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Southwest Colorado Road Trip: Your Perfect Itinerary (2023)

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Southwest Colorado is one of the most gorgeous areas of the Centennial State, and I can vouch for this after spending a week here. Home to snow-capped San Juan Mountains, and charming mountain towns where the mining history lives on, this region boasts a one-of-a-kind atmosphere.

With no major airports nearby, it takes at least a few hours to get here depending on where you are traveling from. This makes the southwest corner more exclusive compared to other areas along Interstate-70 that are busy year-round.

You can catch a flight Grand Junction, or a drive from Denver to Grand Junction along Interstate-70.

Southwest Colorado itinerary: an overview

Southwest Colorado is one of the most beautiful parts of the state that has incredible scenery and year-round opportunities for outdoors.

Grand Junction

Where to stay: Comfort Inn Grand Junction

Grand Junction is the largest city on Colorado’s Western Slope where you can have a dinner and spend a night before heading south next day. The city has plenty of affordable hotels such as the Bookcliffs Bed&Breakfast , Grand Junction Palomino Inn  or the historic Train House . 

From Grand Junction, continue south to Highway 50 before you get to Montrose. From there, get south on U.S. Highway 550 before you make it to Ridgeway. Make a left turn on State Highway 62 toward Telluride.

Best things to do in Grand Junction

Grand Junction is home to Colorado National Monument , one of the best places in Colorado for camping and stargazing. Many visitors treat Grand Junction as a pit stop on their Colorado road trip , but the area offers plenty of cool activities, if you like the outdoors.

If you are in a good shape, visit the remote Dominguez Canyon , located outside of Grand Junction. The canyon spans for four miles and boasts many well-preserved Native American petroglyphs.

To finish your day, check out Two Rivers Winery just west of downtown Grand Junction where you can sample locally produced wine.

Grand Mesa in Colorado is the largest flat-topped mesa in the world and can be visited on a quick day trip from Grand Junction.

Grand Mesa Colorado

The largest flat-top mountain in the world, Grand Mesa sits nearly 6,000 feet above the valley floor. Located about 40 miles east of Grand Junction, it’s a great stop to get a break from the heat of Grand Junction.

The best way to reach Grand Mesa is via Grand Mesa Scenic Byway that goes for 63 miles through the forest providing breathtaking views of clear alpine lakes and green meadows sprinkled with beautiful flowers during early-to-mid summer.

Grand Mesa Colorado camping

You can also spot wildlife such as marmots, bald eagles and if you get lucky – even moose! It’s a perfect camping spot if you don’t mind cooler temperatures and want to enjoy clear dark skies.

Another point of interest for Grand Mesa visitors is The Land’s End Observatory. While this historic landmark is no longer in use, it is located near a steep drop-off where visitors can enjoy sprawling views. From here, you can continue south via a series of switchbacks carved into the side of the cliff toward the town of Delta.

Colorado National Monument is one of the best places to visit in Grand Junction and is a perfect stop on your Southwest Colorado itinerary.

Colorado National Monument

One of the most popular places to visit near Grand Junction – Colorado National Monument is home to steep-walled canyons, wide mesas, and plateaus with millions of years of history. For a second, you might think that you are in Utah – the monument is just across the state line from the Arches and Canyonlands National Parks near Moab , the capital of adventure.

If you also plan to visit Utah National Parks after visiting Colorado, check my complete guide.

Camping at Colorado National Monument

Colorado National Monument has one campground that costs $22 a night. It’s a perfect place to enjoy the clear dark skies. If you visit in summer, it can be a bit hot here during the day, but nights bring pleasant temperatures, and I felt comfortable sleeping in a tent when I was camping at Colorado National Monument.

PRO TIP: If you don’t want to spend a night in Grand Junction, Colorado National Monument is a perfect camping stop before heading south.

Entrance to Colorado National Monument costs $25, and if you plan to visit other national monuments and national and state parks, you should purchase America the Beautiful Pass for $80.

Located near Telluride, Blue Lakes is one of the most popular stops in Southwest Colorado.

Blue Lakes near Telluride

Blue Lakes is one of the most beautiful places to visit in all of Colorado , and it has become very popular in recent years.

Tucked between Ridgeway and Telluride in the Uncompaghre National Forest , this trail leads to the pair of stunning alpine lakes surrounded by the jagged peaks. (But don’t confuse it with the Blue Lakes trail above Bridal Veil in Telluride).

Blue Lakes near Telluride is one of the best places to visit in Colorado.

The trail to Lower Blue Lake is rated moderate, but it feels more strenuous as you climb a series of steep switchbacks before arriving at incredible alpine meadows with bright wildflowers (during June and July).

Carry enough water and snacks, because this hike will test you! Luckily, there are many streams along the way, where you can refill your water bottle, so don’t forget a water filter.

Blue Lake is one of the best hikes in Southwest Colorado that's perfect for visiting in summer.

The area around Lower and Upper Blue Lakes has plenty of space for dispersed camping, so grab a tent, a sleeping bag and some warm clothes (it gets chilly at night) for the ultimate experience!

Check my complete guide to the most beautiful lakes in Colorado

Blue Lakes near Telluride is one of the best places to visit in Southwest Colorado, and is a must stop on your itinerary.

Lower Blue Lake: 6.3 miles roundtrip, moderate 

Upper Blue Lake: 8.2 miles roundtrip, strenuous 

Blue Lakes Pass: 11 miles roundtrip, strenuous 

Hiking Blue Lakes near Telluride is one of the best things to do in Colorado for adventure lovers.

How to find Blue Lakes Colorado

Take Highway 62 toward Telluride and turn left on County Road 7 marked as Dallas Creek. The unpaved road brings you to the parking lot where the trailhead begins. While it’s better to come here in an SUV, a smaller vehicle will do just fine, but it might take you longer to get there on a bumpy road.

Telluride is one of the most beautiful mountain towns in Colorado that makes a perfect stop on your Southwest Colorado itinerary.

Where to stay: Mountain Lodge Telluride

If there’s one place you can’t miss on your itinerary, it’s Telluride!

Located in the San Juan Mountains, Telluride is one of the most charming mountain towns in North America and a popular destination for outdoor enthusiasts.

✅ Read my complete guide to the best things to do in Telluride .

Telluride history goes back to the days of mining when prospectors from all over the country rushed here after the discovery of gold and other metals in the 1870s. Mining was the main industry of Telluride for about a century until the demand declined, and a group of locals established the first ski resort.

Telluride is a small mountain town in Southwest Colorado that offers amazing outdoor opportunities year-round like hiking, skiing and backcountry camping.

Since then, Telluride has evolved into much more than a ski resort.

Located in the box canyon, this town boasts incredible outdoor scenery year-round, and the Old West history that continues to live on. The summer season brings a slate of Telluride festivals and cultural events – it’s never a dull time here!

Best things to do in Telluride

Hiking is one of the best things to do in Telluride, Colorado

Bear Creek Trail

This popular 4.6-mile roundtrip trail begins in downtown Telluride and brings you to the scenic falls. The trail climbs just over 1,000 feet in less than 3 miles and provides scenic views of the town and the surrounding cliffs at the end.

Begin the trail at the end of South Pine Street and continue toward Bear Creek Preserve where you will walk through the grove of aspens and surrounding cliffs. It is a relatively easy hike by Telluride standards, and it’s perfect for beginners.

Jud Weibe Memorial Trail

The Judge Weibe Trail is a 3-mile loop that offers panoramic views of Telluride and provides an exercise amid aspen groves. The trail begins in downtown Telluride and takes you up the mountain to an elevation of 10,000 feet, so don’t forget to put on comfortable shoes, get some snacks and water.

Bridal Veil Falls

Bridal Veil Falls is a 1.8-mile hike that takes you to the bottom of the tallest waterfall in Colorado. The waterfall plunges from the height of 365 feet and feeds the San Miguel River in Telluride.

This is another must stop on your itinerary, so don’t forget to make your way to the top of the waterfalls for sweeping views of the valley.

Blue Lake is one of the most popular hikes in Telluride, Colorado.

Blue Lake near Telluride

Craving a real challenge? Continue to the backcountry of Bridal Veil Basin toward Blue Lake that sits at the elevation of 12,220 feet.

It’s a very demanding hike, so come prepared. Bring good sunscreen (the hike is exposed and there’s very little shade), water, and water filter (when I did this hike, I was refilling my water in the creeks along the way). Wear comfortable hiking shoes and breathable clothing.

Southwest Colorado is one of the best places in the state for hiking, camping and mountain biking.

The round trip takes about 6 miles, but because of the steep switchbacks and 1,600-feet elevation gain, it feels longer. If you do this hike in June or July, you will walk past incredible waterfalls, creeks, and alpine meadows. You can also spot some mining structures and relics throughout the area.

If you have a 4X4, you can drive to the beginning of the trailhead along the switchbacks carved into the wall of Telluride’s box canyon, instead of hiking.

Telluride Mountain Village

After hiking to the Blue Lake, you will need a break. Take FREE Telluride gondola to Mountain Village and take a walk around the area. In summer, you can rent a mountain bike and explore the area’s many trails.

Where to stay in Telluride

Finding hotels in Telluride is not easy in the middle of the high season. Accommodations here are limited, and if you don’t make a reservation ahead of time, you might have to pay the highest price or trying to find available space in one campsite near Telluride.

✅ I recommend Hotel Telluride in the city’s downtown.

If you travel during summer, you can also stay in a campground at Alta Lakes south of Telluride or use dispersed camping. One of the dispersed camping areas is located along Mill Creek Road near Shell gas station outside of Telluride.

Imogene Pass

Thrill-seekers should head to Imogene Pass, the second-highest road in Colorado that is popular for off-road driving. This 17-mile pass stretches from Telluride to Ouray and provides incredible views of the surrounding mountains. To travel on this pass you will need to rent a 4X4 vehicle in Telluride .

You can also hike this pass (or a portion of it), and there is even a race here called Imogene Pass Run that takes place every September!

Ouray is a small mountain town that's a perfect stop for your Colorado road trip.

Where to stay: Timber Ridge Lodge

Nicknamed “ Switzerland of America,” Ouray is a less-famous sibling of Telluride.

This small town makes for a perfect day trip from Telluride, but if you love the outdoors, there are plenty of things to do here to keep you buys for weeks. The area boasts plenty of hikes trails (one of the best areas for hiking in the Bear Creek National Recreation Trail); historic mining ghost towns and opportunities for backcountry camping and off-roading.

And don’t forget to visit the famous Ouray hot springs, one of the best hot springs in Colorado to relax after a day of exploring.

