The Greatest Colorado Road Trip – Part 1 – Northern Colorado

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Summer is on its way and if you are like me, you are itching to get on the open road and put some miles under your tires. To go to beautiful places with fresh air. There is perhaps no better place than the Colorado mountains for fresh air and beautiful vistas. Jennifer and I lived in Colorado for more than seven years and we had a lot of time to explore one of the best states in the lower 48. If you are planning a trip to the centennial state, and you should be, we have done all the hard work and created the greatest Colorado road trip for you. It might just be the most scenic summer road trip in the world.

Season & Direction

Greatest Colorado Road Trip
Some of the most scenic roads in Colorado can be covered in snow throughout most of the year.

This is a road trip that can only be fully experienced from the late spring to mid-fall as many of these mountain passes are closed throughout the winter. Most passes typically open for Memorial Day weekend and remain open until the first heavy snow which typically arrives in mid-October. This trip assumes you are traveling in and out of Denver, but really you could pick up this route anywhere along the way. We have also written this guide to the greatest Colorado road trip in a counterclockwise direction but it could be easily done in reverse.

The Greatest Colorado Road Trip

  • Total Distance: About 1,900 miles
  • Total Drive Time: About 45 hours

Locations on the Greatest Colorado Road Trip

Northern ColoradoWestern Colorado
A) Red Rock Amphitheatre
B) Mount Evans
C) Rocky Mountain National Park
D) Steamboat Springs
E) Dinosaur National Monument
F) Colorado National Monument
G) Glenwood Canyon
H) Leadville & Mount Elbert
I) Maroon Bells
J) Marble & Crystal Mill
K & L) Black Canyon of the Gunnison NP
Southern ColoradoCentral Colorado
M) Telluride & Bridal Veil Falls
N) The Million Dollar Highway
O) Mesa Verde National Park
P) Pagosa Springs
Q) Great Sand Dunes National Park
R) Salida & Bighorn Sheep Canyon
S) Royal Gorge Bridge
T) Florissant Fossil Bed National Monument
U) Pikes Peak
V) Garden of the Gods

The Greatest Colorado Road Trip – Part 1 – Northern Colorado

A) Denver/Red Rock Amphitheatre

Red Rock Amphitheatre - Greatest Colorado Road Trip
Denver’s Red Rock Amphitheatre is a world class venue. The natural acoustics are amazing and beautiful.

Denver is a cool town but when compared to the rest of the state it isn’t much to look at. It sits on the front range of the Rocky Mountains so while the mountains beckon the adventurous type to them, the city itself is located on a flat expanse that is the start of the great plains. One spot not to be missed when visiting Denver is Red Rock Canyon Amphitheatre. It can be found on the slope of the Front Range west of the metropolis.

How Much Time

Typical Visit: 2 – 3 hours

We suggest getting supplies near the city and then getting on the road. There is a lot to see in the mountains. Denver does have some amazing museums, great food, the Colorado Rockies‘ mile-high stadium (baseball), and one of the coolest concert venues in the world. If you are keen to spend a day or two in the city we suggest catching a Rockies game at the stadium, taking a Coors brewery tour, or experience a concert at the Red Rock Amphitheatre. You should check out the amphitheater even if there isn’t a concert available. It is an awesome place and the natural acoustics are unbelievable. I was there during a thunderstorm once and the thunderclaps channeled around the rock walls in a magical and overwhelming way.

Coors Field
The Colorado Rockies’ Coors Field. The single row of purple seats sit at one mile above sea level.

Garden of the Gods to The Red Rock Amphitheatre

  • Distance: 77 miles
  • Drive Time: 1.5 hours

The greatest Colorado road trip is a loop. We list this mileage from the very last stop on the list, the Garden of the Gods, to the first stop at Red Rock Amphitheatre for those picking up the path elsewhere along the journey. Leaving the Garden of the Gods make your way east to Interstate 25 and head north towards Denver passing over Monument Hill and the buttes south of Castle Rock. Once in Denver take the 470 Bypass around the city and get off at the Morrison exit to make your way to the Amphitheatre.

