We spend an inordinate amount of time discovering the little corners or Colorado, finding roads we have never driven, town we never explored, roads we didn’t know existed. Here are some of our favorite road trips from Denver.
1. Stay in a Teeny Tiny House Next to an Undiscovered National Forest
We originally intended to go to Laramie, Wyoming and then discovered Centennial, Wyoming 30 miles west of it.
Laramie, Wyoming (population 31,000, 3rd biggest city in the state) is a sleepy but warm little college town 50 miles west of Wyoming’s capitol of Cheyenne. It is well worth a stop for lunch and a spin around town before heading to Centennial, Wyoming.
What to Do: Check out University of Wyoming’s campus in Laramie. Also, wander the downtown area. Don’t miss the historic train station.
When you are ready for a dose of Mother Nature head 30 miles west to Centennial. Centennial is at the edge of the Snowy Range National Forest and is a breath of fresh air, literally and figuratively, for Coloradoans more accustomed to crowds. The masses have yet to discover the Snowy Range National Forest and as such you can have the forest, the trails, the moose, the lakes and maybe even campgrounds – to yourself.
Eat / Drink: grab a beer and a bite (or a cup of coffee) at: Coal Creek. Half of Coal Creek, in Laramie, is a coffee shop and the other half a brewery and restaurant. A few diners are also available in Centennial.
Distance from Denver: 160 miles (2 hour 40 minute drive)
How long should you go? We did it in one night, but endless outdoor opportunities await those who have time to enjoy them.
When should you go? We went in the spring. Snow was still preventing a lot of hiking. Summer and early fall would be ideal.
2. Adorable Town, Pristine Nature and Check a Bike Out from the Library
Oh, my dear La Veta, Colorado, how I love you so. While you are there (and you really must go…)
Camp: There are three campgrounds in La Veta. I fell in fast love with I Love Lucy’s campground. Although all campgrounds are predominantly for RVs, I Love Lucy’s was above and beyond the charmer. It is not only the tree shaded spots, the clean bathrooms (with flushing! toilets), hot showers and the mini stage in the middle with live music multiple times per week, but most of all the friendly folks who go out of their way to make you happy and feel at home. With just two nights at I Love Lucy’s we were offered additional camping equipment, furniture, coffee, cookies and of course, “anything they could do to make our stay more enjoyable.” I Love Lucy’s also has vintage RVs for rent!
Do: Hike & Hunt Mushrooms: The what to do during the day in La Veta list includes going to stunning Bear Lake or what my mushroom hunting husband called, “Mushroom Paradise”. If mushroom hunting is not what you fancy, easy hikes around the lake are available to soak in all the natural beauty. The $6 Day Use pass for the area also can get you a campsite at the gorgeous (and high and, as such, a bit too cold for me) Bear Lake campground.
Hike: At the end of the Bear Lake Campground is a trailhead. Take the trail up until you go through a fence (about a mile and a half). Go through the fence and you will see a trail going to the right. It goes up a small-ish hill and when you get to the top there is a gorgeous view of the Spanish Peaks. (Oh and there are mushrooms all over that trail as well.)
Fish: Blue Lake, just down the road from Bear Lake, is beautiful as well, but not quite like Bear Lake. What Blue Lake has going for it is the rumored good fishing. You can take a short hike (less than a mile) between the two lakes if you so choose.
Check out Bikes from the Library: Seriously. You can. For non-residents you just need to leave a credit card or driver’s license.
Sit and Enjoy: What makes La Veta magic to me is so few people know about it and even less have arrived to muck it up. The mountain sides are without condos, hotels or McMansions. It is simply pristine rolling greenery with the Spanish Peaks as a backdrop, and as an added bonus long rock walls/ dikes up to 17 miles in length scattered beautifully amongst the mountainside.
Scenic Drive: Can’t get enough of the scenery? Drive south on Hwy 12 (also, incidentally, the same way you get to Bear and Blue Lakes).
Get more info: 7 Reasons to Go to La Veta, Colorado Right Now
Distance from Denver: 177 miles (3 hour drive)
How long should you go? Two nights or more depending on how much hiking, fishing and enjoying you would like to do.
When should you go? Check out the snowpack at higher elevations in the spring. Summer and fall would be great.
3. See One of the Most Beautiful Towns in the World
Telluride, Colorado is not a destination for those in the Southwestern U.S. looking for a memorable escape. Telluride, Colorado is a place for people from all corners of the world seeking a memorable escape.
And with good reason.
Telluride, a town of a little less than 2,400 residents, is magically placed in a box canyon with a waterfall as its backdrop. It got its start as a mining village in the late 1800s and has managed, despite unscrupulous developers motives otherwise, to keep itself in pristine condition.
