5-Day Colorado Road Trip Itinerary: 3 Perfect Routes


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Of all the states in the Western USA, Colorado is among the best for road trips thanks to its excellent network of highways and interstates, wide range of landscape types, and abundance of attractions like national parks, monuments, and ski resorts. The main arteries of Interstate 70 and US Highway 285 are good focal points for anyone looking to plan a 5-day Colorado road trip itinerary, with plenty of possibilities to spend the entire 5 days focusing on one route through the mountains or take to the backroads and chart more of an unconventional path.

Colorado’s mountain mainstay towns like Estes Park, Salida, Steamboat Springs, and Breckenridge also offer some of the country’s best year-round outdoor recreation opportunities.

A 5-day road trip from Denver to Utah could have you skiing Vail Pass and mountain biking through the desert in Fruita within 48 hours, and a winter drive across the state could easily include a different stop at a world-class ski resort each day.

No matter how you choose to spend the time on your 5-day Colorado itinerary, the three options below should give you some ideas on possible frameworks you could use to maximize your time. The first is more of a “classic” itinerary for anyone looking to experience some of the traditional highlights the state has to offer.

Second is an itinerary that’s focused on US 285 South that would be worth considering for anyone who has yet to explore the lesser-traveled parts of southern Colorado, such as the Sangre de Cristo and San Juan mountain ranges.

Finally, you’ll find a more unconventional itinerary, focused on a north-south trajectory, which will take you to a few of the more “under the radar” destinations in the Centennial State.

Scenery in Estes Park
Scenery in Estes Park

When to Visit Colorado

Weather is always the single biggest factor to consider when planning a road trip through the mountains of Colorado. When it comes to vehicles, tires with good tread are worth their weight in gold and might be second only to brakes in terms of what should be top of your list to have serviced before you hit the road.

Out of all four seasons, wintertime (roughly November through early March) is when you’re most likely to run into freezing temps and the most difficult road conditions, so plan accordingly when driving in the mountains during these months. However, even visiting the Rocky Mountains in the winter can be very much worth it!

Spring, summer, and fall are all great times to be making a road trip in Colorado, with late spring and summer standing out as the times with the mildest weather and best opportunities for comfortable camping and backpacking.

The biggest bonus to planning an autumn road trip across Colorado would have to be the scenery, as vivid shades of yellow, orange, gold, and red blanket the aspen groves all across the state.

Photographers will be kept busy regardless of the season when traveling in the Rockies, but late September through early November is a time when you’ll want to be especially sure you don’t leave the camera at home.

Autumn in Great Sand Dunes National Park
Autumn in Great Sand Dunes National Park

The Perfect 5-Day Colorado Itinerary

For whichever of these Colorado road trip routes that you take, you’re going to need to have a car. If you need to rent a car for this trip, check out Rentalcars.com which shows a range of deals across major car hire suppliers. You can also rent an RV or campervan from Outdoorsy if you prefer to camp during your time in Colorado.

Classic Colorado Itinerary

Day 1: Denver

If you’re starting a 5-day road trip from Denver, odds are you’ll end up on Interstate 70 eventually, but this itinerary will loop you north past Rocky Mountain National Park in a way that makes sense before ending up in the high peaks of Summit County and the town of Breckenridge.

But before you strike out on this steeply climbing route into the mountains, be sure you spend at least a day enjoying Denver and its humming cultural atmosphere.

Downtown Denver and the surrounding area have enough to keep anyone busy for an entire 5-day itinerary, so it’s probably best to focus on one or two destinations if you’re only here for a day.

The Denver Art Museum, for example, is nationally renowned for its extensive collection of works and exhibits highlighting indigenous art, modern art, fashion, and everything in between. The Denver Botanic Gardens is another standout destination that also sometimes hosts summer concerts.