If you are instead coming from Denver International Airport cut across the city on Interstate 70 and take the Highway 93 exit on the west side of the city. Take Highway 93 south for 2.5 miles and follow the signs to the Red Rock Amphitheatre parking lot.

B) Mount Evans

14er
There are 53 mountains that rise above 14,000′ in the state of Colorado. Only two can be driven and both are a part of the greatest Colorado road trip.

The road to Mount Evans is the highest in North America. Mount Evans ranks number 14 amongst the state’s highest peaks, but it is one of only two of Colorado’s 14ers (peaks over 14,000 feet) that you can summit via a white knuckle drive. This road typically opens for Memorial Day weekend (no guarantees) and closes immediately after Labor Day.

How much time

  • Typical Visit: 15-30 minutes on the summit

A few hours is all that is needed to drive to the loftiest highway peak in North America, get a good look around, and then crawl back down the mountain in first gear. Leave yourself about half a day to summit the peak and return to the base. You don’t want to rush the experience. You also need to learn to drive in 1st or 2nd gear to keep your brakes from overheating. This is a useful skill you will use often on the greatest Colorado road trip.

Red Rock Amphitheatre to Mount Evans Summit

  • Distance: 50 miles
  • Drive Time: 2 hours

Head north from the Red Rock Amphitheater and take Interstate 70 west into the mountains. This is a beautiful section of interstate. That is not a sentence I would typically utter out loud as we avoid interstates like the plague, but sections of I-70 are truly gorgeous. Exit the Interstate at Idaho Springs, Colorado and follow the signs south to the peak of Mount Evans.

C) Rocky Mountain National Park

Trail Ridge Elk
An elk grazes the alpine terrain of Rocky Mountain National Park near Trail Ridge Road.

If you are one who loves the mountains, wildlife, and snowmelt streams, then Rocky Mountain National Park is a place you should prioritize a lot of time when driving the greatest Colorado road trip. We’ve spent a lot of time in Rocky Mountain National Park and have done an entire post on our favorite hikes. Check it out and let us know if we have missed one of your favorites.

How much time

  • Typical Visit: 2 days

You can drive through the park in a few hours and see all that the road has to offer in about half a day, but to experience this park to the full you will need to put on your hiking shoes and explore a few trails. If you like backcountry backpacking you could spend the whole summer here assuming you get your permits early enough (typically in March). For most people, 2-3 days is plenty enough time to see the easy-to-reach spots.

Mount Evans to Rocky Mountain National Park (East Entrance)

Rocky Mountain Duck
A duck enjoys a summer day at Bierstadt Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park.
  • Distance: 100 miles
  • Drive Time: 3.5 hours

The most common way to get to Rocky Mountain National Park is to drive through the congested town of Boulder, Colorado to the gates of the National Park in the town of Estes Park. However, coming from Mount Evans allows for a more scenic route through Nederland, CO. Stop at Beau Jo’s in Idaho Springs for one of the best pizzas on the planet. From Idaho Springs head back east on Interstate 70 and take the Central City Parkway north. The parkway will dead-end at Highway 119 where you will take a left towards Nederland. In Nederland, the road will come to a roundabout. Take the second exit onto Highway 72 towards Ward, Colorado. Highway 72 will eventually dead-end at Highway 7 where you will turn left again. Continue north on Highway 7 north to Estes Park and the gate of Rocky Mountain National Park.

D) Steamboat Springs

Fish Creek Falls
The 280′ Fish Creek Falls in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.

Steamboat Springs is a ski town of the highest caliber. Several Olympians call this mountain-town home. As we are talking about a summer road trip, snow skiing is obviously out of the question, but if mountain biking is your thing then you are in the right spot. You can ride one of the lifts up and cruise back down the mountainside on your bike. Check out the Steamboat website for more details.

Not into mountain biking? Take the easy 1/4-mile trail to the 280-foot Fish Creek Falls. Looking for something a bit more challenging? Head south to Yampa and take on the death-defying Devil’s Causeway. This loop trail has beautiful mountain scenery crowned by a thin strip of land that narrows to only a few feet wide and has sheer 1,000′ drops on either side. It isn’t a journey for the faint of heart.

