Road Trip Tips,  Destination Guides,  National Park Travel

How to Plan an Epic Colorado National Park Road Trip

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They don’t call it Colorful Colorado without reason. Colorado is home to a wide range of ecosystems, from the dramatic alpine landscapes of the Rocky Mountains to the high plains of the east and deserts of the southwest. Add in a four-seasons climate, plenty of precipitation, and a few million years of geological history, and it’s no surprise that there are some places in Colorado that deserve national park status.

Colorado is home to four national parks:

  1. Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
  2. Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve
  3. Mesa Verde National Park
  4. Rocky Mountain National Park

These are just 10% of the 41 national parks in the West, but they cover the gamut of natural wonders. If you want to them all, you’re not alone! I’ve visited all four of Colorado’s national parks and think a road trip is a great way to do the same on one trip.

Though my family lived in Colorado for 10 years, I never called it home. Instead, I visited several times a year, and had the chance to explore the state with my local family. Mr. V and I also took our honeymoon road trip through Colorado in the summer of 2020, and visited several of these parks. Together, all of that experience inspired me to put together an itinerary where you could visit all of Colorado’s national parks on a single road trip.

If you’re ready to take a Colorado national park road trip and explore the colorful, diverse, fascinating natural sights of the Centennial State, read on. Here’s all you need to know for an epic road trip.

Through my site and especially in this national parks post, I promote travel to lands that are the traditional lands of Indigenous and First Nations peoples. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.

Colorado National Park Road Trip Overview

Colorado National Parks Road Trip Map

Before jumping into the day-by-day itinerary for this Colorado national park road trip, I wanted to give a quick overview. As you can see from the above map (which I built with Roadtrippers Plus; you can get $5 off Plus by clicking this link and using code BTR5QTP), this road trip will take you across most of the state!

Here are some other tips to help you plan this road trip:

  1. This road trip only works in the summer, between May and September. From October through April (depending on the park), several of the park roads are partially or completely closed. You won’t be able to do any of the cool stuff I recommend!
  2. With the exception of Rocky Mountain National Park, all of Colorado’s other national parks are far from services. Plan ahead – make sure you have enough food, water, and gas before setting out into any of the parks on those days.
  3. Pack and dress for weather extremes. Colorado has huge elevation changes in different parts of the state – and you’ll be crossing them each day. In the desert or high desert, which cover parts of this trip, temperatures might rise to a sweltering 100°F during the day, and drop to near-freezing at night. (I’ll add my southwest packing list link once it’s live!)

If you have other questions after reading the detailed itinerary below, let me know in the comments!

Snag an America the Beautiful Pass for This Colorado National Park Road Trip

You definitely want to snag an America the Beautiful Pass for this trip to save some money. If you don’t have one, you’ll pay $120 to access all four parks (Black Canyon of the Gunnison ($30), Great Sand Dunes ($25), Mesa Verde ($30), Rocky Mountain ($35)).

An annual America the Beautiful Pass is $80. This gets you into every national park and all fee-collecting federal lands. I got my first America the Beautiful pass in 2019 and it’s saved me a ton. You can get the America the Beautiful Pass from REI.

Read my full review of why the America the Beautiful Pass is worth it.

Day 1: Denver to Estes Park

Colorado National Parks Road Trip

For the first day of your Colorado national park road trip, it’s actually a short day and includes no national parks! That’s because Rocky Mountain National Park, which is on the itinerary for tomorrow, is a bit out of the way on the pretty loop I was able to create connecting the three other Colorado national parks.

Today the goal is to get from Denver to Estes Park, which is a beautiful drive up into the Rocky Mountains. I used to visit Estes Park all the time with my family when they lived in Colorado; the town itself is fun to explore too if you have time. In particular, stroll along the main street and be sure to stop by the Stanley Hotel – the haunted inspiration for The Shining.

For dinner, I can’t recommend Nepal’s Cafe highly enough. This Nepalese restaurant is off the main street but serves some of the best momos I’ve ever had.

Day 2: Rocky Mountain National Park

  • Where to Stay: Stay a second night in your Estes Park accommodation.

As you’ll see, one day is not enough in any of Colorado’s national parks. But, since you’re trying to visit all four in a single road trip, you’ll only get a sample of each one.

Rocky Mountain is one such park that you could probably spend a lifetime exploring – there are over 300 miles of hiking trails, after all! But, with just one day, here’s what I suggest:

  • Depending on the season, catch sunrise in the park. Two popular spots are Rainbow Curve or Sprague Lake.
  • Visit the Alpine Visitor Center, which sits at nearly 12,000 feet in elevation. The drive to/from the visitor center is full of iconic pullout and photo spots.
  • Go for a hike! One great option is the hike to Nymph, Dream & Emerald Lakes. It’s 3.6 miles round trip from the Bear Lake Trailhead, but an easy-moderate hike.
  • Spot wildlife in Kawuneeche Valley. It’s common to see moose, elk, and other hoofed creatures in Rocky Mountain National Park.
  • Go stargazing. There are pullouts along Trail Ridge Road that are easy spots to see the night sky on your way out of the park after sunset.