Sunny Day in Downtown Denver
Sunny Day in Downtown Denver
Where to Stay in Denver

Holiday Inn Express Downtown Denver — A good option if you’re looking for a reliable and comfortable hotel that is well-located in downtown Denver. There are numerous rooms available and there is a free breakfast included in the rate. Click here to see their availability

Westin Denver Downton — Another great hotel option in downtown Denver, well-located for exploring all that the city has to offer. They have numerous clean and comfortable rooms available along with other amenities to ensure you have a lovely stay. Click here to see their availability

Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse more Denver hotels

Day 2: Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park and its basecamp town of Estes Park are located just under an hour and a half from Denver, making this a great day 2 stop on your itinerary.

Estes Park has great shopping and a good number of dining options along its main drag of E Elkhorn Avenue, so stop through town for a bite to eat and a chance to stretch your legs after driving from Denver. Then it’s just a 5 to 10-minute drive over to the RMNP entrance, where you’ll spend the rest of the day.

Once inside the park, the main paved artery of Bear Lake Road is easily drivable and affords great access to lots of trailheads and places to merely park the car and get out for photos and sightseeing.

The Fall River area of RMNP is another scenic zone with a number of trailheads based around the landmark of the Alluvial Fan, where a record flood in the early 1980s reshaped the landscape. This is a particularly good part of the park for sighting bighorn sheep, with a dedicated observational area near the Fall River Entrance.

Dream Lake in the Rocky Mountain National Park
Dream Lake in the Rocky Mountain National Park
Where to Stay Near Rocky Mountain National Park

Murphy’s River Lodge – This rustic lodge located close to the center of Estes Park is an excellent choice near Rocky Mountain National Park. There are countless rooms available to suit all kinds of travelers, a heated indoor swimming pool and hot tub and a great continental breakfast is available each morning. Click here to see their availability

Streamside on Fall River – Another great hotel option in an incredibly scenic location, this lodge has a number of fantastic rooms available. All rooms are clean and comfortable and some are equipped with a kitchenette or a river-view patio. There are also barbecue facilities and a hot tub available for all guests to enjoy. Click here to see their availability

Private Rental – If you’d rather have your own than stay in a hotel, a private vacation rental is a great option for you. There are lots of great properties available in Estes Park, such as this grand cabin with panoramic mountain views. Click here to browse more private rentals in Estes Park!

Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse other hotels in Estes Park!

Day 3: Scenic Drive to Granby

Depending on the time of year you can either drive Trail Ridge Road—the highest paved road in any national park in the US—from Estes Park to the town of Granby or loop back to the south on Highway 7 (also known as “the Peak to Peak Highway”) and take I-70 to Highway 40.

Assuming you’re traveling in a month when there’s no closure of Trail Ridge Road (roughly April through October, depending on the year), this route through alpine tundra and subalpine forest is not to be missed.

No matter which route you take, you’re in for one of the most memorable drives of your lifetime, as the Peak to Peak Highway leading south from Estes Park to I-70 also winds through the thickly forested terrain bordering on the scenic Indian Peaks and James Peak Wilderness areas.

And once you’ve arrived in the town of Granby, you’ll find a wide mountain valley with towns built around Grand Lake and the headwaters of the Colorado River. World-class hiking, boating, golfing, mountain biking, and horseback riding are all easy to find here, and Winter Park, one of Colorado’s most prized ski resorts, is just around the corner.

Trail Ridge Road
Trail Ridge Road
Where to Stay in Granby

The Inn at Silver Creek Resort – If you’re looking for comfortable and spacious self-catering options in Granby, then you can’t go wrong with this place. This 2-bedroom apartment is fully equipped with everything you might need and is well-located to explore everything. Click here to see their availability

Penthouse Suite at The Lodge – Another excellent self-catering option, this place has a few apartments to choose from depending on the size of your party. They come excellently well-reviewed and have a great location in Granby. Click here to see their availability

Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse more Granby hotels!

Day 4: Silverthorne/Breckenridge

From Granby, you could choose to drive back over Berthoud Pass and get back on I-70 before continuing your road trip west, but another good option for a more scenic drive is to take Highway 40 over to Kremmling before going south on Highway 9 toward Silverthorne.

This drive takes you along the beautiful ranchland that surrounds the upper Colorado River, as well as landmarks like Green Mountain Reservoir.

