to visit the Recreation Area you have to pay for entry (unless you already have the national parks pass), but access to the lakes themselves is free. You can go fishing, have a picnic lunch, or even stay overnight at the Pawnee Campground. Keep in mind that you’re in nature and there is a decent chance of a wild animal wondering around, especially at night, so camping here is not for weak hearted.

In case you don’t stay the night, get back on the road and you should reach Estes Park within an hour. It’s a charming town best known as a base for visiting the Rocky Mountain National Park, so there’s no better place to spend the night (anywhere in the general area will do just fine) because you should try to arrive at the park as early as possible.

Regardless, when you have some spear time, explore Estes Park. We would recommend taking the Estes Park Aerial Tramway to the summit of Prospect Mountain as it offers panoramic views over the valley, as well as a café where you can take a moment to soak it all in. Of course, the Prospect Mountain has a number of hiking trails so you can go down on foot if you prefer it that way. Another interesting site at this tourism gem is the main street, Elkhorn Avenue with its souvenir shops, restaurants, ice cream parlors, candy stores, coffee shops, etc. Also, it’s possible to encounter wildlife, like elks, in the city as they sometimes wander in.

DAY 2: ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK

The second day of your Colorado road trip is completely dedicated to the Rocky Mountain National Park and its hiking trails. And don’t forget to book your room in Estes Park, or nearby, for another night, because one day is not enough for exploring this entire part of the Rockies.

First things first…

For this to go according to plan, you have to get up early! And we mean really early. If you don’t believe us, consult any guide you can find and there will surely be a warning about how important it is to arrive early if you want to find parking and avoid crowds. Whether you choose to start with Glacier Gorge Trailhead, Wild Basin Corridor, or Bear Lake Trailhead, all their respective parking lots get full as soon as the sun is up, especially on weekends. Park & Ride is also an option if you can’t find a single parking space, but then you’re depending on the free shuttles, and even that fills up around 10 or 11 in the morning.

Additional note for this part of the road trip: if you’re visiting Colorado without a car, there are multiple shuttles that connect the Rocky Mountain National Park with Estes Park, Boulder, and other nearby towns; all shuttles take you near the hiking trails. Also, however and whenever you enter the park, you need to have a pass (it’s best to buy it online beforehand) and maybe even a time-entry permit, so consult the official RMNP website before coming here.

More reasons for getting here early:

  • The park offices are usually not open until 8 a.m., so you don't have to pay an additional fee for your car (unless that changes in the meanwhile). Even so, if you have to pay the fee, it’s not too bad - it’s around $35 per week or $25 per day.
  • Many animals are most active at dawn and dusk, so entering at sunrise you have a greater chance to get a glimpse of some of the wildlife living in the area.
  • There are a lot less people on the trails early in the morning. After 10 a.m., it’s almost impossible to be alone so you can’t really just stop and take in the stunning scenery surrounding you. There’s nothing more annoying than someone bumping into you when you’re having a moment…
  • The hikes can be quite long, so it’s best to start as early as possible so you don’t have to rush back when the sun starts to set. Keep in mind that you can’t stay and camp at the park overnight unless you have a ‘Wilderness Permit’ (if you really want to stay the night in the RMNP, you can get this permit at the Headquarters Wilderness Office near Estes Park).

Bear Lake and beyond

Starting from the Bear Lake Trailhead, this route is about 8 miles (13 km) long, so it depends on your fitness, as well as breaks you take along the way, how long it will take you to circle back. We believe 7 hours is enough for the whole trail with stops. This is one of the easier hiking trails on the Rocky Mountains, but pace yourself and soak in the views.

The trails are in good condition and well marked, but some sections it is quite uneven, so watch your step. Also, you can find the official maps of the area on the RMNP’s website – you never know when it can come in handy.

Start at Bear Lake, the most accessible lake of all (it can be reached on foot from the parking lot in 5 minutes), and continue towards the other alpine lakes in this region of the park: Nymph Lake, Dream Lake, and finish at the Emerald Lake, at almost 10 000 feet (~2 900 m).