Stay: If you go and want to splurge check out the Mountain Lodge Telluride. More wallet friendly (wallet friendly by Telluride standards) include the Victorian Inn and The Ice House Lodge. All three have hot tubs.
Eat and Drink: If you want to go all out for a dinner with a jaw dropping views, food and drink hit Allred’s. (Recently voted one of the best wine lists in Colorado.) For breakfast, Baked in Telluride has delish bagel sandwiches and a cute front porch if you can be one of the lucky ones to grab a seat on it.
Make sure you stop into the historic New Sheridan Hotel for a drink. Small town FYI – restaurants tend to close between lunch and dinner hours – in the summer at least.
Do: If you can at all arrange to make it there on the 4th of July their small town parade is both charming and a perfect view into the people, life and perspectives of Telluride. (The year I was there the parade had all of the 4th of July fixings plus a group of locals put on an ensemble mocking Bernie Madoff. It goes from there.)
The hiking options are also endless. Check out the Telluride Visitor Center for some recommendations.
Distance from Denver: 330 miles (6 hours 9 minute drive)
How long should you go for? The drive is a long one from Denver. (Take 285 versus I-70 for a prettier and likely, less trafficked option.) I would recommend staying anywhere from 3 nights – the rest of your life.
When should you go? Telluride is a year round destination. The shoulder seasons – April / May and October-ish you will have the place to yourself. Some shops and restaurants will be closed during this time.
4. Have a National Park All to Yourself
We thought we were clever one 4th of July weekend and went the opposite direction of the rest of the state – east – to Pawnee Buttes National Grasslands. Our Colorado travel bible John Fielder’s Best of Colorado recommended it as did friends of ours.
Why Pawnee Buttes?
Have a National Park all to Yourself: Despite two useless maps, equally useless road signage and incorrect book directions, and despite David accurately observing that this recommended “Scenic Byway” should actually be called “Scenic Oil Rig Highway” due to the extremely high number of machines extracting God knows what and their destroy-the-road-trucks taking those extractions God knows where – we, and the one other minivan in the parking lot, have found the entrance to beautiful Pawnee Buttes National Grasslands.
If you are so interested – once you are in the parking lot you need to, totally nonsensically, walk about 15 minutes to the left of what would logically appear to be the trailhead to find the real trailhead. Then the trail takes you away from the Buttes before it takes you to them. The place makes zero sense but as a reward for being one of the few that finds it – you have the entire place to yourself.
Camp: Despite obvious map, book and signage efforts to prevent us from doing so – we found a campground and the consummately cheerful campground hosts at the Crow Valley Campground in Briggsdale, Colorado. Our efforts were rewarded mid-trip with seeing a fox carrying its dinner across the road. According to our book, John Fielder’s Best of Colorado this is the only campground in the area with shade.
Drink Coffee and Go for a Walk in a Very Underrated Town: Go to Greeley. Yes, Greeley. The town I thought nothing of but cow excrement, when I thought of it at all, is is in reality quite charming and worth a trip. (And doesn’t at all remind you of cows – at least when we were there.) First stop: Coffee at Woody’s Newsstand aka the only place in town that appears to be open on Sunday mornings. (This closed on Sunday morning practice is, according to our campground host, a widespread practice across the region.) After proper caffeination, take a spin around the downtown and the parks.
Read More: 28 Hours in Eastern Colorado
Distance from Denver to Pawnee Buttes National Grasslands: 106 miles (2 hour 6 minute drive)
How long should you go? We went for one night.
When should I go? Spring, summer or fall. Winter I would imagine would be beautiful too.
5. Pure Hotel Luxury
There is a science, an art and an incredibly delicate balance to luxury. This almost impossible to achieve trifecta is accomplished by an infinitesimally small number of hotels and resorts around the world – one being the Sonnenalp in Vail, Colorado.
The Sonnenalp, a 112-suite, 15 hotel room world-class luxury hotel began a century ago when a family opened a hotel in Bavaria. Four generations later, and since the 1970s, members of this same family have operated the Sonnenalp.
Consistently rated one of the best hotels in the world, the Sonnenalp offers renowned and unparalleled personal service, accommodations transcending every wish for luxury and comfort, an authentic slice of European style, exquisite fine and fun casual dining experiences, a staff that is both very personable and consummately professional and a spa no one will ever forget.
Eat and Drink: For food, Ludwig’s in the Sonnenalp has a beautiful European buffet. (Even approved by my European husband.) The Bully Ranch, also in the Sonnenalp, is a more casual option featuring, in my opinion, the best burger in Vail. Read about the Sonnenalp’s sommelier: Uncorked: The Man Behind Vail’s Biggest Wine List.