Once you’ve reached Silverthorne, the area surrounding Lake Dillon is an adventure playground where popular activities range from paddleboarding to guided fly fishing.

The mountain town of Breckenridge is then less than a 20-minute drive from Silverthorne, so head over here for famed ski slopes, locally renowned craft breweries, and what can only be described as a quintessential Colorado vacation town experience.

Where to Stay in Breckenridge

Welk Resorts Breckenridge – If you’re looking to stay in luxury while visiting Breckenridge, then you can’t go wrong with this place. They have a number of plush rooms available and countless amenities to make your stay a great one. Click here to see their availability

Breck Inn – If you’re looking for something smaller and a bit less grand, then this inn is a good option. They have a number of cosy and comfy rooms on offer and a lot of other amenities to ensure your stay is fantastic. Click here to see their availability

Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse more Breckenridge hotels!

Breckenridge
Breckenridge

Day 5: Vail

Vail is one of the most popular destination towns in Colorado for many reasons: it’s right along I-70, has some of the most diverse ski terrain in the country, and has developed a “high class” reputation akin to that of Aspen, just to name a few.

So for travelers looking to cap their 5-day Colorado road trip itinerary with a memorable stop, it’s hard to beat Vail—especially for any first-timers in the Rocky Mountains during the winter.

Even if you’re not skiing at the resort, be sure to spend some time in downtown Vail exploring this town’s retail stores, art galleries, and beautifully landscaped paths that run alongside Gore Creek. The Vail Scenic Gondola is a nice attraction to consider for tourists visiting for a day.

Where to Stay in Vail

Montaneros in Vail, A Destination Residence – These great self-catering apartments are a fantastic choice for your stay in Vail. Well-located no matter what season you’re visiting, they have a range of apartments that can suit everyone from couples to large families. Click here to see their availability

Lodge at Lionshead – This alpine lodge is an excellent choice for a place to stay at the base of Vail mountain. They have a number of apartment-like rooms with self-catering facilities and a number of great amenities. Click here to see their availability

The Sebastian – If you’re after a luxe hotel during your stay in Vail, then this is an excellent choice for you. This ski-in, ski-out resort offers numerous plush rooms and countless other amenities that will ensure you have a fantastic time in this Colorado town. Click here to check their availability

Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse more Vail hotels!

Have More Time?

Make a Detour to Minturn – Just around the corner from Vail at the confluence of the Eagle River and Gore Creek, Minturn offers a nice contrast to the ski town vibes of its surroundings. The former railroad town has a nice selection of local restaurants and shops and is surrounded by many National Forest hiking trails.

Extra Day in RMNP – There’s so much to do in this national park that an extra day is more than warranted. If you’ve explored a particular area like Moraine Park, the Fall River area, or the Grand Lake side on day one, then branch out and enter the park from a different access point when you return.

Moraine Park in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado
Moraine Park in Rocky Mountain National Park

Denver to South Fork Itinerary

Day 1: Denver

This 5-day Colorado road trip itinerary also kicks off in Denver, though a drive south of I-70 past the small town of Morrison and onto US Route 285 is your trajectory this time.

While still in Denver, take the opportunity to pick one of the city’s affectionately named main districts—such as the River North (“RiNo” for the locals) or Lower Downtown (LoDo) areas—and strike out for some exploration.

If you choose to explore the RiNo area, for example, you’ll find lots of contemporary art galleries and a string of cocktail lounges, brewpubs, and patio bars along Upper Larimer Street. 

Union Station in Denver
Union Station in Denver

Day 2: Fairplay

Known to fans of the controversial show “South Park” as the source of inspiration for creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the small town of Fairplay is also “the official trout fishing capital of Colorado” thanks to its proximity to so many rivers, streams, and reservoirs.

Because the downtown area of Fairplay is relatively small, it’s probably best to plan for half a day of exploring the town and spending the rest of the day branching out for an activity in the surrounding mountain wilderness.

Some local favorite hiking trails near Fairplay include the Rich Creek Trail, Beaver Creek Trail, and multiple trails in Eleven Mile State Park.

