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Colorado Road Trip: Rocky Mountain National Park to Mesa Verde National Park


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 Frisco, 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. Don’t be surprised to see moose on the trail, at trailheads, and in residential parking lots! You should never approach a moose. We’ve zigzagged our way through Colorado many times in the past 8 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 another variation road trip through Colorado, check out this Colorado Road Trip Itinerary that includes Cañon City, Royal Gorge, Breckenridge, Glenwood Springs, Rifle, Palisades, Fruita, Colorado National Monument, and Telluride.

Best Month For A Colorado Road Trip from Denver to Durango

The 7-day itinerary that I have below is 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!

Related: 5-Day Colorado Road Trip Itinerary for Summer or Fallhike these 14ers!!

I 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.

Driving Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park June 1st 2015

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 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.

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.

Hiking to Chasm Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park

Where to Stay

Estes Park: Discovery Lodge (only a 10-minute rive from RMNP), Hotel Estes, and Murphy’s River Lodge. If you stay in Estes Park, you can opt to ride the free shuttle (pick-up location is the Estes Park Visitor Center) into the park and to the trailheads instead of driving.

Where to Camp

For options camping, there are campgrounds inside Rocky Mountain National Park (we love Glacier Basin however, good luck getting a site), or in Estes Park there is Spruce Lake, Elk Meadow, and Manor RV Parks.

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.

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

Boreas Pass and Bakers Tank, Best Mountain Biking in Breckenridge
Beautiful fall views of Breckenridge while on Boreas Pass

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

Eccles Pass, Breckenridge, Colorado

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.

Where to Stay

Stay right in the center of town at Hotel Frisco or at The Grand Hotel which is right by the brewery and Whole Foods.

Where to Camp

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.

Heading to Colorado in the Winter? Check out our Complete Guides to Keystone & Breckenridge Resorts in Winter!

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.

The Maroon Bells, Backpacking the Maroon Bells Four Pass Loop
The Maroon Bells at dawn

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 the best time to visit here.

Where to Stay

Your most affordable option in Aspen is The Inn at Aspen. You may want to just push through and stay the night in Crested Butte at instead. However, if you want to spoil yourself, there is St Regis Aspen or the W Aspen.

Where to Camp

You won’t find campgrounds in Aspen.

There are tons of nice national forest campgrounds scattered between Aspen and Crested Butte. I like Lost Lake Campground which is about halfway across Kebler Pass. It’s first-come-first-serve and at the start of a nice trail, Cliff Creek Trail 840 to Beckwith Pass Trail 842.

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 wouldn’t have towed my 42′ fifth wheel over it).

Note though that if you don’t drive Kebler Pass, it is a long drive to get to Crested Butte from Highway 50 and you might just want to bypass Crested Butte and spend more time in other areas.

Kebler Pass, things to do in Crested Butte in October
Kebler Pass is dirt but passable by nearly any vehicle

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.

Related Blog: Things To Do in Crested Butte

403 Trail, things to do in Crested Butte in October
Spectacular views from the top of the 403 trail

Where to Stay

For a more affordable stay in town try Elk Mountain Lodge. For luxury accommodations in town check out Vaquera House.

At the ski resort there’s The Grand Lodge Crested Butte or condos at Mountaineer Square.

Where to Camp

There is a ton of free camping near Crested Butte along Washington Gulch Road or if you need hookups, try Crested Butte RV Park.

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: Things To Do In Ouray

Perimeter trail, Ouray, Colorado, things to do
The Perimeter Trail in Ouray provides amazing views and vantage points for very little effort

Where to Stay

Stay at the historic Beaumont Hotel & Spa (adults only), Box Canyon Lodge & Hot Springs, or Ouray Main Street Inn.

Where to Camp

We typically camp at Ridgeway State Park because it is so cheap and there is great mountain biking across the street. Plus, then it is closer to heading to Telluride.

But if you are only camping for a night or two, I’d stay at 4J+1+1 or Ouray Riverside Resort if you need hookups and at the Amphitheater, Angel Creek, or Thistledown Campgrounds if you can dry camp. There is also a lot of free camping along the Million Dollar Highway.

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 toward Durango because Silverton and the Million Dollar Highway are outstanding!

Related Blog: 7 Things to do in Telluride

Via Ferrata, things to do in Telluride in October
Telluride’s scenic and iconic Via Ferrata overlooking the orange and yellow valley of October

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.

Off roading in Silverton, San Juan Mountains
Riding a razor up California Pass near Silverton

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.

Castle Rock Hike on the Million Dollar highway, fall colors
The gorgeous Million Dollar Highway weaves its way through the San Juan range from Durango to Silverton, Ouray, and Ridgeway

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.

Animas River Trail, Durango, Colorado, things to do

Where to Stay

There are a lot of hotels to choose from in downtown Durango. Check the search box for the latest deals.

Where To Camp

There aren’t any campgrounds in town but we have stayed at Alpen Rose RV Park before and it was nice. We also just free camp along the Million Dollar Highway.

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 see once in your life. Especially now when preserving our nation’s 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 the 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 which 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 dunes in North America at Great Sand Dunes National Park. Start with some sand boarding, hike up Star Dune, the 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.

Use Skyscanner to get Cheap Flights + Car Rentals

It’s really easy to fly in and out of Denver or Colorado Springs for this road trip. We always get amazing deals on airfare and car rentals by searching Skyscanner.

7-Day Colorado Road Trip Itinerary Money-Saving Tip

Doing a 7-day Colorado road trip in a van or RV can save you tons of money by staying in campgrounds or free camping, plus you can cook your food. Check out these great RV rentals in Denver.

Pin This To Your Colorado, National Parks, & USA Road Trips Boards

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roxanne ramirez

Wednesday 26th of January 2022

Why would you post this in Jan when the roads are closed due to it being winter?


Wednesday 26th of January 2022

Well that's because a lot of people plan their summer vacations right now and they use these road trip itineraries to help know where to do and how many days they need to take off work :) And I can't write all my blogs in summer, that would be a lot of work.

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