Do: When your belly is full and you are looking for the best activities while in Vail check out: 12 Most Unique Things to Do in Vail.
Distance from Denver: 100 Miles
How long should you go? If you only have one night to enjoy the Sonnenalp, you won’t regret it. Nor will you regret staying for a week.
When should you go? Whenever you can. Shoulder seasons April / May and October-ish will likely have the best deals.
6. Float Down the River, Soak in Hot Springs
You know what I love about Steamboat? It can be the lazy man’s mountain town. You can lounge in their hot springs, float down their river or cool your feet off as you admire their waterfalls. (You can also, of course, hike, bike, climb, ski and/or snowboard the mountains.)
For me, Steamboat has the remote feeling everyone loves about Telluride, the pace of a small town that has no interest in overzealous developers and a beauty that can and does hold its own. Unlike many sought after mountain towns around the world, Steamboat still staves off the t-shirt shops, has small bungalows with Hondas in the driveway and people with a ready and easy smile.
Eat: On the way to Steamboat stop at The Big Shooter Coffee Shop in Kremmling, Colorado (population 1414)? While there we got some Steamboat tips from the ladies working: Hike Mad Creek (one mentioned she tried to mountain bike it and walked the bike the first mile if that is of any interest to anyone) and eat at Sweet Pea in Steamboat (we took this advice to hear and ate there twice). A wonderful place for healthy, incredible food – not always an easy combo to find in mountain towns.
Visit Ghost Towns: As you head north on US 40 (on your way to Steamboat) you will see a Ghost Town on the right side of the road north of Kremmling, but south of the Hwy 14 interchange. I believe it was around Mile Market 198, but I make no promises.
Shop Where the Cowboys Do: You will be well acquainted with FM Light & Sons prior to arriving thanks to the approximate 972 handcrafted roadside signs placed every 92 feet on your drive to Steamboat. These signs won’t let you forget them and practically mandates a visit to see what all the hubbub is about. Who says cowboys can’t do marketing?
See Waterfalls Without a Massive Hike: Another great thing about Steamboat? The fabulous Fish Creek Fall a hike or short drive for the lazies (like us) away.
Drink Coffee: Off the Beaten Path Bookstore is a great place to sit outside or in, grab a book and enjoy your morning coffee. If you are up for a bit of a drive, go 35 minutes west to Hayden, Colorado and check out Wild Goose Coffee. I had the misfortune of arriving there 15 minutes after closing time, but I can hardly imagine a place more charming to your daily caffeine fix.
Go to some of the Best Hot Springs in Colorado: For $10 a person (and $1 per towel rental) we were treated to the spectacularness of Strawberry Park Hot Springs. Unlike many hot springs turned into glorified swimming pools, Strawberry Park has maintained its natural beauty which is probably one of the many reason people rave about them. Pool temperatures range from quite hot to freezing cold and a lot of temperatures in between. You can also rent cabins and stay the night. The earlier you arrive the better the chance you have at scoring one of their cush lounge chairs!
Bowl: Snowbowl on the outskirts of Steamboat offers $1 bowling night on Sundays.
Stay: For reasonably priced accommodations located on the main drag, we stayed at the Nordic Lodge. They have an indoor hot tub and a full spread breakfast buffet.
Distance from Denver: 156 miles (2 hours 54 minute drive)
How long should you go? We went for a night, but you would be plenty entertained for a weekend or a few days longer.
When should you go? Steamboat Springs is a year round destination. The shoulder seasons – April / May and October-ish you will have the place to yourself. Some shops and restaurants may be closed during this time.
7. Big City Cuisine + Small Town Charm + Nationally Recognized Fishing
For 13 years, I “missed” Salida. It was beyond Buena Vista. It was a smidge out of the way enroute to Telluride. And, it is for this reason, in my opinion, it it has quietly developed and maintained itself as an amazing small town and hidden Colorado gem.
Our first surprise about small town Salida was this – it is not that small. Salida is multiple blocks of charming cafes, thoughtful, modern (and delicious) food, an art scene to be reckoned with, bars with live music and all the outfitters required to enjoy the countless outdoor activities Salida and the surrounding areas provide – year round – most of which are occupying turn of the century buildings.
Salida is a place where people from Colorado and around the country move to build and have a better life where they don’t have to worry about the big city or big city problems– and this is definitively reflected in every corner, every café and every person you meet.
As if it couldn’t get any better – the weather is also surprisingly mild.
