4 of the 61 national parks in the United States are located in Colorado — some 5%! — and they just happen to be some of the parks with the most incredible views!
Colorado is home to Rocky Mountain National Park too, which is one of the most-visited national parks in the United States!
From epic outdoor hikes that lead to unparalleled views to fun activities like sandboarding on sand dunes (yes, we do have those in the United States!), Colorado’s national parks genuinely have it all — and you can see it on on a Colorado national parks road trip!
Throughout this post, you’ll learn the best route to take to visit all of the national parks in Colorado in just ten days! Be sure to save it for later because this is one post you’re not going to want to misplace!
PLANNING FOR COLORADO AT A GLANCE: When to Go: From beautiful sunny days, stunning fall foliage, to impressive snowy winters, Colorado is beautiful all year round. But if I had to choose one season, then I'd say summer is the best time to visit Colorado. However, winter is also a great time to visit if you're into winter sports since Colorado is a haven for that. Where to Stay: For this itinerary, you'll have sleepovers in Rocky Mountain National Park, Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Mesa Verde National Park, and Great Sand Dunes National Park. For Rocky Mountain National park, I suggest staying at Woodlands on Fall River hotel (luxury), Blue Door Inn (motel), Coyote Mountain Lodge (budget), or this cabin for a homey feel. While in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, I suggest enjoying the magic of sleeping under the stars at either South Rim Campground, East Portal Campground, or North Rim Campground. In Mesa Verde National Park, you can stay inside the park by opting for Morefield Campground if you're into camping but if not, then it has to be Far View Lodge as it's the only lodge in the park. Great Sand Dunes National Park can be visited without staying overnight but if choose to, then you can stay inside the park and camp on the dunes or at Pinon Flats Campground. If camping is not your thing, then you can choose to stay at Great Sand Dunes Lodge which is located right next to the park, or go a bit further to Alamosa town and sleep at either Holiday Inn Express Hotel & Suites Alamosa, an IHG Hotel (boutique) or Best Western Alamosa Inn (budget). How to Get Around: A car is essential to fully enjoy the National Parks of Colorado otherwise you'd have to rely on expensive tours. If you're renting a car, compare car rentals and prices from here. Alternately, you can rent an RV or campervan via RVShare and save on accommodations. Best Activities: Want to fully enjoy your Colorado road trip without the hustles of planning? Booking some activities will help you with that. You can book a full day tour of Rocky Mountain National Park from Denver so that you can just sit back and enjoy. 3 Things Not to Forget to Pack: Colorado is all about hiking so a sturdy pair of hiking boots will serve you well -- I love my Ahnu boots. A dual-purpose phone mount and charger will come in very handy and you'll be happy to have a roadside emergency kit should your car break down while road tripping. Know Before You Go: If you plan to visit multiple national parks in a year, the America the Beautiful Pass will save you a bundle! It costs $80 for an annual pass (for an entire vehicle traveling together) to all US national parks and federally managed sites.
Colorado Itinerary, Day 1 – 3: Rocky Mountain National Park
Drive time: 1 hour 30 minutes from Denver to Rocky Mountain National Park
Because you’ll most likely come to Colorado from Denver International Airport, the logical first stop is Rocky Mountain National Park. It’s best to spend around three days in Rocky Mountain National Park due to all that there is to explore!
Pick up your rental car in Denver (I suggest booking a rental car via a search aggregator like Rental Cars, which offers the best deals on your rental) and it’s time to hit the road — we’re heading towards the Rockies!
Below are some of the best things to do in Rocky Mountain National Park over the course of three days. Pick and choose the ones that sound most interesting to you!
Take a leisurely drive on Trail Ridge Road.
Trail Ridge Road is one of the most unique drives available in the United States. It has the nickname of “highway to the sky” because of its high elevation and impeccable views of the Rocky Mountains from all angles.
Take a drive on this road to take in all of the views. There are occasional spots to stop off, too, so you can soak up the view and also take a photo if you’d like. It truly is unlike any other road in Colorado because it goes high above the trees, and the elevation is just shy of 12,000 feet.
Go on a hike.
Rocky Mountain National Park is filled with tons of hikes for all levels. Here are a few of the most popular hikes, as well as some basic information about them.
- Dream Lake Trail: This easy hike is approximately 2 miles and is out and back. It’s great for hiking between April and October and offers impeccable views. The elevation gain is slightly over 400 feet, so it’s not too terrible.
- Emerald Lake Trail: For a moderate hike in the Rocky Mountains, this is the one to do. It’s about 3 miles with an elevation gain of just under 700 feet, located by Estes Park.
