The Ultimate Colorado Road Trip
Discover the ultimate adventure road trip from Durango to Denver. The itinerary includes canyoning, mountain bike parks, climbing, bagging a 14er, SUP, white water rafting, historic venues, and more. The writer shares his first-hand experience and advice from each of these adventures, offering how-to information, highlights, and the right gear for the road trip.
While snow blankets the Rockies, it’s easy to be content while riding the lift at your favorite resort as it takes you to the summit in some of North America’s most epic terrain. After a full day on the slopes of Colorado, you hope the season never ends. Yet regardless of how early the ski season begins, it will ultimately come to a close and spring will return to the high country. But alas, all is not lost. The following three seasons provide an endless array of activities that will take you to new heights in the Centennial State including that timeless classic of an epic Colorado road trip.
And while we live in a world of instant gratification, there are lessons to be learned about road-tripping from the Griswold’s. While the family could have easily saved time by flying from Chicago to Wally World, Clark understood the value of hitting the open road and exploring key sites along the route. Unless you live in Colorado or one of the neighboring states, you will likely have to take that flight to reach your starting point. Though, once you arrive in Durango, load up the station wagon (or car of your choice) and prepare for a Colorado adventure of epic proportions.
And now that you have decided to take a leap of faith and book those tickets, it’s time to begin planning your list of activities on your road trip itinerary. With that in mind, you’ll want to pack thoroughly and you’ll need a large duffel.
The Road Trip Begins
Durango will be the launching point for your Colorado adventure and the first stop on your itinerary. While it’s the largest city in the southwestern part of the state, it’s anything but large. Located in the San Juan Mountains, the city may be best known for the historic Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. But there’s so much to see before embarking on that part of the journey. The history in this late 19th century town abounds. And while you could opt to stay at any of the chain hotels, it would be a missed opportunity. The historic Rochester Hotel is just the place to lay your head. For movie buffs, each room is decorated around a different Western that was filmed in the Durango area.
Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad
Climb aboard for a ride back in time. The railroad line between Durango and Silverton was completed in 1882 and passengers have been riding the scenic route through the San Juan Mountains since it commenced operation. In the early days, the train carried passengers and freight between the two towns. Today, the route winds its way along the Animas River to Silverton where passengers can explore this historic mining town. If you’re super fortunate, you have friends in Durango that will shuttle your car to Silverton and meet you for an afternoon of climbing while the train begins its return trip back to Durango.
Many of the ski resorts throughout the state change gears as the snow begins to melt and turn their attention to the bike trails that have been buried all winter. The same lifts that carry skiers during the winter are retrofitted to transport riders and their bikes to the summit. And, it’s all downhill from there. Parks like Purgatory, Telluride, Snowmass, and Winter Park are along your road trip route. So ride one, or ride them all for an epic Colorado adventure.
Ouray and Telluride
After departing Silverton, your road trip itinerary takes you through the mountains to the town of Ouray. This tiny hamlet is also known as the Switzerland of America. As you drive through town, you’ll get the picture. Nestled at almost 8,000 feet in the San Juan Mountains, this may be the single best location in the state to engage in a variety of activities. From canyoning to riding a UTV (or jeep) across high mountain passes to a plethora or hiking options, this town has something for everyone. Grab your waist pack and then get adventuring. And when the day’s activities have concluded, you can relax in the town’s famous hot springs.
And while it’s possible to reach Telluride from Imogene Pass on your off-road adventure, you’re going to elect to drive back through the canyon on your way to former Victorian mining town of Telluride. Located at the end of a box canyon, the town sits in the valley while the ski resort sits perched high above. Both are accessible to one another by the gondola that transports passengers back and forth.
The via ferrata in Telluride is a must-do for those seeking to push the adrenaline boundary. The route along the canyon walls offers unprecedented views of the valley and the town below. While wearing a harness, safety ropes, and a helmet, you will navigate a series of rungs and cables to traverse the rockface high above the canyon floor.
As the snow melts, the rivers begin to swell and the opportunities to engage in some nonstop thrill riding increase. There are an endless array of options early in the season. Later in the season, the river levels begin to drop and some rivers go from exhilarating to more of a float. But to some, that may be enough.
As you depart Telluride and make your way to Aspen/Snowmass, I would advise all travelers to time their departure so that they can make a lunch stop at the True Grit Cafe. Although the restaurant opened over 15 years after the John Wayne classic was released, it celebrates the movie that was filmed in the area.
Pause your road trip, and unpack your bags at the Limelight Hotel in Snowmass. This will be your basecamp for the next few days as you shred the brown pow at the bike park. Fortunately, the rental shop and lift are located within a stone’s throw of the hotel and convenient when the day is over. Aside from downhill riding, activities abound and can entail standup paddle boarding (SUP) to fly fishing on the Roaring Fork River.
Rocky Mountain National Park
No road trip adventure in Colorado is complete without visiting this icon of the National Park System. But to reach your next destination of Estes Park, you will have to enter the park and drive over Trail Ridge Road, which will top out at over 12,000-feet. This modern engineering marvel will afford you spectacular views and overlooks of this alpine realm.
Estes Park will serve as the basecamp from which to launch your adventures around the park. First on the list, climb a 14er. Colorado is home to more mountain peaks that surpass 14,000-feet than any other state. And while there are numerous options throughout the state, Longs Peak is easily accessible. Notice I said easily accessible, not easily attained. If you are new to mountaineering, I highly recommend retaining the expertise of a guide. Expect an early morning departure and a long trek to the top. Once you reach the summit, the reward is a view that will likely have you above the clouds on most days and a surreal sense of accomplishment. But don’t rest just yet, you have to get back down.
I spent almost two weeks winding my way on a road trip between Durango and Denver and could have easily doubled that to allow myself to experience even more in this majestic playground. After Estes Park, I drove directly to Denver for my departure. If you don’t have that timeline to play with, highlight the activities that matter the most and cater your Colorado road trip itinerary to meet your specific needs.
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By Clay Abney on January 30, 202
Clay Abney is a freelance outdoor and adventure travel writer living
in the ‘wild and wonderful’ state of West Virginia, where he spends
his days trail running, mountain biking, backpacking, snowboarding,
and traveling as often as possible. At 49 (the new 29), he still
competes in multi-day adventure races, loves abusing gear, and is
always looking for his next great adventure. www.clayabney.com