Soak in Hot Springs: Tucked away between Salida and Buena Vista are the Mt. Princeton Hot Springs offering five hot springs via different configurations ala – a covered pool, outdoor tubs and hot springs that flow right into the river. Go for the day and get a massage, enjoy the sauna, the steam room, the cold plunge pool, lunch and, of course, the hot springs; or stay for the night, weekend or week in the lodge or in one of their cabins. Oh, and bonus, none of their hot springs are sulfur so there is no stink. Hurrah!
Eat Deliciousness: Typically when visiting small towns I surrender to exchanging the small town charm and niceties for eating questionable eggs and mediocre quesadillas for the duration of my stay. In Salida, however, this is not the case. It is not even close to the case.
The first night we went to Shallots to have amongst much other deliciousness, Barcelona Shrimp and fabulous wine.
The second night was at The Fritz where all of the small plates were incredible. (Seriously, all of them). We went with locals who told us the story of when their daughter was in town how she ordered everything on the menu. Their theory was it was to tease them. My theory is – she knew everything was so good she just had to have it all.
Get Cookies! For those who bake, they tell me 7 layer cookies (the ones with chocolate and butterscotch and coconut and nuts and other tastyness) are super easy to make. My thoughts? They are super easy to buy and may I HIGHLY recommend you do so at Brown Dog Coffee in Salida. (Brown Dog also has a location in BV – what the locals call Buena Vista.)
Drink on the Super Cheap: Without too much prior knowledge of “where to go” for a drink, the obvious choice seemed the Victoria Bar. (We would later learn the locals call it “The Vic”.) Legend has it, it was originally owned by one of the first female real estate moguls in Colorado. Bar tabs for a locally crafted beer and a glass of wine (from a box) came in at $8 total.
Camp: 14 Miles outside of Salida is the Ohaver Lake Campground. I will just show you the picture to explain. We were able to score a campsite where people did not show. Reservations recommended.
Fish in Gold Medal Fishing Areas: Thanks to the herculean efforts of locals, politicians, businessmen, environmentalists and fishing fanatics, 102 miles of the Arkansas that was once heavily polluted from mining operations was recently designated as Gold Medal Fishing Status in the State of Colorado. (Read more about Gold Medal Fishing near Salida.)
Learn more: Colorado’s Two Must Sees
Distance from Denver: 142 miles (2 hours 35 minutes)
How long should you go? You will be plenty entertained for a weekend or a few days longer.
When should you go? Depending on if you are a winter or summer person but Salida is a year round destination.
8. Colorado’s #1 Biggest and Best Secret
Who has heard of Lake City, Colorado? In my conversations – no one. Located about one hour south of Gunnison, Lake City has managed to keep it that way. I lived in Colorado for 15 years before I even knew it existed. This past 4th of July weekend that all changed. It was love at first sight the moment we reached town. The windy, tree and cottage lined streets will win the hearts of the biggest cynics. The theatre in an old wooden cabin makes anyone want to go see movies and then I learned – what I was seeing was not even the historic area. When you go:
Camp: There are numerous campgrounds in the area. The most beautiful we found was around Lake San Cristobal (the second largest natural lake in Colorado).
Coffee: Enjoy the Mocha Moose Coffee Shop in the historic area of town. Don’t miss the public park across the street full of wild daises.
Drive: If you have 4WD you will definitely want to take the 60 mile, Alpine Loop Scenic Byway. In town, you can rent Jeeps or ATVs for $200 – $400 a day. Will 4WD you can still see much of the scenery for about 20 miles up the road. Signs indicate when 4WD is required. Drive Cottonwood Pass. If9/ you can catch it in July, you will see the wildflowers in full force.
Distance from Denver to Lake City, Colorado: 255 miles (5 hour drive)
How long should you go? At least two nights. To make the drive easier on the way home the third night we drove to Leadville and camped at Turquoise Lake.
When should you go? Spring, summer or fall. Make sure you check the snowpack if going in the spring.
9. Slowwww Life Wayyyyy Downnnnn
The world slows way down the moment you cross the New Mexico border. The people become chatty (in both Spanish and English), the food changes, the architecture is totally different, art is different – the way of life is – different. If you want to go, and you should:
Stay: We wanted to go to Santa Fe yet also wanted reasonably priced accommodations. Normally, we can stay in any old place as we spend most of our time exploring, but New Mexico and Santa Fe are unique in that where you stay is actually a part of the experience. Not wanting to hand out a ton of coin, I found myself exploring unique Airbnb options – this is when I found Madrid, New Mexico and a cottage, which was a delightful experience in and of itself, located up a dirt road in Madrid – all for $59 / night). Get $25 off your stay.
