This blog post is a complete guide to taking a Colorado road trip between Rocky Mountain National Park & Mesa Verde National Park including the best places to see fall colors on the way. I’ve also highlighted our favorite towns, like Breckenridge, Crested Butte, and Ouray, as well as my favorite things to do in Rocky Mountain National Park and Mesa Verde National Park.
Why Take a Colorado Road Trip?
Colorado has so many beautiful scenic drives, incredible hikes, road biking, MTB, star gazing, and wildlife viewing. In fact, don’t be surprised to see moose on the trail, at trailheads, and in residential parking lots! It goes without saying that you should never approach a moose. We’ve zigzagged our way through Colorado many times in the past 6 years that we’ve lived in our RV with our 5 kids and Colorado is one of our favorite places for camping, hiking, and rock climbing.
While Denver is nice (for a city) and Boulder is worth seeing, I prefer more of the off-the-beaten-path destinations that have less crowds and more nature and wildlife. That’s why I love this road trip!
Getting to experience the beauty of Rocky Mountain National Park, moose and elk by Granby Lake, jagged peaks of Summit County, the iconic Maroon Bells, back roads of Crested Butte, deep canyons of Gunnison, hot springs and Via Ferrata of Ouray, off roading in Silverton, the aspen lined Million Dollar Highway, train rides in Durango, and the ruins of Mesa Verde is one epic way to spend a week!
If you’re looking for a longer road trip than the 1-week itinerary listed below, check out this Colorado Road Trip Itinerary for Adventurers that has some of the destinations listed below plus Glenwood Springs, Grand Junction, Fruita, and Colorado National Monument.
Best Time For A Colorado Road Trip from Denver to Durango
The 7 Day itinerary that I have below is really best in Summer or Fall once the snow has melted off the trails and all the roads are open. The 5-Day itinerary could be done any time of the year however, it’s Colorado, which means when it comes to weather, expect the unexpected!
I personally think early Fall is the best time to take a road trip through Colorado. Fall colors are in full effect, especially in the area between Denver and Durango. Plus, the temperature is still warm enough for hikes, there’s usually no snow on the ground (no promises on this one though), and it’s much less crowded than summer.
If you are planning a trip to Colorado, be sure to check out all our related Colorado blogs linked at the bottom of this blog.
We travel the US in our RV and are always looking for the best RV parks, campgrounds, and free camping opportunities so I’ve also included a few campground recommendations for this Colorado Road Trip from Rocky Mountain National Park to Mesa Verde National Park.
If you can get a site inside Rocky Mountain NP for the first night, that would be the best. Otherwise, choose any site in Estes Park so you are close to the entrance this way you can maximize your day in the park or enter before 5 a.m.
7-Day Colorado Road Trip Map + Drive Times
Denver Airport to Estes Park: 76 miles
Estes Park to Lake Granby: 58 miles
Lake Granby to Frisco: 75 miles
Frisco to Twin Lakes: 51 miles
Twin Lakes to Aspen: 37 miles
Aspen to Crested Butte: 103 miles
Crested Butte to Black Canyon of the Gunnison: 89 miles
Black Canyon of the Gunnison to Ouray: 48 miles
Ouray to Durango: 70 miles
Durango to Mesa Verde NP: 35 miles
Colorado Road Trip Day 1: Denver to Rocky Mountain National Park
There is so much to see at Rocky Mountain National Park that you really could spend more than a day here but if you only have one day, I recommend starting at Bear Lake and doing one of these hikes and then driving up and over Trail Ridge Road toward Grand Lake, Kremmling, and then to Silverthorne.
Note that driving over Trail Ridge Road requires going over Berthoud Pass which has a lot of steep grades and switchbacks. Also, you may want to drive the gravel Old Fall Road instead of Trail Ridge Road, however, vehicles over 25 feet or pulling trailers are prohibited on Old Fall Road.
To get into Rocky Mountain NP from May 28 to October 11 you need a timed entry permit. There’s one for all of the park, including Bear Lake Corridor, and one that excludes this area. You really do want to try and get the Bear Lake permit since that is the best part of the park.
