With a route that passes south on US Highway 285 through Pike-San Isabel National Forest and continues down to the Great Sand Dunes and the Rio Grande headwaters, the Denver to Durango drive is one of southern Colorado’s most scenic.
And as this road trip tends to take only about six to six and a half hours, it’s easy to pull off in a single day with plenty of time for some stops near the highway.
This drive is most densely populated with residential areas and small towns for about the first hour or so, but the rest is nothing but mountain passes, wide-open valleys, and National Forest areas, with the occasional town to break things up.
Once you arrive at your destination, Durango is an activity-rich railroad town with a history dating back to the post-Gold Rush era of the late 1800s. Read on for more about how best to plan for a trip from Denver to Durango with some opportunities for recreation, relaxation, and sightseeing along the way.
Planning a Denver to Durango Drive
Your best and most scenic route from Denver to Durango tends to be 285 South, though you could also choose to go straight south from Denver on Interstate 25. Taking I-25 adds something like 20-30 minutes, depending on traffic, and will take you past the flatter, more populated areas of Colorado Springs and Pueblo.
Assuming you choose the route through the mountains on 285, you’ll still be on a paved highway for practically the entire time—depending on your chosen stops—so there’s no major need for a high-clearance, 4-wheel drive sort of vehicle. Having a Jeep or other SUV or truck may come in handy if you plan on doing any venturing down the dusty National Forest access roads, however.
Unless you’re making this drive in the mid-summer months of June to August, it’s a good idea to travel with plenty of warm layers.
Pack your hiking boots and a rain jacket as well if you plan on stopping at hiking trails or national parks and monuments like the Great Sand Dunes and Chimney Rock National Monument in the San Juan Forest. Services like gas stations and restaurants are in good supply at Salida, Saguache, and other areas along the way.
How Far is Denver to Durango?
The drive from Denver to Durango via 285 South covers about 337 miles and usually takes just over six hours, give or take some time depending on traffic and weather conditions. The alternate route out of Denver and straight down I-25 South is about 385 miles in total distance and will take drivers closer to six and a half hours.
One reason you might choose to take the I-25 route from Denver to Durango would be if you’d rather minimize the mountain driving on winding, less-maintained roads.
There are long swaths of the drive down 285 South—such as the section between Fairplay to Buena Vista—where you may lose cell signal at times and find higher chances of on-road hazards like wildlife, fallen rocks, and icy or snowy road conditions.
If playing it safe during times of the year with bad weather is your goal, it might make sense to take the longer route down I-25 and on to US 160 at Walsenburg.
But assuming you’re confident in your car and overall conditions, the Denver to Durango scenic drive down 285 South that also connects with US 160 at Del Norte is the way to go.
Best Denver to Durango Stops
One of your first possible stops between Denver and Durango after you’ve merged onto US 285 South is the Tiny Town & Railroad that’s just a short distance down South Turkey Creek Road.
This one is best for families with kids, as there is an entire miniature town complete with painted and detailed buildings, a playground and park, a gift shop, and even an old steam train ride.
The picnic area is also nice for anyone who has packed food for the road trip in a cooler and might want to have lunch before getting back on the road.
From Tiny Town, the next few stops between Conifer and Buena Vista also tend to be good ones for travelers and looking to take their time, relax, and settle into vacation mode while on the way out of the Denver bubble.
The small town of Bailey is about 25 minutes from Tiny Town at the bottom of a steep incline just as 285 bends and begins to trace a path along the North Fork of the South Platte River.
Both Aspen Peak and Mad Jack’s also offer delicious food options and events featuring live music acts, with Aspen Peak’s “Bluegrass and BBQ Night” serving as a good example of a local favorite where guests are served food options like southern shrimp and grits and St. Louis-style ribs with mashed potatoes and sautéed kale.
Outdoor seating areas are especially nice for sampling the beverages and entrees at either one. Designated drivers beware and drink responsibly, as you’ve still got a lot of highway to go on this Denver to Durango road trip.
Mount Princeton Hot Springs
After passing the Antero Junction, Mount Princeton Hot Springs is a short detour west down Chalk Creek Drive from Nathrop and Browns Canyon National Monument just as your drive has started to meet with the Arkansas River.
This is a lodging and day-use facility built around an odorless hot spring that bubbles up out of the ground at around 140 degrees Fahrenheit (60 degrees Celsius).
The creekside hot spring pools here are naturally divided with river rocks to range in temperature from 70 to 120 degrees Fahrenheit (21 to 49 degrees Celsius), so you can even temper your experience by relaxing in the pool that’s closest to your personal heat preferences.
The views of the Rocky Mountain landscape here are impressive at any time of the year, but this is an especially good stop if visiting during the winter when you can enjoy the contrast between the calming hot spring waters and the snowy peaks and surroundings.
As you reach the classic mountain town of Salida and the nearby area, the Arkansas River is the main artery for a lot of watersports recreation, from fly fishing and whitewater rafting to kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding (SUP).
Among the marquee attractions near Salida is Browns Canyon, which was also designated a National Monument recently in 2015.
This canyon has high walls and granite cliffs that have been carved out by the slow grind of time and the erosion forces of the Arkansas River.
This option is best to keep in mind for the rafting season of May through August when the mountain snowmelt levels are in their prime.
Another possible stop near Salida located in the shadow of Mt. Aetna is Monarch Mountain Resort. There’s a lot of great terrain here for skiers of all skill levels in the wintertime, with everything from black diamond tree runs to easy, gradual glades and trails on the slopes that descend from Monarch Pass.
If you’re passing through outside of ski season, Monarch is still worth a stop thanks to the Monarch Crest Scenic Tramway that’s open from May through the fall.
A ride on this tram takes you up to some of the best possible views of the Continental Divide, and it does it in a speedy fashion that makes this viable even as a short stop.