Madrid, New Mexico is what I would imagine Santa Fe used to be. Slow, still charmingly unpolished and ready for tourists but not full of them or actively trying to recruit them. Madrid, amongst other sweet shops, includes Java Junction, for coffee, The Mine Shaft Tavern, a bar where all the locals are interested in you, a few sweet restaurants (The Hollar for Southern food) and a whole posse of artists and free thinkers who seemingly live their life, design their town and decorate their homes – on their terms.
See: The Georgia O’Keefe Museum in Santa Fe, aside from the only museum I have visited dedicated to a woman she has a fascinating story and beautiful art.
Listen: If you are lucky enough to catch them, check out Hot Honey winners of the local country, alternative country and rock band (in other words something for everyone) and an all-around not-to-miss-goodtime.
Eat: Like most places if you wander off the well-trod tourist trail, you will find the great food with reasonable prices and staff who have not tired of visitors. For healthy food and a nice shady patio, check out Vinaigrette, recommended to us by friendly locals we met on a street in Santa Fe, for their fresh juices and salads.
Drink Cold-Pressed Micro-Juicery: The heat in New Mexico is not joking around. It has you running for shade, juice and water frequently. Located inside of Collected Works Bookstore in Santa Fe is a Verde Juice kiosk. Their juices are made offsite but don’t let that deter you. I highly recommend the Maple Lemon Aid and Pina Verde.
Drink Cappuccino Out of a Bowl: Need a super dose of caffeine? Try it out of what is seemingly a bowl at Café Pasqual. One of the most popular restaurants who buy their ingredients from certified organic farmers in Santa Fe. Go at off times or be ready to wait.
See Where No Country for Old Men (and other Films) Were Made: A fun detour on the way (and you will want one – the trip is long) is Las Vegas, New Mexico. A small, cute town centered around a plaza / park. Stop in to see the Historic Plaza Hotel.
Get Homemade Tamales at a Gas Station: To change up the drive we took a different route home and found ourselves in Antonito, Colorado at the Shell Gas Station, home of one entire cooler full of frozen homemade Mexican deliciousness. We opted for one of the Green Chile Cheese Jalapeno Tamales. Our only regret is we didn’t opt for more. Tamale Connection you need to ship!
Distance from Denver to Madrid, New Mexico: 412 miles (6 hour drive)
How long should you go? At least a few days.
When should you go? Spring or fall to avoid the extreme heat of the summer and the cold of the winter.
10. See Huge Dinosaur Bones + 1.2 Billion Years of History
The northwestern corner of Colorado and northeastern corner of Utah was apparently where the dinosaurs came to party and Dinosaur National Monument can prove it. One of the features of the Monuments 210,000 acres (Rocky Mountain National Park is 265,000 acres) is the Quarry Exhibit Hall (on the Utah side) containing 1,500 dinosaur bones.
When you are done with the dino bones go peek at the 23 rock layers (or 1.2 billion years of history) exposed at the park. Don’t miss Josie Bassett’s cabin or the pteroglyphs. Need more incentive to go? The place touts being almost empty on all weekends except Memorial Day, 4th of July and Labor Day, and we were there on Memorial Day and it was far from full. River rafting is also a big draw. More information: 10 Reasons to Go to Dinosaur National Monument Right Now
Distance from Denver to Dinosaur National Monument: 244 miles from Denver (4.5 hour drive). To note: parts of the road between Steamboat and Dinosaur National Monument are desolate to the point of not seeing cars for miles.
How long should you go? At least two nights. To make the drive easier on the way home the third night we drove to Steamboat.
When should you go? Spring or fall to avoid the extreme heat of the summer and the cold of the winter.
11. Moose Mania
We were thrilled when we saw the first moose, and then the second, the third, the fourth, the moose in our campground, the baby moose. It got to the point where we were hiking and people would say, “There is a moose up there.” And we wouldn’t even look for it – there were just so many. All of this happened end of June when we drove Trail Ridge Road (Estes Park to Grand Lake) and then camped for two nights in Timber Creek Campground inside Rocky Mountain National Park. More about driving Trail Ridge Road and moose mania: 14 Reasons to Drive Trail Ridge Road Right Now.
Distance from Denver:
Denver to Estes Park is 70 miles (1 hour 30 minutes). Trail Ridge Road is 48 miles. Speeds on Trail Ridge Road tend to be slower with many cars making frequent stops.
How long should you go? We went for two nights and it felt like the perfect amount of time. More time could be spent exploring Grand Lake and the numerous hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park.
When should you go? Spring, Summer, Fall. We saw the moose the third weekend in June.