Around these breathtaking lakes you can find chipmunks, squirrels and other animals. Keep in mind that it is forbidden to feed animals (beware of the chipmunks, they will try to rob you if they get a chance and they are super fast).

The path through the mountain looks like something from a movie: you cross streams, you get lost among thousands of trees and, in the background you can see the towering peaks white with snow...

After you take a break and a bunch of photos, go back the same way you came until you reach the crossroads with the Glacier Gorge trail, and then the Haiyaha Lake trail. Follow those trails and you will witness the dizzying views upon reaching the top at the Haiyaha Lake.

From there, go back a little and turn at the crossroads, following the Glacier Gorge Trail. This hiking trail will take you through fairy-tail forests and lead you towards the mighty Alberta Falls. Be careful not to make a wrong turn at the Loch & Mills Lake Junction – if you end up at the Loch or Mills Lake, you need to go back a bit. As we mentioned, the trails are well marked, but mistakes can happen to anybody.

If you’re visiting Colorado during the warm months, we encourage you to dip your toes in the lakes, and streams, and falls, but beware, the water is freezing! Nevertheless, it’s worth the risk… when else will you get the chance to fully experience this place that’s every outdoor enthusiast's dream.

From the Alberta Falls it’s a short but steep climb to get back to your starting point, the Bear Lake Trailhead parking lot. If you have any energy left and if you still have some daylight left, you can go on a short scenic drive on your way back to Estes Park where a cozy room is waiting for you at your hotel. After getting some rest, we encourage you to explore the city a bit, maybe go for some dinner and drinks, although no one would blame you if you decided to stay in for the night. Get a good night’s sleep because tomorrow you have to get up early and continue with your Colorado road trip!

 

DAY 3: ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK AND FRISCO

The third day of our epic road trip through Colorado is dedicated to the Rocky Mountain National Park, but this time you won’t be returning to Estes Park at the end of the day; you will go on a scenic drive across Highway 34 and continue toward the town of Frisco.

Also, before hitting the Trail Ridge Road, we recommend taking a brief stop at the Sheep Lakes you can sometimes see bighorn sheep (also known as Rocky Rams). 

The Trail Ridge Road

As we mentioned, you need to get on the Trail Ridge Road, it’s a mandatory part of Colorado road tripping as it offers a unique experience of the Rockies. This alpine road offers panoramic views of ragged peaks and surrounding scenery. In a matter of minutes you ascend more and more, and as you do the landscape changes from alpine forests to the desolate and bare tundra. Naturally, you can find dozens of viewpoints along the way. Fun fact, the highest point of the Trail Ridge Road is at the head-spinning 12 183 feet (about 3 700 m) – for the most of us it’s a once in a lifetime experience.

Feel free to choose places you wish to stop at along the way, but here are a few of our suggestions: Beaver Ponds (where it is possible to see beavers), Many Parks Curve, Forest Canyon Overlook, and Lava Cliffs.

If you decide to stretch your legs a bit more, you can go for a short hike from the Ute Trailhead, but we recommend turning back at the first peak. Or go for a short hike from Tundra Communities Trailhead to the Mushroom Rocks and Roger Toll Memorial, the interesting rock formations are worth visiting. Keep in mind that this entire part of the road trip depends on the weather conditions as the road is closed in the coldest months because of the inaccessibility caused by excessive snow, so avoid Colorado road trips from October to March.

Moving on, the Alpine Visitor Center is a good place for a lunch break. It features a shop, a restaurant, and spectacular views. From there, the Trail Ridge Road begins to descend. Along the way you can stop for short excursions to Poudre Lake and Lake Irene. The latter is a lake with crystalline reflections, surrounded by forests, and with a picnic area nearby… perfect for a quick snack in the sun if you feel like it.

And in the end, before getting off the Trail Ridge Road stop by the Holzwarth Historic Site. It is a small ranch with a number of cabins from the early 20th century, and you can ask a ranger to give you a tour of the buildings and tell you about of the family that built them.

Unlike the other parts of this road, this area of ​​the park closes in autumn so as not to interfere with the bellowing of the elk.

