The Ultimate 10 Day Colorado Road Trip
The Ultimate 10 Day Colorado Road Trip
Denver, Buena Vista, Great Sand Dunes National Park, Durango, Ouray, Montrose, Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Grand Junction, Glenwood Springs
Clocking in at 14.58 hours and 810 miles if you circle back around to Denver, this is one of the most thrilling road trips to see all that Colorado has to offer. From hot springs, sand dunes, 14,000 foot peaks, and as many hikes as your heart desires.
This ultimate Colorado road trip starts out in Denver, heading southwest toward Buena Vista. ‘BV’ as the locals call it because no one actually knows the correct pronunciation of Buena Vista (some say Beyuna, some say Bwenna) has everything a Colorado mountain town could ever offer. With the Arkansas River running north to south through the town you have rafting opportunities a-plenty. There are two developed hot spring resorts near BV as well, Cottonwood and Mount Princeton. You can also find AirBnbs with private hot springs like the Holloway and Merrifield Cabins. Cottonwood Pass runs east to west and has trailheads around every corner, one of my favorites being Lost Lake. When you’re done hiking and rafting, you can head into town and stop at House Rock Kitchen for the best bowls and burgers in town.
From Buena Vista you head south on 285 toward Great Sand Dunes National Park. This is a great spot to see plenty of wildlife and climb the tallest sand dune in North America, Star Dune! In runoff season, you can cool your feet in Medano Creek, just be sure to bring some big repellent (I recommend DEET free Proven!) because the mosquitos are actually INSANE here, and often the nearby convenience store is out. If you have 4x4 clearance and are comfortable driving up shelfy 4WD roads and you have high clearance to drive through 3-4 water foot swells, I would head up Medano pass for some great primitive camping, then wake up at sunrise to hike the 2,000+ feet up to Medano Lake! If you don’t have 4WD, nearby Zapata Falls is another great short hike to do, no matter the season.
From the Sand Dunes you head west toward Pagosa Springs! You’ll go over Wolf Creek Pass, be sure to keep an eye out for the many great pull-offs to take in the view as you climb up over the divide. If you want to stop and stretch your legs, I would recommend Treasure Falls just as you get down the other side of the pass, before you get into Pagosa Springs. In Pagosa Springs, you can stop and grab lunch at The Peak Deli, or stop at the hot Springs Resort in town.
From Pagosa you’re going to keep heading west toward Durango Colorado. While I haven’t spent much time in Durango, there is still a ton to see and do here. You can do a quick day detour over to Mesa Verde National Park, or enjoy some of the developed hot springs in town. The Durango + Silverton train also leave from downtown so you could also take it up to Silverton instead of driving! But if you do want to drive, you just head north on 550 toward Silverton. I could give you an entire list of things to do on this part of the San Juan Skyway but for now, I would say just do some research if you want to explore! You have everything from day hikes, backpacking trips, primitive hot springs, cliff jumping, 4x4 roads. Everything your outdoor adventure spirit could want, you can find here.
From Silverton you’re going to keep heading north over Red Mountain Pass down into Ouray! While famous for the Ouray Ice Fest that happens in the winter, Ouray is a hiking destination in its own right during the summer! If you have 4x4 clearance you can head up to Yankee Boy Basin, or if you’re SUPER comfortable and confident, you can head up Imogene Pass! If you’re looking for somewhere to stay off grid in Ouray, check out this catered glamping tent near Imogene Pass on Hipcamp. One of my favorite places I’ve ever camped in Colorado. The drive up the road was not fun or easy so I highly recommend that you only drive it if you have experience with 4x4. However, the host Eric and his dogs (!!!) actually bring you food, which when you’ve spent the entire day hiking around all the mountain passes nearby, is a great reward! If you don’t have 4x4 clearance and still want to have a comfortable stay close to Ouray, I recommend staying at this Fun Cabin on a Horse Sanctuary. The woman who runs it, Alice, is the sweetest human I’ve ever stayed with and she can show you all about how she takes care of her horses, and the mustang that she saved from a BLM roundup a decade ago! Other fun things to do in Ouray include Box Canyon Falls (a small fee) and Bear Creek Falls (a small turnout just south of town on Red Mtn Pass). On your way out of Ouray to Ridgeway you can also stop at Orvis Hot Spring, my favorite developed hot spring that is clothing optional and has pools from 100 degrees to 120 (called the lobster pot)!
From Ouray/Ridgeway you can detour over to the famed Telluride, or you can head north toward Montrose and stop in at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. Black Canyon sits atop a steep walled gorge that overlooks the Gunnison River. There are plenty of hiking trails and a paved road on the south side of the park, or you can take the less traveled dirt road to the north side of the park.
From Montrose you head north toward Grand Junction! The town I now call home is famed for Colorado National Monument that sits to the southwest of the city and has roads and trails that wind in and out over the canyon. Grand Junction is a one stop shop for anything outdoors. We are most known for our mountain bike trails (if you’re a beginner like me, I recommend Rustlers Loop in Fruita). To the east is Grand Mesa, the largest flat top mesa in the world and home to hundreds of different lakes and trails. Besides the hundreds of different hiking trails, one of my favorite things to do in Grand Junction is head to the Little Book Cliffs Wild Horse Area to see, you guessed it, wild horses! When you’re done hiking, head to one of the many different wineries around the city of Palisade, stop in at Pressed for a CBD latte and some sweets from Sweet Kiwi Cookies, or head over to Fruita for some of the best pizza at Hot Tomato!
From Grand Junction you’re going to head back to Denver on i-70. Keep your eyes on the landscape around you and notice how it changes on the 225+ miles up and over the Rocky Mountains and back into Denver! On your way you can stop at Glenwood Springs for some great BBQ at Smoke Modern BBQ, sit in one of their hot springs or vapor caves, or take a shuttle to one of the most popular trail in Colorado, Hanging Lake. This drive will also take you through Glenwood Canyon, one of my favorite parts on all of i70. Once you get through Glenwood, you’ll start beginning the long drive through Edwards, Avon, and Vail before you start heading up Vail Pass. If you’re looking for somewhere to stretch your feet, pull over at the rest stop on top of Vail Pass, you can drive ten minutes up the dirt road to Shrine Pass for a couple hour long hike and a more private view of the range, or walk down to the Black Lakes.
From Vail Pass its a straight shot back to Denver. If you’re looking for food along the way, Northside Kitchen in Avon has great donuts that are discounted in the afternoon, and Bread Bar in Silver Plume is a fun cocktail bar you can stop at if you have a designated driver. They specialize in craft cocktails and even make their own bitters from plants foraged around the state that you can buy and take home (or give as a gift!)! Beaujo’s in Idaho Springs is a busy little pizzeria you can stop at as well, be sure to try dipping your crust in the honey they offer, it is an unexpected treat!
Let me know about your favorite Colorado spots in the comments below!
And as a reminder, please follow all Leave No Trace principles when you are exploring this wild habitat! Despite what you see other people doing, do not feed wildlife, always stay on the trail, if you need to use the restroom dig a 6 inch cat hole 200+ feet away from any water source, and always pack out what you pack in (even food scraps that you might think are biodegradable, they attract wildlife and often take years to biodegrade because of the high altitude!). Have fun and enjoy!