Beginner’s Travel Guide: Week-Long Colorado Road Trip Itinerary

After a summer of buying a house, moving my horse cross-country, and general craziness that kept us close to home, Billy and I took an entire week to really kick off summer and see the West we had yet to venture into. We hit almost all four corners of Colorado, got a taste of things we wanted to see more of, and learned a whole lot about our new home state (oh, and got engaged!).

Our original route

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The original itinerary was:

  • Grand Junction, Colorado National Monument and Palisade
  • Moab (Utah) to see Arches and Canyonlands national parks
  • Heading south to Mesa Verde National Park and Durango
  • Taking Million Dollar Highway north through Ouray and Silverton before camping at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
  • Last stop: Great Sand Dunes National Park

Then we learned how hot it gets in Utah in June (110 degrees) so we headed back to the mountains after sweating it out in Grand Junction. We also got homesick (or at least sick of camping) on the second to last day of the trip, so we skipped Alamosa and the Great Sand Dunes to go straight home from Gunnison.

Where we went wrong

We still saw a huge amount of Colorado (I had never been west of the ski resorts before this trip!). Our biggest missteps that changed our plans were not fully appreciating how quickly it gets hot in the deserty part of the west and not fully appreciating how much we appreciate showers and a hotel room.

I thought it would be relatively cool still in mid-June. I was very wrong and should’ve Googled more in advance. In mid-June, highs were in the triple digits in both Grand Junction and Moab, so we decided to only subject ourselves to one extremely hot locale before trying to get high (altitude-wise). Similarly, I thought Durango would be cooler since it was technically in the mountains. But in reality, it’s actually not much higher then Denver, so it was in the upper 90s there when we arrived.

We also didn’t know how often it rains early in the summer, and ended up bailing on our second night of camping because we were stuck in yet another rainstorm (it’s just not that fun to hang out in a tent with no campfire for multiple nights).

It also rained when we were in Black Canyon of the Gunnison, so we had to hurriedly pack up our gear in the rain before setting out for two more nights of camping in Alamosa at Great Sand Dunes. By the time we stopped for lunch in Gunnison that day, we were 1000% over the idea of hauling out all our camping gear again and not just heading home to sleep in our own beds.

Our actual week-long itinerary

It was honestly so hard to pare down the list of what we wanted to do and where we wanted to go, so we tried to stay open to doing whatever we felt like that day. Except for the day Billy proposed – that day he was pretty adamant about going on a certain hike 😉

Here’s what we actually ended up doing, along with a few other suggestions of things we’ve since gone back for or that are still on our list now!

Day 1: Denver to Grand Junction

Starting off the trip with a drive across the state was the perfect way to discover Colorado. It’s kind of bananas how different the state is from end to end. After climbing up into the mountains from Denver, the red rock reappears as you drive through the incredible Glenwood Canyon and follow the Colorado River. The mountains then fade away and turn to desert (for a while it kind of looks like you’re on Mars) before spitting you out in the Grand Valley, which is filled with orchards, vineyards, and desert mesas. So savor that four-hour trip!

Pit Stop Suggestions

  • Red Canyon Cafe in Eagle (almost exactly halfway)
  • Sauce on the Creek in Avon (just over halfway)
  • The Argentos Empanadas in Dillon (less then halfway)

We planned to arrive in Grand Junction later in the day because we were camping that night in the Colorado National Monument and wanted to beat the heat as much as possible. We stopped in Palisade for some peach vodka drinks at Peach Street Distillers before hitting up Meadery of the Rockies and a few other Palisade spots.

When we arrived at the monument around 7 p.m., it was still QUITE warm. We ended up having to make a few emergency trips into Fruita (the closest town to the campground) and we were not upset about having more time in the air conditioning. Click for my full guide to camping at Saddlehorn Campground in the monument >>

Our campsite – a little buggy and not a lot of privacy. But it worked!

Day 2: Colorado National Monument and retreating to the air conditioning

Thankfully, we were smart enough to book an AirBnb (with a pool!) for the next night. We woke up incredibly early to beat the heat – nothing says vacation like a 6:30 a.m. start time for hiking! It was totally worth it, however, because the monument is stunning and has a ton of short, beginner-friendly hikes along the scenic road that runs through it. Here’s my full hiking guide >>

Totally worth that early wake up!

After hiking, it was time for some wine! Well, first we had breakfast. By the time we were done hiking, packing up, and in Palisade, it was a totally acceptable time to start drinking. We visited a bunch of different Palisade wineries, but my favorite was Maison La Belle Vie. It’s patio/outdoor seating area is heavenly (thanks to the huge trees providing plenty of shade) and you get panoramic views of the grape vines and Bookcliff Mountains. Taste some wine, order the charcuterie board, and say “ahhhh.”

What’s not to like?!

To save money, we had lunch at Riverside Park using what we packed for camping. This awesome cooler helped us keep everything edible (and reasonably cold) in the hot weather and was a great investment that ultimately saved us money throughout the trip!