Obviously, this barely scratches the surface, but if you try these activities, you’ll have a full day and likely be ready to plan a return trip!

Day 3: Estes Park to Grand Junction

Day #3 of this Colorado national park road trip is a driving day – it’s actually the longest day of driving during the whole itinerary. You need to backtrack a little out of the Rockies back onto the east side, then cross again on I-70 to make your way to Grand Junction.

I-70 isn’t the most stimulating, but it’s a bit better than some other parts of the interstate system (I’m lookin’ at you, 360 flat, straight miles of I-80 in Nebraska that I drove a dozen times in college…). You’ll actually pass through Vail which is a great spot to stop for lunch.

There’s nothing else planned for the day, so when you arrive in Grand Junction you can explore. Colorado National Monument is just outside of town, as are a number of wineries if that’s more your style.

Day 4: Grand Junction to Black Canyon of the Gunnison to Durango

Black Canyon of the Gunnison is the least-visited of Colorado’s four national parks, and regularly ranks among the less-visited parks in the country. I actually loved it when we visited in 2020 because there were so few other people there (even on a summer afternoon!).

It’s a 75-minute drive from Grand Junction to Black Canyon; if you’re really ambitious, you could set out to try and catch the sunrise above the canyon but it’s not necessary. You’ll be visiting the South Rim for the day; the North Rim is good for a return visit as it’s harder to reach and has fewer services.

Visiting Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

I recommend arriving by 9-10am at the latest, and plan to set out by 2-3pm so you make it to Durango before the sun sets. Here’s what to do during your two-thirds of a day here:

  • Stop by the South Rim Visitor Center. There are facilities here and a short walk takes you to Gunnison Point with its view of the namesake river and canyon.
  • Explore the pull-outs along Rim Drive Rd. These include Pulpit Rock Overlook, Devil’s Lookout (which made Mr. V pretty nervous!), and the must-see Painted Wall View.
  • Hike Cedar Point Nature Trail. This 0.66-mile out-and-back easy hike has interpretive signs and gives another incredible view of the 2250-foot-high Painted Wall.
  • If you’re up for a “real” hike, the moderate 1.5-mile out-and-back Warner Point Trail takes you out along the south rim with 360-degree views.
  • Picnic at one of the dozen+ areas along the south rim before setting back out of the park.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is known for their stargazing too and holds an Astronomy Festival each year; it doesn’t work to stay late in the park on this itinerary though! (You’ll just have to plan a return trip…)

Crossing the San Juan Mountains

Making your way south from Black Canyon of the Gunnison, you’ll pass through the mountain town of Ouray (which I want to go back and visit and write about separately…) and into the San Juan Mountains.

If you’re a mining nerd like me, you’ll love this part of the drive: there are silver mines dotting the mountainsides and tons of history. (I picked up a copy of Mines, Miners, and Much More in Durango to dive into it more!)

After driving through the mountains you’ll descend into Durango, your stop for the next two nights.

Day 5: Mesa Verde National Park

  • Total Drive Time: 40 minutes each way to/from the park
  • Where to Stay: Stay in your Durango accommodations for a second night.

It’s a short drive west from Durango to Mesa Verde National Park. Mesa Verde is an incredible geologic and ecologic formation – its name perfectly describes it as the green mesa. Ancestral Puebloan peoples were drawn to this area because of its unique combination of environment, food sources, and defensible home positions, which is why they built their dwellings right into the cliffs of the mesa.

Visiting Mesa Verde National Park

It takes a fair amount of time to drive the long mesa from end to end, so give yourself the whole day to explore it all. There are also two parts of Mesa Verde: Chapin Mesa and Wetherill Mesa. With only one day, I recommend sticking to Chapin Mesa, and here’s what to do:

  • Stop by the Mesa Verde Visitor & Research Center where you can learn more about how the mesa formed and the people who called it home – then disappeared, abandoning their cliff dwellings nearly 1,000 years ago.
  • Head out onto Chapin Mesa, and stop at the Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum.
  • View nearby Spruce Tree House from the overlooks (the site itself is closed due to rock falls).
  • If you have the energy and it’s not too hot yet, Petroglyph Point Trail is a great 2.4-mile loop hike with fantastic archaeological sites.
  • Make your way onto the Mesa Top Loop (one of two sections of Chapin Mesa) and stop by the pit houses and Sun Palace.
  • Next drive the Cliff Palace Loop, with a stop at the namesake famous cliff dwelling. There’s a picnic area here for lunch too.
    • If you’re able to arrange an afternoon ranger-led hike into this site, it’s 1000% worth it. (This is still on my bucket list!)
  • Explore other sites including Balcony House and the Far View Sites as you make your way back out of the park. There are a number of great overlooks too, if you want to watch the sunset from somewhere like Park Point Overlook.

There’s still a whole other section of the park to explore (Wetherill Mesa), so don’t be surprised if you want to plan a return trip to Mesa Verde too!