- Sky Pond: If you’re up for a challenge, go on this challenging hike that’s also near Estes Park. It’s about 9 miles long with an elevation gain of about 1700 feet on this out and back trail.
Visit Alberta Falls.
One of the most beautiful areas in Rocky Mountain National Park is Alberta Falls. To get there, you have go on a super easy 1.7-mile hike! Because it’s easy, even children can do this hike to enjoy Alberta Falls at the end of it.
This is one of the most popular hikes to do in Rocky Mountain National Park because of the epic views. It’s known for its incredible aspen groves, so be on the lookout for those during the hike, especially if you’re road tripping Colorado in the fall!
Search for wildlife in Moraine Park.
Moraine Park is an area of Rocky Mountain National Park that has tons of wildlife. It’s located near Estes Park and is filled with elk, birds, and other animals. Obviously, you shouldn’t get super close to the animals while visiting the park, but it’s a great way to see wildlife from a distance in the wilderness.
This is also one of the most popular spots to go camping. On the north side of Moraine Park is a campground right among the mountains. This can be a great place to call home base while you’re visiting Rocky Mountain National Park on this part of the trip.
Snap a photo of the view from Forest Canyon Overlook.
For the best views in all of Rocky Mountain National Park, head to Forest Canyon Overlook. This park observation deck offers extended views of the mountains and wilderness, and it’s truly unparalleled compared to other viewpoints in the park.
There’s a short paved walk to get to the observation deck. It’s not the biggest, so if you want to be there when there aren’t any crowds or other tourists, try to get there earlier in the morning. You might even catch the sunrise!
Learn at Beaver Meadows Visitor Center.
No trip to an area is complete without learning, and there’s no better place to do that than at the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center. This is entirely free to visit and is technically the park’s headquarters.
Inside, you can learn all about Rocky Mountain National Park and even chat with some rangers. This can be a great way to find out what’s going on in the park, and if there are hidden gems you might be able to check out, they would know.
Explore downtown Estes Park.
Estes Park is a town in Colorado that is known as the gateway to the Rocky Mountains. If you’re looking for a great place to stay while exploring Rocky Mountain National Park, this small town is it.
The town is filled with wildlife, has great views of the mountains, and is even home to the Trail Ridge Road. Be sure to take a ride on the Estes Park Aerial Tramway to visit Prospect Mountain! This is one of the best things to do in Estes Park.
Where to stay in Rocky Mountain National Park
Unlike other national parks, Rocky Mountain National Park doesn’t have any in-park lodges besides camping. If you prefer having an actual bed, there are great accommodation options in both Estes Park and Grand Lake to consider. But since Estes Park is closer to the majority of the park’s most popular attractions and hikes, I recommend basing yourself here.
CABIN | Located just a few miles away from Rocky Mountain National Park, this beautiful cabin gives the most stunning views in the area. With a large deck that features a hot tub, you can be assured of having a relaxed time while thanking mother nature for the stunning mountainous views. On the inside, the cabin is equally beautiful! The visible wooden beams add a cozy and rustic touch while the large glass doors bring the views right in the living room. The kitchen is modern, the light features are beautiful — there is nothing not to love about this cabin in the mountains.
LUXURY | If you’re looking for a luxurious stay, then I recommend staying at Woodlands on Fall River hotel. With ensuite rooms that feature a large kitchen and a living room, this hotel will give you a home away from home kind of vibe. And let’s not forget the cabin-in-the-mountain kind of look that will make your experience in Rocky Mountain National Park even better. On top of all that, this hotel is right on Front River and just a few minutes from RMNP.
MOTEL | If you want something with a mid-range budget without compromising on quality and comfort, then I suggest staying at Blue Door Inn. The motel features a woody charming interior, clean rooms, a swimming pool to cool off the summer heat, and also offers beautiful mountain views from the deck.
BUDGET | If money is a concern but you want a place that’s comfortable, clean, and convenient, then I recommend Coyote Mountain Lodge. The rooms are nice, clean bathroom, and comfortable beds — nothing special to brag about but you can’t get any better for that price. The best part is that it’s perfectly located near RMNP so you won’t waste time on the road.
Colorado Itinerary, Day 4 – 6: Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Drive time: 4 hours 50 minutes
For days four through six, hop on the road and get to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. This can be quite a drive, but you’ll be going through some beautiful small towns along the way.
If you want to make any pit stops, consider stopping in Breckenridge or Buena Vista. Breckenridge is one of the top-rated places to visit in Colorado, and Buena Vista is a little past the halfway point of the drive.
Here are some of the best activities to fill your few days in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.
Watch the stars (and even camp under them!)
