The perfect five day Colorado road trip itinerary

Windy roads of colourful Colorado

I was lucky enough to be staying with some friends who knew Colorado very well and provided me with the perfect five day itinerary through the intricate, windy roads and scenery of Colourful Colorado.

I’m so grateful to have had this map (huge shoutout to Rick!) as Colorado can be one of those states that if you’re not sure about which landmarks to visit, it can be tricky to navigate a route to see the best scenery.

Colorado Road Trip Scenery

We (my partner and I for those of you who haven’t been keeping up on Facebook - check out his Colorado podcast here, for a male perspective on our travels) have been road tripping through a fair few states, and so far we always had a purpose to visit each state i.e Gambling in Vegas or Partying at Lake of the Ozarks. Colorado was the first state on our itinerary that we had no real purpose to visit, other than that we had heard about the stunning scenery it has to offer. 

Naturally, during a lot of our travels we have been taking the interstates between landmarks to maximise our fuel economy, but seeing as we were heading to Colorado purely for the scenery, we needed a route that included as little highway as possible.

So I am here to share the perfect five day itinerary through Colorado with you. Of course if you’re entering from a different direction you can flip it and reverse it… or if you have a few more or less days, you can always customise the itinerary to your hearts content (I have added a few suggestions as to what I would add/extend if you have more vacation days up your sleeve).

Check out this spunk - Harley from the  TST Travel Podcast

Check out this spunk - Harley from the TST Travel Podcast

Make sure you follow the correct road to the campsite… unlike us who somehow ended up trespassing on a private property next to a shooting range :\

Make sure you follow the correct road to the campsite… unlike us who somehow ended up trespassing on a private property next to a shooting range :\

We entered Colorado from Wyoming through the north and stayed south-east of Walden where we found a campsite on some state land. If there is no caretaker present, these types of campsites mostly operate on an honesty box system where you leave $10 in a box, fill out your details and attach a slip to the campsite post to stake your claim for the night. Don’t be a dick and not pay for your site. Majority of the campsites do have facilities such as toilets, fire pits and tables and chairs. These fees help to maintain the parks and pay the ranger’s wages. You will most likely get caught out if you don’t pay anyway as the rangers make rounds throughout the day.

If you prefer to stay in booked accommodation, rather than camping, you can use the deal-finder below to plan your stay. I earn a small commission from each booking, but it doesn’t cost you a cent more to book through me!

Day 1: Rocky Mountains and Estes Park

Drive time: 3hrs 45mins (not including breaks)

Make sure you get an early start today, there is a lot to see!

Pack up camp, have a quick breakky and hit the road. Beware of deer while you’re driving, especially at dawn and dusk! Driving east from Walden, you will get your first glimpse of the famous scenery of the Rocky Mountains. This road is a lot of fun, and the typical windy mountain road you would expect, but very well maintained. There are plenty of rest stops along this section of road to take toilet breaks or pull over to admire the rocky landscape. The road follows the route of the river too, so I would definitely suggest that you find a good rest area to have a picnic and dip your feet in the river. 

This area also tends to get a few forest fires in the summer, so please be fire smart. We happened to see a forest fire and it was incredible watching the helicopters and firefighters battle it out with the flames and bellowing smoke. 

After a couple of hours you will come out the other side at Fort Collins and through Loveland. This is a good spot to do some shopping and stock up on any supplies you might need for the next few days like water and car snacks, because after this you will be venturing through some touristy areas with prices to match!

Heading west again, you will officially enter the Rocky Mountain National Park.  You will drive through a town called Estes Park, make sure you stop here to check it out! Parking on the main strip can be a pain so we drove to the very end of Estes Park to find a car park and then walked back. This was the perfect system as we walked down one side of the street to the other end, and then back up the other.

You will encounter ENDLESS souvenir shops, but there are some really cool T-shirts and knick-knacks that you can pick up. Make sure to head to The Taffy Shop for some smooth, salt water taffy - they had quite a few less flavours than some of the other taffy shops but they were by far the best, and they make everything from scratch on site! 

We left Estes Park in the evening to get to our campsite before dark, but if you aren’t camping I would suggest that you stop here for the first night and have a nice dinner at one of the many restaurants here.

If you have longer than five days, base yourself in Estes Park for two or three nights as a gateway to the Rockies!

Estes Park also has a lot of activities to offer from Jeeping and ATV’s to white water rafting. Make sure to plan your trip accordingly to the seasons though, as we missed the rafting season by just one week after the summer!

Allenspark camping Colorado

We found a free campsite in Allenspark which was a really cool little spot. It was a up a bit of a hilly, stoney dirt road but we saw some small sedans which made it up there so you should be fine if you don’t have a four wheel drive. Remember, you are still in bear country so make sure to be bear smart by putting all of your food away.

