Great Colorado Itineraries

First-Timer's Itineraries: Denver, Boulder, and Rocky Mountain National Park, 7 Days

Denver, Days 1–3

Denver is filled with folks who stopped to visit and never left. After a few days in the Mile High City and surrounding metro area it's easy to see why: Colorado's capital has much to recommend it, including a thriving cultural scene, restaurants representing every ethnicity, plenty of sunshine, outdoor options galore, and snowcapped peaks for visual variety.

The Old West still holds sway in visitors' imaginations, and there are plenty of throwback trappings to check out, but the reality is that Denver is a modern metropolis that offers cosmopolitan amenities and state-of-the-art amusements.

After you've settled into your hotel, head downtown, or if you're already staying there—always a good option to explore the city—make your way to Lower Downtown, or LoDo. The historic district is home to many of the city's famous brewpubs, art galleries, and Coors Field, as well as popular restaurants and some of the area's oldest architecture.

Hop on the free MallRide, the shuttle bus run by RTD, to head up the 16th Street Mall, a pedestrian-friendly, shopping-oriented strip that runs through the center of downtown. From there you can walk to Larimer Square for more shopping and restaurants. You can also visit the Denver Art Museum, Union Station, the History Colorado Center, the Colorado State Capitol, the Molly Brown House, and the U.S. Mint.

Logistics: Light rail is an excellent way to navigate the city. Vending machines at each station for the RTD Light Rail service show destinations and calculate your fare ($2.25–$4 depending on the number of zones crossed). Children under age five ride free when accompanied by a fare-paying adult. RTD buses also provide an excellent way to get around; schedules are posted inside shelters and are available at Civic Center Station at the south end of the 16th Street Mall and Market Street Station toward the north end. Fares are $2.25 one-way.

Day 4: Boulder

Boulder takes its fair share of ribbing for being a Birkenstock-wearing, tofu-eating, latter-day hippie kind of town, but the truth is that it is healthy, wealthy, and exceedingly popular. Stroll along the Pearl Street Mall and sample the excellent restaurants and shops, catching one of the dozens of street performers; or head just outside the city to tour Celestial Seasonings, the tea manufacturer; or to Chautauqua Park to hike in the shadow of the dramatic Flatiron Mountains. In winter, Eldora Mountain Resort is a 21-mile jaunt up a steep, switchback-laden road with no lift lines as payoff. The University of Colorado campus here means there is a high hip quotient in much of the nightlife.

Logistics: You can take an RTD bus to Boulder from Denver, but it's just as easy to drive up U.S. 36 (one hour by car). If you're going to go beyond the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder, it's nice to have a car once you're there. Parking, though, can be quite tight.

Days 5–7: Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) is a year-round marvel, a park for every season: hiking in the summer, spotting elk in the fall, snowshoeing in winter, and snapping photos of wildflowers in spring. There are several hikes that shouldn't be missed in the park. For lovely scenery, opt for the one that goes from Bear Lake to Emerald Lake. There are some steep sections along the way, but the spectacular mountain views more than make up for it. Also not to be missed is a drive along Trail Ridge Road, the world's highest continuous paved highway. You'll enjoy awesome views of waterfalls, lakes, mountain vistas, glaciers, and emerald meadows. Give yourself four hours to complete the drive, and check the weather conditions before you start.

There are five campgrounds in the park, but those looking for more comfort should opt for Estes Park. This picturesque town is the gateway to RMNP and a worthwhile destination itself, a small town swelling to a large one with the tourists who flock to its Western-theme shops and art galleries. The Stanley Hotel, the inspiration for Stephen King's novel The Shining, provides great lodging in a historic setting.

Logistics: Estes Park is a hop-skip from Denver and Boulder, about 65 miles northwest of Denver via I–25 and then CO–66 and U.S. 36. To get to RMNP, simply take U.S. 34 or U.S. 36 into the park (a 15-minute drive).

Skiing the Rockies, 5 Days

With its champagne-powder runs and wide variety of alpine terrain, Colorado is a winter paradise. In less than a week, you can ski some of the most iconic resorts in the state.

Days 1–2: Aspen

World-class dining, upscale shopping, and possible celebrity sighting await in Aspen, along with some of the best skiing in North America. Aspen's four ski areas—Aspen Highlands, Aspen Mountain, Buttermilk, and Snowmass—all have amazing runs through fluffy champagne powder. After an afternoon of whooshing down the slopes, visit some of the fabled restaurants and nightlife options in downtown Aspen, or relax at a hotel spa.

Days 3–4: Vail Valley

Roughtly 2 hours (102 miles) from Aspen via I–70 W and CO–82 E

The Bavarian-themed village at the base of Vail Mountain offers as much as the resorts in the Alps. The back side of the mountain, with its thrilling series of bowls, delivers enough glades and bumps to challenge even the most dedicated skier. But beginners and moderate skiers need not worry; the front side of Vail Mountain has plenty of cruisers to satisfy skiers of all levels. The free shuttle in town runs every 15 minutes and links the three base villages. At night, you can wander along the quaint cobbled streets and pop into the European-style cafés.

