Friday, June 25, 2021

The Ultimate Colorado Road Trip

 Go on the ultimate roadtrip through Colorado's majestic lands. You'll cross state borders, indulge in buttery cinnamon rolls and listen for the roar of a waterfall. Let me know if you've done any of these activities — xoxo darling, Hayden.

Day 1: Denver to Alamosa

234 miles, 3.75 hours

Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve

Rising out of the land like a mirage, these dunes are massive. With the backdrop of snow-peaked mountains, the whole setting seems a bit unreal. One second you're driving along a fairly flat road, and then bam, there they are. If you visit during May, you will probably see Medano Creek, a mystic water source that flows directly through the dunes. Bring some water shoes to walk across.
Pro-Tip: Go on a weekday and don't go during a holiday. You'll have to hike quite a distance from a parking space on the side of the road to the dunes, and that will tire you out. 
Cost: $25 per vehicle, Hours: 24/7

Zapata Falls

Just back down the highway from the dunes is a turn-off on a pretty terrible dirt road that climbs to the trailhead. The short hike is a bit steep but offers excellent views of the valley below, and once you get to the falls, it's nice and shady. To see the falls, you have to get wet and step on slippery rocks. The hike to the beginning is really easy, but we didn't even make it to see them because of the crowd and slip risks. 
Pro-Tip: Go when it isn't crowded in order to see the falls.
Cost: Free

Breweries: Square Peg Brewerks & The Colorado Farm Brewery

Square Peg is right in downtown Alamosa and has a cozy taproom (plus some outdoor seating). The rosemary kolsch and the grapefruit radler are delightful. The farm brewery is a bit of a drive from downtown but worth it. You might have guessed, it's on a farm, and they make most of the ingredients for their beers on-site. It's an ideal place to watch the sun set over the valley. 

Day 2: Alamosa to Durango and Cortez

193 miles, 3.75 hours
A Note: Some of the activities on this day involve Indigenous lands. Please be respectful and recognize that these are special lands. Consider donating to the Ute Land Trust.

Breakfast: Campus Cafe

Being the place to get breakfast if you are an Adams State student or professor for many years means you have to try it, right? If you go for one thing alone, it should be the massive cinnamon roll. Buttery, gooey goodness doesn't do it justice. 

Wolf Creek Pass

Blast the iconic "Wolf Creek Pass" and make your way down one of Colorado's most dangerous mountain passes into Pagosa Springs. 

Lunch: Switchback Taco Bar

Point your car west and make your way to the adorable town of Durango. It's seriously one of my new favorites with historic charm and great architecture. Fuel up at this cute taco shop — they have plenty of outdoor seating — with tacos, queso and quesadillas. 

Mesa Verde National Park

One of my favorite nps ever. This is a classic national park with a lodge, campground, restaurants, etc. And the biggest attraction, aside from incredible beauty, are the cliff houses. These creations were built in the 1100s and are still mostly intact! You can hike down to overlooks to peep into the homes, Cliff Palace is the largest cliff dwelling in the world. We took a tour of Long House and were completely wowed.
Pro-Tip: If you want to take a tour of one of the homes, you have to get a ticket on recreation.gov 14 days before the tour. Log on when the website opens (8am, mountain) and get them as fast as you can. When I did it, the tour I really wanted sold out instantly. You cannot go down to the dwellings without a tour. 
Cost: $30 (May 1–Oct. 31), Hours: 24/7

Dinner: WildEdge Brewing Collective OR Dolores River Brewery

Located in downtown Cortez, WildEdge is really cute. Grab a seat outside and enjoy the cool breeze while sipping something interesting (their beers are not traditional) and snacking on the spinach artichoke dip. Or head up to Dolores (18 miles north) for a pizza and drink a Noble Pils. 

Day 3: Cortez 

A Note: Some of the activities on this day involve Indigenous lands. Please be respectful and recognize that these are special lands. Consider donating to the Ute Land Trust.

Breakfast: Pippo's Cafe

Fill your belly up because it's going to be a long day of sightseeing. Pippo's is right on Main Street, and while it is tiny — you have to walk through the kitchen to get to the bathroom — they make hearty meals. 

Silver Bean Coffee

Located in an old airstream trailer that's been completely revamped, they make a mean iced latte. 