Box Canyon Falls

A place not to miss in Ouray is Box Canyon Falls, a stunning waterfall outside of town. If you have more time, check out Cascade Falls Park where you can see seven stunning waterfalls after hiking the Lower Cascade Falls Trail that begins near the end of 8th Avenue in Ouray.

Another option is to hike the Perimeter trail , one of the best trails in Ouray that allows you get a glimpse at this waterfall.

If you like a fun tour, check out the Bachelor Syracuse Mine that will tell you the history of one of the largest gold producers of gold of the 19th century. Another excellent place to learn the history of the area is the Ouray County Museum that features multiple exhibits and artifacts.

One Million Dollar Highway is one of the most scenic mountain drives in Colorado that connects Ouray and Silverton.

One Million Dollar Highway

When you come to Ouray, don’t miss the chance to drive along One Million Dollar Highway, a portion of U.S. Highway 550 that will take you along the Red Mountain Pass.

From Ouray, the road climbs the two-lane mountain pass with steep drop-offs and no guardrails. It’s a fascinating drive that will take your breath away and tell you the mining history of this remote region with hundreds of small mining towns scattered in the area.

Check my guide to driving on One Million Dollar Highway safely.

Ouray is often called the Switzerland of America because of its spectacular mountain scenery and the many hiking trails.

On the third switchback just south of Ouray you will find an overlook called “Switzerland of America.” This spectacular viewpoint located above Ouray is surrounded by tall mountains.

Ice Lakes Near Silverton is one of the most scenic hikes in Colorado with a rapid elevation gain.

Where to stay: Villa Dallavalle Inn

Silverton is a remote town that’s perfect for travelers who want to spend a few days in the nature and enjoy some of the best backcountry in Colorado.

Located at the end of One Million Dollar Highway, Silverton is a frontier mining town that is popular for its backcountry hiking, camping, and off-roading. In winter the area is popular with expert skiers who come here to enjoy backcountry skiing trails that are unlike anything you have seen at big ski resorts.

Silverton is a remote town in Colorado that's known for its mining history and spectacular backcountry.

A popular hike in the area is the 7-mile roundtrip Ice Lakes Trail with stunning vistas along the way. It’s often called one of the most beautiful hikes in all of Colorado!

Read my complete guide to hiking Ice Lakes near Silverton to plan your adventure

Where to stay: Adventure Inn Durango

Durango is another place that you should include in your Southwest Colorado itinerary. It’s one of the most popular mountain towns in Colorado , and unlike other places in this part of the state, it’s pretty easy to access, as it has daily flights from Denver.

Best things to do in Durango, Colorado

From the historic downtown Durango where modern-day coexists with its Old West heritage, to whitewater rafting and zip lining to the famous Colorado Trail that stretches for 500 miles from Durango to Denver , this little corner is a treasure trove of adventures.

One of the best things to do in Durango is the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gage Railway, a historic train that takes you up the valley from Durango to Silverton. 

When you finish your Durango adventure, take a drive to Mesa Verde National Park where you can learn about the history of the Ancestral Pueblo people who once populated this part of Colorado.

Best tours of Durango

Mesa verde national park.

Where to stay near Mesa Verde National Park:   Canyon Of The Ancients Guest Ranch

As a final stop on your southwest Colorado itinerary, I recommend Mesa Verde National Park – a UNESCO World Heritage Site famous for its vast collection of the dwellings and artifacts left by the Ancestral Pueblo people.

The park is home to 5,000 archaeological sites and over 600 cliff dwellings built into the cliff sites that were preserved from the time when Pueblos occupied the area.

Why visit Mesa Verde National Park

If you are a history buff, this is by far one of the best places to visit in southwest Colorado, before heading back to Denver or Grand Junction to catch your flight back home.

After learning the history through the ancient cliff dwellings, check out overlooks along the 6-mile Mesa Top Loop Road on the Chapin Mesa, an area that has several hikes.

The cliff dwellings inside this national park are extremely fragile, so make sure not to touch them.

Renting a car for your road trip

To explore this part of Colorado, you will need a car. I suggest DiscoverCars , a car rental company that offers a great inventory of many types of vehicles, and also has rental cars in Grand Junction .

How to plan your Southwest Colorado itinerary

Start your Southwest Colorado itinerary in Grand Junction and head south from there. It’s the best way to plan your trip, if you are starting in Denver or flying into Grand Junction.

If you are traveling to Colorado from Arizona, New Mexico or Utah, you could begin your road trip in Durango or Cortez before heading to Telluride and Silverton.

Southwest Colorado itinerary: FAQ’s

Ice Lakes Hike near Silverton is one of the most scenic hikes in Colorado

What towns are in Southwest Colorado?

Some of the most popular towns in Southwest Colorado are Telluride, Durango, Silverton , Cortez, Montrose, Alamosa, and Monte Vista .

What is Southwest Colorado known for?

Southwestern corner is one of the most remote parts of Colorado that’s known for beautiful mountain towns, rich history and year-round outdoor opportunities from hiking and camping in summer to backcountry skiing and snowboarding in winter.

What is the best time to visit Southwest Colorado?

While some places in this part of Colorado are inaccessible during winter and even mid-spring, early June through mid-October is the best time to visit this region. Summer is the busiest time in the region when many travelers come here to enjoy the outdoors.

How many days do I need for my Southwest Colorado itinerary?

Plan no less than a week for your road trip. The driving distances are pretty long here, and you need a couple of hours to get from one town to another. Add the many things to do in this part of the state, and you are probably looking at about two weeks for your perfect Southwest Colorado road trip!

Southwest Colorado itinerary: final word

The southwest corner is one of the most beautiful parts of Colorado with snow-capped mountains, turquoise lakes fed by the snow and stunning alpine meadows. It’s one of those places you have to visit at least once in your lifetime. Spend a couple of days in one of the mountain towns like Telluride or Ouray, camp under the clear dark skies and explore the many cool hiking trails in the area.

Check out more inspiration for your Colorado Road trip:

  • 20 Road Trips From Denver For Your Bucket List
  • 20 Hot Springs In Colorado That You Need To Visit In Winter
  • 32 Awesome Things To Do In Denver
  • Perfect Southwest Colorado Road Tri p
  • Best Hikes In The Rocky Mountain National Park
  • Work with us

Adventures of A+K

12 Day Southwest Colorado Road Trip Itinerary

Last updated on June 16th, 2023

Southwest Colorado is one of our favorite places in the United States. In this guide we’re sharing a detailed itinerary for a Southwest Colorado road trip , including Mesa Verde, Durango, Silverton, Ouray, Telluride, and Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park! We have been to Colorado a few times and have always enjoyed it. But during our two months “living” there in our van, we fell madly in love with Colorado more than ever before. And we think a lot of it has to do with where we explored in the state! We focused the majority of our two months in Southwest Colorado and it BLEW us away with its beauty and mix of history and fun activities! During our time in the area we went on some of the most gorgeous and challenging hikes, visited two national parks, learned about a mine, rode a historic train, drove a 4×4 jeep through the mountains, and explored charming towns. 

Jeep 4x4 trails in San Juan Mountains

We never wanted to leave and as full time travelers that love to hop around and see as many places as possible, that is saying a lot! It is pretty rare that a place resonates with us so much that we could see ourselves staying for a long time.

Watch all of our experiences in Southwest Colorado (and beyond!) on this YouTube playlist !

Nothing makes us happier than sharing places we love with others and having them fall in love too! In this guide we’re sharing all that we learned and experienced during our time in Southwest Colorado. We hope that it can help you prioritize and plan your own adventures in this stunning region of the state. We adapted our own route and itinerary to fit into 12 adventurous and beautiful days. We’ve also included info about the different towns and parks, tons of tips and important things to know before you go, some suggestions of where to stay, and more!

WARNING: This is a long guide. But we hope it provides everything you need to know to plan your own epic Southwest Colorado road trip! We have a table of contents feature below if you’d like to skip ahead to any section. Looking for even more detail? We will be linking to other helpful and more in depth Colorado guides in this guide to further help with your planning.

Read more Colorado Guides:

  • 4 Days in Colorado Itinerary: Denver, Boulder, RMNP,  & Colorado Springs
  • A Complete Guide to Visiting Mesa Verde National Park
  • Driving the Million Dollar Highway in Colorado
  • How to Hike the Ouray Perimeter Trail in Colorado
  • Things to do at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park 
  • How to Hike the Gunnison Route at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
  • Hiking to Blue Lakes in Southwest Colorado

About Southwest Colorado

Southwest colorado road trip route , how to get around southwest colorado, when to visit southwest colorado, where to stay during your southwest colorado road trip, things to know before your southwest colorado road trip, what to bring on your southwest colorado road trip, some things to know about this southwest colorado road trip itinerary.

Southwest Colorado Map

Southwest Colorado, as the name implies, is located in the Southwest corner of the state. It starts in the Four Corners, where the state meets up with Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico, and expanding Northwest to near Gunnison and Crested Butte. While just one region of the state, this area is LOADED with diverse scenery, Native American and mining history, and things to do. Southwest Colorado is not only home to two national parks, Mesa Verde and Black Canyon of the Gunnison. But it also has mining towns, Native American ruins, forests, rocky peaks, epic hikes, hot springs, canyons, rivers, and more! It’s pretty wild how much there is to see and do in just this area alone!

Before embarking on your adventure, please review the  Leave No Trace principles  to ensure you leave every place better than you found it, so that others can enjoy these beautiful places for many years to come! These seven principles include planning ahead and preparing, hiking and camping on durable surfaces, disposing of waste properly (pack out what you pack in!), understanding campfire rules and always fully extinguishing your fires, respecting wildlife, and being considerate of other visitors. 

There are many ways to experience Southwest Colorado and many different cities and towns to choose from. For this guide we’ll be focusing on what we personally experienced during our time in Southwest Colorado, which we highly recommend for first timers to the area.

One way route:

The first option for your Southwest Colorado road trip is to do a one way route, starting and ending in different areas. This option is the best for those who plan to visit other areas in Colorado as well or are on a larger road trip (or full time travelers like us) and will be continuing their journey elsewhere afterwards. You could also do this route if you’d like to fly in and out of different airports.

Loop route:

You could also do this road trip as a loop, starting and ending near Durango. This option makes the most sense if you’re flying in and are not visiting other areas afterwards. For this guide, we’re focusing on the one way option . But you could restructure the itinerary to fit the loop option as well!

