10 Best Stops on the Denver to Aspen Drive via Vail


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Visiting Colorado and planning a Denver to Aspen drive? You’re not alone.

Colorado is arguably one of the most beautiful states in the US, home to stunning parks and forests, sublime Rocky Mountain peaks, and amazing cities and towns that incorporate the region’s natural beauty into daily life. It is a must-see state for all types of travellers, but particularly for those with a love for thrill-seeking outdoor adventures.

Colorado is a perfect travel destination all-year-round and is chock-full of amazing and unique things to see and do. For a first-time visit to Colorado, I would recommend embarking on the drive from Denver to Aspen. Between these two very different cities there are a plethora of great stop to check out, and you’ll be able to experience all the best of what this beautiful state has to offer.

Planning a Denver to Aspen Road Trip

The distance on the drive from Denver to Aspen is 198 miles (319 kilometres) and takes approximately 4 hours by car if you stick to the relatively easy route that is a straight shot along the I-70 West for the majority of the journey. However, before embarking you’ll need to decide whether you’ll cut down to Independence Pass after stopping in Dillon, or if you’ll continue along the I-70 West to Glenwood Springs before cutting down on the CO-82 before finally reaching Aspen.  

The Independence Pass route is faster and incredibly scenic; however, it is only open in warmer months because it is steep and narrow and potentially dangerous to drive on it if there’s snow on the ground.

If you’re planning on visiting Colorado in winter and you want to experience a Denver to Vail drive along the way, or if you simply don’t feel comfortable driving on Independence Pass, the I-70 route is the best option. Prior to exiting off the I-70 for the last hour or so of the journey, you’ll find that this major highway is extremely well-kept, easy to navigate, and there will be places to stop for food or gas frequently, as this is one of Colorado’s most popular regions.

If planning on renting a car for this drive, you’ll find a number of options by browsing Rentalcars.com which aggregates the best deals across all major car hire companies. If you prefer a campervan or motorhome, then you’ll find a great selection of choices on Outdoorsy.

Maroon Bells near Aspen
Maroon Bells near Aspen

How Far is Denver to Aspen?

The distance from Denver to Aspen is around 200 miles, which means that this is a relatively easy and short road-trip. If you were to drive straight there without making any stops, the Denver to Aspen drive time would be around four hours.

However, it is definitely worth taking your time on the drive and making various stops. If you really want to get the most out of your experience and see all Western Colorado has to offer, I’d recommend splitting up your drive into two or three days so that you can stop in all the cool mountain towns, go on a hike or two, and take in the beautiful scenery.

Now, read on for a list of the best Denver to Aspen stops on a Colorado road trip!

Looking for other road trips from Denver? Check out our Denver to Albuquerque drive, Denver to Phoenix drive, Denver to Telluride drive & Denver to Las Vegas drive articles!

Denver to Aspen Drive Stops

Denver

Denver is the capital city of Colorado, and the perfect starting point for this trip, not only because it is likely where you’ll be flying into and renting a car, but also because it is an extremely vibrant, beautiful, and interesting city.

Before you head to the mountains, make sure you experience all Denver has to offer. Explore the bustling downtown area, including Larimer Square (Denver’s oldest city block), 16th Street Mall, and the newly renovated, beautiful Union Station. Spend the evening on South Broadway, a unique block full of quirky restaurants, bars, and clubs.

After you’ve gotten a taste of Denver, make sure to get a good night of sleep so that you’re ready to hit the road and head to the mountains early the next day!

Union Station in Denver
Union Station in Denver

Idaho Springs

From Denver, get on the I-70 West. This is the highway you’ll stay on for a majority of the trip, and one that will take you by many iconic Colorado towns and sights. Drive for about forty-five minutes before making your first stop- Idaho Springs.

This town offers some interesting insight into Colorado’s history and the importance of the mining industry in the development of the state, making it an ideal stop on the Denver to Aspen drive. Idaho Springs was once a bustling mining town where gold was discovered in 1859, and today there are several tours you can do to learn more about the mines and the impact they had on the city.

Check out Argo Gold Mine and Mill and the Phoenix Gold Mine to learn more about Colorado’s history with gold mining.

Afterwards, check out Beau Jo’s on the main street in the centre of town. This pizza establishment is absolutely iconic for native Coloradans, a popular spot for people to stop at after spending a busy day being active in the mountains before heading back to Denver. They specialize in “Colorado-style pizza” and a bustling, happy atmosphere.

Mt. Evans Scenic Byway

After exploring Idaho Springs, consider making a detour on the Mt. Evan’s Scenic Byway. It is about an hour’s drive south of the I-70 and only open in warmer months, but if you do decide to check it out, it will definitely be worth your while!

This scenic highway is the highest paved auto-road in North America, at 14,260 feet above sea level and provides absolutely stunning views of the Colorado landscape. From Idaho Springs, take the State Highway 103 and continue onto State Highway 5.