How much time

  • Typical Visit: 2 – 3 hours

Half a day will be enough time for most people to explore the town of Steamboat Springs and hike to the base of Fish Creek Falls. If you are looking to add a few bike rides or the Devil’s Causeway you will want to schedule another day for each.

Rocky Mountain National Park to Steamboat Springs

Devils Causeway
Jennifer crosses over the narrow Devil’s Causeway near Steamboat Springs, Colorado.
  • Distance (From RMNP West Entrance): 95 miles
    • Drive Time: 2 hours
  • Distance (From RMNP East Entrance): Add 42 miles
    • Drive Time: Add 1.5 hours (no stops)

Cross over Rocky Mountain National Park via Trail Ridge Road (Highway 34)—the highest paved pass in North America. Continue on Highway 34 south passing Grand Lake and Lake Grandby. The Colorado River flows along route 34 and through both lakes. On the south end of the lakes head west on Highway 40, passing Hot Sulphur Springs and then through a canyon following the flow of the Colorado River. At Kremmling, CO you will continue to follow Highway 40 as the road leaves the river and crosses over the mountains to Steamboat Springs.

E) Dinosaur National Monument

Harpers Corner Dinosaur
Harper’s Corner on the Colorado side of Dinosaur National Monument has great views of the canyon carved by the Yampa and Green Rivers.

Dinosaur National Monument is a unique and beautiful place. This is a park with many nooks and crannies to be discovered. While the majority of the park is in Colorado, including the confluence of the Yampa and Green River, the most iconic area of the park is found on the Utah side of the park. The Bone Wall near the Quarry Visitor Center is a slab of stone full of dinosaur bones that have been excavated in place for all who visit to see. It is worth a journey across the country to see this wall, but if this is all you see during your visit you do yourself a disservice as the rest of the park is very beautiful.

How much time

The Dinosaur Bone Wall
The bone wall is on the Utah side of Dinosaur National Park but you should visit when on the greatest Colorado Road Trip.
  • Typical Visit: Half to Full-day

An hour-long visit to the Bone Wall near the Quarry Visitor Center along with a short drive to the Freemont Petroglyphs will be sufficient for most visiors to the park. Both of these are found on the Utah side of the park. In addition, we also highly recommend exploring the Canyon Entrance in Colorado to Harper’s Corner. If the weather is dry take the dirt road down to Echo Park which sits inside the canyon at the confluence of the two rivers. Check with a park ranger to see what kind of condition the road is in before heading that way. We’ve taken a low clearance vehicle down there and been fine but we’ve also been when a trip in a 4×4 would have been ill-advised. If you have more time, consider a multi-day rafting trip through the entirety of the park starting at the Gates of Lodore.

Steamboat Springs to Dinosaur National Monument

  • Distance (To Dinosaur’s Canyon Entrance): 127 miles
    • Drive Time: 1 hour & 15 minutes
  • Distance (Harper’s Corner): Add 31 miles (each way)
    • Drive Time: Add 45 minutes (each way)
  • Distance (Echo Park): Add 12 miles (Each way from Harper’s Corner Road)
    • Drive Time: Add 45 minutes (each way)
  • Distance (To Dinosaur’s Quarry Visitor Center): Add 29 miles (each way)
    • Drive Time: Add 30 minutes (each way)

From Steamboat Springs continue west on Highway 40 through the rolling hills of Colorado as the road more or less follows the flow of the Yampa River. The drive along this section of the greatest Colorado road trip is probably the least scenic but it still has a certain amount of beauty. The Yampa is the last major tributary of the Colorado River that has not been damned. The Canyon Entrance is only about 7 miles from the Utah state line. Gas is sparse in this area of the country so fill up your tank when passing through Craig, Colorado.

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1 thought on “The Greatest Colorado Road Trip – Part 1 – Northern Colorado

  1. This is great! Lived here for 30 years and have yet to see some of these places. I’ll get there!

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