Driving the Million Dollar Highway

Flying to Colorado

If you’re flying into Colorado, the closest airport to the start of the road trip is the Durango-La Plata County Airport (DRO) . This is a small airport, but it is serviced by American, Delta, Frontier, and United. It has nonstop flights from Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW), Phoenix (PHX), Salt Lake City (SLC), and Denver (DEN).  If you can get a decently priced flight to Durango from where you live, even with layovers, this would definitely be your best bet!  Another small airport option is the Montrose Regional Airport (MTJ) . This airport offers nonstop flights from Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW), Phoenix (PHX), Chicago (ORD), Houston (IAH), and Denver (DEN) on American Airlines, JetBlue, Southwest, and United. If you chose to fly into Montrose, we’d suggest restructuring the loop option to be: Montrose -> Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park -> Ouray -> Silverton -> Durango -> Mesa Verde National Park -> Telluride -> Montrose If you cannot find a flight to Durango or Montrose, the closest major airport is Albuquerque International Sunport (ABQ) , which is a little over a 3.5 hour drive to Durango.

Driving time along the route

The driving time between each of the stops on this itinerary, in the one way order listed above, is:

  • Durango to Mesa Verde: 40 minutes
  • Mesa Verde to Durango: 40 minutes
  • Durango to Silverton: 1 hours, 5 minutes (we suggest giving yourself a half a day, which we will explain below)
  • Silverton to Ouray: 43 minutes (we suggest dedicating at least 3 hours for this, which we will explain below)
  • Ouray to Telluride: 1 hour, 6 minutes 
  • Telluride to Black Canyon of the Gunnison: 1.5 hours

Driving the Million Dollar Highway in Colorado: Everything you need to know, safety tips, and the best stops from Silverton to Ouray

Since this is a road trip, you’ll need to rent a car or drive your own to fully enjoy all of the sights on this guide. Public transportation isn’t really an option between all of the towns, without hiring a tour guide. But when it comes to how to get around, you do have a couple options, plus something to keep in mind!

Type of vehicle

Any type of vehicle will work just fine to roadtrip around Southwest Colorado. The majority of the items on this guide are along paved roads, so even a small sedan would be sufficient. However, you will have a bit more freedom and comfort if you have a vehicle with higher clearance and/or 4×4, as roads to some trailheads are a bit rough. Our non 4×4 Sprinter Van did just fine, but we did have to go slow on some roads. One fun thing to do in this area, which we will cover in the itinerary, is go on some of the 4×4 trails in the mountains. To do this, you will need a 4×4 vehicle, like a Jeep or a side by side. If you’re able to rent one, even for just a day or two, you’ll have the most freedom when exploring this area.  There are many rental spots in the mountain towns to rent a Jeep or side by side for a day or more, which would be our recommendation vs. renting one from a traditional rental car company, who may have restrictions on taking your rental on these trails.

Rent a van!

We LOVED van life in Southwest Colorado! There were plenty of free campsites, some with solid cell service, and it was so fun to have a home on wheels while exploring these areas. Being able to pull over and cook with a view is a priceless experience.  If you want to rent a van, we suggest looking into Outdoorsy , which is like Airbnb for campervans! 

Vehicle Restrictions

Minus Mesa Verde and one specific area of Black Canyon of the Gunnison (East Portal), which have some restrictions for RVs, there are no vehicle restrictions on this itinerary. We saw many people driving massive RVs through these mountain roads and towns just fine! And for the most part, parking wasn’t too difficult for us in our 22.5 ft Sprinter van, although it would be hard in a giant RV, so we would suggest having a campground to leave it at for most day trips and taking a smaller vehicle around.

Yankee Boy Basin in Southwest Colorado

One of the best things about Southwest Colorado is that it’s a year round destination! However, your experience will vary depending on the season. In the winter and early spring, this area is full of snow and popular for skiing in Durango, Crested Butte, and Telluride. However, this guide is specifically crafted for the late spring (May) and summertime, when the snow is mostly melted and trails are open to hike and off-road. We road tripped through the area in May and June, and while we had to delay or adjust a couple things due to snow still being too present, for the most part the conditions were incredible. We had sunny days, perfect temperatures (highs in the 60s-80s), less afternoon thunderstorms, and slightly less crowds since it was earlier in the summer. Fall is also a gorgeous time to visit, with the changing aspens, but can be a bit risky when it comes to the weather, as early snow storms can occur. While most activities on this guide would be accessible, some may not be, so we’d suggest visiting earlier in the fall to have the best chance of following this guide. Next time we visit, we would LOVE to go in the fall!

Free camping in Silverton, Colorado

Since this road trip itinerary covers quite a bit of ground, we’d suggest staying in different places throughout the trip to limit how much time you spend driving each day. We will include suggestions of places to stay under each day of the itinerary!

Jeep 4x4 trails in San Juan Mountains

Before you go, here are a few important things to know before hitting the road on your Southwest Colorado road trip!

Book in advance

Since this guide is built for summertime exploring in Southwest Colorado, which is the busy season, we highly recommend booking things in advance, such as lodging, tours, Jeep rentals, and anything else that requires a reservation. This will give you the most options and ensure you are able to do everything you want!

Pets are mostly allowed

This itinerary includes a mix of dog friendly and not dog friendly activities, with the two major NOT dog friendly spots being Mesa Verde and Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Parks (Black Canyon of the Gunnison does have some dog friendly spots though), as well as some of the activity options. If you’re traveling with your pup, we’d suggest having a dog friendly accommodation so that you can leave your furry friend behind for a bit for some of the activities on this guide. You can also get a dog sitter in some of the towns if you prefer that. 

Learn how we travel with a dog and what we do with Kona when she cannot join us on our adventures.

Cell Service is limited

There were many times where we had zero cell service in Southwest Colorado, mostly when driving along mountain roads or hiking further away from civilization. We highly recommend downloading offline AllTrails Maps and offline Google Maps so you can navigate without cell phone service and don’t get lost!

Be aware of afternoon storms

Afternoon storms are very common in Colorado, especially in July and August, and you do not want to get caught in one, especially at exposed high altitudes above the treeline. We suggest planning to spend the mornings outdoors (you’ll want to start early!) and plan to be off of a mountain or in a town in the afternoons to avoid getting trapped in one. This article is also helpful and shares tips on what to do if you find yourself on a trail during a storm.

Stock up on food in the larger cities

The largest cities on this guide are Durango and Montrose (near Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park) and have large grocery stores, as well as other stores for any needs you may have. But the smaller towns, especially Silverton and Ouray, do not have as many options when it comes to groceries and stores and what they do have tends to be smaller and pricier. We suggest loading up on food and water in the larger cities before heading into the smaller ones, so that you can have more options and also save some money. 

southwest co road trip

To see everything we recommend packing for outdoor adventures, check out our hiking gear , where we share everything we bring with us when we hike, including the 10 essentials . But for Southwest Colorado, we have a few items we really want to stress bringing with you.

Microspikes

If visiting in the late spring, early summer, or fall, microspikes may be good to have just in case there is some snow still on the trails. We feel much more confident walking on icy surfaces in these!

This entire road trip is over a mile high in elevation, with some spots up to 11,000+ feet depending on activities you choose. This means that you can expect cooler mornings and evenings, even if the daytime highs are warmer, so make sure to bring lots of layers so you are always comfortable.

Umbrella or rain jacket

With the afternoon storms in Colorado, it’s a good idea to pack an umbrella or rain jacket! I (Kathryn) love my Patagonia Torrentshell rain jacket . 

Portable charger

Having a portable charger is key when out hiking all day to ensure your phone stays charged so that if you need help, you’re able to get it.

Sun Protection

It is much easier to get a sunburn at higher elevations and with Colorado being pretty sunny, you’ll definitely want to bring sunscreen, sunglasses, and a hat to stay protected. We have been using Bare Republic , which is a “better for you” sunscreen, although it may give you a nice white, vampire-esque sheen. 

Water Storage

Because of the higher altitude and the warmer summer days, make sure to bring and drink plenty of water. The air is super dry and our throats and noses were not fans! We love our 3L Camelbak bladder for hikes because it stores a ton of water and it’s easy to drink from while moving. If you are bringing less water, we highly suggest packing a filtration system as well so you can fill up on trails. We use the Sawyer Water Filtration System and it works pretty well and packs up pretty small!

National Parks Pass

Since this itinerary includes two national parks, make sure to bring your America the Beautiful pass if you have one! If you do not have one, we highly recommend purchasing one, which you can do at any national park. It costs $80 per year and will get you into any national park, monument, or forest for free. These two parks each cost $30 per car in the summertime, so this pass will almost pay for itself in just this trip!

Alltrails Maps

As we mentioned above, we’d highly recommend downloading the AllTrails maps for all hikes you plan to do before you go. While the trails are mostly easy to follow, we like to use the map to track our progress along the trail. You will need an AllTrails+ membership to download maps, which is $35.99 a year and so worth it!

Want to get 30% off an AllTrails+ membership ? Use our code aplusk30 (you must redeem this code on the website, not the app)! We use AllTrails+ on every single hike and it is the most helpful hiking tool out there! Some of the features we love are offline maps (so we can navigate even without cell service), wrong-turn alerts, and its 3D maps feature, so we can get a feel for trails before we hike.

Before we jump into all of the best things to do in Southwest Colorado, here are some notes we wanted to make about this itinerary.

  • While it’s for 12 days, you can shorten it to fit your trip length. If you have any questions or want any tips on what to prioritize, send us an email at [email protected] . We’d be happy to help!
  • We love jam packed adventures and typically need a vacation from our vacation. This guide is loaded with hikes and activities, with many early wake up calls, so it may not be super relaxing, but it will be a blast!
  • On a similar note, we have included a variety of hikes and activities on this guide to make it doable for different activity levels and to give you options to choose from.
  • We are also including some optional add ons if you have more time or are just looking for even more options!

Now that you know a bit more about the area, how to get there, and what to bring, it’s time to plan out your time in Southwest Colorado! Below is our 12 day itinerary for the area, which can of course be adjusted to what you want to do, how much you want to do in a day, and how much time you have.  To keep this itinerary easier to follow and not too overwhelming, we’re keeping it a bit more brief than our individual guides and are linking any full, in depth guides we have for these spots so that you can get more information if desired.

Day 1: Travel to Colorado and drive to Durango

Durango, Colorado

Welcome to Colorado! Depending on how early you arrive and how much time you have, you can wander around Durango, hit the road to Mesa Verde National Park and explore a little bit (using some of our tips on our Mesa Verde guide ), or rest up for a big day tomorrow.