Canyons of the Ancients National Monument

This one is a bit complicated. First step, download this brochure so you can get a feel for how the monument works. There is a museum, but it was closed when we visited so I can't speak to it. You should visit the Sand Canyon Pueblo (a massive structure that sits on the edge of a canyon), Lowry Pueblo (the most preserved with informational panels) and the Painted Hand Pueblo (a short hike to a tower that sits on the edge of a cliff). The monument contains the highest known archaeological site density in the U.S., so it is a can't-miss. 
Cost: Free, Hours: 24/7

Hovenweep National Monument

Cross into Utah (but some of the monument is in Colorado) to what was once home to 2,500 people. It includes six prehistoric villages with amazingly intact stone structures. Take the two-mile loop trail around the edge of the canyon to see all of the structures. Be forewarned: you do have to go down to the floor and come back up the other side.
Cost: Free, Hours: Sunrise to Sunset

Dinner: Loungin' Lizard

The perfect post-hiking meal consists of happy hour beers, slow-smoked pork nachos and spicy house salads. 

Day 4: Cortez to Telluride, Ridgway, Ouray and Montrose

162 miles, 3.5 hours

Breakfast: Burger Boy Drive-In

On your way out of town, pick up a burrito — the egg, hashbrown and cheese is a trifecta of textures and flavors. 

Bridal Veil Falls

As soon as you get into town, drive south to the viewing parking lot of this massive falls. You can hike up to the adorable power station that sits atop them or you can just take a photo from the lot (hint: that's what I did). The area surrounding is so pretty, and you might even spot some other little falls around. 
Cost: Free 

Downtown Telluride

Walk the streets of the historic downtown and pop into the cute shops. I had to buy a Telluride t-shirt because I'm bougie. If you are there during a specific season, you can catch a ride on the gondola

Lunch: The Butcher & The Baker

Located in a historic, airy building, (with lots of outdoor seating options) all of the food from this place is delectable. If they have ginger cookies, get half a dozen, and you'll eat them all before the end of the day. The rotisserie chicken sandwich comes with lemon aioli and parmesan on ciabatta with homemade chips and is real good. 

Downtown Ridgway

The site where True Grit (1969) was filmed is good for a stretch-your-legs moment. Do a lap around the cute downtown where the Grammy trophies are made before getting back on the road. 

Cascade Falls Park

You can see this thundering waterfall from pretty much everywhere in Ouray, but the best place to see it is from the little hike to the base. Be forewarned: it's easy but super duper steep. 
Cost: Free

Box CaƱon Falls

The drive up to this park is worth the views — in fact, you'll see where they filmed the opening to The Ranch (Netflix) if you pay attention. Once you pay your admission fee, you'll make your way down to the loudest falls, possibly ever. It isn't a traditional waterfall, but the water pounds the sides of a rock canyon and will spray you the lower you go. 
Cost: $5, Hours: 8am-8pm

Breweries: Ouray Brewery & Red Mountain Brewing

Park and walk the main street of town and then head to the rooftop of Ouray Brewery. You'll spot the waterfall and historic buildings as you enjoy. Just down the street, Red Mountain serves classic german fair and really solid beer. We sat on the patio and people-watched.

Dinner: Colorado Boy

Some of the best pizza I've had in Colorado is at this brewery. It's a cozy little restaurant that happens to make really good beer as well. Douse your dough in the homemade hot oil and cool your mouth off with an Irish red ale.

Day 5: Montrose to Grand Junction

128 miles, 2.75 hours

Breakfast: Backstreet Bagel Company

New-York-style bagels in western Colorado? Hell yes. The Works (everything) with plain cream cheese on the back patio is the only way to begin your day. 

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

There is nothing else like Black Canyon. The sheer rock walks of this area see so little light that they appear black. At certain points, the walls almost touch, but you can still hear the river way down below. Drive to the far end of the South Rim Road and make your way back to the entrance. Hike the Warner Point Trail (it's a bit long but worth the views) as your first introduction to the park. 
Cost: $30

Grand Mesa Scenic Byway

Make your way across the world's largest flat-topped mountain (yes, you read that right). Bring a picnic lunch and stop off at Cobbett Lake (US Forest Services Visitor Center) before heading to Lands End Observatory. These old cabins sit on the very edge of the mesa and give excellent views of the surrounding area.

Breweries: Palisade Brewing Company & Monumental Beer Works

Post drive sample a Laid Back Blonde Ale with a delicious sandwich or drive on to Grand Junction for a Rim Rock Red in Monumental's modern taproom. 

Dinner: TacoParty

TP is a hipster paradise. The tacos are yummy, and they have creamy soft-serve (the key lime is excellent). Be forewarned, they only have bottled drinks (yes, Grand Junction is basically a desert, so you will come away thirsty), and the soft-serve machine turns off at a certain point in the evening, so you'll have to get it pre-packaged after that. 