Day 5: Breckenridge

Roughly 50 minutes (38 miles) from Vail via CO–9 N and I–70 W

Breckenridge is a great place to unwind after spending four days at its bigger and better-known cousins. The town has the sort of laid-back ski-country vibe that Colorado is known for. With a downtown filled with Victorian houses left over from its mining heyday, the area is filled with affordable restaurants, comfy bars, and interesting shops. The mountain itself is one of the larger ski areas in America with five separate peaks offering a variety of terrain from beginner to expert.

Transportation

There are several flights in and out of Aspen/Pitkin County Airport daily, most routing through Denver. Many travelers drive to Aspen, however, making the 220-mile journey west on I–70 from Denver to Glenwood Springs, and then taking U.S. 82 to Aspen. From Aspen head back to I–70 the way you came through Glenwood Springs and then turn east for Vail. The drive is approximately 2½ hours long. From Vail head east on I–70 to Dillon, then head south on CO–9 to Breckenridge.

Exploring the Colorado Southwest, 10 Days

The southwest corner of Colorado is a study in contrasts. From the soaring peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the serene beauty of the San Luis Valley, it is a region that offers a multitude of experiences. It is less crowded than the more popular areas of the state, with more wide-open spaces. As you head across the numerous mountain passes, the gradual changes in fauna and terrain are awe-inspiring.

Days 1–2: Denver

Spend a few days acclimating to the altitude change in Denver, visiting the city's top-notch museums and exploring the LoDo area. In preparation for your journey, pop into the massive REI flagship store in the Central Platte Valley neighborhood. It's full of any gear you might need, including sturdy hats, lightweight rain jackets, comfortable boots, packs, and other necessities.

Days 3–4: Colorado Springs and Nearby

The Colorado Springs area is dominated by 14,115-foot Pikes Peak—the inspiration for the song "America the Beautiful"—and getting to its summit, whether by cog railway, foot, or car, is a memorable experience. But there are other worthy options along this popular corridor, such as strolling through the red rocks of the Garden of the Gods, peeking at the tunnel in Cave of the Winds, checking out the animals at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, taking advantage of the healing vibes in the artists' community at Manitou Springs, or exploring the old gold-mining town of Cripple Creek.

Logistics: Colorado Springs is 70 miles south of Denver on I–25. You'll enjoy mountain views on most of the drive; Pikes Peak is visible on clear days. Take U.S. 24 west from I–25 to reach Manitou Springs; follow CO–67 south from U.S. 24 west to visit Cripple Creek.

Days 5: Salida

Surrounded by the Collegiate Peaks, Salida is a good jumping-off point for the many outdoor activities available in this mountainous region. Salida is also a haven for artists who specialize in Western-oriented themes and grassroots sensibilities.

Logistics: Take CO–115 south from Colorado Springs to Canyon City; continue west on U.S. 50 toward Salida. As you head into Salida the Sangre de Christo Mountains offer stunning views.

Day 6: Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

From Salida head west on U.S. 50 toward Montrose, and then continue north on CO–347 to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. The trip takes about two-and-a-half hours. This national park offers sheer cliffs rising more than 2,000 feet above the river and stunning views that rival the Grand Canyon. Stay overnight in nearby Montrose, about 15 miles west of the park.

Days 7–8: Telluride and Nearby

Telluride, though famous for its film and bluegrass festivals, presents a less glitzy face than other ski resorts like Aspen and Vail, but is still well worth the visit. The San Juan Skyway, a 236-mile loop that connects Durango, Telluride, Ouray, and Silverton, is a gloriously scenic drive that winds you through mountains, alpine forests, and wildflower meadows.

Logistics: To get to Telluride from Montrose head south on U.S. 550 to Ridgeway, continue west on CO–62 toward Placerville, and then head south on CO–145 to Telluride. The entire journey is roughly 66 miles and takes about 90 minutes.

Day 9: Mesa Verde National Park

Mesa Verde National Park safeguards the 1,400-year-old cliff dwellings of the Ancestral Puebloans. Take a ranger-led tour to the primary cliff-dwelling sites like the Balcony House, Cliff Palace, and Spruce Tree House. Make time for the Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum, where you can learn the history of the Ancestral Puebloan culture. Afterward, drive to Durango to spend the night.

Logistics: Mesa Verde is a 1½-hour drive from Telluride, heading south on CO–145. From Mesa Verde head east on U.S. 160 toward Durango, an approximately one-hour drive.

Day 10: Durango

Durango is an Old West mining town that has retained much of its Victorian charm. Mountain bikers make it a mission to try their mettle on the tough trails surrounding the town; in winter, the Purgatory at Durango Mountain Resort routinely has deep powder and short lift lines.

Logistics: To get back to Denver head east from Durango on U.S. 160 until you get to Walsenburg (approximately four-hours); then head north on I–25 to Denver. Telluride and Durango have airports with limited service from major carriers.

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