Where to stay:

For day 1, we recommend staying either in Durango or close to Durango, that way you do not have to move lodging for a couple nights. Durango is close to Mesa Verde National Park, so it won’t be a tough drive the next morning! Campgrounds: Mancos State Park , Snowslide Campground , Target Tree Campground FREE Dispersed Camping: Madden Peak Road (one of our favorite boondocking spots ever!), Sauls Creek , or Crystal Creek Ditch . Hotels: Strater Hotel , Hampton Inn Durango , Fairfield Inn & Suites Airbnbs : Private Studio – Downtown (this is where we stayed on our last visit to Durango), Hip In-Town Condo , New, Modern Condo , Cedar House Condo

Day 2: Mesa Verde National Park

Square Tower House Cliff Dwelling Tour at Mesa Verde National Park

For a more indepth look at all of the best things to do at Mesa Verde National Park, plus helpful tips for visiting, check out our complete guide to Mesa Verde .

About Mesa Verde National Park

Mesa Verde National Park is home to over 4,700 archaeological sites, including 600 cliff dwellings of the Pueblo people, who lived in this area from 600 to 1300 AD. In the park you can see a variety of types of Pueblo structures, including pithouses, a farming community, towers, and temples. And on top of all of the history, the park is home to some gorgeous views too! The entrance of Mesa Verde National Park is located about 40 minutes from Durango, but to get to the bottom of the park, it can take 40 additional minutes, so make sure to plan accordingly. 

A few quick tips for Mesa Verde National Park:

  • Don’t start too early! Normally we suggest arriving at the national parks before or right at sunrise, but most trails and sites do not open until 8 AM. We suggest arriving at the park around 7:30 AM so that way by the time you enter the park and head to where you want to explore first, everything is open and you can still beat the crowds.
  • Book a ranger tour . The BEST way to experience this park is to go on a ranger led tour of a cliff dwelling. These are only available between May and October (the exact dates vary), so check the Mesa Verde National Park website to see what tours are currently being offered, as well as the time slots and months they are offered. It’s important to know that getting tickets for these can be tough! For those that require a ticket, they go on sale 14 days before at 8 AM MST and they go FAST (like, within a minute), so make sure to set many alarms so you don’t forget.
  • Dogs are not allowed on most trails or in any buildings at Mesa Verde National Park. There is a kennel at the Morefield Campground if you need somewhere to leave your pup for a few hours!
  • Check for closures . During our visit there were quite a few closures for construction. Please check the NPS website for an up to date list of closures before visiting. 

Providing an itinerary for Mesa Verde is tricky because if you do a ranger led tour, the starting time varies and the locations vary. But we’d suggest prioritizing the following during one day in Mesa Verde:

  • Go on a ranger-assisted or ranger-guided tour or do the self guided tour of Step House.
  • Hike the Petroglyph Point Trail and see Spruce Tree House along the way.
  • Drive the Mesa Top Loop and stop at all of the sites.
  • Visit the Cliff Palace Loop (if open) to get more views of Cliff Palace and hike the Soda Canyon Overlook trail .
  • Explore the Far View Sites.
  • Watch the sunset from the Park Point Fire Lookout or Point Lookout Trail .

For day 2, we suggest staying in Durango and staying at one of the recommended spots we listed under day 1!

Day 3: Durango

Cascade Canyon on the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad

Watch our experience in Durango and riding the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad here !

About Durango

Durango was founded by the Denver & Rio Grande Railway in 1880 and today the city, which is located at the base of the San Juan Mountains, is still home to the same railroad from the 1800s, plus a cool mix of history and outdoor adventure, with the Animas river running right along town, historic buildings, and many epic hikes nearby. We have been to Durango a couple times and both times have absolutely loved it! It’s a great sized city and offers some very fun activities!

  • Start your morning with coffee at Taste in downtown Durango. And while you’re there, grab a breakfast burrito from Backcountry Gourmet , a food truck right next to the coffee shop! Or for a more traditional breakfast, head to College Drive Cafe or Oscar’s Cafe .
  • For the afternoon, there are quite a few activities to choose from, depending on your interests and budget. Option #1: Ride the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad . We LOVED this train ride and you get many beautiful views along the way. There are multiple train options, but we recommend doing the Cascade Canyon Express , which is 5 hours and takes you to a beautiful area with river and mountain views, where you get off the train for a short break. It costs 81-$86/per adult depending on where you sit, but we highly recommend booking the open air gondola! You can also take the train to Silverton, but this is an all day activity and you’ll be visiting Silverton by car soon! Option #2: Go rafting! The Animas River is a great rafting spot and there wasn’t a day where we didn’t see folks out on the water having a blast. There are a handful of rafting companies in town, including Durango Rafting , that can take you on a half day or full day adventure (starting at $50 per adult). Option #3: Go mountain biking! Durango is home to some great mountain biking trails ranging in skill level. Option #4 : Hit the trails and hike! There are several amazing trails right by Durango. A few we suggest are: Animas Mountain Trail (6 miles, 1,519 ft of elevation gain), Purgatory Trail (10.3 miles, 1,820 ft of elevation gain), Castle Rock (5.3 miles, 1,666 ft of elevation gain), or hike part of the Colorado Trail to Gudy’s Rest (9.1 miles, 1,309 ft of elevation gain).
  • Spend the rest of the afternoon wandering around downtown and along the Animas River. There is a great pathway that takes you along the Animas River , right by town, and is one of our favorite things to do while in the area.
  • Grab dinner at one of Durango’s local restaurants. We recommend checking out: Rice Monkeys , Taco Libre , Carver Brewing Company or Steamworks Brewing Company , or go to the 11th Street Station where there are a handful of food trucks!
  • End the day with ice cream at Cream Bean Berry , one of the best local ice cream shops we have been to in the US!

For day 3, we suggest staying in Durango and staying at one of the recommended spots we listed under day 1!

Pagosa Springs, Colorado

Optional Add On: Pagosa Springs If you have more time while near Durango, we recommend a day trip to Pagosa Springs, which is located about 1 hour and 15 minutes from Durango. This town is known for its hot springs and is also close to some great hikes, waterfalls, and scenic drives. To see all of our suggestions for one day in Pagosa Springs, watch this video !

Day 4: Drive to Silverton

San Juan Mountains in Southwest Colorado

Watch our experience driving from Durango to Silverton in this YouTube video !

For day 4 of your road trip, make the 48 mile drive up to Silverton along the San Juan Skyway (Hwy 550). We LOVED this drive so much and it’s one that is best to dedicate most of a day to, as there are some great stops along the way. We recommend stopping at the following places.

Honeyville Durango

Honeyville Open 9 AM-5 PM Honeyville is a third generation beekeeping and honey bottling business and their store and factory is super fun to check out! You are able to see their machinery and if you come at the right time, their bottling process, as well as see the bees that make the honey! There are tons of honey treats to purchase as well, including the delicious whipped honey.

James Ranch Grill Durango

James Ranch Market Hours and dates open vary by season Just across the street from Honeyville is James Ranch, which is a regenerative farm, which means they utilize farming and ranching practices that are better for the environment by rebuilding soil, improving the water cycle, and sequestering carbon in the soil. They also have a market with tons of local products, as well as a grill, with insanely delicious burgers and fries…all with a view of the mountains and the farm! Oh, and they have ADORABLE baby goats to play with too! Does it get much better than that

Pinkerton Hot Springs

Pinkerton Hot Springs This “hot” spring is on the side of the road and is a fun and quick stop! The hot springs were discovered in the 1800s by explorer James Pinkerton, and quickly transformed into a resort and tourist attraction for all Americans to enjoy. It’s said that even Marilyn Monroe made visits to soak in these healing waters. The resort burned down a total of three times, so it’s no longer what it once was. But back in 2001, the Colorado Department of Transportation altered the direction and flow of the spring by inserting a vertical pipe to protect the nearby vegetation and structures. Now the colorful, mineral rich rock pile builds upon itself indefinitely, creating unique formations, shapes and a kaleidoscope of colors. Adrenaline Falls If you have a higher clearance vehicle to get to the trailhead, this quick 0.4 mile hike takes you to a pretty cool waterfall! 

San Juan Mountains in Southwest Colorado

Molas Overlook This is one of our favorite stops along this drive! This pulloff on the side of the road has views in all directions of the San Juan Mountains, as well as bathrooms if needed.  Molas Lake Molas Lake is a small lake (plus campground) with epic mountain views. We kayaked here and it was a lot of fun! If you don’t want to kayak, you can hike the Little Molas to Molas Lake Trail (6 miles, 757 ft of elevation gain) or the Molas Lake to Animas River Trail (8 miles, 2,129 ft of elevation gain), which takes you to where the Durango and Silverton train goes by!

Molas Lake in Southwest Colorado

For day 4, we suggest staying in Silverton, a small mining town with tons of historic charm, which you’ll explore more tomorrow! FREE Dispersed Camping: Kendall Camping Area , Anvil Camping Area ,  Sultan Camping Area , Golden Horn Campground Hotels: The Wyman Hotel , Grand Imperial Hotel , The Avon Airbnbs : Most Airbnbs in town have 2 night minimums, so they may not work for this itinerary.

Day 5: Explore Silverton + Drive the Million Dollar Highway

Silverton, Colorado

For much more information on the Million Dollar Highway and the stops along the way, check out our guide to driving the Million Dollar Highway and watch this video !

About Silverton

Silverton is a small historic mining town that was established in 1874, but grew immensely starting in 1881, when the Denver & Rio Grande Railway reached the town. The town is now more of a tourist destination, it is still full of historic charm, with many of its original buildings remaining, plus mostly unpaved streets, making you feel like you’ve stepped back in time when wandering around town. 

  • Grab coffee and a breakfast burrito at Coffee Bear and make sure to go to the top deck to admire the town from above!
  • Spend the morning wandering around town and admiring the old buildings. We recommend going up to the Christ of the Mines Shrine for amazing views of town. This is a memorial perched on top of a hill, which was created to honor and protect those in the mining industry. You can hike up to this view point or drive up to it!
  • Tour the Old Hundred Gold Mine , which costs $28 per adult (less for kids and seniors) and you get to ride in a vintage electric powered mine train that takes you 1/3 of a mile into the heart of the 13,000 foot Galena Mountain. Once in the mine, the guide walks you around and shows different mining techniques (and even let us try the tools!) and shares a lot of history about the mine. This tour is only operational in the summer and leaves every hour. They don’t take reservations, but we recommend arriving for the first tour, as it was way less busy than the second tour.
  • Head back into Silverton for lunch! Some good spots to check out are Handlebars for burgers and Avalanche Brewing Company for pizza, tacos, and other bites.
  • Drive the Million Dollar Highway ! This is a 25 mile scenic drive that runs from Silverton to Ouray and is famous for its hairpin curves, drop offs and lack of guardrails, mining history, and mountain views. The road was first built in the 1880s by Otto Mears as a narrow wagon toll road to connect the two mining towns and was rebuilt in the early 1920s to be a two lane road like it is today. In our Million Dollar Highway guide we share a lot more information about the road and the best stops to make! We suggest giving yourself a couple hours to drive this road so you can enjoy the views and history.
  • Once you make it to Ouray, grab dinner at either Maggie’s Kitchen for burgers, Ouray Brewery for beer and pub food, or Brickhouse 737 or Bon Ton Restaurant for a nicer meal.