The entire drive is about 28 miles and gains over 7,000 feet of elevation, so you’re able to watch the landscape change before your eyes as you climb higher and higher! If you do decide to take this detour, simply come back the way you came and right back on the I-70 West to continue on your way to Aspen.

Summit Lake on the Mount Evans Byway
Summit Lake on the Mount Evans Byway

Georgetown

Just about 20 minutes down the I-70 West from Idaho Springs, you’ll come across Georgetown, another quaint mountain town that makes for an excellent stop on a Denver to Aspen road trip, especially if you’re travelling with children.

This town is home to the Georgetown Loop Railroad, an old-fashioned boutique train that takes passengers on a loop through stunning mountain terrain and provides a glimpse back in time to what it would’ve been like to travel through the Colorado wilderness when railroads were a primary means of transportation.

While perhaps a bit kitschy, the railroad loop is well-loved by Colorado locals and people of all ages.

Dillon Reservoir

Our next stop is about 40 minutes further down the I-70. Situated right in the centre of mountain town Dillon, Colorado, you’ll find the Dillon Reservoir, a huge fresh-water reservoir that is used year-round as a destination for all types of water sports.

In the winter, try snow kiteboarding or iceboating on the frozen reservoir, and in the beautiful summer months, you can rent kayaks, paddleboards and other boats and spend a day out on the sparkling water, surrounded on all sides by impressive mountain facades.

The reservoir is also home to a world-class amphitheatre that hosts shows from a wide variety of bands and theatre companies. If you’re making a Colorado trip in the summer, try to make it to one of the free concerts Friday and Saturday nights through June, July and August. There’s nothing quite like an outdoor summer concert in the mountains!

Dillon Reservoir is a great place to stop between Denver and Vail
Dillon Reservoir

Vail or Leadville

At this point in the drive, you’ll have to make the decision whether or not you’ll continue along the I-70 West, the longer route that’s open all year, or head south to take Independence Pass into Aspen, which is only open in warmer months. The next stops will vary based on which route you decide to take.

If you choose to continue along the I-70, drive another fifty minutes before reaching Vail, a world-famous ski destination.  If you’re a skier or snowboarder, definitely stop here to hit the slopes on this iconic mountain, and if you aren’t a fan of winter sports, stroll around Vail Village and explore the shops, restaurants, and breweries to get a taste of an authentic Colorado ski town.

If you find yourself in Vail outside the ski season, there’s still plenty to do in the area, including beautiful hikes, miles of mountain biking trails, and great fly fishing.

If you decide not to go on the drive from Denver to Vail, then go on the Independence Pass route. Exit off the I-70 West onto CO-91 South for about fifty minutes before reaching Leadville, the highest incorporated city in the United States at 10,430 feet elevation.

This small town was a major hotspot for mining and has a wild-west mystique to it, home to a few Colorado old-time legends. Stroll through downtown Leadville and take in the beautiful old Victorian homes and buildings, local shops and quaint cafes and imagine what life must have been like here back in the late 1800s before getting back on the road.

Want to spend the night in Vail? Check out this stunning condominium in the heart of Vail!

Glenwood Springs or Twin Lakes/ Mount Elbert

If you opt to go the I-70 route to Aspen, the next best stop after Vail is Glenwood Springs, just about an hour west of Vail. Glenwood Springs is a great place to stop, as it is home to the world’s largest mineral hot springs pool.

The sprawling natural hot springs consist of one large outdoor pool, and a series of smaller, hotter “therapy pools” that offer many health benefits. A visit to the Glenwood Hot Springs is the perfect way to relax and recover from all the adventuring you’ve been doing!

If you’re travelling with children, be sure to check out the Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park. This mountain-top amusement park is completely unique and provides a fun way to take in the stunning views of the Colorado wilderness.

Glenwood Springs Valley
Glenwood Springs Valley

If you decide to go the Independence Pass route, get ready to embark on the most spectacular part of your Denver to Aspen drive! From Leadville, you’ll hop on the US-24 East for half an hour before turning onto the CO-82 West, the highway that will eventually take you over Independence Pass and into Aspen. However, make sure to stop at Twin Lakes, the small town situated at the base of Mount Elbert, the highest peak in Colorado.

This stunning small town is nestled between two large glacial lakes and provides absolutely sublime views of the imposing Mount Elbert. For the outdoor enthusiast, Twin Lakes is an absolute must-see, as there are so many incredible hikes, fishing spots, and places to camp in the area.

Additionally, the seasoned mountaineer can even trek up to the peak of Mount Elbert to reach the highest point in the state! However, if you do decide to summit the mountain, do plenty of research and make sure you are extremely well prepared. Whether you simply stop to stretch your legs and take in the view or choose to stay for a day or two to hike and camp, a stop in Twin Lakes is well worth your time!

Roaring Fork Valley or Independence Pass

Regardless of the route you choose the Independence Pass route or the Denver to Vail drive to Aspen, the final stretch will be extremely scenic and beautiful, so be prepared to make multiple shorter stops along the way to take pictures!

If you choose the I-70 route, after leaving Glenwood Springs you’ll get on the CO-82 highway for one final hour before reaching Aspen. This area, called the Roaring Fork Valley, is home to a number of beautiful mountain towns located right along this highway. Stop for a bite to eat or a leisurely walk in Carbondale or Basalt before arriving in Aspen.

If you choose to take the second route from Twin Lakes into Aspen, you’ll now begin the 32-mile drive on Independence Pass, arguably one of the most iconic roads in Colorado. Be prepared for the drive to take up to an hour and a half – it is narrow and steep and has many twists and turns, so make sure you take your time with it.

It is a completely safe drive as long as you follow the speed limit and drive attentively! If you are able to take this route, I would strongly recommend it. Independence Pass is absolutely stunning and unlike anything else in the world.

Independence Pass is an alternative route on the Denver to Aspen drive
Independence Pass

Aspen

And finally, after a Denver to Aspen scenic drive, you’ll have arrived in beautiful Aspen, Colorado! This ritzy ski-resort town showcases the spirit of Colorado’s rustic wilderness, but with a touch of glamour. Not only is it home to a showstopping ski mountain, but it’s fully developed downtown area is lined with world-class restaurants, high-end boutiques, and amazing art galleries.

Aspen is truly a one of a kind town where you’ll definitely want to spend a few days. Ski, hike, bike, rock-climb, or horseback ride to your heart’s content- Aspen has it all and is the perfect place to end a Colorado road trip.

Want a unique place to sleep in Aspen? Check out this amazing SkiLoft with stunning mountain views!

Where to Stay on the Denver to Aspen Drive

Despite finding your ideal accommodation in Denver and Aspen, it’s likely that you’re going to want to find the perfect place to rest your head while on the road trip. Vail is a great stop on this drive as, even if you choose to take the Independence Pass route, it is only a minor detour and has many amenities and things to do.

Where to Stay in Denver

Airbnb — Airbnb is an excellent option if you’re looking for a unique place to stay in Denver. There are a range of properties available on the platform from historic city centre apartments like this one to affordable private rooms in local’s homes. Click here to browse Airbnbs in Denver

Holiday Inn Express Downtown Denver — A great hotel if you’re on the hunt for something consistent and reliable in Downtown Denver. Well-located to explore the city, there are a number of rooms available and breakfast included in the room rate. Click here to see their availability

Westin Denver Downton — A great luxury option in the centre of Denver this hotel is perfectly located to explore the best of Colorado’s capital. They have countless chic, clean, and comfortable rooms available and great amenities to ensure you have a wonderful stay. Click here to see their availability

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

Sunny Day in Downtown Denver
Sunny Day in Downtown Denver

Where to Stay in Vail

Airbnb – There are a number of options to suit different levels of budget in Vail such this stunning condominium if you’re looking for a bit of luxury. Click here to browse Airbnbs 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

Where to Stay in Aspen

Airbnb – Apart from this amazing SkiLoft with incredible mountain views, you can find a range of options on Airbnb including studios, private rooms and condominiums. Click here to view Airbnbs in Aspen.

Annabelle Inn — This European-style ski lodge is a wonderful place to base yourself in Aspen. They have a range of quaint and comfortable rooms available and have an inviting courtyard to relax in. Click here to see their availability

Limelight Hotel — This well-located 4-star hotel is the perfect place to base yourself in Aspen. They have a range of clean and comfortable rooms available, a pool and hot tub on site, and numerous other amenities to ensure your stay is a great one! Click here to see their availability

Hotel Jerome — This historic, luxury resort an excellent place to stay in Aspen if you’re on the hunt for a plush stay in the Colorado ski town. They have countless chic rooms available, endless amenities including a spa, pool, and great restaurant/bar, and it is well located to enjoy all Aspen has to offer. Click here to see their availability

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

Aspen Ski Lifts in autumn
Aspen Ski Lifts in autumn

As you can see, Colorado is a mecca for adventure seekers and outdoor enthusiasts of all kinds, and a Denver to Aspen road trip is the perfect way to get acquainted with this beautiful state. With so much to do and see along the way, you’re sure to have an unforgettable trip, whichever route you decide to take.

Are you planning a Denver to Aspen drive or a Denver to Vail drive? Have you been on a Colorado road trip? Let us know in the comments!

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Ella is a writer for The World Was Here First. She is an American living in Dublin, Ireland, and when she isn’t writing, you can find her playing the guitar, reading, or pouring the perfect flat white at the café she works at. Ella fell in love with travelling while studying abroad in Galway, which is what prompted her to come back to Ireland after graduating university and start writing about her experiences.

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