You can purchase one here the day prior at 5 p.m. If you can’t get one, reservations are not required on the Bear Lake Road Corridor before 5 am or after 6 pm.
Related Blog: Guide To Rocky Mountain National Park Entry Permit & Reservation System
If you have an extra day and the weather is good, you may want to hike Longs Peak or if that is too challenging, we really loved the hike to Chasm Lake that starts from the same trailhead.
I’d camp at the national forest campgrounds by Grand Lake. There’s a good chance of some incredible wildlife sightings here. If you need full hookups then try Granby or Kremmling. If you prefer BLM, just south of Kremmling has a lot of options.
Related Blog: Best Hikes Rocky Mountain National Park
Colorado Road Trip Day 2: Summit County & Breckenridge Area
This is one of our favorite areas for hikes and fall colors. There are no shortages of hikes in the Frisco, Silverthorne, Dillon, Copper Mountain, and Breckenridge area, otherwise known as Summit County. If you want to see fall colors, then the 2nd and 3rd weeks of September are the best time to visit.
Related Blog: Best Fall Hikes in Breckenridge
My favorite hike in the area is Eccles Pass to Meadow Creek Trail. Be sure to stop by Peak One Brewery for a cold one after that hike.
If you want a nice stroll surrounded by fall colors, walk the Blue River Bike Path in Silverthorne. Park by Red Buffalo cafe so you can grab a warm drink to take with you too!
Related Blog: 24 Things To Do in Silverthorne
For a gorgeous drive, head south from Copper Mountain, stopping in the gold rush town of Leadville, then head west at Twin Lakes and drive Independence Pass to Aspen. I like camping at the national forest campground on Twin Lakes. There is also an RV park in Twin Lakes and BLM land nearby. If you choose to stay longer in Summit County, Peaks One campground is great for dry camping or Tiger Run for full hookups.
Love Mountain Biking? We also have a Guide to Mountain Biking in Breck!
Colorado Road Trip Day 3: Maroon Bells or Great Sand Dunes NP
Maroon Bells is gorgeous to see with fall colors. We backpacked the Four Pass Loop a few years ago and loved it! Like Rocky Mountain NP, getting to the Maroon Bells trailhead requires a parking and shuttle permit up until October 24th.
If you don’t want the hassle of permits to see Maroon Bells, then head south from Breckenridge to see Great Sand Dunes National Park and then west to Crested Butte. Fall is actually the best time to visit here.
When traveling to Crested Butte from Maroon Bells, you’ll get to drive Kebler Pass. It’s a mile dirt road that is fine for 2wd vehicles (we drove it in our 30′ class C RV but I personally wouldn’t have towed my 42′ fifth wheel over it).
There are lots of nice national forest campgrounds scattered between Aspen and Crested Butte. I like Lost Lake Campground which is about half way across Kebler Pass. It’s first-come-first-serve and at the start of a really nice trail, Cliff Creek Trail 840 to Beckwith Pass Trail 842.
Colorado Road Trip Day 4: Crested Butte
Crested Butte is one of my favorite towns in Colorado and there is so much to do here that you may want two days to enjoy both the town and the nature. I also love that there is a ton of free camping near Crested Butte along Washington Gulch Road.
Related Blog: Things To Do in Crested Butte
Day 5: Black Canyon of the Gunnison NP & Ouray
On your way to Ouray, it’s worth the detour to drive the 7-mile long South Rim in Black Canyon of the Gunnison and hike out to a few of the 12 lookouts. I also love to camp here!
Ouray is my other favorite town in Colorado. It’s quaint downtown, scrap cookies at Mouse’s, hot springs, perimeter trail, off-roading, and now, the Via Ferrata make it a fun destination and a great place to spend multiple days.
Related Blog: 8 Reasons to Visit Ouray
Bonus Day: Telluride
Telluride is worth the detour if you love adventure and want to do another Via Ferrata, bag the 14er Mount Sneffels, or photograph Dallas Divide. Otherwise, if you are short on time, I’d just head down towards Durango because Silverton and the Million Dollar Highway are outstanding!