For day 5, we suggest staying in Ouray, which is where the Million Dollar Highway ends and is the general area you’ll be exploring for the next couple days. FREE Dispersed Camping: Ironton Park Dispersed Camping (no cell service, but it’s convenient to town) Hotels: Imogene Hotel , Beaumont Hotel & Spa (adults only), Bo x Canyon Lodge & Hot Springs Airbnbs : Downtown Ouray Townhouse , Updated Ouray Condo w/AC , or Walkable Ouray Condo  

Day 6: Rent a Jeep!

Jeep 4x4 trails in San Juan Mountains

One of our favorite things we have done, not only in Colorado, but in all of our adventures is rent a Jeep and drive some of the 4×4 trails in the San Juan Mountains! We had never driven a Jeep offroad or gone on these types of trails before, but there are 4×4 trails in the area for all skill levels.  During our visit we did Corkscrew Gulch , Animas Forks (closer to Silverton), and part of Yankee Boy Basin . They each had totally different scenery and challenges. 

Animas Forks in Southwest Colorado

Corkscrew Gulch took us up to the top of mountains, where we had endless views of the San Juan and Red Mountains (it was INSANE)! At Animas Forks we got to see a ghost town and learn mining history. Then we drove to Yankee Boy Basin, which was the most nerve wracking (in our opinion) and although we didn’t go to the end due to snow, the views and waterfalls were stunning. They were all a BLAST!

Watch our experience driving a Jeep in the San Juan Mountains! 

If you would like to experience this and do not have your own Jeep or 4×4 vehicle, we highly recommend renting a Jeep from Switzerland of America Jeeps in Ouray. It cost $232 for the day and we were able to pick it up the night before, which was a huge bonus and gave us extra time with it! Another big perk was Kona was also allowed (for free!), we just had to keep the seats covered.

Yankee Boy Basin in Southwest Colorado

Some things to know before doing this:

  • The trails close in the winter and reopen around late May to early June. We were there in the very early season and not everything was open yet, but we used Switzerland of America’s website for updates and asked them for suggestions when we picked up the Jeep. 
  • There are trails in both Silverton and Ouray, as well as in between, so you could start your Jeep adventure in either town (Silverton has Jeep rentals too).

If you do not want to spend money on this or it doesn’t sound fun to you, you could spend more time relaxing in Ouray or Silverton, cut a day off of the itinerary, or build in one of the optional add ons to your itinerary!

For day 6, we suggest staying in Ouray at one of the lodging options we listed above!

Day 7: Explore Ouray

Ouray Perimeter Trail in Colorado

Watch us hike the Ouray Perimeter Trail and read more about the trail in our Ouray Perimeter Trail guide !

About Ouray

Ouray, which is nicknamed “the Switzerland of America,” is a small mountain town tucked into the San Juan Mountains and is named after Chief Ouray of the Ute tribe, as the area was inhabited by the Ute Native Americans. For centuries, the tribe traveled here during the summer months to fish, hunt, and to soak in what they called their “sacred miracle waters.” In fact, the town’s original name was “Uncompahgre,” which is the Ute word for “hot water springs.”  The town is still home to these springs, as well as many other outdoor adventures!

  • Ouray doesn’t have a ton of breakfast and coffee options, but if you’re looking to eat out for breakfast, Mojo’s Coffee, Chai, & Teas is open early and Camp Bell’s Cajun Cuisine has full breakfasts!
  • Head to Box Canyon Falls Park , which is a 285 foot waterfall that drops thousands of gallons of water per minute inside a narrow canyon. It costs $5 to visit and we thought it would just be a tourist trap, but we were SO impressed by this waterfall! A couple things to know before going. There are multiple trails here, but we suggest the Falls Trail (a MUST!) and the High Bridge Trail. Dogs are NOT allowed here, except for on the actual bridge on the High Bridge Trail, which is also on the Perimeter Trail (more on that below). If you plan to do the Perimeter Trail, you could just do the Falls Trail and then save the high bridge for later in the day. The park opens at 9 AM and we highly recommend getting there right when they open, as it can get very busy!
  • Spend the rest of the morning and part of the afternoon on the Ouray Perimeter Trail . This is a 6 mile dog friendly trail that traverses the mountain sides on the perimeter of Ouray, gaining 1,600 feet of elevation. Along the trail you’ll see 4 waterfalls, 5 bridges, and views of town and the mountains along the way. We have a full guide on how to do this hike and the sights you’ll see along the way, which you can read here ! We also suggest getting some snacks from Ouray Meat & Cheese Market for your hike so you can have a picnic along the way.
  • After hiking all around town, visit the Ouray Hot Springs , which are located right by where we suggest starting and ending the Perimeter Trail. While these springs are more of a public pool environment, they use the same healing waters the Ute Indians used to enjoy. There are various pools, which range 75 to 106 degrees and it costs between $12-$18 per person to visit.
  • Grab a sweet treat from Mouse’s Chocolates & Coffee and wander around town before heading to dinner! A couple spots to check out are Maggie’s Kitchen for burgers, Ouray Brewery for beer and pub food, or Brickhouse 737 or Bon Ton Restaurant for a nicer meal.

For day 7, we suggest staying in Ouray at one of the lodging options we listed above!

Day 8: Hike in the San Juans

Blue Lakes Trail: Lower Blue Lake

The San Juan Mountains are home to some of the BEST hikes in all of Colorado, so for day 8, we highly recommend spending your day going for one of the iconic hikes in the area! There are quite a few to choose from, but our top picks are: Blue Lakes Trail 8.7 miles | 2,509 feet of elevation gain If you love forests, rivers, insane mountain views, and not one, but THREE gorgeous blue lakes, then this is the hike for you! This popular hike is located near Ridgway and is only 50 minutes from Ouray and is one of the most beautiful hikes we have done in the United States!

Watch us hike to Blue Lakes in this YouTube video ! And for a more detailed look at this hike, check out our Blue Lakes Trail hiking guide !

Ice Lakes Basin 8.6 miles | 3,070 feet of elevation gain This hike is located back towards Silverton and is one of the most popular hikes in the state! It was closed during our visit due to a wildfire that had happened in 2020, but is now back open and despite being warned that it may become a permit only hike, it still remains open to anyone (but please treat it with respect). Similar to Blue Lakes, this hike takes you to three bright, blue lakes, as well as has some amazing views of the San Juans. It’s high up on our list for when we return! Columbine Lake 8.3 miles | 2,933 feet of elevation gain This is a tough hike, but you’re rewarded with incredible views of the mountains and a gorgeous blue lake at the end. Parking is pretty tight here and you may have to park by the bridge and walk to the trailhead if you arrive late, so plan to get here early. Whichever trail you choose, PLEASE leave no trace and help keep the San Juan Mountains beautiful for future generations!

While you could stay in Telluride this night, in order to be close to tomorrow’s activities, we think that staying another night in Ouray would work out best, as you then won’t have to hop around to yet another hotel or Airbnb and you’re still pretty close to Telluride (about 1 hour).

Day 9: Telluride

Telluride in Southwest Colorado

Watch us explore the beautiful town of Telluride in this video !

About Telluride

Telluride is a former mining town located in the San Juan Mountains and is tucked into a box canyon surrounded by 13,000 and 14,000-foot peaks. And similar to Ouray, it was a popular summer destination for Ute Native Americans and today, it’s known for its many festivals, epic mountain views, skiing and snowboarding, and more artsy vibe. We had been told by many people that we should go here, but to be honest, we thought it was just going to feel like a fancy ski resort. But boy, were we wrong! Telluride ended up being our favorite town we visited in Colorado and is high up on the list for the entire US! The downtown area has maintained tons of historic charm, while also being very, very nice, and it’s full of really cool shops and local restaurants.

  • Grab coffee and breakfast at either High Alpine Coffee or The Butcher & The Baker .
  • Take the FREE gondola to Mountain Village! This is the first and only gondola offering free public transportation in the United States. While Mountain Village has a resort feel, we loved walking around up there, as well as the ride to the top (make sure to stop at the halfway point to see the views!).
  • Hike to Bridal Veil Falls , which is the tallest free-falling waterfall in Colorado at 365 feet. It is super impressive and has a TON of mist…we got soaked! You can take the trail to the top and then Black Bear Pass Road (which has great views) back to the bottom, but make sure to go above the falls to check out the hydroelectric power plant! You can even continue further to Blue Lake (different than Blue Lakes mentioned above) if you want to add on to the adventure!
  • Spend the rest of the day walking around town. There are many cool shops and art galleries to check out!
  • For dinner, head to Brown Dog Pizza or Wood Ear in Telluride or on your way to your lodging for the night, stop by GNAR in Ridgway for some creative and delicious tacos that we LOVED!

Since the next two days will be spent at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, we suggest staying in Montrose for the night so you’re close to the park.

Campgrounds: South Rim Campground , Schoolhouse with mountain views , KOA , Cedar Creek RV Park , Riverbend RV Park FREE Dispersed Camping: Flat Top OHV Recreation Area , Uncompahgre Valley View , Black Canyon BLM Hotels: Hampton Inn Montrose , Holiday Inn Express Montrose , Double G Ranch & Guest Lodge , Super 8 Montrose Airbnbs : Charming Blue Bungalow , Private Guest House with Mountain Views

Day 10: Black Canyon of the Gunnison (South Rim)

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park South Rim

Watch our experience at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park’s South and North Rims and read our detailed guide to the park!

About Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is located in Western Colorado, near Montrose and gets its name because some parts of the canyon receive only 33 total minutes of sunlight per day because of how steep and narrow the canyon is.  The canyon is 48 miles long, with 14 miles of it in the national park, and at its deepest point, Warner Point, it reaches 2,722 feet. While there are canyons that are deeper and longer, none combine the depth, sheerness, darkness, and narrowness of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. The canyon has some of the steepest and oldest exposed rock in North America and at its narrowest point is only 40 feet wide.  The park is home to two rims to explore, the South Rim and the North Rim, which may look close on the map, but there is no bridge to get from one rim to the other and to go between the two requires a 1 hour, 45 minute drive. So for this day, we suggest focusing on just the South Rim.