Day 2:  Mt. Evans, through Independence Pass to Aspen

Drive time: 6 hours

Today is another big drive day so don’t sleep in too much. It is mostly scenery, so make sure to take lots of stretch/water breaks but it is a really nice drive to admire from the comfort of your vehicle.

We drove through Idaho Springs to Mt. Evans, which is the highest altitude paved road in North America (highest elevation is over 14,000ft). Make sure to make the detour and drive all the way to the top. There is also a great hike to the summit and gorgeous views of the lake below. It is a very popular hike, and we met many other travellers along the way. 

Mt. Evans view Colorado

From Mt. Evans we double backed to Idaho Springs and began the scenic drive through to Dillon, Copper Mountain, Leadville, and finally through Independence Pass to Aspen.

Hanging out with my new mate.

Hanging out with my new mate.

During this section of the journey we picked up some hitchhikers on their way to Aspen. In retrospect I would advise against this, for no other reason than we didn’t stop at the lookouts as much as we would have liked because we felt like we were in a rush to arrive at our destination. On the plus side though, they did have a really cool bearded dragon lizard. 

Independence Pass was an amazingly beautiful, drive. The twists and turns of the road do get a bit hairy in places, especially when the road turns into a one way road without any signage or warning - but it is all part of the fun! Yet again, a lot of the drive follows the natural curvature of the river below, so find a place to pull out and walk down to enjoy the river. There are quite a few little waterfalls and natural hot springs that run off from Glenwood Springs. 

Luckily enough, thanks to some help from our new hitchhiker buddy who conveniently enough grew up in the area, we were able to find a free campsite just outside of Carbondale. The sites had just been done up with new facilities and will remain free until 2019, when it will more than likely become a paid site. The sites had a good amount of privacy,  it there is a hiking/bike track directly behind so you may get some early morning noise from locals out for their bike ride. 

Day 3: Grand Junction - Colorado National Monument and Wine Country

Drive time: 2hrs 45mins (not including the scenic drive through the Monument)

Feel free to sleep in today, have a big breakfast and take it a bit easier. Head up to Glenwood Springs where you can pay to swim in the hot springs. We didn’t feel like paying $30 for a swim, so we kept on trucking towards Grand Junction.

The downtown area of Grand Junction did give off the vibe of a somewhat dying town, however the real magic lays just outside of Grand Junction - at the Colorado National Monument and surrounding wine country. By this section of our world trip, we had already visited a fair few National and state parks, but Colorado National Monument was a gem we were not expecting!

Colorado National Monument

Colorado National Monument

Not a bad spot to stop for lunch

Not a bad spot to stop for lunch

When you drive in from the Grand Junction side, you ascend quite quickly and capture an awe-inspiring view of Colorado’s wine country. There are some incredible canyons, that have been carved out by water flow and eroded over thousands of years to create something truly wondrous.

There are some fantastic hikes at the Monument, with varying levels of difficulty for every fitness type. We enjoyed a picnic lunch here and did some of the shorter, lookout trails. 

Two Rivers Winery

Two Rivers Winery

After a few hours of driving, definitely allow at least 2-3 hours (not including any large hikes you may want to tackle) for the park, we headed towards the Redlands, Two Rivers Winery. The tasting was free in quite a small intimate room leading to the cellar, and their reds were especially tasty! 

After getting a good buzz on, make sure you have a designated driver to get you to the night’s campsite or accommodation. We stumbled across a great campsite in Montrose, called Cedar Creek RV Park. It was a paid site, but we were keen for a shower and they offered free mini golf with every entry! There were some pretty good eats around, since the RV Park was in town, so a good opportunity to head down to the Mexican restaurant for happy hour (as we did) or snap up a steak at the grill directly across the road.

Day 4: Black Canyon, Ouray and Silverton

Drive time: 2hrs

Black Canyon of the Gunnison

Half an hour drive out of Montrose, was Black Canyon of the Gunnison. We certainly underestimated how many incredibly diverse canyons The United States has and spent more time here than we intended.

Every lookout has a different view or perspective of the park to offer, and there is a great trail at the very end which will give you the most spectacular view! It was only a couple of kilometres, round trip and most certainly worth getting out of your car with the camera for the walk.

If you have extra time here, detour East after Black Canyon to check out Crested Butte, which is supposed to have some beautiful scenery and great hiking trails.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison Hike
Black Canyon of the Gunnison

After a couple of hours at Black Canyon, it’s time to hit the road and start heading south. Now you may have thought that the Rockies or Independence Pass are the most scenic drives of Colorado by far, or so the media would have you think...  but the next drive is a little piece of paradise that I think Colorado has been trying to hide from us... and for good reason! If I lived here, I don’t think I would want anybody else to find it either.