Day 6: Grand Junction to Moab and back

274 miles, 5 hours

Breakfast: Spoons Bistro & Bakery

Located in the bottom of Hope Hospice, this cafe's profit goes entirely to HH's mission. So, you can feel good about eating there. They have a beautiful outdoor area, and the food is solid — perfect for a long day of activities. 

Canyonlands National Park

Enter through the Islands in the Sky entrance and make your way to Mesa Arch. It's a little hike down to it but worth it for the views. Candlestick Tower Overlook and the Grand View Point Overlook are must-see's. Basically, Canyonlands is canyons inside of canyons. I had no idea what to expect, and it was one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen. 
Pro-Tip: Plan to do this before Arches — you'll let the crowd die down. 
Cost: $30, Hours: 24/7

Arches National Park

This is one of the most known national parks in the U.S. You'll see the Delicate Arch on Utah's license plates, and the park is just Americana in a nutshell. You can drive around to most of them — some require a hike. If you want to do Delicate Arch, it is quite a hike, and you will have to wait in line for your photo (most likely). We did Pine Tree Arch and Tunnel Arch — and they were right, you'll need a ton of water.
Pro-Tip: This park fills up incredibly fast. Follow their Twitter account, so you know when the gates are open/closed. I suggest planning to go after 11am on a weekday. 
Cost: $30, Hours: 24/7

Colorado National Monument

Rim Rock Drive is ideal at sunset. The way the light hits the red rocks is spectacular. There are tons of overlooks to stop off on, some hikes and a few tunnels crafted out of the rock. It feels so western and is the ideal way to end the day. 
Cost: $25, Hours: 24/7

Brewery: Ramblebine Brewing

End the day with a nightcap Living Easy Living Free kolsch in downtown GJ. 

Day 7: Grand Junction to Dinosaur, Craig, Meeker and Rifle

285 miles, 5 hours

Breakfast: Dream Cafe

This little diner has a patio perfect for people-watching as the morning sunshine shifts through the trees. The pancakes are excellent, and you should end your meal with a cinnamon roll. 

Dinosaur National Monument

Warning! You can only see the dinosaur fossils if you go to the Utah side of the monument. The Colorado side just has jaw-dropping scenery. This NP is amazing because no one is there (most days), so you have the place to yourself. Drive to the end of the road to the Canyon Overlook Trailhead. If you only do one thing, it should be this hike. You'll walk out onto a peninsula where one side is the river, and the other is these amazing mesas. 
Cost: Free on the CO side

Brewery: Yampa Valley Brewing Company

Get on the road and drive to Craig for a Sandhill Crane Red. The taproom is located in the cute downtown and is super modern. Find a spot in the garden or on the balcony for the optimal experience.

Dinner: The Fork

On any given night, this is the place to be in Meeker. The menu switches up fairly frequently, but everything is delicious. Get a seat outside and watch as the clouds turn from cotton-ball white to dusty pink. 

Day 8: Rifle to Glenwood Springs and Vail

88 miles, 1.5 hours

Breakfast: Whistle Pig Coffee Stop & Cafe

Walk the streets of downtown Rifle (the post office is adorable) to breakfast. The plate comes with all the essentials, and the coffee is well made. 

Glenwood Hot Springs

Plant yourself in the world's largest hot springs pool in downtown Glenwood. Your muscles will feel brand new by the time you leave, and you'll have participated in a bit of history (the pool has been around since 1888). 

Lunch: Slope & Hatch

Post-swim is when you are at your hungriest. Indulge in flavorful beef barbacoa tacos and a margarita at S&H. 

Brewery: Casey Brewing

This is probably one of the best breweries I've been to in Colorado. Their Czech Pilsner does not mess around. I desperately need them to can it so I can buy it. It would be my beer of the summer if I had easy access...which might be dangerous. 

Downtown Glenwood Springs

Take a stroll and pop into the shops of this classic-western town before heading to Vail.

Betty Ford Alpine Gardens

Take a stroll through mountain-air soaked gardens, by babbling brooks and a roaring river. It's a very peaceful place where you can contemplate life or take a bunch of photos of flowers. 

Day 9: Vail to Leadville, Twin Lakes, Breckenridge and back

163 miles, 3.5 hours

Breakfast: Northside Grab and Go

Pick up some freshly made donuts before you start your day. The Boston cream is excellent.

Shopping: Melanzana Outdoor Clothing

This place is so cool! They make outdoor clothing and sell it all under one roof in downtown Leadville. The stuff is super lightweight, and the colors are fun. 

