Rocky Mountains, Black Canyon of the Gunnison to Great Sand Dunes
Parks: 3 • Miles: 791 • Days: 7 • Hours: 12
This road trip through Colorado hits all the major parks in the state except Mesa Verde. In this instance, as well, the drive is almost as beautiful as the waypoints in between. You will never find a more beautiful Interstate than I-70 as it crosses the Rockies.
This trip can easily be reversed, however I liked the views a bit better going west on I-70, but that’s all up to personal preference.
You should also reserve a rental car (or SUV) a head of time at the Denver airport. You can then drop it off at the airport just before your departure flight.
To kick off this trip, we will be flying into Denver International Airport. From there, we will grab our rental car and head north to where we’ll be staying. For us, that was Estes Park, CO.
The next location is 76 miles away (~1.5 hours).
Drive north through Boulder to Estes Park, CO. This is where we found lodging, but there are plenty of options to stay in this area.
Rocky Mountain National Park
Estes Park, CO
The Rocky Mountain National Park has everything from meadows to forests, lakes to soaring peaks. This park also has some of the highest paved roads in the United States.
There are a lot of towns close to the entrance to the park, which is located in Estes Park, CO. Estes Park actually has a good bit of Airbnb options, so we decided to stay there. However, all the way down Highway 7 are towns that would work just as well. Even staying much further south in Nederland, CO would work as well since there are plenty of trails between there and the park’s entrance.
Driving the Trail Ridge Road will give you access to main trails and overlooks that offer fantastic views of the Rocky Mountains. Trail Ridge Road is US-34, and follows the mountain ridge for 48 miles, and tops out at an impressive 12,183 miles high above sea level.
This road is only open from Memorial Day until mid-October, and is the only road that crosses the park. Trail Ridge Road tops out at an impressive 12,183 feet, which allows it to offer some of the most breathtaking views of the mountains and the valleys below.
There are a lot of well-known hikes within the Rockies.
The best easy-moderate hike is the Lumpy Ridge Trail. This 3.2 mile round trip hike climbs about 1,000 feet and offers fantastic views of Longs Peak (the highest peak in the park), Mount Meeker and Estes Park.
The most popular (and most difficult) hike is Keyhole Route up to Longs Peak. This path is about 15 miles round trip, takes anywhere from 10-15 hours and climbs 5,000 feet in elevation. If this hike seems a bit much for you, then consider a hike up to the Twin Sisters Peaks. While it is also a strenuous hike, it is much shorter at only 4 miles round trip.
The next location is 291 miles away (~5.5 hours).
Now it’s time to head towards Crawford, CO. Begin by finding Interstate 70, and taking it through the Rocky Mountains. This drive is hard to describe in words. You spend over an hour drive what feels straight up, then immediately start driving downhill for hours after you cross the peak.
The picture here was taken from my vehicle as I was driving up towards Breckenridge, CO.
If you are looking for a place to stop and eat along the way, stop at Outer Range Brewing in Frisco. They had some of the best beers I’ve had anywhere.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
The Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is known for its narrow, sheer walls of volcanic rock, carved by the powerful Gunnison River. This park is also one of the least visited, meaning you’ll have no trouble social distancing here!
There are no lodging options inside the park. We chose to stay in Montrose, but Gunnison and Grand Junction have plenty of options as well, albeit a bit further away from the park.
The park has two sections: the north and south rims. The South Rim has the most to offer, leading it to being the most popular section of the park. In fact, if you wanted to drive from one side of the canyon to the other, it would take about three hours to complete.
The scenic South Rim Road follows the canyon’s edge for 14 miles (23 km) and has dozens of overlooks and hiking trails. The other frequently-driven road in the park is the East Portal Road, which descends to the river at the bottom of the canyon until it reaches the Crystal Dam National Recreation Area.
The gravel-only North Rim Road is only open during the summer, and snakes 14 miles round trip, and has a number of beautiful lookout points along the way.
If you’d like to do some hiking, the Rim Rock Trail is an easy paved 1-mile loop with views of the canyon. The Oak Flat Loop is a slightly harder trail that descends into the canyon for about a 2 mile round trip hike.
The next location is 190 miles away (~3.75 hours).
Drive to Alamosa, CO, which should take just short of 4 hours.
Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve
Located in southern Colorado, the Great Sand Dunes National Park is flanked to the east by the Sangre De Cristo Mountains. At the heart of the park is the remarkable dune field that features sand mounds over 700 feet high. The sands are constantly changing and shifting, with daily winds, water, and even gravity.
Just beyond the entrance to the park on Highway 150, lies the Visitors Center. From here, you’ll quickly reach a couple of hiking trails, including the Dunes Overlook (moderate, 2.3 miles round trip) and the much easier half-mile Montville Loop.
Experience the dunes at night with nighttime dune walks and stargazing, many led by park rangers.
Did you know that you can go sand-sledding at the park? Rent boards and sleds at the Oasis Restaurant and Store (outside the park) and cross Medano Creek to find the best “slopes” to begin your sledding adventure.
The next location is 234 miles away (~3.75 hours).
Time to head home. Go north to Denver. Depending on when your flight home is, you may need to spend the night, so make sure you plan for that.
You could fly out of Albuquerque, NM, but Denver has a larger airport with more options and was about 1 hour shorter of a drive.