Colorado has the most mountainous terrain of the American Rockies, and the scenery makes driving far from a tedious means to an end.
Car travel within the urban corridor north and south of Denver can be congested, particularly weekday mornings and afternoons. Congestion is not limited to the major highways; city arterials and smaller roads and streets can be slow during peak driving times. Weekends, too, can have quite a bit of traffic, particularly along I-70 between Denver and the high mountains. Heavy traffic is not limited to ski season or bad weather. It is nearly a matter of course now for eastbound I-70 to be heavily congested on Sunday afternoons. If you are returning to Denver International Airport for a Sunday-afternoon or evening flight, plan accordingly, and allow plenty of time to reach the airport.
At this writing, gasoline costs between $2.12 and $2.79 a gallon. In major cities throughout Colorado, gas prices are roughly similar to the rest of the continental United States; in rural and resort towns prices are considerably higher. Although gas stations are plentiful in many areas, you can drive more than 100 mi on back roads without finding gas.
License Plate Toll
Denver's Eastern Beltway, the E-470, is a toll road. You are automatically a License Plate Toll customer on E-470 if you are not an EXpressToll customer with a transponder. No advance registration is required, and customers drive non-stop through the tolls. Cameras will photograph the front and rear license plates and a bill will be sent one month later to the registered owner of the vehicle for all the tolls incurred during that period.
Whether you have a Colorado or an out-of-state license plate, the billing process works the same for all vehicle registrations. You will receive your bill approximately one month after using E-470. Full payment must be received by the due date on the bill or each of the transactions listed on the statement will become toll violations. In that case, a toll violation citation for each toll will be sent to the vehicle's registered owner.
On-street metered parking is available in larger cities. Meters take quarters, dimes, and nickels. Check the meter to see if any maximum time applies. Larger cities also have pay-by-the-hour lots and garages. Some require prepayment in cash, and others take payment at departure. A few resort towns have free parking lots and on-street parking. On-street parking in small towns is generally not difficult.
Colorado offers some of the most spectacular vistas and challenging driving in the world. Roads range from multilane blacktop to barely graveled backcountry trails; from twisting switchbacks considerately marked with guardrails to primitive campgrounds with a lane so narrow that you must back up to the edge of a steep cliff to make a turn. Scenic routes and lookout points are clearly marked, enabling you to slow down and pull over to take in the views.
One of the more unpleasant sights along the highway is roadkill—animals struck by vehicles. Deer, elk, and even bears may try to get to the other side of a road just as you come along, so watch out for wildlife on the highways. Exercise caution both for the sake of the animal in danger and your car, which could be totaled in a collision.
License Plate Toll
E-470 (303/537-3470 or 888/946-3470. www.expresstoll.com.)
Road Condition Information
CO Trip (303/639–1111. www.cotrip.org.)
AAA Colorado (866/625-3601. www.colorado.aaa.com.)
Colorado State Patrol (303/239-4501; *277 from a cell phone.)
For police or ambulance, dial 911.
Rules of the Road
You'll find highways and national parks crowded in summer, and almost deserted (and occasionally impassable) in winter. Follow the posted speed limit, drive defensively, and make sure your gas tank is full. The law requires that drivers and front-seat passengers wear seat belts.
Always strap children under age 4 or under 40 pounds into approved child-safety seats. You may turn right at a red light after stopping if there's no sign stating otherwise and no oncoming traffic. When in doubt, wait for the green.
If your vehicle breaks down, or you are involved in an accident, move your vehicle out of the traffic flow, if possible, and call for help: 911 for emergencies and *277 from a cell phone for the Colorado State Patrol.
The speed limit on U.S. interstates in Colorado is up to 75 mph in rural areas and between 55 mph and 65 mph in urban zones. Mountain stretches of I–70 have lower limits—between 55 mph and 70 mph.
Modern highways make mountain driving safe and generally trouble-free even in cold weather. Although winter driving can occasionally present real challenges, road maintenance is good and plowing is prompt. However, in mountain areas tire chains, studs, or snow tires are essential. If you're planning to drive into high elevations, be sure to check the weather forecast and call for road conditions beforehand. Even main highways can close. It's a good idea to carry an emergency kit and a cell phone, but be aware that the mountains can disrupt service. If you do get stalled by deep snow, do not leave your car. Wait for help, running the engine only if needed, and remember that assistance is never far away. Winter weather isn't confined to winter months in the high country (it's been known to snow in July), so be prepared year-round.
AAA Colorado (www.aaa.com.)
Rates in most major cities run about $58 a day and $230 a week for an economy car with air-conditioning, automatic transmission, and unlimited mileage. This does not include tax or fees on car rentals, which is as high as 24% in the Denver metro area. Keep in mind if you're venturing into the Rockies that you'll need a little oomph in your engine to get over the passes. If you plan to explore any back roads, an SUV is the best bet, because it will have higher clearance. Unless you plan to do much mountain exploring, a four-wheel drive is usually needed only in winter.
To rent a car in Colorado you must be at least 25 years old and have a valid driver's license; most companies also require a major credit card. Some companies at certain locations set their minimum age at 21, and then add a daily surcharge. In Colorado, child-safety seats or booster seats are compulsory for children under 5 (with certain height and weight criteria).
You'll pay extra for child seats ($5-$12 a day), drivers under age 25 (at least $25 a day), and usually for additional drivers (about $10 per day). When returning your car to Denver International Airport, allow 15 minutes (30 minutes during busy weekends and around the holidays) to return the vehicle and to ride the shuttle bus to the terminal.
Major Rental Agencies
Alamo (888/233-8749. www.alamo.com.)
Avis (800/633-3469. www.avis.com.)
Budget (800/218-7992. www.budget.com.)
Hertz (800/654-3131. www.hertz.com.)
National Car Rental (877/222-9058. www.nationalcar.com.)
Fodor's Trip Planning Ideas
- Fodor's 100 Hotel Awards: Check out the winners of 2013
- Weekend Getaways: Fodor's Recommends the Best Weekend Escapes in the US
- Great American Vacation: Find Your Next U.S. Trip with Fodor's
- 80 Degrees: Fodor's Helps You Find Your Best Beach Vacation Spots
- Best of Europe: Fodor's Picks the Best Places to Visit in Europe