National Mining Hall of Fame & Museum

I knew absolutely nothing about mining before I went into this museum. I now know probably more than I would ever need to know. BUT, it is really fun. They have interactive exhibits where you walk through caves to understand how miners lived. If you have time, take the Matchless Mine tour to see where my favorite gal Baby Doe Tabor lived and died. 
Cost: $12, Hours: 9am-4:45pm

Twin Lakes View Point

Turn off at the White Star Campground and drive all the way to the end of the road. You'll end up at the point of an almost-isthmus between the two lakes. The view is immaculate and worth the drive.  

Lunch: High Mountain Pies

Located just off the main drag in Leadville, this pizza place makes great pizzas at intense altitude. Grab a seat outside because the inside is tiny. 

Brewery: Two Mile Brewery

Two blocks over, Leadville's first brewery makes a real good lager. 

Isak Heartstone

Drive to Breck and take a little jaunt to this friendly wooden troll. It's perfect for all ages because who doesn't want a photo with him?

Brewery: Breckenridge Brewing

Grab a meal or snack and sip some classic Breck brews. The beer is made in Littleton (and is beautiful), but there's something about going to the original that feels right. 

Downtown Breckenridge

Walk the streets and pop into the shops. My absolute favorite is Marigolds Farmhouse Funk & Junk — they have the cutest bandanas. 
Pro-Tip: Get some cookies from Mountain Top Cookie Shop and add them to a scoop from Higgles Ice Cream.

Brewery: Vail Brewing Company

Head back to Vail for a Working Class Hero English Mild, it's so good! 

Day 10: Vail to Georgetown, Idaho Springs and Denver

99 miles, 2 hours

Breakfast: The Little Diner

Wake up bright and early and get to Lionshead Village for a dutch baby pancake at this diner. 
Pro-Tip: You'll have to park in the Lionshead Parking garage and walk, and it can be a bit confusing, so put Google Maps to walking in order to find the restaurant.

Vail Village

Drive down to Vail Village (yet again, park in the parking garage) and explore the town of Vail. Well, it isn't really a town, more like a bunch of buildings that look like lodges with shops and restaurants. Be forewarned: The area was all built around the same time (and then rebuilt), so there isn't that classic western street, and it doesn't feel like a town. 

Lunch: Cabin Creek Brewing

Before your train reservation (see below) have lunch on the scenic patio at Cabin Creek. It sits right on a lake and is the perfect place to guzzle a few beers. 10/10 recommend the Thai Chili wings with a Argentine Czech amber. 

Georgetown Loop Railway

This open-air train goes to neighboring Silver Plume and back. It's a leisurely 1.25 hour trip through some of the Rockies. You'll chug along roaring rivers, soaring pines and old railroad equipment. Get off at Silver Plume and check out the little museum that has more historic trains. 
Pro-Tip: Book your tickets before you go. You'll pick them up at will-call! 
Cost: $28.95

Brewery: Guanella Pass Brewing

Back in downtown Georgetown (which is absolutely adorable, and you should walk along the streets because it has one of the highest densities of Victorian architecture), Guanella Pass has a bunch of classic beers for post-train bliss. 

Dinner: Westbound & Down Brewing

In the top three of my favorite breweries in Colorado, Westbound & Down just kills it. Their beers are delightful, and the food is *chef's kiss*. Plus, it's so nice inside both the restaurant and bar. And now they have a general store where you can get coffee and the best smelling hand sanitizer. 

Downtown Idaho Springs

Walk off your dinner stupor and pop into the cute shops of this mountain hamlet. I love taking people here because it feels quintessential Colorado, and it's close to Denver. 

Add-Ons:

Day 11: Idaho Springs to Grand Lake

69 miles, 1.5 hours

Breakfast: Main Street Restaurant

Go for the hearty breakfast but stay for the cinnamon swirl toast — it's a delight. 

Snack: Rollin' Street Bakery

On your way to Grand Lake, pop by this Czech bakery in Winter Park. You can get a chimney cake filled with creamy vanilla ice cream — amazing. 

Grand Lake Marina

Rent a boat and speed along this iconic mountain lake. You'll fly by amazing lake houses and just bask in the incredible views of this area. 

Snacks: Polly's Sweet Shop & Miyauchi's Snack Bar

What is a vacation town without a bunch of ice cream? You have to get an orange+vanilla cone at Polly's and a lavender-white-chocolate cone from Miyachi's before walking around downtown. 