Believe it or not, but camping under the stars in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is one of the best things to do while visiting! There are quite a few campgrounds to choose from, so you can pick the one that suits your needs best.
Some of the more popular campgrounds include South Rim Campground, East Portal Campground, and North Rim Campground. North Rim, in particular, is first-come-first-serve because it’s such a nice campsite!
Hike the S.O.B. Draw
The S.O.B. Draw is the hike to do while visiting Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park! It’s only 2 miles long, but it’s one of the most challenging yet most rewarding hikes to do in the entire park and shouldn’t be missed if you’re up for the challenge.
It’s an out and back trail with just shy of 2,000 feet of elevation, which is why it’s such a strenuous hike. It’s almost straight uphill the entire time, and it’s incredibly rocky. Many people who have hiked it even refer to it as a total vertical climb.
Snowshoe trek through the park
Are you traveling to all of Colorado’s national parks during the winter? Don’t worry – there are still great activities and fun to be had! One of those is snowshoeing through the park on the Oak Flat Loop.
You can either bring your own snowshoes or rent them nearby if needed. It doesn’t take super long to snowshoe the trail, but it’s still great fun, and honestly, the park in the winter is beautiful. Plus, there are considerably fewer visitors during this time.
Explore the North Rim
The North Rim is the lesser-visited part of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, but that’s why it’s so worth visiting.
There aren’t as many ranger services here, and it’s not as well kept as the rest of the park, and that’s why it’s often overlooked.
However, because there aren’t as many visitors, you can usually get a good chunk of the North Rim just to yourself so you can explore without crowds of people. What’s not to love about that?
Go on a ranger-led boat tour
Yes, there are actually ranger-led boat tours in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park! This is fun for both locals and tourists because it truly gives you a unique experience while visiting, and you’ll get to learn from a ranger along the way.
These boat tours are called the Morrow Point Boat Tours and are only about 90 minutes long. It goes right along the Morrow Point Reservoir, and you do have to make a reservation to go on the boat and pay a small fee.
Take the scenic route: drive through the East Portal
The best way to drive through the park is by driving through the East Portal. Take the scenic route by driving East Portal Road. Though it’s closed in winter, it’s pretty heavily trafficked in the warmer months because it is near some of the best camping and picnic spots.
Keep in mind that the road is very steep, but the views are rewarding. Other great drives in the area include the South Rim Road and North Rim Road. North Rim Road isn’t as high up as the other two, but the views are still incredible!
Colorado Itinerary, Day 7 – 8: Mesa Verde National Park
Drive time: 3 hours
Now to Colorado national park number three! Next up is Mesa Verde National Park, which is about 3 hours from Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. Similar to the last long drive, there are a few points of interest along the way.
If you do want to make a pit stop, I highly suggest stopping in Telluride. Similar to Breckenridge, this is one of the best spots to visit in Colorado, known for its outdoor adventures. Right near Mesa Verde National Park is also Durango, a small town known for its scenic train rides!
Below are some of the best things to do during two days in Mesa Verde National Park.
Get up close to history on a cliff dwelling tour.
Park rangers run tours of the cliff dwellings so that you can get up close and learn more about them during your visit. This is easily the best way to get educated about the park while also having someone you can turn to if you have any questions about it!
Because these tickets tend to sell out quickly, you can only buy them two weeks in advance. If you know a tour is something you want to do during your trip to the cliff dwellings, be sure to call the ranger’s office and buy them the second they go on sale.
Discover at the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum.
Located right in Mesa Verde National Park is a small museum called the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum. If you want to know even more about the history or weren’t able to grab tickets to the ranger tour, this is the place to go.
This is one of the most historic national park museums and was built in the early 1900s, and it’s made from the same types of materials used to create the actual cliff dwellings. Inside, you can learn all about pueblo life.
Drive the Mesa Top Loop Road.
Obviously, by now, you can tell going on a short drive through the national parks in Colorado is one of the best ways to explore them. In Mesa Verde National Park, that road is the Mesa Top Loop Road!
It’s only about 6 miles long but is incredibly scenic. Along the drive, you’ll also be able to pass by remains of old archaeological sites dating back to 550 CE! There are many spots along the road that you can pull off and walk up to them too.
Wander the Far View Sites.
The Far View Sites are one of the most popular places to visit in Mesa Verde National Park, and for good reason.
This was one of the more populated parts of the cliff dwellings, and 40+ different villages have been found in this area!
These sites are even older than the actual cliff dwellings, which is why so many people like to see them. It’s a great look into the history and the way of life hundreds of years ago.
Some of the top places in the Far View Sites to check out include Pipe Shrine House, Far View House, and Coyote Village.