Where to Stay in Fairplay

A Riverside Inn Travelodge – Centrally located, this hotel is an excellent place to rest your head in Fairplay if you’re looking for a basic hotel. They have a number of clean and comfortable rooms available and there are good facilities. Click here to see their availability

Fairplay Cabin with Large Porch – If you’d rather stay in your own private place over a hotel, then this cabin is a good option. It’s well-located in Fairplay, they have 2 bedrooms, a great living area and a fully-equipped kitchen. Click here to see their availability

Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse more Fairplay hotels!

Day 3: Salida

As you continue south on US 285 from Fairplay, your next stop just an hour down the road is the town of Salida in the upper Arkansas River valley.

This is another postcard-worthy Colorado mountain town, though it stands apart from places like Breckenridge and Vail with a slightly more “down to Earth” feel that comes from not being quite as heavily invested in the ski industry (though Monarch Mountain is a popular ski option located about 20 miles away).

Beyond its restaurants, breweries, and art galleries that have a reputation for drawing a “hip” local crowd, Salida also offers lots of water-focused recreation on the Arkansas River, a scenic tramway that takes riders to an elevation of more than 11,000 feet, and easy access to explore the pristine Browns Canyon National Monument area, among many other activities, depending on the time of year.

Scenery near Monarch Mountain
Scenery near Monarch Mountain
Where to Stay in Salida

Mountain Goat Lodge — This boutique bed and breakfast is an excellent option if you’re after a bit of luxury while driving to Durango. It is well located, there are a number of plush rooms available, and the breakfast included uses dairy products sourced from the property’s own goats! Click here to see their availability

The Salida Inn & Hostel — If you’re traveling on a bit of a tighter budget, then this inn and hostel is an excellent choice. It is centrally located and has both private, ensuite rooms available along with hostel dorm beds. There is also breakfast included each morning. Click here to see their availability

Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse more Salida hotels!

Day 4: Great Sand Dunes National Park

Just a short detour to the east from your main artery of US 285, Great Sand Dunes National Park should be on anyone’s 5-day Colorado itinerary when traveling on this route.

This national park is somewhat unique in terms of how freely visitors are allowed to strike out independently and explore these mountainous sand dunes without even having to be on a marked trail or needing a tour guide.

With that said, the Great Sand Dunes also has an excellent visitor’s center and a staff of rangers and wildlife experts who put on presentations and events in the spring through fall, so stop in and see the experts if you want some help in planning your day here.

A good option is to head out on your own from the parking area to climb a dune and see the sunrise, and then consider booking a guided adventure such as an off-road 4×4 excursion on the Medano Pass Primitive Road in the afternoon.

Great Sand Dunes National Park is a must stop on the Denver to Santa Fe drive
Great Sand Dunes National Park
Where to Stay Near Great Sand Dunes National Park

Best Western Movie Manor – This hotel, located in the town of Monte Vista, is a great jumping-off point to visit Great Sand Dunes National Park. They have a range of comfortable rooms available, a hearty breakfast included each morning and there is even a classic drive-in movie theatre on site! Click here to see their availability

Sandhill Inn & Suites – Another great option also located in Monte Vista, this is a fabulous place to get some rest before exploring the National Park. They have a number of clean and comfortable rooms available and also a swimming pool and fitness center on site. Click here to see their availability

Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse more hotels near Great Sand Dunes National Park!

Day 5: South Fork

The final stop on this 5-day Colorado road trip itinerary is the town of South Fork, which is located just about an hour west of the Great Sand Dunes and serves as a fitting basecamp for access to many surrounding destinations, including the town of Creede, Wolf Creek Ski Resort, and the La Garita Wilderness.

If you decide to make the drive up the Silver Thread Scenic & Historic Byway to Creede, you’ll be rewarded with breathtaking views of the mighty Rio Grande River’s headwaters.

The town of Creede itself is worth a stop thanks to its status as a historic mining town, and the opportunities at camping, hiking, backpacking, mountain biking, and more are seemingly endless in this hidden gem of a wilderness area.