Trail Ridge Marina

Book a pontoon boat for sunset on Shadow Mountain Lake. We love bringing a speaker and jamming out while we jump into the frigid cold water. 10/10 recommend bringing a big float like this one

Day 12: Grand Lake to Estes Park

46 miles, 1.5 hours

Rocky Mountain National Park

One of the most visited national parks in the United States, RMNP is a mountain classic. Drive along Trail Ridge Road (the highest continuously paved road in the U.S.) and stop off to hike whatever you're feeling. You'll probably see elk — do not approach — birds and other cute creatures. If you're feeling it, camp in one of the many campgrounds or bring a picnic. There's truly so much to do, you just have to pick what's right for you. 
Cost: $25, Hours: 24/7

Estes Park Aerial Tramway

Head up a mountain on a European-style cable car built and designed by Robert Heron. It opened in 1955 and has been transporting people to vistas of Estes Park ever since. The cars can be a little tight so go at an off-time if you're claustrophobic. 
Cost: $14, Hours: 9am-6pm

Brewery: Lumpy Ridge Brewing Co.

End the day at this converted gas station with a Sun Lion Pale Ale (it's a bit tropical). 

Dessert: You Need Pie

You truly do need a slice of this diner's key lime pie. Y'all know I'm from Florida, and even I think it's 10/10. 

Day 13: Estes Park to Boulder and Denver

65 miles, 1.5 hours

Breakfast: Chautauqua Dining Hall

Have brunch on the porch of a stately home-looking building. Chautauqua itself is a fascinating history lesson, but the Belgian waffle and breakfast plate need your attention. 

Flatirons

Take a post-brunch walk up to the base of the first flatiron. These mountains probably look different than anything you've ever seen before. It's quite a steep walk, so be prepared to take lots of photos (aka breathing breaks). 

Pearl Street

Continue to get your steps along Pearl Street, a pedestrian mall jam-packed with cute shops. My favorite? Peppercorn — it has a huge cookbook collection that makes me want to buy all of 'em every time I'm in. 

Lunch: The Boulder Dushanbe Tea House

Given as a gift by Tajikistan to the city of Boulder, this is one of the most gorgeous buildings in Colorado. Painted walls and ceilings come together in a roof with skylights while plants and tables where you sit criss-cross-apple-sauce are in the corners. Their chai is to die for.

Celestial Seasonings

You've probably heard of Celestial Seasonings — their Sleepy Time Tea is iconic. Take a tour of this massive tea empire, and you'll get to sample tea, get some free bags and spot prairie dogs in the parking lot.

Brewery: Upslope Brewing

Their craft lager and citra pale ale are delicious. If you aren't into beer, the spiked Snow Melt (hard seltzer) is super popular.

Day 14: Denver 

Breakfast: The Cookery at Myrtle Hill

Located on a precious street (there's a paper store next door!!), this place's croque madam and ratatouille are phenomenal. 

Denver Art Museum

This angular building is full of classic art, modern art and everything in between. They also get amazing traveling shows — Degas, Dior, etc. Be sure to check out the textile section because fashion is art too!

Lunch: Mercantile Dining and Provision

Located in historic Union Station, Mercantile makes a mean fried chicken bahn mi, think crisp bread, crunchy chicken, spicy sauce, snappy veggies. The restaurant is also super cute inside, with tile floors, high ceilings and a great vibe.

Black American West Museum & Heritage Center

This museum near Five Points is worth the visit. It's in a historic house (what once was the home of Dr. Justina Ford, Denver's first Black female doctor) and is packed to the gills with information about Denver's most famous Black citizens. 

Dinner: Linger

Located in an old mortuary, Linger is a big player in the Denver restaurant scene. Get a seat on the rooftop because the views of the skyline are incredible. The menu is an eclectic mix of African, Asian, European and more. Get the fried chicken bao bun — the bun is perfectly fluffy — and some pad thai that is incredibly flavorful. 

Dessert: Dang! Soft Serve

Dang is a soft-serve haven. Think gourmet flavors in soft-serve form...something you can rarely get. It's in Park Hill, it's brightly colored, and even the vegan flavors (peppermint) are fantastically yummy.

Drinks: B&GC

In order to get into this speakeasy, you have to text a certain phone number at a certain time for a reservation. Then you make your way down a dark alley in Cherry Creek, ring a gold doorbell and then wind yourself through the bowels of a hotel. But then you emerge into this gorgeous bar that is 1920s meets modern times. The drinks are delightful, but it's mainly about the journey. 

Get more Denver ideas >>
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