Best Road Trips in the USA: Colorado

Take a trip across the Centennial State and see all the beautiful sights Colorado has to offer.

An illustrated map of Colorado, highlighting Mesa Verde, Telluride, Crested Butte, Aspen, Glenwood Springs, Estes Park, Vail, Denver, Colorado Springs and Great Sand Dunes National Park. This map is not to scale and is not intended for use in navigation. ©Kelsey Davis,

We’re hitting the road to explore “Colorful Colorado”; that’s the wording on the sign you’ll be welcomed by when you drive into the Centennial State to see all that Colorado has to offer. We have 10 stops on our Colorado road trip itinerary: We’ll visit the beautiful hot springs of Glenwood Springs; trek through the iconic mountain towns of Aspen and Vail visit Rocky Mountain National Park near Estes Park; experience culture in the capital city of Denver; take a ride up The Broadmoor Manitou and Pikes Peak Cog Railway near Colorado Springs; check out the small town of Crested Butte; try our hand at sandboarding in Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve; and head to the four corners area for our final destination: Mesa Verde National Park.

While you might assume it’s best to visit Colorado in the winter to experience the epic Rocky Mountains snow, this gorgeous state has many outdoor adventures year-round, such as hiking, mountain biking and whitewater rafting as well as winter sports. So, gas up your car and pack your hiking boots, because we’re hitting the road to experience some of the most scenic locations in North America.

A river runs through a city lit up at night beside a snowy mountain. iStock

Glenwood Springs, CO

Our first stop is Glenwood Springs, a resort city in the state’s west-central region. This charming mountain town in the Rocky Mountains is surrounded by the White River National Forest, so be prepared to be wowed by the dramatic landscape.

Glenwood Springs is famous for its hot springs, which were used to create a hot springs pool in 1888. Since then, visitors have come to Glenwood Springs to experience the world’s largest mineral hot springs pool at Glenwood Hot Springs Resort. Nearby, there is also Iron Mountain Hot Springs along the banks of the Colorado River, where you can experience the soothing warmth of one of 32 pools.

The next stop is Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park. Here, you can experience America’s only mountaintop theme park. During summer months, take a ride on the Cliffhanger Roller Coaster, which is the highest-elevation full-size roller coaster in North America.

Our final stop takes us to the Linwood Cemetery in downtown Glenwood Springs to visit the resting place of iconic gunman Doc Holliday, whose real name was John Henry Holliday. While the exact location of his burial site is unknown, his marker is easy to find, as mementos such as playing cards and coins adorn the site.

A skier makes their way down a slope. iStock

Aspen, CO

From Glenwood Springs, head southeast to Aspen, a small town offering a glittering personality and four world-class mountains: Aspen Mountain, Aspen Highlands, Buttermilk and Snowmass. Aspen is a popular ski destination, known for being a high-end celebrity hot spot where you can split your days enjoying the great outdoors and shopping at luxury designer boutiques.

If you’re visiting Aspen in the winter, trying one of the ski resort’s four mountains is a prerequisite, as there are slopes for all levels of skiers and snowboarders. Buttermilk is perfect for those looking for stress-free trail runs, as the trails are groomed and the runs are wide.

Snowmass is one of Aspen’s most popular ski areas, with a staggering 3,342 acres of skiable terrain, including 100 trails, 20 lifts and a quaint town at the bottom of the ski area. It is also known for having one of the best snowboarding schools in the United States.

A wooden sign with mountains and foliage in the background reads, “Maroon Bells Snowmass Wilderness: White River.” iStock

Maroon Bells should be on your destination where you’ll find twin peaks Maroon Peak and North Maroon Peak rising more than 14,000 feet around Maroon Lake, creating a backdrop of gorgeous scenery for hiking, wildlife watching and camping. These stunning peaks are some of the most photographed in North America, so we recommend exploring the area early in the day to avoid crowds.

Other must-see hot spots in Aspen are the historic Wheeler Opera House, which has been putting on shows since 1889, and the beautiful Aspen Art Museum, which stands out as a modern architectural marvel. Just on the edge of downtown near the Roaring Fork River, you’ll find the John Denver Sanctuary. The sanctuary honors the late “Rocky Mountain High” singer-songwriter, who called Aspen home for much of his life.

Vail skyline with mountains in background iStock

Vail, CO

Vail is a picturesque ski village in the White River National Forest. This iconic and Europe-inspired mountain town is known for its world-class winter skiing and abundant summer outdoor activities.

Your first stop should be Vail Ski Resort, the largest ski resort in Colorado. Vail Mountain has more than 5,000 acres of skiable terrain for every type of skier, from beginner slope aficionados to double black diamond dynamos. Skiing or snowboarding not your thing? Take a ride in Gondola One to get an epic view.

While many ski towns in Colorado were built on the sites of former mining towns, Vail was built to be a resort, with cross-timbered bridges, cobblestone streets and Bavarian-style architecture. You’ll see the European influence throughout, from flowered window boxes and detailed stone and plaster work to restaurants and lodging.