Eat dinner at the Metate Room Restaurant.
For dinner with a view, look no further than the Metate Room Restaurant. They have sustainable cuisines, and they offer some of the best views of the park from above. This restaurant has even won an Award of Culinary Excellence, so you know it’s good!
The restaurant is only open for dinner with limited hours, usually only 3 to 4 hours a day depending on the time of year. To guarantee a spot, make a reservation 24 hours in advance. Walk-ins are welcome, but the restaurant can’t guarantee you’ll be able to eat there.
Where to stay in Mesa Verde National Park
You can stay overnight in the park but there are only 2 options. Morefield Campground for camping or Far View Lodge but you’ll need to book in advance to get a spot.
Colorado Itinerary, Day 9: Great Sand Dunes National Park
Drive time: 3 hours 50 minutes
After Mesa Verde National Park, spend a day or two at the Great Sand Dunes National Park. Truly, a day is all you need, but if you want to spend a night in the park, then you’ll have to plan for two days, making this an 11-day road trip instead!
The drive to Great Sand Dunes National Park from Mesa Verde National Park is just shy of four hours, but you can stop at either Durango or Pagosa Springs along the way for a break. Durango is easily one of the best places to visit in Colorado if you’re a fan of locomotives.
Here are some of the best activities in Great Sand Dunes National Park.
Hike to the top of the High Dune.
High Dune Trail is the most popular trail in all of Great Sand Dunes National Park.
It’s only three miles with an elevation gain of just over 600 feet, but it’s rated as difficult. This is because trekking in the sand is a lot harder than you may think it is.
Despite being the most popular trail, most of the year, you’ll find that you may be one of the only people you can see along the route. This is what makes it such a lovely trail to hike. Plus, the views are incredible the whole way.
Have a blast sandboarding.
The best activity, without a doubt, in Great Sand Dunes National Park is sandboarding!
Don’t worry; you can rent sandboards right near the park in the San Luis Valley because it’s such a popular activity. Keep in mind that you should rent them before arriving at the park.
If sandboarding isn’t your style, you can also go sand sledding. This is perfect if you’re traveling with children! These can also be rented, or you can bring your own sleds from home if you’d prefer.
Spot the Milky Way.
To get a great view of the Milky Way, stay until nightfall at the park. There’s something truly magical about seeing the Milky Way while surrounded by sand dunes.
It’s one of those experiences that you can honestly only have while at the Great Sand Dunes National Park! (Okay, except maybe the Sahara Desert)
Don’t forget to bring your camera too, because this is one view you won’t want to miss!
Camp in the sand dunes.
Believe it or not, but you can spend the night directly in the sand dunes if you want.
To do this, you can backpack and camp anywhere within the sand dunes by setting up your own tent, even just sleeping in a sleeping bag in the sand.
Keep in mind that there is wildlife at this park, so be careful with what you bring. You also can’t have more than six people in your group at a time, and only twenty groups can sleep within the park on any given night. Read more restrictions here.
Visit Zapata Falls.
Zapata Falls is one of the best-hidden gems in Colorado, and it’s located right next to the Great Sand Dunes National Park. It’s a beautiful waterfall with a 30-foot drop that is a lovely example of Colorado’s nature.
The Zapata Falls Trail to get to the waterfall is less than a mile, with an elevation of around 200 feet. It’s an out, and back trail ranked as easy, so it’s not super challenging to get to the waterfall.
Visiting in the winter? You may find a frozen waterfall!
Where to stay in Great Sand Dunes National Park
Great Sand Dunes National Park has no in-park lodges but if you want to experience the magic of the dunes, I recommend camping right on the dunes if you have the permit that allows you to do so or camp at Pinon Flats Campground.
But if camping is not your thing, there are a few accommodation types just outside the park to consider.
LODGE | If you want to stay just right next to the park, I recommend Great Sand Dunes Lodge. There is nothing fancy to write back home about but the rooms are comfortable enough, it has an indoor swimming pool, and you get some nice mountainous views.
If you don’t find a spot in the above lodge, then you can make Alamosa town your base for visiting the Great Sand Dunes National Park. It’s approximately 45 minutes to the dunes but it has a lot more accommodation options.
BOUTIQUE | If you want something familiar that you know will never disappoint, then stay at Holiday Inn Express Hotel & Suites Alamosa, an IHG Hotel. Just like most IHG hotels, the rooms here are comfortable with a chic interior that will make you feel welcome.