From the Rocky Mountain National Park exit head south towards the town of Frisco. It’s not a short drive but it’s a beautiful one – you will pass by hypnotic landscapes of the Rocky Mountains and the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests, and by some charming small towns (perfect for a short break if you need one).

Frisco

Depending on when you arrive to Frisco, you can either just take a walk around the place and stay for dinner or you can go for a short and romantic hike to Sapphire Point Overlook. This small town is a popular tourist destination because it’s a lovely spot on a lake, with mountainous background, filled with restaurants, cafes, antique shops, museums, etc., and surrounded by a number of hiking trails and ski resorts.

At this point in the road trip, if you have some spear time you can go to the pretty town of Vail and spend the night there, or you can choose a hotel or a cabin in or near Frisco. We mention Vail as an additional stop because it’s home to breathtaking scenery within the White River National Forest, at the base of Vail Mountain, as well as to the grand Vail Ski Resort – a great opportunity  for skiing in the winter, but also for mountain biking and hiking in the summer.

 

DAY 4: COLORADO MINING TOWNS

Leaving the Rocky Mountain National Park behind, the fourth day of this Colorado road trip itinerary is dedicated to exploring the Colorado mining towns and getting to Denver in the afternoon. As we mentioned in the intro, feel free to skip and add mining towns as you see fit, but if you don’t feel like planning anything, here’s a suggested itinerary.

Georgetown

Firstly, you can’t miss the historic town of Georgetown. It’s a former silver mining camp with over 200 restored late 19th century buildings, as well as many restaurants and antique shops lined down the Main Street. It looks like something from a postcard. While you’re here, visit the Whistle Blow Café, without a doubt one of the most authentic coffee shops in Colorado.

If you’re not in a hurry and you wish to learn more about the history of this area, you will have a blast at the Georgetown Loop Railroad and Mining Park - a tourist attraction that includes a narrow gauge train ride, a real silver mine tour, and gold panning. Nevertheless, if you’re not a big fan of trains, there are other mines available in the area.

Idaho Springs and the Argo Gold Mine

Next destination: Idaho Springs. On the way to this small town, along the road you will find a bighorn observation point, equipped with binoculars so that you can observe the slopes of the Rocky Mountains in search of the bighorn sheep.

Compared to Georgetown, Idaho Springs is maybe even more “touristy”, but it has its charm. We recommend going to the visitor center, as it usually hosts a very interesting exhibition about mining and the animals of the area.

And speaking of mines, if you wish to see an old gold mine in Colorado, here you can make that wish come true at the Argo Gold Mine. This historic gold mine features an intact gold mill built at the entrance of the Argo Tunnel. At the end of the tour, you will be able to sift through sand for gold particles (and hopefully return home a little richer!).

Central City, City Of Casinos

After a 20-minute ride uphill, you’ll arrive to the mining town of Central City.

The history of Central City is the same as that of other towns in the area, with rapid and prosperous growth thanks to the Gold Rush. But, with the abandoned mines and a decaying town, in the 90s they decided to reconvert it into a town of casinos.

At first glance, it looks like a small western town, but behind the facades are hidden slot machines, marijuana shops, cafes, etc. As well as the other mining towns, Central City turned to tourism and entertainment so there’s something to do here no matter the time of year. Also, here you can find another guided gold mine tour at the Hidee Gold Mine, but if you have to choose just one to save time, go with Argo.

Red Rocks Park

As you get back on the road and get closer to Denver, make one last stop at the Red Rocks Park, a park known for its bizarre red sandstone formations. There are several free parking lots and trails that run through the rocks, so you can take your time.

If you get a chance, visit the Red Rocks Amphitheater, a huge amphitheater built in stone where open-air concerts are held. And if you want to explore the park, we suggest taking the Geologic Overlook Trail, a loop trail that leads through the red rocks and brings you back in an hour.

Denver

Before coming to Denver, make sure to find a hotel room somewhere around the city center so you can properly rest when you arrive. If you’re travelling with your special someone or you and your friend want to get pampered after many days of hiking and driving, here you can find some Denver hotels with hot tubs in rooms.