A narrow trail cuts through tall grass and wildflowers with mountains in the background. iStock

If you plan to visit Colorado in the summer, check out some of the hiking trails in Vail. The Lost Lake Trail is a longer hike at 7.5 miles but is family friendly due to its gradual climb. Plan to picnic by the lake for epic views of snow-dusted mountains (yes, even in the summer). If you’re looking for a place to spend the night, this is a perfect hike for beginner backpacking. You can camp along this route if you set up your tent 200 feet from the lake and trail.

Heading east on the Gore Valley Trail, you’ll find Ford Park, home to the highest-elevation botanical garden in North America, the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens. These free gardens are internationally acclaimed for their alpine horticulture, education and conservation. Near the alpine gardens, you’ll find tennis courts, athletic fields, a play structure and the open-air Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater, where most summer nights you can catch a variety of entertainment, from comedians, symphonies and bands to the annual Vail Dance Festival.

A river runs quietly below a mountain at sunset. iStock

Estes Park, CO

Next, stop at Estes Park near Rocky Mountain National Park, which covers 415 square miles and includes every type of mountain terrain you can dream of, from meadows to alpine lakes and massive peaks.

With over 300 miles of hiking trails, hiking is the top way to experience all that Rocky Mountain National Park offers. We recommend starting at the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center to determine which trails are open. The park offers an array of interesting ranger-led programs, depending on the season. From January to March, you can take a ranger-led snowshoe walk through some of the park’s beautiful snow-covered meadows.

A waterfall in a small ravine. iStock

For views of an Instagram-worthy waterfall, check out the hike to Chasm Falls along Old Fall River Road. This short 0.2-mile hike is steep and rocky, with a 640-foot elevation, but seeing the 25-foot drop of this gorgeous falls is worth the effort.

You’ll find one of America’s Byways in Rocky Mountain National Park, Trail Ridge Road. This road, covering 48 miles between Estes Park on the east side of the park and Grand Lake on the west side, is one of the most scenic drives in the United States. It offers unparalleled views of the Rocky Mountains. Eleven miles of this highway travel above the tree line, an altitude of 11,500 feet, giving drivers views of wildlife, alpine wildflowers and the rock formations below. The drive is open from Memorial Day to the first snowfall in the fall, so if you want to make the drive, you’ll need to visit in the warmer months.

If you want to experience whitewater rafting on your Colorado road trip, Estes Park is the place to do it. The nearby Colorado River and the Cache la Poudre River offer several classes of whitewater excitement for beginners and more advanced rafters. Experienced guides will take you through local rapids like Pinball and Pineview Falls.

A visit to Estes Park wouldn’t be complete without a quick trip to the historic AAA Diamond-designated Stanley Hotel. The grand hotel opened in 1909, but by the 1970s, its original opulence had faded due to a lack of care and investment. It was a one-night stay by famous American author Stephen King that inspired his iconic book and movie, The Shining.

The Denver skyline. iStock

Denver, CO

It’s a 70-mile drive from Estes Park to our next destination: Denver—the capital city and the most populous city in the state. 

Downtown Denver is home to the Denver Art Museum and the Clyfford Still Museum. For natural beauty, visit Cheesman Park, where you’ll find the Denver Botanic Gardens, including the Mordecai Children’s Garden, 18 arid gardens featuring plants that flourish in Colorado’s unique climate, and shady and water gardens that make for a perfect pit stop.

Just north of Cheesman Park, you’ll find the expansive green space of City Park. With more than 300 acres, this park is the largest in the city and is home the Denver Zoo and the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. Peruse the park’s two scenic lakes and manicured gardens before spending the day exploring Egyptian mummies, space odysseys, and a wildlife hall depicting animals large and small.

Speaking of animals, a visit to the Denver Zoo is also a must. This 84-acre zoo features over 3,000 animals, from flamingos to rhinos. The zoo also has a 4D theater that offers 15-minute films in a special sensory environment. Kids will love the scavenger hunt, visiting the Conservation Carousel, Denver Zoo Railroad and the hands-on Stingray Cove exhibit.

Just southwest of Denver in Morrison, you’ll find one of the most iconic outdoor music venues in the United States, Red Rocks Park and Amphitheatre. The red stone cliffs of this natural rock structure host famous musicians, yoga classes and movies. Don’t miss viewing a spectacular sunset at this venerated venue.

A large formation of red rocks sits in front of a snowy mountain range. iStock

Colorado Springs, CO

Next, Colorado Springs is home to Pikes Peak, the Garden of the Gods Visitor and Nature Center and the United States Air Force Academy.

Our first stop in Colorado Springs is The Broadmoor Manitou and Pikes Peak Cog Railway, which will take us on a 9-mile adventure to the summit of Pikes Peak. At 14,115 feet, you’ll tower 8,000 feet above Colorado Springs, giving you an incredible bird’s-eye view. From the top of Pikes Peak, the surrounding Sangre de Cristo and Collegiate mountain ranges provide yet another awe-inspiring view. 