Day 6: Durango to Great Sand Dunes National Park

While today has a bit of driving, I recommend combining it with your visit to Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve. The drive is too short to take up the full day, and Great Sand Dunes can be done in a half-day. Here’s how to do it:

  • After making the 3.5-hour drive east from Durango to Great Sand Dunes, you’ll want to start exploring. Stop at Oasis Store on the way to the park entrance to rent sandboards.
  • Once you’re in the park, start with lunch. There are a number of picnic areas along Madano Creek and the main road, so drive up and find an empty spot.
  • Next, head back to the Great Sand Dunes Visitor Center where you can get oriented and learn about conditions on the dunes that day.
  • If the day is hot, you’ll need to pass the time to let the dunes cool down (up to 150°F!). In this case, Montville Nature Trail is a good 0.5-mile loop or Wellington Ditch Trail can work if you’re looking for more distance.
  • After the sand begins to cool, it’s time for dune hiking and sandboarding! You can hike and sandboard on any dune that doesn’t have vegetation. From the main parking area, it’s a 1-1.5 mile hike into the dunes to find a good spot.
  • Great Sand Dunes is an excellent spot for stargazing with little development in the area. The National Park Service has tips on planning a stargazing trip onto the Dunes.

And with that you’ve visited all four Colorado national parks in one road trip! It’s time to return to your accommodation for the night.

Day 7: Great Sand Dunes to Denver

Colorado National Parks Road Trip
  • Total Drive Time: 4 hours
  • Where to Stay: None, unless you need another night in Denver. (Refer to my suggestion above!)

Your final day is a four-hour drive from Great Sand Dunes back to Denver to return your rental car and head home. It’s a nice drive up the eastern side of the Rockies; you can break it up with a stop in Colorado Springs to visit the Garden of the Gods.

And there you have it – an epic seven-day road trip across colorful Colorado and visiting all four of the state’s national parks (and many other natural wonders too!).

Do you have questions about this Colorado national park road trip? Let me know in the comments!

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I was born on the East Coast and currently live in the Midwest – but my heart will always be out West. I lived for 15 years in Alaska, as well as four years each in California and Washington. I share travel resources and stories based on my personal experience and knowledge.

15 Comments

  • JP

    Thank you for the great 7-day itinerary to visit Colorado’s NPs! I’m wondering if you happen to have any suggestions on how one could build upon this itinerary with an additional 3 days (i.e., 10 days instead of 7)? The goal would be to take in additional beautiful scenery (e.g., state parks perhaps? other scenic areas/drives perhaps?, etc.). Thank you for any insights or suggestions you might have.

    • Valerie

      Great question! Here’s what I would do for a 10-day Colorado national park road trip itinerary:

          Day 1: Denver to Great Sand Dunes
          Day 2: Great Sand Dunes to Durango
          Day 3: Mesa Verde National Park
          Day 4: Durango to Moab
          Day 7: Moab to Grand Junction
          Day 8: Grand Junction to Black Canyon of the Gunnison to Estes Park
          Day 9: Rocky Mountain National Park
          Day 10: Estes Park to Denver

      I hope that helps!

  • JP

    Thank you for your prompt response. A couple of years ago, we were fortunate enough to visit the Utah NPs. We greatly enjoyed that trip (and highly recommend those NPs!). If one were to add three days to your above 7- day itinerary for Colorado’s NPs, any thoughts on where you’d add the days for a more leisurely-paced trip? Thanks.

    • Valerie

      I’d spend a full day in Black Canyon (and a second night in Grand Junction), as well as at least a full day in Denver either before or at the end. I hope that helps!

  • Barbara Ivanko

    Hi! Great guide , I am following it as we speak to plan a summer trip. Question: what is the reason for stopping for the night in Grand Junction, rather than just driving 6 hours to lodging near Black Canyon?

    • Valerie

      You certainly could do that, Barbara! I wanted to keep the day shorter and Grand Junction has some fun things to offer too, but what you suggest is definitely a good option.

  • MT

    Hi Valerie! Thanks so much for sharing your advise and your adventures! We are flying in at 7:00am into Denver and are planning on spending 1 full day in Estes Park/Rocky NP. Due to the first 2 days melding into 1, we are thinking that we might add in Arches NP after we get to Grand Junction. We are unsure if we are only going to do a day trip for Arches or stay the night there and then return to Grand Junction to Black Canyon of the Gunnison to Durango. Just looking for advise if you think that is the best way to do it. Thanks! M

  • Kate

    Your itinerary sounds great! We’ll be driving to Colorado from Gallup. We’re only going to Mesa Verde, Great Sand Dunes and Black Canyon of the Gunnison. Is one route (clockwise or counterclockwise) preferable? Hoping to keep driving time to 4-5 hours. We’ll be heading to the Grand Canyon when we leave Colorado.

    • Valerie

      Thanks for reading, Kate! I’m not sure it will make a ton of sense, but counter-clockwise will make the most sense if you want to do the full loop.

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