Gunnison Route Trail Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

How to explore Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

There are two main ways to explore Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, either along the rim or below the rim. Along the Rim At the South Rim, there is a 7 mile scenic drive which has 12 overlooks. Most of these overlooks are reached by short walking trails, but some do offer views right from the side of the road. Some of our favorite viewpoints from our visit were Gunnison Point (right by the visitor center), Pulpit Rock, Cross Fissures View, Chasm View, and Painted Wall, which is the tallest cliff in all of Colorado at 2,250 feet! There are also some hikes along the rim, which aren’t too strenuous, which we will mention below!

Below the Rim The BEST way to explore Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is to do one of the inner canyon routes, which take you down into the canyon to the Gunnison River. These are technically NOT trails, but rather unmaintained and unmarked routes with steep and rugged terrain and should ONLY be attempted by experienced hikers! These routes require a wilderness permit , which are free. However, you will need to get the permit the day before and they can be tough to get, as the routes are limited to 15 people per route, per day. We did the Gunnison Route and highly recommend it for those looking for an adventure! It was challenging, but getting to go down the canyon to the river and hardly having anyone else around was a very special and beautiful experience.

You can read all about how to get a permit for these inner canyon routes, plus everything you need to bring and know beforehand in this detailed Gunnison Route guide .

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park North Rim

Itinerary Option #1

For your first day, drive along the South Rim, stopping at the different overlooks along the way and going for some of the rim hikes, like the Oak Flat Loop Trail (1.3 miles, 311 ft of elevation gain), Rim Rock Nature Trail (1.5 miles, 187 ft of elevation gain), and Warner Point Nature Trail (1.5 miles, 406 ft of elevation gain). Depending on how early you start, this could take a half day or a full day!

Itinerary Option #2

For the first half of the day, enjoy the South Rim Scenic Drive, stopping at as many overlooks as you have time for until about 3-4 hours before the visitor center closes for the day. For the second part of the day, hang out at the visitor center to get your wilderness use permit to hike into the inner canyon the next day.

We suggest staying in Montrose like you did the previous night! 

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park North Rim

Optional Add On: Black Canyon of the Gunnison North Rim The North Rim is also home to a scenic drive, which is a maintained gravel road and is a bit shorter, at 5 miles and only 6 stops. However, all of the stops are basically directly off the road and are worth stopping at! There are also two trails we suggest checking out on the North Rim: North Vista Trail to Exclamation Point (2.9 miles, 406 ft of elevation gain) and the Chasm View Nature Trail (0.6 miles, 108 ft of elevation gain).

Day 11: The Gunnison Route OR go for an easier hike!

Gunnison Route Trail

If you decided to wait in line for a Gunnison Route permit the day before, spend this day doing that hike. It won’t take the entire day, but you will be tired afterwards. After your hike, you could visit the overlooks you missed the day before, head to the North Rim to explore, or just relax! If you explored Black Canyon yesterday and did not want to attempt the Gunnison Route, you have a few options of how you could spend this day. Option #1: Visit the North Rim for the day! It is a bit of a drive, but we found the North Rim to be just as beautiful as the South Rim, offered some unique perspectives, and was WAY less busy! Option #2: Explore the Curecanti National Recreation Area ! We have not personally visited this area, but we did drive through it and WOW is it stunning! Option #3: Drive Owl Creek Pass , which says it’s an OHV trail, but in the summer it is doable without 4×4. This pass is famous for being where part of True Grit was filmed and has amazing views of Chimney Rock and Courthouse Mountain. Option #4: Visit Ridgway State Park , which has a beautiful reservoir surrounded by mountains. You can kayak and paddleboard on the reservoir or see it from above on the Ridgway Reservoir Trail (6.9 miles, 856 ft of elevation gain).

We suggest staying in Montrose like you did the previous two nights or you can travel to wherever you’re flying out the next day or hit the road to your next destination!

Lower Blue Lake

Day 12: Travel back home

And now for the worst day of your Southwest Colorado road trip…heading home! If you’re like us, you’ll be very, very sad to leave, but there is still a lot more of Southwest Colorado and Colorado to see that is not included on this guide, so we hope that your goodbye is more of a “see you later!”

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12 Day Southwest Colorado Road Trip Itinerary (Mesa Verde, Durango, Silverton, Ouray, Telluride, & Black Canyon of the Gunnison) | Things to do in Southwest Colorado

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6 thoughts on “ 12 day southwest colorado road trip itinerary ”.

This is one of the most comprehensive and well written posts about exploring southwest colorado. Thank you so much! Learned so much from it and it helped plan my own itinerary.

That means a lot, thank you! So glad you found it helpful!

This is an awesome, very detailed guide!Thank you for sharing! 1. Do you have a “cost” associated with this 12 day trip. 2. Can this be printed?

Thank you, Dannis and Willie

Hi Dannis and Willie! We’re glad you found it helpful! We don’t have costs associated with this itinerary, as it will vary a lot based on accommodation and the activities you choose. But if you’re camping in a van or RV (like we did!), it is a very affordable trip, with the only cost being food, fuel, and any activities you pay for, since there is a lot of free camping. The guide can technically be printed, but it will be a bit hard to read with the ads. We are hoping to create an easier to print version in the future!

Love the itinerary and all the info! Would like to print it but it is 80 pages. Do you have ability to print without all the ads?

Hi Edward! We’re glad you found it helpful! We are currently in the process of turning many of our popular itineraries into eBooks, which are ad free and easy to print, but unfortunately haven’t gotten to this one yet.

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winding road through a rocky landscape on a usa southwest road trip itinerary

19 Stunning Southwest Road Trip Itinerary Ideas (+ Tips!)

There may be no other region in the USA quite as otherworldly as the American Southwest. And there is absolutely no better way to appreciate that magnificent beauty than via an epic Southwest road trip itinerary!

Unfortunately, for most of us, there’s no way to encapsulate the full magnificence of the region on a single Southwest US road trip (and trust us, we’ve tried to, many times).

Because of that, we’ve teamed up with several other travel bloggers to craft this complete guide to the best road trips in the Southwest USA, from iconic classics in Utah to offbeat highlights in Nevada to focused Southwest national parks road trips.

We’ve decided to work with a pretty generous definition of the Southwestern US for this guide, covering road trips in Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, and Colorado, as well as parts of Southern California and West Texas.

Whether you only have a weekend to spare or are planning the Southwest road trip of a lifetime, here are the best Southwest USA road trip routes to consider!

Table of Contents

Quick Tips for Your Southwest USA Road Trip

Utah road trip itinerary ideas, arizona + new mexico southwest road trips, southwest road trip itineraries in colorado, cool nevada road trip ideas, west texas road trip itineraries, multi-state southwest itineraries, read more about visiting the southwest usa.

Kate Storm looking down into Wall Street Slot Canyon in Bryce Canyon, an unforgettable stop on a Utah road trip itinerary

Some links in this post may be affiliate links. If you make a purchase through one of these links, we may earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. Please see our disclosure policy for more detail.

Before diving into the best Southwest road trip itineraries below, there are a few tips to be aware of, especially if this is your first time in the region!

Pick up an America the Beautiful Pass.

If you’re planning a Southwest USA road trip itinerary, odds are very high that you’re planning to visit several national parks!

If so, consider picking up an  America the Beautiful Pass , also known as the USA’s annual national parks pass.

For only $80–less for certain groups like seniors and military personnel–the park covers day-use fees to over 2,000 federally managed lands, including all 62 national parks, for an entire year.

It’s one of the best travel deals around and will pay for itself within 3-4 visits to popular US national parks (for example, as of the time of writing, many popular Southwest national parks such as Arches and Bryce Canyon cost between $25-35 per vehicle to visit).

Buy your national parks pass  today!

Fruita Historic District in Capitol Reef NP with a fence in the foreground and a rock formation in the background

Beware the heat.

Everyone talks about it, but it really can’t be overstated: the heat in the American Southwest in summer can be life-threatening and is not to be trifled with.

Water, sun protection, and keeping an eye on the weather need to be at the forefront of your mind as you work your way through the region.

If you’re planning a trip during the (long) summer, consider optimizing your schedule so that the bulk of your hiking takes place in the mornings and evenings, too, rather than in the middle of the day.

ranger storm hiking in sedona arizona during a southwest road trip itinerary

If you’re renting a car, shop around.

The best company to rent a car from for your Southwest USA road trip will likely vary dramatically depending on where and when you’re traveling.

Sometimes large international carriers offer the best prices, sometimes local outfits. Sometimes one company has an excellent base price, but terrible rental requirements.

The best way to find your rental car is to search through  Discover Cars , which will sift through dozens of companies to find the best combination of low prices and reasonable rental terms for your trip.

Shop rental cars for your Southwest road trip today!

welcome to arizona sign as seen when driving into page az

Read the rental requirements carefully.

Especially make sure you know how many miles you’ve been allotted (or ideally, if they’re unlimited), what to do if the car breaks down, and what damages you’re liable for in the event of an accident.

You’ll also want to note whether or not to return the car empty or full of fuel.

On the off chance that you’re planning on extending your road trip beyond the US Southwest into Canada or Mexico, be sure to check the requirements for crossing the border as well.

kate storm jeremy storm and ranger storm at an overlook in rocky mountain np with mountains in the background

Consider bringing your sleeping arrangements along with you.

It’s not right for everyone, but there’s a reason that using an RV or campervan is such a classic American road trip experience!

And, you don’t need to dive into the RV lifestyle and buy one for your next trip in order to try it out: you can try out the experience by renting RVs and camper vans from  Outdoorsy .

Browse RVs available to rent with Outdoorsy  today!

kate storm and ranger storm among rock formations in petrified forest national park, one of the best places to visit in arizona bucket list

Make sure you pack the right gear.

From safety gear to snacks, a big road trip in the American Southwest requires bringing the right tools along, whether you’re taking a short vacation, trying out van life, or something in between.

We recommend taking a look at the suggestions on  our road trip packing list  before you go!

jeremy storm in a gray backpack hiking in rocky mountain national park

Book travel insurance.

We don’t ever suggest traveling without travel insurance.

Anything can happen on the road, and an epic road trip is definitely a case of better to be safe than sorry.

You can check prices and inclusions with  Safety Wing  for road trips in the Southwest USA.

kate storm jeremy storm and ranger storm resting in a cave while hiking in sedona as part of a road trip itinerary southwest usa

Don’t overextend yourself.

Exploring every nook and cranny of the American Southwest is a project for a lifetime, not one trip!

As tempting as it is to add on additional driving to stop in just one more park or small town, make sure that you leave enough time to thoroughly explore each destination rather than spending the entirety of your Southwest US road trip driving from one spot to the next.

Considering the long driving distances between some of the most iconic places in the Southwest, it’s easy to over-plan!

kate storm and jeremy storm holding hands overlooking horseshoe bend arizona

Set realistic expectations for visiting US national parks.

Many of the best national parks in the USA are located in the Southwest–and they are incredibly popular.

Be sure to research individual parks in advance to make the most of your time, as accessing the most iconic attractions often is not as simple as showing up.

Hotels tend to get booked up quickly, some parks like Rocky Mountain National Park, Arches National Park, and Zion National Park are now requiring most visitors to book timed entry permits in advance.

Other restrictions can pop up too–for example, Zion National Park requires visitors to use a shuttle rather than private cars to access popular hikes (unless you’re planning a winter trip, that is).

None of this detracts from the beauty of the parks–but it does mean that your experience will be much better if you plan ahead!

kate storm and jeremy storm smiling at the camera at the albuquerque international balloon fiesta

Kanab to Escalante

From Rachel & Clark of Seeking Our Someday

The Kanab, UT to Escalante, UT road trip gives way to some of Southern Utah’s most beautiful hidden gems.

These rural areas are filled with some of the most dramatic rock formations that you can find on an itinerary for the Southwest USA. 

Starting in Kanab, use this small town as a home base for visiting several nearby destinations.

Buckskin Gulch, just East of Kanab, is one of the longest slot canyons in the world and is considered one of the most beautiful slot canyons in Utah.

For an incredible day trip from Kanab, hike into this slot canyon from Wirepass Trailhead. Be on the lookout for ancient petroglyphs as you descend into the canyon.

Just north of Kanab are the Moqui Caves. These caves are great to explore for a couple of hours, especially in the afternoon light.

Only 30 minutes outside of Kanab, the Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park is home to some of the most beautiful sand dunes. These dunes are especially beautiful at sunrise and sunset. 

Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park in Utah on a sunny day with a large dune in the center of the frame. This park is one of the best places to visit in Utah

On the two-hour drive from Kanab to Escalante, make sure to stop at Bryce Canyon National Park to see the natural hoodoos in the Bryce Amphitheater and check out a few of the coolest things to see in Bryce Canyon NP .

Use Escalante as a second home base to visit more hidden gems in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

Some of the most incredible landscapes can be found down Hole in the Rock Road, just south of Escalante.

Make sure to visit Zebra Slot Canyon, a very narrow slot canyon with natural striped rock, along with Devils Garden just a few miles down the road.

Further down Hole in the Rock Road are the Peekaboo and Spooky Slot Canyons which are a fun loop hike through two beautiful slot canyons.

Driving Distance

Recommended road trip length.

This road trip could be done in a long weekend, but there are enough places to visit that we recommend 1-2 weeks to fully experience all of the stops along the way.

Inside Spooky Canyon in southern Utah, one of the best honeymoon destinations in USA for outdoor-loving couples!

New Mexico’s Enchanted Circle

From Becky of SightDOING

Northern New Mexico doesn’t get the attention that the rest of the state does, but travelers willing to take an extra drive will find incredible beauty along the  Enchanted Circle Scenic Byway .

Starting from Taos and going clockwise, you’ll visit the smaller towns of Questa, Red River, Eagle Nest, and Angel Fire.

This part of New Mexico sits high in the mountains and the route takes you through ever-changing scenery.

Many parts are verdant green, thick with evergreens and aspens.

As the road winds, you’ll also see alpine valleys and lakes, plus the impressive Mt. Wheeler (the highest in the state).

As you drive, you’ll be reminded more of Colorado than the stereotypical desert road trips that are so iconic in the Southwest.

curving road through the trees in the enchanted circle in new mexico, one of the most beautiful road trips in southwest usa

Perhaps as you’d expect in a beautiful destination like this, the primary activities involve the outdoors.

One of the highlights is Eagle Rock Lake, not only beautiful but home to playful otters that you might spot if you’re lucky. The picnic tables make a perfect vantage spot.

Hiking is plentiful: head out into the Columbine Hondo Wilderness for wildflowers in spring or look for waterfalls in Cimarron Canyon State Park.

Other activities include mountain biking, horseback riding, fishing, and even skiing in the winter.

It’s not all about the outdoors, though. Visitors can also watch artisans in Questa, pay their respects at the Vietnam Memorial near Angel Fire, brewery hop along the trail, or explore Taos’ history.

Best of all, this New Mexico road trip is wonderful year-round.

Although the driving route is short enough that you can complete it in a day, the area is deserving of a weekend.

Allow plenty of time to stop and explore the parks and mountains along the way and consider even longer if you’re an avid hiker.

adobe buildings in downtown taos new mexico

Phoenix to the Grand Canyon Road Trip

From Nicole of American SW Obsessed

Visiting the Grand Canyon is one of the best weekend trips you can make from Phoenix. 

The  drive from Phoenix to the Grand Canyon  is only 4 hours and there are several stops along the way.

Montezuma Castle is one of the best preserved Native American Ruins located 94 miles from Phoenix.

It is a 5-story structure built into a recess in a white limestone cliff about 70 feet above the ground and it consists of 20 rooms.

Another great stop is Sedona, which is famous for its red rocks and great hiking trails.

You could easily spend a weekend in Sedona but it is also a great place to stop for some lunch and get out and stretch your legs.

man in a red shirt standing on devils bridge in sedona arizona

Once you arrive at the Grand Canyon National Park you will enter from the east and one of the first viewpoints is the Desert View Point and Watchtower.

This is one of the most popular viewpoints in the east and it is your first view of the Grand Canyon and the Colorado River. 

You can continue heading West to the main visitors center where you can walk the Trail of Time. 

The Grand Canyon Trail of Time is an interpretive walking timeline trail focusing on the highlights of the Grand Canyon so tourists can experience and appreciate the vastness of geologic time, as well as the stories captured by Grand Canyon rock layers and landscapes. 

We recommend three days as a minimum for this road trip.  Some people do this in a day but it is very rushed. 

Spending a weekend there gives you time to make stops along the way and experience the Grand Canyon.

view of switchbacks on south kaibab, one of the best grand canyon hikes

Northern New Mexico

From Melissa of Parenthood and Passports

New Mexico is known as the Land of Enchantment for a reason.

The southwestern state is one of the best places in the United States for a culturally immersive trip, incredible food, and beautiful desert landscapes. 

Most New Mexico road trips start and end in Albuquerque, the largest city in the state.

There are so many things to do in New Mexico with kids , or without, and you’ll find many of them in Albuquerque!

Give yourself a couple of days to explore Old Town and visit some of the great museums, like the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center.

Be sure to take the tram up to Sandia Peak. The 2.7-mile aerial tramway is the longest in the United States! 

From Albuquerque, head north to New Mexico’s capital of Santa Fe. Known for its adobe-style architecture, this historical city founded as a Spanish colony in the 1600s is as lovely as it is enchanting! 

dried chiles hanging from an adobe building with a blue door in santa fe new mexico

Just northwest of Santa Fe, outside the town of Los Alamos, Bandelier National Monument is a fascinating look back in time.

In this national monument, you’ll find petroglyphs and cliff dwellings left behind by the Pueblo Indians, the indigenous tribe who originally settled the area. 

For a look at how the Pueblo live today, head to the Taos Pueblo next.

The pueblos one mile north of the town of Taos, is believed to be the oldest continuously inhabited community in the United States.

People have lived in this multi-story adobe building for more than 1,000 years! You can tour the pueblo, which is open to visitors except when tribal rituals take place.

300+ miles.

Ideally, give yourself about a week for this road trip through Northern New Mexico.

Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta

Denver to Aspen Loop

From Lori of Fitz 5 On the Go

The state of Colorado was made for epic road trips.  The scenery is just amazing and pretty non-stop.

Colorado’s many mountain towns are fun and welcoming places to explore and are packed with so many outdoor activities to enjoy.  

There are many great options for planning a loop from Denver.  Some can be done on a day trip, and others are more fun spread over a few days. 

For the most variety and activities in a shorter drive time consider going south to Colorado Springs, loop over to Salida then make your way north through Independence Pass. 

Take some time enjoying Aspen then stop by Glenwood Springs for fun activities before going back to Denver.

Summer or early fall is the best time for this trip before some of the roads are closed due to snow.

First, stop in Colorado Springs, where popular activities include Pikes Peak, Garden of the Gods, the Incline, Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, the Olympic training center, and the Broadmore.

sunset views of the red rocks at colorados garden of the gods, one of the best road trips in southwest usa

From there, head to Salida and Buena Vista.

On the way to Salida stop by the Royal Gorge.  This amazing viewpoint is not great for those with a fear of heights but it’s beautiful.

The area has a train, a suspension bridge, and several other activities including a Skycoaster. 

After enjoying a night in Salida, head north toward Leadville.

Leadville can make a nice little stop to explore an old mountain town and get some lunch but the main attraction of the day will be Independence Pass just south of Leadville.  

Driving Independence Pass in the fall  is likely one of the most beautiful drives in the country.

As a mountain road, it is closed in the winter and no large vehicles are allowed.

mountain views along independence pass in colorado

Independence Pass ends in beautiful Aspen. A stop to Aspen is not complete without seeing the Maroon Bells.

To make your way back to Denver, head north toward I-70 and stop for lunch and activities in Glenwood Springs.

Glenwood Springs has a fabulous hot spring as well as a mountaintop adventure center. 

At minimum plan to stay a night in Salida and one night in Aspen. 

If you only have a weekend then consider cutting the trip in half and making a smaller loop. 

The full loop would be most enjoyable with planning a night in Colorado Springs, 1-2 nights in Salida, and at least 2 nights in Aspen.

small waterfall at hanging lake at glenwood springs in colorado

The Extraterrestrial Highway

From Audrey of That Backpacker

For a one-of-a-kind southwest road trip that you won’t soon forget,  drive Nevada’s Extraterrestrial Highway !

Located in south-central Nevada and spanning a total of 98 miles between the towns of Warm Springs and Crystal Springs, State Route 375 is considered a bit of a pilgrimage for those who believe in alien life!

But even if you’re not a believer, this is still a fun road trip worth doing.

The Extraterrestrial Highway is punctuated by desert landscapes, lonely roads, and some rather unusual attractions.

Some places not to miss include ET Fresh Jerky where you can buy alien-themed snacks including bottles of Martian soda, the Extraterrestrial Highway sign which is plastered with stickers from intrepid adventurers who have completed the drive, and the Alien Research Center where you can hear stories of paranormal desert activity.

bright yellow building as seen on a nevada southwestern us road trip that reads "area 51 alien center" in red letters

You should also visit the Black Mailbox where people leave all sorts of mementos and letters to aliens, and the Little A’le’inn Motel featuring a pick-up truck towing a UFO and a green alien welcoming all earthlings.