Related Blog: 7 Things to do in Telluride
Colorado Road Trip Day 6: Silverton, Million Dollar Highway, Durango
If you didn’t get a chance to explore Leadville, or did and loved it, be sure to set aside some time for Silverton. We loved renting Razors from Rock Pirates in Silverton and exploring the huge network of off-road trails. The kids loved seeing Animas Fork.
A favorite hike along the Million Dollar Highway is Castle Rock. After, be sure to grab the most delicious burgers ever at James Ranch Harvest Grill.
Durango is most famous for its Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. There are a ton of great restaurants along Durango’s historic Main Street and then, take a stroll along the Animas River.
Colorado Road Trip Day 7: Mesa Verde National Park
I have to admit that this is not one of my favorite national parks, however, it is something you should absolutely see once in your life. Especially now when preserving our nations history is so important!
The nice thing is that you don’t need reservations to visit Mesa Verde NP. Be sure to hike the Cliff Palace Loop and explore the history along the Mesa Top Loop Road. Check the national park services for more things to do in Mesa Verde in Fall.
5-Day Colorado Road Trip Map + Drive Times for Rocky Mountain NP to Great Sand Dunes NP to Mesa Verde NP (Good for Winter)
For a totally different experience, head south from Denver stopping in Colorado Springs, Cañon City, the Great Sand Dunes and then west to Durango and Mesa Verde National Park.
Denver Airport to Estes Park: 76 miles
Estes Park to Colorado Springs: 138 miles
Colorado Springs to Cañon City: 44 miles
Cañon City to Great Sand Dunes: 147 miles
Great Sand Dunes to Mesa Verde: 254 miles
Colorado Road Trip Day 1: Denver to Rocky Mountain NP
If you are doing this road trip in winter, know that a lot of Rocky Mountain NP will be closed. That doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot of rad things to do in Rocky Mountain NP in winter.
From snowshoeing, fat biking, and cross country skiing to ice climbing, ice fishing, snowmobiling, sledding, and tubing, there’s something fun for everyone even in winter at Rocky Mountain NP!
Colorado Road Trip Day 2: Rocky Mountain NP to Colorado Springs
Our top picks for Colorado Springs include Garden of the Gods, Manitou Springs (be sure to tackle the challenging & rewarding 1 mile strenuous hike up Manitou Incline), and Cripple Creek. With weather permitting, be sure to also ride the cog train up to the top of Pike’s Peak. There’s also the US Olympic Training Center, US Air Force Academy, Cheyenne State Park, Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, and Old Colorado City that are popular tourist attractions if you are looking to stay here longer.
Colorado Road Trip Day 3: Colorado Springs to Cañon City
I chose to add Cañon City as an extra day’s stop because I love it here so much because of the epic rock climbing at Shelf Road. Even if you aren’t a rock climber but love adventure, you’ll find some of the best mountain biking in the US here.
There is also a ton of hiking and a paved bike path in town, but what brings most people to this area is the famous Royal Gorge Bridge & Park, which is home to America’s highest suspension bridge and zip line. Adrenaline junkies will also love getting to ride the World’s Scariest Skycoaster!
If you are traveling in an RV, be sure to camp at Mountain View RV Resort, one of our favorite campgrounds in the US! I love staying here in our 42′ fifth wheel because the sites are huge, each site has a concrete slab and picnic table, which helps keep my RV clean, and it lives up to its name with epic views of the mountains and great views of sunrise & sunset!
Colorado Road Trip Day 4: Cañon City to Great Sand Dunes NP
Add in a third national park on this Colorado road trip and experience the tallest sand dunes in North America at Great Sand Dunes National Park. Start off with some sand boarding, hike up Star Dune, tallest dune in America, explore Medano Creek and jump in the river if it’s warm out, check out the waterfall at Zapata Falls Recreation Area, or drive your 4WD vehicle on Medano Pass Primitive Road to Sand Pit or Castle Creek. If you can, spend the night camping here to experience some of the best star gazing ever!
Colorado Road Trip Day 5: Great Sand Dunes NP to Mesa Verde NP
Last, head to Mesa Verde, maybe making time to stop and explore the wild west town of Durango. See 7 day itinerary for more or read our Durango blog.