After about an hour of driving south from Black Canyon, you will come up to a town by the name of Ouray. You round the bend, and all of a sudden, there it is! Carved out in the bottom of a valley sits the most stunning, beautiful, jaw-dropping town I have ever seen. Curtained by Aspen trees changing their autumn colours on every crevice of the mountain, there it was. The town has natural hot springs, a waterfall, a beautiful river running through it. Cute, pioneer style buildings, bars and restaurants line the Main Street and everybody you pass has a smile on their face.

Just when you think it can’t get any better, when you wind back up the hill heading out of Ouray, you can see the town below and somehow it looks even more incredible from above. Make sure you stop in Ouray itself for a drink, or even for an extra night. It seems as though every man and his dog in the town drives a Jeep, and there are many Jeep tours being offered. I have already planned a future trip here in the winter for some skiing, and to enjoy those hot springs!

The beautiful town of Ouray

The beautiful town of Ouray

Silverton town

Silverton town

We drove on to the town of Silverton where the famous Durango rail line ends. The drive between Ouray and Silverton is stunning and will take you at least triple the time google maps tells you it will take when you stop to ‘ooh’, ‘ah’, and take photos every time you round another bend. When you do finally arrive to Silverton, it has some great bars and restaurants to offer, again in that old pioneer style of building that has been preserved, however it did honestly seem like a bit of a ghost town in comparison to Ouray.

There is a free campsite about 5kms prior to when you get into Silverton which was in a gully of sorts, with scenery yet again to die for. If you didn’t decide to stay out in Ouray for the night, or have a few more than five days to allow for your itinerary, make sure to camp out under the stars for a night here! 

Infinite star accommodation… priceless

Infinite star accommodation… priceless

Between the campsite and Silverton is a building with a sign out the front for Cannabis tours. Out of curiosity, we stopped to check out CannaFarmer. Kevin, who runs the place was incredibly informative, and even though he was technically only running tours until 4pm, we arrived closer to 6pm and he was happy to show us around. I couldn’t believe the amount of science and botany that goes into breeding and growing the plants. He is expanding every year, with greenhouses out the back and had only just started the tours, so it was definitely worth checking out. Kev was happy to share his knowledge and the history around legalisation of marijuana in Colorado, and up for a healthy discussion about the cannabis industry.

Day 5: Durango, Mesa Verde and Four Corners

Drive time: 4hrs

The best coffee in Silverton, on the rooftop

The best coffee in Silverton, on the rooftop

The next morning we stopped in at the Coffee Bear for a fresh blueberry muffin and proper coffee, not the other filtrated American shit we have been subjected to in the States. We enjoyed our pretentious, frothy-goodness macchiatos on their cool rooftop lounge.

The drive from Silverton to Durango doesn’t take long, and we just so happened to arrive into Durango on a Sunday morning for the farmers market which was nice to enjoy. Other than getting a quick pic of the train and station, Durango wasn’t really anything to rave about and we kept driving towards Mesa Verde National Park.

The intriguing cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde

The intriguing cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde

Mesa Verde is an especially interesting National Park and was the first one to preserve Ancestral Pueblo culture. I was particularly excited to visit Mesa Verde, due to the original cliff dwellings that remain from the Pueblo people, but unfortunately was a little bit let down that a lot of the trails had been blocked off due to degradation and risk of rock falls. Due to these closures, most of the other dwellings which you may only visit as part of a small-group tour were already booked out before we arrived.

To see the remnants from afar was still incredible, however I would suggest you plan your visit accordingly so that you know which trails are open, or sign up to join a small-fee tour that actually ventures into the dwellings.

Mesa Verde Cliff Dwelling Pueblo

Last but not least, after you’ve adventured all throughout Mesa Verde, head to the Four Corners Monument, to be in four states at once (Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico). We were heading up to the national parks of Utah from Colorado, so unfortunately we made the decision to skip this monument, but in retrospect it would have been worth the extra fuel and drive time to stand in the four corners.

My main suggestions for if you have a few extra days:

  • Check out Denver after Fort Collins before heading to the Rockies

  • Garden of the Gods

  • Stay in Estes Park for a few nights to explore the Rockies and do some activities

  • Stay in Ouray and go Jeeping

  • Camp out near Silverton for an extra night, enjoy the scenery by a campfire


The perfect five day Colorado road trip itinerary pin 1
The perfect five day Colorado road trip itinerary pin 2 bonus map