Creede, Colorado
Creede, Colorado
Where to Stay in South Fork

Quality Inn & Suites – If you’re after some consistent accommodation, then this hotel is a great option. They have a number of clean and comfortable rooms available, an on-site indoor swimming pool and hot tub and 24-hour reception. Click here to see their availability

Grandview Cabins & RV Resort – If you’re happy for your Colorado itinerary to include a stay in a cabin, then this is a great option for you. They have a number of rustic cabins available to suit all kinds of visitors. Click here to see their availability

Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse more South Fork hotels!

Have More Time?

Stop in Pagosa Springs – This could be a possible alternative as a last stop on your itinerary if you’d prefer to push on a little farther from the Great Sand Dunes. The Springs Resort & Spa, located right on the San Juan River, is a favorite attraction in this town.

Ski or Bike the Continental Divide – As mentioned earlier, the Monarch Mountain area is a big draw for visitors to Salida and the upper Arkansas River valley, no matter the time of year. In the summer, the Monarch Crest is a highly prized trail for serious mountain bikers, and when the snow falls, Monarch Mountain Ski Area has something for brand new beginners on up to the most advanced skiers and snowboarders.

Steamboat to Gunnison Itinerary

Day 1: Steamboat Springs

This itinerary will take you on a more unconventional north-south route across some of Colorado’s less-traveled, yet most scenic, highways and backroads. Travelers coming from Denver will find that the drive to Steamboat Springs, your day one destination, takes roughly three hours and comes with great views as Highway 9 traverses Rabbit Ears Pass.

Steamboat Springs is probably best known for its famed ski mountain that has long served as a training ground for Olympic-level skiers. But if you’re not here to ski, consider grabbing some brunch after your morning drive from Denver at one of the local favorite eateries like Winona’s or the Creekside Café and Grill.

From there, you have your pick from countless activities in and around Steamboat, from fly fishing or tubing in the Yampa River to a soak in the popular Strawberry Hot Springs, depending on the time of year.

Fall in Steamboat Springs
Fall in Steamboat Springs
Where to Stay in Steamboat Springs

The Bristol Hotel – If you’re traveling on a bit of a higher budget, then this lovely boutique hotel is a great option. Centrally located in downtown Steamboat Springs, they have a number of rooms available, an indoor hot tub and a restaurant/bar on site. Click here to see their availability

Nordic Lodge – If it’s basic yet comfortable accommodation that you’re after, then this hotel is a great option. They have a number of rooms on offer, a good location and offer breakfast in the morning. Click here to see their availability

Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse more Steamboat Springs hotels!

Day 2: Glenwood Springs

Day 2 of this 5-day Colorado itinerary will take you from one “springs” to another as you make the roughly two-hour drive down Highway 131 and eventually I-70 West from Steamboat Springs to Glenwood Springs.

If you made a stop at Steamboat’s Strawberry Hot Springs, you’ll have to visit the Glenwood Hot Springs Resort. While both feature naturally heated hot spring waters, you’re sure to find that each one has its own personality and offers a unique set of wilderness views as you relax and soak in the springs.

Where to Stay in Glenwood Springs

Hotel Colorado – An excellent option for those traveling on a bit of a higher budget, this hotel has a lot to offer visitors. They have a range of lovely rooms on offer along with a full-service spa and a bar and lounge on site. Click here to see their availability

Glenwood Springs Inn – If you’re looking for basic and consistent accommodation in Glenwood Springs, then this hotel is a solid option. They have a number of rooms on offer, comfortable facilities, and they include breakfast. Click here to see their availability

Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse more Glenwood Springs hotels!

Glenwood Springs Valley
Glenwood Springs Valley

Day 3: Paonia

Today, you’ll really deviate onto the “road less traveled” as you leave the familiar traffic of I-70 and head down Highway 82, which will soon branch directly south at Carbondale onto Highway 133 and have you driving along the beautiful Crystal River.

This incredibly scenic mountain drive will take you past a slew of landmarks, such as Paonia State Park, before you reach the small town of Paonia.