To head down the mountain, you can take the railway or hike the 13-mile Barr Trail to the Garden of the Gods Visitor and Nature Center. Whether you opt for hiking, horseback riding, mountain biking or even motorized scooter tours, there is no wrong way to explore this national landmark. Stop by the visitor center for help in choosing your adventure.

A visit to the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum will educate you about the rich history and culture of the Pikes Peak region. Here you’ll see artifacts of the area’s Native American history as well as exhibits telling stories of women’s suffrage in Colorado, and letters from Colorado pioneers.

Finally, the United States Air Force Academy is a staple of Colorado Springs. You can see the sprawling campus via the Air Force Academy Airfield overlook at the Interquest Parkway exit (Exit 153) on Interstate 25. If you want a closer look, much of the academy is open to the public for self-guided tours.

Large sand dunes under a blue sky. iStock

Great Sand Dunes National Park

From Colorado Springs, we’re headed south to Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. This is a 3.5-hour drive with a quick pit stop in Cañon City (pronounced “Canyon City”), where you’ll find the Royal Gorge Bridge & Park. The bridge was the world’s tallest suspension bridge from 1929 to 2003, and, at 955 feet high, it still holds the title of tallest suspension bridge in the country.

Stop by the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve’s visitor center where park rangers can help explain how the sand dunes were formed over millions of years of geological changes. Just how big are the dunes of the park? It’s hard to comprehend their size until you see them yourself, but the sand dunes of this national park are the tallest dunes in North America, with High Dune measuring 750 feet.

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve was also designated an International Dark Sky Park in 2019, making it a perfect spot to camp and stargaze. There is so little light pollution in the area that you can spot the Milky Way galaxy with the naked eye during the night or early morning.

Crested Butte, CO

Crested Butte is the wildflower capital of Colorado due to the stunning floral displays that paint the mountainsides during spring and summer. While the town is famous for its top-notch skiing, this charming town nestled in the Elk Mountains is a beautiful destination any time of year. 

A sunset view of tall mountains. iStock

Mount Crested Butte (pictured above), the mountain the town is named after, looms over the town, beckoning visitors toward outdoor adventures. Winter visitors can experience the mountain on skis, snowboards or snowshoes, while summer adventures involve hiking boots and mountain bikes.

A sunset view of steep cliffs with pink/white veins running through the rocks. iStock

Just outside of town to the west along Highway 50, you’ll find the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. This park boasts some of the steepest cliffs, oldest rock and craggiest spires in all North America. The Gunnison River cuts a path through the canyons, creating stunning 2,700-foot cliffs. The park has hiking trails that run along the canyon’s rim, making for yet another spectacular hike.

A town with cars and buildings lining a street at the bottom of a mountain. iStock

Telluride, CO

Located amid the San Juan Mountains, Telluride is a town surrounded by the highest concentration of 14,000-foot peaks in the United States. That makes for a seriously gorgeous backdrop as well as some incredible skiing in the winter.

Telluride Ski Resort is known for having more-difficult slopes for experienced skiers, but that doesn’t mean beginners aren’t welcome. There are blue and green runs from the top of every lift on the mountain, making skiing Telluride doable for a range of abilities.

No matter the time of year, Telluride offers plenty to do. Downtown Telluride has been a National Historic Landmark District since 1961. Check out the Telluride Historical Museum to learn about the town’s rich history and varied architecture. The Sheridan Opera House is a perfect destination for arts lovers, as this opera house has been putting on performances since 1913.

The cliff dwellings of the Ancestral Pueblo people, carved structures in the side of a cliff. iStock

Mesa Verde National Park

Our final stop on this epic Colorado road trip takes us to Mesa Verde National Park in the four corners region of Colorado. Here the corners of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah meet perfectly to divide the Southwest.

Mesa Verde National Park was established as a national park in 1906 by President Theodore Roosevelt to “preserve the works of man,” as it was a sacred place of the Ancestral Pueblo people who lived at Mesa Verde over 700 years ago.

There are several significant cliff dwellings of the Ancestral Pueblo people throughout the park. Some of the dwellings are just one room, while others are villages of more than 150 rooms. Cliff Palace is one such dwelling, with over 150 rooms that housed approximately 100 people. For a view of Cliff Palace, go to the Cliff Palace Overlook on the Cliff Palace Loop Road, which also takes you past Balcony House and to overlooks of other cliff dwellings. (Note: Access to the dwellings is limited to ranger-guided tours.)


Traveling to Colorado? AAA saves you time and money.

Our Colorado road trip itinerary has taken us to epic locations throughout the Centennial State. Plan your next adventure with AAA, where your membership can save you money on lodging, experiences, food and gas. Use AAA TripTik planners to save time when putting together your itinerary. AAA TripTik is the ultimate road trip planner.

Keep reading in: