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

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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.

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 from Denver to Durango in Fall

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.

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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.

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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 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.

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.

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Hiking to Chasm Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park

I’d camp at the national forest campgrounds by Grand Lake. There’s a good change 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. 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.

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 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.

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. 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

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

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

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

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

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 it’s way through the San Juan range form 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

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.

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!

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