Standard tickets are only $10 for adults, and this area also has a lot of great trails for hiking in the warmer parts of the year.
Just a stone’s throw off 285 South before you reach the town of Del Norte on the Denver to Durango drive, Penitente Canyon offers scenic views and chances to hike, rock climb, and bike through the towering canyon walls.
For casual hikers, the 1.6-mile Penitente Canyon Loop is a great option that won’t leave you exhausted or needing an extensive amount of gear. And good news for dog-lovers: pets are allowed on this trail but must be kept on a leash.
One of the defining features of the Penitente Canyon area is a natural arch, sometimes called “La Ventana” (“the window” in Spanish), which anyone seeking to venture further into this area should prioritize.
The arch and many of the other geologic formations here are the results of heat and pressure having formed volcanic ash into hard rock over millions of years.
Visit the Great Sand Dunes
Just across the valley from Penitente Canyon is the Great Sand Dunes National Park, one of America’s most fascinating natural phenomena.
“North America’s largest sandbox” contains some 5 billion cubic meters of sand and stands out against the striking backdrop of the Sangre de Cristo mountains.
This nationally-protected area consists of more than 30 square miles of massive dunes and is a must-stop for travelers nearing the latter portion of their Denver to Durango road trip.
There are some different ways to approach a stop at the Great Sand Dunes, as visitors are generally welcome to simply take in the views of the dunes from the comfort of paved roads and maintained public areas, or they may strike out on foot and hike on the sands of the national park.
Tours and campgrounds are also available, and popular activities include sledding down the dunes (a time-honored favorite), four-wheel tours, and horseback riding. For photographers, taking photos of the sunset from atop one of the dunes is an unforgettable experience.
Silver Thread Byway to Creede
The small roadside town of South Fork marks a point of transition where the Rio Grande River begins to shift from its high alpine origins in National Forest land and flow down toward flatter lands in New Mexico and beyond.
From South Fork and US 160, take a right-hand turn onto US 149, also known as the Silver Thread Scenic Byway, for an unforgettable scenic drive to the town of Creede near the headwaters of the Rio Grande.
Sites such as Coller State Wildlife Area and Palisade Campground are excellent places to get out of the car and take in the views of the Rio Grande on your way up this stretch of highway.
Once you reach Creede, known as one of the last Silver Boom towns in Colorado during the late 19th century, you have quite a few options before heading back down to South Fork. There are lots of unique little shops and restaurants in town, and attractions like the Last Chance Mine offer a glimpse of history for those who are interested.
The surrounding area is also brimming with National Forest areas and hiking trails with dispersed camping and car camping options in good supply, so this is a good area to consider when thinking about spending a night on the road in the mild weather of late spring, summer, and early fall.
Ski or Hike Near Wolf Creek
Wolf Creek has gained a reputation all throughout Colorado as one of the best ski resorts to visit for anyone looking to escape crowds and long lift lines, and it also boasts some of the highest seasonal accumulations of snowpack out of any Colorado resorts, depending on the year.
This is a no-brainer as a stop for skiers and snowboarders traveling in the winter, but the Wolf Creek area between South Fork and Durango is also worth keeping in mind as a stop for travelers even in mid-summer.
At Wolf Creek Pass, pedestrians can access the Continental Divide Trail and the Wolf Creek Trailhead. Camping, backpacking, and hiking opportunities abound in this area once the snow melts in the summertime. There’s also an observation site for the renowned Treasure Falls that’s located just south of the pass.
Chimney Rock National Monument
One of the last places to stop between Denver and Durango is Chimney Rock National Monument, which features the ancient remains of a native Pueblo settlement dating back 1,000 years.
This protected archaeological site of San Juan National Forest is best experienced by joining one of the daily guided walking tours offered by the U.S. Forest Service management staff.
Perhaps most amazing about this historic site is that the rock pinnacles for which Chimney Rock gets its name frame multiple astronomical alignment points.
Architectural structures left behind by the ancestral Puebloans include “pit houses,” “great kivas,” and “great houses,” according to the U.S. Forest Service’s website.
Where to Stay on a Denver to Durango Road Trip
If you intend to make all (or even a few) of these stops, you’re likely going to want to find a place to stay to break up the drive. The town of Salida is an excellent option, as it is a good halfway point between Denver and Durango and has lots of interesting things on offer.
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 locate 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
Private Vacation Rental – There are a number of great properties to choose from in Salida such as this beautiful secluded log cabin if you’re looking for a peaceful getaway. Click here to browse other private rentals.
Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse more Salida hotels!
The Strater Hotel — Located in downtown Durango, this beautiful historic hotel is an excellent option for those looking for a bit of a splurge. Situated in a beautiful, historic building, they have a range of gorgeous rooms on offer and a great bar and restaurant on site. Click here to see their availability
Siesta Motel — If you’re looking for some more budget-friendly accommodation options, then this motel is a geat choice. Well-located in central Durango, they have a range of rooms available to suit all kinds of visitors even allow pets if you’re traveling with a four-legged friend! Click here to see their availability
Private Rental — If it’s a private vacation rental that you’re after in Durango, you’ll find that there are countless options to choose from. For instance, this beautiful treehouse home with a hot tub is a great choice. Click here to browse other private rentals
Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse more Durango hotels!
If you’re looking for both the most scenic and time-efficient route for a Denver to Durango drive, with plenty of opportunities for fun, interesting stops in between, then the roughly six-hour trajectory down US 285 is by far the best option.
Use this list as a springboard to get ideas for stops ranging from national parks and monuments to natural hot springs and quirky tourist attractions that you’ll find along the way.
Are you planning to drive from Denver to Durango? Have any questions about any of these stops? Let us know in the comments!