If you decide to go out for dinner and wish to see at least some of the city (you will have a lot of time for that the next day), we suggest a short trip to downtown Denver. The city is packed with breweries where you can try craft beers and there are a few spots from where you can enjoy the view of the city skyline. Have a chill evening and get some rest.

 

DAY 5: DENVER

The last day of this Colorado road trip is dedicated to Denver, the state capital, also known as The Mile-High City - because it’s actually situated a mile (approx. 1600 m) above sea level.

As with the previous day, you are free to improvise on the attractions you want to visit but we will offer a certain selection to help you choose. How many attractions you’ll have time to visit depends on the location of your accommodation and on when your flight is, but we hope you at least have a half day for wandering around.

LoDo

Leave the car at the hotel and explore the center on foot. If it’s not too far from your accommodation, start in Larimer Square, a historic street illuminated with string lights that today is the epicenter of independent shops, restaurants, cafes... This is actually the spot where Denver was founded so it makes sense to make it your starting point!

It is one of the liveliest and most pleasant corners of the Lower Downtown (LoDo), an electric downtown Denver neighborhood filled with trendy shops and restaurants.

In addition to strolling through the neighborhood, enter the beautiful and iconic Denver Union Station, a renovated century-old train station that today houses a multitude of businesses, bars, seasonal live entertainment, and a weekly farmers' market.

If you enjoy shopping, continue to the 16th Street Mall, a pedestrian shopping street. In addition to its lively vibe, here you can catch a free shuttle that runs through the downtown every few minutes. Other great shopping area is the Pearl Street in Englewood, if you find yourself heading south.

If you’re looking for ideas for a date lunch in the area, you can check out some of the parks along the South Platte River – many of them offer tables for a picnic lunch with lovely river views.

Capitol Hill / Civic Center of Denver

Another interesting spot is the Civic Center Park, a charming park dotted with fountains, statues, and a Greek amphitheater, leading to the Colorado State Capitol, a mighty Corinthian-style building with a gold dome (tours are available). The Civic Center is especially attractive in summer as it hosts festivals and concerts, and it welcomes a number of popular food trucks. Maybe you get lucky and spend your last night in Colorado raving at a festival after enjoying some mouthwatering street food.

Just south of the park you can also find ​​the Denver Art Museum where you can enjoy some outdoor sculptures and exhibits, in addition to the indoor art. If you’re interested in visiting some more museums, Capitol Hill is just a few steps away (the capitol building is technically a part of it) and it offers some interesting museum options.

River North Art District

Last but not least, if you’re looking for something more urban and prefer street art to museums, check out RiNo, the trendy River North Art District. It features contemporary art galleries and ingenious venues set in restored industrial spaces, as well as food halls like the Denver Central Market where you can try some inventive food and craft beer.

And the best part of RiNo is the street art - its colorful murals along the Upper Larimer Street. There you can also find some eclectic cocktail lounges, brewpubs, and food trucks. It’s no wonder RiNo is acclaimed as the coolest neighborhood in Denver.

Time to return home

And so we arrive to the end of our Colorado road trip itinerary. As we mentioned already, this is a general guide for a 5-day road trip through a select part of Colorado and it leaves a lot of space for improvisation and personalization. So shape it according to your preferences and you will have one epic road trip through the fantastical Rocky Mountains.

Also, we hope you will continue to explore Colorado as this state has so much to offer, especially for outdoorsy people who like to hike and bask in glorious views. Colorado is home to many natural hot springs, state forests, and national parks, from the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Mesa Verde National Park in the south, to the Gunnison National Park and Rifle Falls State Park in the west, the Rocky Mountains in the north, and many in between. Apart from the natural beauty, there are also so many historic sites and towns worth visiting, e.g. Fort Collins in the northern Colorado and the Grand Junction in the western Colorado.

Wherever the road takes you next time you’re visiting Colorado, we can assure you that Colorado road trips are always a great idea and that you will have an unforgettable experience in the welcoming Centennial State. Safe travels!

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