Known for having a surprising number of wineries, and for generally being situated in one of Colorado’s most awe-inspiring valleys, Paonia is a great place to spend an afternoon or an evening after making the drive south from Glenwood Springs.

Where to Stay in Paonia

Bross Hotel B&B – This charming bed and breakfast is an excellent option in Paonia. Centrally located, they have a handful of comfy rooms available and, of course, an excellent breakfast included each morning. Click here to see their availability

Wisehart Springs Inn – Another fantastic option in Paonia, this inn boasts incredible mountain views and a great location in this Colorado town. There are a number of rooms on offer and they also include breakfast in the nightly rate. Click here to see their availability

Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse more Paonia hotels!

Day 4: Montrose

Montrose is located just an hour south of Paonia, and you’ll have your choice of several possible routes once you’ve deviated from Highway 133 onto 92 just past the small town of Hotchkiss.

Montrose is quite a bit larger than Paonia and rests at a relatively low elevation to the west of the Gunnison and Crested Butte areas.

Since services are in such good supply here, Montrose is an ideal supply stop for visiting a gear shop if you’re planning on being outdoors in one of the many natural areas near Gunnison, such as the Gunnison Gorge or the Black Canyon of the Gunnison.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Where to Stay in Montrose

Holiday Inn Express & Suites Montrose – If you want a consistent and predictable chain to stay at in Montrose, then this is a good option. They have a myriad of rooms available, good amenities and include breakfast in the room rate. Click here to see their availability

The Blue Bungalow – If a private holiday home suits your fancy while in Gunnison, then this central house is a great option. Consisting of two bedrooms, this charming house is close to all the action and comes extremely highly reviewed. Click here to see their availability

Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse more Montrose hotels!

Day 5: Gunnison

The grand finale of this 5-day Colorado road trip itinerary that has ranged from the far north in Steamboat Springs to this southwestern part of the state is a stop in the town of Gunnison.

This is another valley with a reputation for being among Colorado’s most beautiful, and the town itself doesn’t disappoint thanks to a wide range of unique shops, restaurants, and entertainment experiences available to visitors.

Natural areas like the Black Canyon of the Gunnison—known for being both one of America’s least-accessed and most unforgettable national parks—are within easy striking distance of downtown. Other main attractions such as Blue Mesa Reservoir also present plenty of opportunities for outdoor activities, depending on the time of year.

Beautiful scenary near the town of Gunnison
Beautiful scenary near the town of Gunnison
Where to Stay in Gunnison

The Inn at Tomichi Village – A great option for those who are looking for a bit of a splurge in Gunnison, this hotel has a lot to offer visitors. They have a number of great rooms available, a good location and a number of great amenities. Click here to see their availability

Rodeway Inn Gunnison – A solid option for those traveling on a mid-range, this centrally-located hotel has a number of great rooms available. It’s well-located, has a hot tub on site and also includes breakfast in the nightly rate. Click here to see their availability

Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse more Gunnison hotels!

Have More Time?

Crested Butte – If you feel inclined after visiting Gunnison, the town of Crested Butte is just a 30-minute drive to the north. Downhill ski and mountain bike trails dominate the surrounding landscape, and there are even Nordic ski routes scattered around town.

Aspen – If you felt inclined to really make this a snow sports-heavy itinerary, you could easily make a detour to the town of Aspen from Glenwood Springs.

Aspen Ski Lifts in autumn
Aspen Ski Lifts in autumn

Planning a 5-day Colorado road trip itinerary should start with figuring out your goals in terms of activities and an overall trajectory for your trip. Hopefully, these three possibilities have given you the inspiration needed to plot your own route through the Rocky Mountains in the Centennial State.

Are you planning a Colorado itinerary? Have any questions about any of these routes? Let us know in the comments!

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Duncan is a writer for The World Was Here First. He lives in Colorado and also works as a fly fishing guide and instructor when not editing or writing. He has spent time in Costa Rica and has made numerous trips exploring the Western states of the Rocky Mountains. If he could teleport to anywhere on the planet, it would be the mountains of Patagonia in Chile.

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