BUDGET | If you want to stay on the lower end of the budget with a touch of luxury, then I suggest staying at Best Western Alamosa Inn. Not a low budget per se but definitely a steal for this location and the amenities offered. All the rooms at this hotel feature a refrigerator, a microwave, and a coffee maker should you want to fix yourself a quick drink. And for active travelers, you’ll be happy to know that there is a fitness room to stay in shape and an indoor swimming pool plus a jacuzzi to unwind from.
Colorado Itinerary, Day 10: Back to Denver
Drive time: 3 hours 50 minutes
On the last day, head back to Denver (or wherever you started your trip from). The drive is just shy of four hours, and the halfway point is none other than the fantastic Colorado Springs. This is one of the top places to visit in Colorado and is also one of the best day trips from Denver.
I can’t recommend enough that you stop in Colorado Springs on your way back, just because it’s a great town.
While you’re there, be sure to visit Garden of the Gods, an epic outdoor attraction so beautiful it’ll have you wondering why it’s not another one of Colorado’s national parks!
At Garden of the Gods, there are a few different walking trails ranging in experience level, but each one will take you through the fantastic rock formations so you can check out the park. This is a super popular photography location, too, so don’t forget your camera.
Other fun stops in/near Colorado Springs include Pikes Peak (an epic spot for hiking or rock climbing), The Broadmoor Seven Falls, and Pikes Peak Highway, which will take you up the mountain without hiking. However, it’s often closed in winter due to weather, so keep that in mind!
What to Pack for Your Colorado National Parks Road Trip
I have a complete USA road trip packing list here you may want to go through before your road trip.
While I’ve given you so much useful information in this Colorado road trip itinerary, sometimes it’s hard to include all the little details due to time and resources constraints. However, travel guides do a good job at filling in all the spaces and that’s why I recommend taking this Fodor’s Colorado guidebook on top of my first-hand experience.
Phone Mount & Car Charger
It’s never safe to use your phone while driving or bother your front-seat passenger with navigation help and that’s why you need a phone mount. Also, you’ll need to take a car charger for obvious reasons but instead of taking 2 different devices, I recommend taking this dual-purpose phone mount and charger! I’ve used it on every single road trip I’ve gone to and I can’t imagine going to one without it.
Road trips just go better with snacks and let’s not forget how quickly hanger can kick in especially if you don’t want to keep stopping just to get something to eat. Pack a few snacks — and not just the sweet ones but a mix of sweets and salty ones too.
Comfortable Footwear: Colorado national parks have a lot of hiking trails, so you’ll need to take sneakers or comfortable hiking boots (I love my Ahnu Sugarpine boots for women, and for men, I suggest the KEEN Durand boot.) You can go with sneakers but just make sure they have good traction and are comfortable to walk in for an extended period of time.
Bug spray and after-bite care
Nothing ruins an epic adventure in the wild like bugs — those little monsters just know how to change someone’s mood quickly but the good news is that you can protect yourself with this DEET-free lemon eucalyptus-based mosquito repellent — it’s great on even the most stubborn mosquitos.
Unfortunately, sometimes bugs are just too sneaky and they become hard to avoid. When that happens, use After Bite itch eraser to manage itches. It will instantly soothe your skin and you’ll be able to go back to enjoying the beautiful National Parks of Colorado.
If you’re like me who gets nasty headaches when dehydrated, you might want to pack rehydration packets. With the scorching sun, uncoordinated meal times, Impromptu hikes, salty snacks, there is no way you can avoid dehydration except if you take these Rehydration packets. I’ve been packing them for years for every road trip and they’re now a big part of my road trip tradition.
Some people think that just because they’ll spend a good amount of time in the car driving that they don’t need sunscreen but they’re wrong!
While windshields protect against UVB rays (which cause sunburn), most do not block UVA rays, which cause aging and skin cancer. So for that reason, you need to pack and wear sunscreen even when you’re driving. And not just when driving but even when you hit the trails or spend the day on a beach. I love this sunscreen as it prevents my face from breaking out –( my skin is sensitive to chemical sunscreens) but since it’s a bit pricey, I use a cheaper one for the rest of my body.
And remember that it doesn’t matter which skin color or race you are — white, pale like me, Black, Latina, or Asian, you need sunscreen! Skin cancer doesn’t discriminate based on skin color.
If you’re hiking, don’t forget about your scalp either — I often end up with a burned scalp and it’s no fun, often leading to headaches. Buy a special sunscreen for hair and scalp to avoid this!
Don’t forget travel insurance!
Travel insurance coverage helps you recoup your losses in case of emergency, accident, illness, or theft. I’ve relied on World Nomads for my travel insurance coverage for four years with no complaints, and I’m a happy paying customer. I recommend them highly to fellow travelers!
Get your free quote here.