By late afternoon, we were ready for some time in a pool or air conditioning or both. Our AirBnb (unfortunately no longer listed) totally delivered, leaving us relaxed and ready to go to the mountains the next day!

If you’re okay with adding a not-insignificant amount of time to your drive, you could spend the night in Palisade (also probably more expensive) and backtrack a little to drive over the Grand Mesa on your way to Telluride. We optimized for time and cheap camping for this trip!

Day 3: Grand Junction to Telluride

Our last-minute detour put us in Telluride the same weekend as the Bluegrass Festival (arguably the biggest event of the year in Telluride), so again, we really should’ve Googled a bit before this trip. We needed to get to the campground ASAP since it was first-come, first-serve, so we high-tailed it out of Grand Junction first thing in the morning and started the drive to snag a campsite.

This did not seem like real life.

The mountains of southwest Colorado are arguably some of the most beautiful in the state. We were in complete awe once the San Juan range started popping up on the horizon, and that only continued as we drove into Telluride. We were lucky to get the last campsite, right on the river, at Matterhorn Campground outside of town.

Pit Stop Suggestions

  • Horsefly Brewery in Montrose
  • Daily Bread Bakery and Cafe in Montrose

Telluride Restaurant Suggestions

  • Caravan Middle Eastern Food
  • Brown Dog Pizza
  • Siam (Thai)

Save yourself the headache that is parking and traffic in Telluride and take the gondola from Mountain View (just a short drive from the campground). We had plenty of daylight after setting up our campsite, exploring downtown, and grabbing a quick lunch, so we took the gondola back into town ready for hiking.

The hike to Bear Creek Falls is a popular one – for good reason. It’s easy access right out of town and has stunning views. It’s a round-trip total of five miles, but is all downhill on the way back (yes, this means it’s all uphill on the way there). I recommend hiking poles. This hike will always be my favorite because it’s where Billy proposed, but Jud Wiebe is another iconic trail in town (also lots of uphill, everything is steep in Telluride).

I realize this isn’t the waterfall, but doesn’t that tell you something that the waterfall wasn’t even the coolest part of the hike?!

We celebrated back at the campsite with mini champagne bottles (there’s a liquor store right off the gondola when you get back to Mountain View!) and a basic campfire dinner before settling in for the night.

Day 4: Telluride…and the rain starts

After a beautiful morning in Telluride exploring Bridal Veil Falls and Trout Lake, our plans to hike near Lizard Head Pass were foiled by an incoming storm. We spent the afternoon reading in the tent before heading to town for dinner. The sun had come out, but it was raining again by the time we got back, so a campfire was out of the question. We hunkered back down with our books.

The views of Bridal Veil Falls from where we got tired of driving up the gravel road that takes you all the way there 🙂

After a few more hours, we were totally over being stuck in the tent in the rain. It was getting humid and damp inside the tent and generally uncomfortable. It was 10 pm, but we wanted out. We decided to drive south to get a cheap hotel and a hot shower in Dolores.

This was a super fun detour since there is not a whole lot between Telluride and Dolores, and the Dolores Mountain Inn was everything you can imagine an old motel in an extremely small town being – bad wallpaper, endless tchotchkes in the lobby, the whole nine yards. AND there were hot showers with amazing water pressure. It was amazing and totally worth the midnight drive (plus we saw a bear along the highway so that was kind of cool).

Day 5: Mesa Verde and Durango

In hindsight, we should’ve spent more time in Durango and less time in Mesa Verde. I’m of the unpopular opinion that Mesa Verde just isn’t that cool. It took over an hour to drive into the park, and I realized at that point that two additional hours of driving just wasn’t worth it for me to see cliff dwellings. I thought I was pretty into ancient ruins, but it turns out it wasn’t my jam.

To be fair, some people have said this is because we didn’t do a tour of the cliff dwellings. We didn’t coordinate our arrival time well enough to do that, and I don’t think going to Mesa Verde is worth it with that tour.

Durango itself is a really cool town with plenty to explore. Like I said at the beginning, we wildly underestimated how hot it was going to be. We should’ve dedicated more time to exploring downtown, but instead spent our limited time doing laundry and laying in the air conditioning.

Rent a bike to explore the Animas Riverwalk – the views will not disappoint!

When I went back to Durango for work in 2018, I spent a lot more time in town and really loved it. The views from Fort Lewis College’s overlooks and hiking trails are beautiful, as is the riverwalk path (rent a bike to explore more!). You can also wade or float in the Animas River to beat the heat!

Day 6: Durango to Black Canyon of the Gunnison

Driving north on the Million Dollar Highway is the way to do it. The road is full of steep drop-offs with no guardrail (honestly, calling them “steep” is such an understatement, but I’m not sure what other adjective to use). But for the worst parts, you’ll be on the inside and not right on the edge when traveling north.

Silverton is a great stop to make, but my favorite town along this route is Ouray. If I could do it all over again, I’d stay at least one night here as well (check out AlpLily Inn if you do).

