5-Day Colorado Road Trip Itinerary: 3 Perfect Routes

Last Updated on

by Duncan McHenry

Disclaimer: This article contains affiliate links. That means if you click a link and make a purchase, we may make a small commission. As an Amazon Associate we earn from qualifying purchases. For more information, see our privacy policy.

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, a wide range of landscape types, and an 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.

Whatever kind of trip you’re after, the three routes below will help you plan a Colorado adventure to suit your wants and needs.

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 (even in cities like Denver during winter!) 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 take a road trip in Colorado, with late spring and summer standing out as the times with the mildest weather and the 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 – Good for mid-range visitors looking for a comfortable hotel, this is a reliable place to stay in Downtown Denver. There are countless rooms available and daily breakfast.

Westin Denver Downton – A high-end option in Downtown Denver, there are several modern and spacious rooms and an unbeatable location for exploring the city.

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

Day 2: Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain NP and its base camp 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 NP
Where to Stay Near Rocky Mountain NP

Murphy’s River Lodge – Located close to the Park entrance in Estes Park, this is a classic lodge that offers a swimming pool and hot tub, a great breakfast and several rustic rooms.

Streamside on Fall River – Situated in Ested Park, this hotel has numerous rooms (some including kitchenettes), barbecue facilities for guests and beautiful river views.

Private Rental – There are plenty of furnished homes to choose from – such as this grand cabin with panoramic mountain views – and this can make a great option when staying near the National 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 the 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 this 2-bedroom apartment is fully equipped with everything you might need and is well-located to explore everything.

Lodge at Ten Mile & Granby Ranch – 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.

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. This is undoubtedly one of the best stops when driving between Denver and Breckenridge!

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 – A classic luxury lodge in Breckenridge, this is perfect for visitors after a plush stay. There are several different Alpine rooms to choose from along with 2 swimming pools, a fitness center and a bar.

Breck Inn – A comfortable and rustic 3-star getaway, this hotel is located five minutes from the Breckenridge Ski Resort. There are rooms to suit couples and families along with free parking and breakfast.

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


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 – Boasting beautiful furnished apartments of varying sizes, this hotel also has multiple swimming pools, barbecue facilities, free parking and much more.

Lodge at Lionshead – A comfortable lodge at the base of Vail Mountain, this place and a range of rooms to chose from, a great location, family rooms, a swimming pool and plenty more for guests to enjoy!

The Sebastian – A wonderful luxury option, this hotel not only has a range of gorgeous rooms, there is also an on-site spa, an inviting pool and simply breathtaking surroundings in Vail.

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.

Colorado Springs – You can take a leisurely drive back to Denver, stopping in Colorado Springs and exploring Pikes Peak or the Garden of the Gods.

Moraine Park in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado
Moraine 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.

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.

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 in Colorado
Scenery near Monarch Mountain
Where to Stay in Salida

Browns Canyon Inn – Offering breakfast, free parking and rooms for both couples and families alike, this inn in Salida is a great choice. There are lots of great rooms to choose from and friendly owners.

The Salida Inn & Hostel – Great for those looking for a budget option, this inn has private rooms and dorms available, all equipped with a private bathroom. There is also free on-site parking.

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 NP

Best Western Movie Manor – This cool hotel in Monte Vista is great for exploring the Park. Not only are there plenty of comfortable rooms available, there is also an on-site drive-in movie theatre!

Sandhill Inn & Suites – With several clean and modern rooms available, this hotel in Monte Vista has an indoor swimming pool and serves as a great base fore exploring the Great Sand Dunes.

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 trip to Colorado 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 for 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.

Grandview Cabins & RV Resort – If you’re happy for your trip to Colorado 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.

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 up to the most advanced skiers and snowboarders.

Mesa Verde National Park – If you have an extra couple of days, you can drive to Mesa Verde NP from South Fork to explore more stunning cliff dwellings and archaeological sites.

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.

Mariposa Lodge Bed and Breakfast – 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 National Park.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Black Canyon of the Gunnison
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.

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.

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

Day 5: Gunnison

The grand finale of this Colorado road trip 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 scenery 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.

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.

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 or visit as an alternative ski resort to Vail or Breckenridge.

Boulder – This college town is a great place to explore more of Colorado with many preferring to base themselves in Boulder rather than Denver.

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 trip to Colorado? Have questions about any of these routes? Let us know in the comments!

Like It? Pin It!
Avatar photo

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.


  1. I’m looking to find a place that would house around 10 people, in a central location of Colorado that would provide me a good central place to make day trips to Breckenridge, Estes park, Colorado Springs, etc… Where is a good central area to stay and make drives to these places?

  2. Hi, thanks for your very helpful post. After a very hard year, my friend and I will be taking a road trip from Denver area, we have about 5-6 days and want to do something memorable, the only problem is that I get a bit stressed out on high mountain drives with big drops/no railings etc. which route will you take and which route will you advise? Anything’s helpful


Leave a Comment