Ouray on a sunny day (spoiler alert, we did not catch it on a sunny day).

Pit Stop Suggestions

  • Mouse’s Coffee and Chocolates in Ouray (get a scrap cookie!)
  • Ouray Brewery in Ouray
  • Taco del Gnar in Ridgway

We arrived at the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, just outside of Montrose, with plenty of time to hike and explore before setting up camp for the night. I was extremely excited for the stargazing here since Black Canyon is one of the only Dark Sky-designated areas in the state, but it (of course) was cloudy and then raining, so that didn’t quite pan out. I hope you have better luck!

Black Canyon is fantastic for beginner-friendly hiking and also has jaw-dropping views of the incredibly steep canyon. Read my guides for camping and hiking there.

Views from the visitor’s center at Black Canyon

Day 7: Black Canyon to Home via Gunnison

We woke up to rain, so we hustled out of the tent to pack things up as fast as possible and hit the road. The secluded campsite would’ve made a great place for a nice, relaxing campfire breakfast, but it was not to be.

We started our day by driving to the bottom of the canyon, which is accessible to cars without a trailer attached. This was pretty, but took a long time and I’m not sure it was totally worth it. However, the campsite down there seemed really cool and could be a good alternate place to spend the night.

We left for Gunnison, setting out on another beautiful stretch of driving. Once we pulled into town, we stopped for lunch and a beer….and realized we SO did not want to camp anymore. From our table at High Alpine Brewery, I cancelled our Great Sand Dunes campsite, ate the fees, and immediately felt relieved.

The look of someone not camping in the rain again!

Knowing we were headed home next, we decided to drive into Crested Butte from Gunnison. Crested Butte is another fun and funky mountain town that’s a little like Telluride with a little bit more of its hippy sole preserved. Ideally, we would’ve gone hiking there as well but we were wiped out (oh and it was raining again).

If I were to go back, I’d go during wildflower season later in the summer and hit up the plethora of gorgeous trails in the area. I’ve also toyed with the idea of training for the Sage Burner trail race series in the fall for a leaf peeping trip!

The bottom line

However you do it, get out there and explore this incredible state. This road trip gave us just a small taste of what Colorado had to offer, and only made our “to visit” list miles longer. After living in Colorado for a few years and not seeing much besides Denver and the ski resorts, it gave us such a better appreciation for our new home and got us excited to see more!

Did you take an alternate route? The same one? Let me know in the comments!

Want to know what we packed? Look no further than this blog post.

7 Comments Add yours

  1. Steve Horvat says:

    I’m an old online acquaintance of Billy’s from the Swamp – I live in Utah and have made a bunch of trips to the Moab area. Including Canyonlands this past weekend. If I can help, feel free to email me.

    Like

  2. I am so excited to follow along with your journey! How awesome is this road trip going to be?? I don’t have a lot of Colorado knowledge, but you could also reach out to Katie at Katie Wanders to see if she’s been to some of those Utah spots.

    I have some trouble finding information like that, but in PA. I’m surprised Colorado isn’t more on top of their game! Excited to see what you find. 🙂

    Like

    1. Laura Cardon says:

      Thanks Amanda!! I seriously cannot wait to get on the road. I wish I had started this blog earlier and explored more of the Mid-Atlantic region when I was living there…it’s frustrating that there’s an overall lack of information isn’t it?! Thanks for the support and suggestion!

      Like

  3. Steve Horvat says:

    IMHO, the best trails are in the two national parks, so the park websites have good info. Their trails are generally well marked and in good condition. There are trails outside the parks, but they are mostly used by mountain bikers.

    The most scenic area is the Island in the Sky, with awesome vistas. Mesa Arch is my favorite, but it isn’t really a “hike,” it’s more of a walk from the parking area. Another good overlook is Grand View Point. There are great views from the parking area, but you can also take a one-mile trail along the edge of the cliff to the point itself.

    My favorite hike at Canyonlands is Murphy Loop/Murphy Hogback. It starts at the Island plateau and goes down to the White Rim and back, with a view overlooking the Green River. It’s strenuous coming back up but doesn’t require expertise or experience.

    In Arches, the most scenic non-expert hike is Delicate Arch. There’s also lots of short easy hikes to various arches.

    Protrail.com has good info on most of these hikes.

    A big issue in Moab is finding camping. Do you have a campground reserved? There is not much camping in the national parks themselves. I love the Willow Flat campground in Canyonlands, but it has only 12 sites (all non-reservable) and will fill up by 9 a.m. on the weekends. (I got the last available site this past Saturday.) Otherwise you need to find a spot in a BLM campground. Info on BLM campgrounds is at http://www.blm.gov/ut/st/en/fo/moab/recreation/campgrounds.html

    One final recommendation – when you drive in, come down Highway 128 instead of 191. It takes you along the river past Fisher Towers.

    Like

    1. Laura Cardon says:

      Amazing, thanks Steve! Billy says hi as well.

      Like

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