It’s important to note that although Area 51 is also located in the area, it is strictly off-limits.

There are numerous signs to remind you that no video, no photography, and no droning are permitted, so save yourself the trouble.

Though this road trip can be completed in a day, you can break it up with a stay at the infamous Little A’le’inn Motel, home to all things extraterrestrial.

You may also want to consider driving the ET Highway as part of a bigger Nevada road trip with a small detour through Valley of Fire State Park.

photo of a green sign in nevada reading "extraterrestrial highway", as seen during one of the best southwest road trip itinerary ideas

Las Vegas to Cathedral Gorge State Park

From Daria of The Discovery Nut

Cathedral Gorge State Park is a natural wonder located in Central Nevada near Utah’s border that makes you feel like you landed on Mars. 

The park is located about 3.5 hours by car away from Las Vegas , the nearest big city, and the remote location of this place and lack of facilities, coupled with the lonely drive in the desert make for an incredible experience.

Cathedral Gorge State Park remains an undiscovered gem full of otherworldly views, amazing hiking trails, and great opportunities for photography.

It’s one of those hidden gem Southwest road trips from Las Vegas that no one talks about, and if you want to see it before it gets discovered, you need to do it now. 

view of a trail in cathedral gorge state park with a small bridge in it

Visiting Cathedral Gorge is pure magic at any time of the year.

Unlike many other popular places in the southwest USA, this state park is uncrowded and offers an amazing quiet space with fantastic landscapes.

With no big stores, chain hotels, or restaurants in the area, this is the ultimate getaway for adventure lovers.  

I recommend spending at least one day at the park and camping under the clear dark skies.

However, if you would rather stay at a hotel, the nearby town of Panaca has a couple of accommodations.

view of blue sky looking up through rock formations in cathedral gorge nevada, a fantastic stop on a southwest road trip itinerary

Big Bend Country Road Trip

While all of Texas may not culturally fall into the Southwest, the western part of the state does–and a Big Bend Country road trip is among the best road trips in the Southwest USA.

Make your way to the rugged, isolated, and utterly beautiful Big Bend National Park to kick off your trip.

While you’re there, hike the stunning Santa Elena Canyon, ascend into the Chisos Mountains via the Lost Mine Trail , and soak in natural hot springs along the Rio Grande.

santa elena canyon in big bend national park, as seen on one of the best southwest national parks road trip itinerary ideas

From there, head to Big Bend Ranch State Park to experience one of the most scenic drives in the USA.

Head a couple of hours north, and some of Texas’ most beloved small towns are waiting for you, including Alpine, Fort Davis (where you can experience some of the best stargazing in Texas at the McDonald Observatory), Marathon, and Marfa.

With wild beauty, a huge variety of landscapes, great food, and even excellent art installations, you’ll find plenty of fun things to do in Texas’ Big Bend Country–just be prepared for long driving distances along the way.

About 1000 miles round trip, starting and ending in El Paso.

We recommend setting aside at least one week for this Southwest road trip route.

fort davis drugstore hotel in west texas with a pink truck parked in front of it, part of one of the best road trips in us southwest

Classic Southwest USA Road Trip from Page, AZ

From James Ian of Parks Collecting

One of the best road trips in the Southwest USA is a loop from Page, Arizona that takes in a variety of natural and cultural icons.

Starting in Page, head to Monument Valley.

Stop off at the Navajo National Monument, where you can walk on the easy paved 1.3-mile Sandal Trail to the Batatkin Cliff Dwelling overlook for views of your first cliff dwelling on the trip.

After arriving in Monument Valley around noon, head down the Monument Valley road for a self-driving tour. 

The 17-mile scenic drive loops through the valley past many of the major buttes and mesas that make this area so famous.

In the late afternoon, if you still have some energy, hike the Wildcat Trail around West Mitten.

southwest co road trip

The next day, take a Navajo-led guided tour back into the valley, where you can visit the backcountry and learn more about the Navajo people and culture.

After you leave Monument Valley, take a couple of hours to drive through the beautiful Valley of the Gods before arriving in Moab in the late afternoon. 

Moab is the adventure capital of the world, and you can arrange to go canyoneering, rock climbing, mountain biking, or white-water rafting. Then head to nearby Arches National Park and do all the major hikes in the park.

Next up is a  visit to Mesa Verde National Park , where you will want to spend a couple of days visiting the cliff dwellings, hiking to petroglyphs, and exploring the area. 

After you leave Mesa Verde, stop for a photo at Four Corners, where you can have your limbs in four states at once!

Drive on to Canyon de Chelly, where you will want to spend a full day enjoying the views and hiking down into the canyon.

view of spider rock in canyon de chelly from above as seen on one of the best road trips in southwest america

On the drive from there back to Page, you will pass through the Hopi reservation.

It is worth spending half a day on a tour with a Hopi guide to see more of the area and learn about Hopi culture.

Back in Page, don’t miss the mind-blowing Antelope Canyon and stunning Horseshoe Bend !

I recommend allowing ten days for this trip.

This will give you time to explore each of the parks/ areas and learn more about the cultural and natural environment along the way.

antelope canyon in arizona with a beam of light streaming into the canyon

Trail of the Ancients

From Megan of Red Around the World

One of the most unique road trips in the Southwest is the  Trail of the Ancients  through Southeast Utah and Southwest Colorado.

It passes tons of amazing scenery but really features ancient Anasazi ruins throughout the Four Corners Area.

This is a particularly great Southwest road trip itinerary for history buffs and hikers!

Start your road trip in Cortez, where you can start making your way through some of the best places to visit in the Southwest.

pueblo of mesa verde national park as seen from afar

Some of the highlights are Mesa Verde National Park, Monument Valley, and Valley of the Gods, but there are tons of smaller stops along the way, too. 

Some of those include Natural Bridges National Monument, Edge of the Cedars State Park, Upper Sand Island Petroglyphs, House on Fire Ruin, Butler Wash Ruin, Goosenecks State Park, Four Corners National Monument, Hovenweep National Monument, and more.

Diriving Distance

About 300-400 miles, depending on stops.

I would recommend spending about 7-10 days on the Trail of the Ancients.

If you have a full 2 weeks to explore, that’s even better.

Sipapu Bridge in Natural Bridges National Monument, one of the best places to go in Utah

Zion National Park to Sedona Southwest Road Trip Itinerary

From Allison of She Dreams in Alpine

If you’re looking for a quick Southwestern road trip that packs a whole lot into a relatively short drive, head from Zion National Park in Utah to Sedona, Arizona.

Although Zion is the start of your road trip, it’s actually hard to leave this magical place.

From the epic Angel’s Landing hike to The Narrows slot canyon, if you’re up for adventure, you will have an amazing time here.

Kate Storm at the viewpoint at the Canyon Overlook Trail in Zion National Park Utah

Don’t worry, when it’s time to hit the road, your next stop of Kanab has plenty to offer.

If you’re lucky enough to score permits, hike to the incredible swooping sandstone of The Wave.

Or, take some time to explore the beauty of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

Then head east on Highway 89 to Lake Powell, where you can take a rest day or two. Chill in the lake before heading south.

Stop at the photogenic Horseshoe Bend , then make your way to the Grand Canyon .

Bask in the breathtaking views from the rim, or challenge yourself to hike to the bottom – just know that means you also have to hike back out!

grand canyon as seen from south kaibab, one of the best grand canyon hikes south rim

Next, make your way to Flagstaff, and enjoy the Southwestern city life in the lively downtown area. Finish your road trip in the red rock paradise of Sedona.

You can hit the trails again on some of the awesome hikes in Sedona , take an off-road Jeep tour, or pamper yourself at a spa.

You’ll definitely be ready for some relaxation by the end of this road trip through the Southwest USA!

With all the incredible outdoor places to explore along the way, you should plan at least a week for this adventurous road trip.

You could easily make it longer if you wanted to spend more time hiking around Zion, the Grand Canyon, and Sedona.

woman in a red backpack hiking in sedona on a southwest road trip of a lifetime

Salt Lake City to Phoenix

From Samah of God and Wanderlust

Absorb the extraterrestrial beauty of the southwest with a road trip from Salt Lake City, UT to Phoenix, AZ.

Salt Lake City is made for the adventurous at heart.

Explore Red Butte Garden, Big Cottonwood Canyon, and the Great Salt Lake itself. A scenic mountain backdrop is always included.

Skiing and other snow sports are possible in nearby Park City.

Drive south to Moab and hike your way to the Delicate Arch in Arches National Park. Camp under the Milky Way in Monument Valley situated on protected Navajo land.

Ride a horse among the red rocks and buttes and pretend to be in the Wild West. Visit Forrest Gump Point at the crack of dawn to avoid the rush of cars.

From here head to Zion National Park and then Page, AZ.

Check the infamous Angels Landing off your list, kayak in Lake Powell, and hike to Horseshoe Bend.

Become mesmerized by the cave formations of Antelope Canyon.

horseshoe bend page arizona on a sunny day

At last, you arrive at the Grand Canyon. It’s magnificent. The Bright Angel trail will guide you right into the Canyon.

Sedona is still to come. It’s the most beautiful city you’ll lay eyes on. Hot air balloons illuminate against the sun’s glow. Devils Bridge and Doe Mountain offer spectacular views.

Phoenix will eventually bring a calm end to your southwest road trip itinerary.

Its mellow, laidback atmosphere will help relax after your breathtaking journey through the southwest.

Road Trip Length

We recommend at least 2 weeks to explore various cities, do activities and make stops along the way.

downtown phoenix arizona as seen from above, with red rock formations on either side of the photo that have a road cutting through them

Las Vegas to Monument Valley

From Hannah of Hannah Henderson Travel

For a point-to-point overview of some of the most popular Southwest road trip stops, drive from Las Vegas to Monument Valley!

Your first stop outside of Las Vegas is the Hoover Dam.

This impressive man-made damn along the Colorado River marks the border between Nevada and Arizona.  

Head southeast along Hwy-93 towards Kingman, and be sure to visit the Historic Route 66 Museum.  

If you have time, take a detour and visit Oatman, an old mining town where wild burros (donkeys) roam free throughout the town.

burros in oatman arizona, one of the best southwest road trip itinerary stops

The next leg of the road trip takes you along a small section of Historic Route 66 from Kingman to Seligman.

Enjoy the kitsch rest stop at Hackberry and eat lunch at the Road Kill Café .  The replica Wild West town in Seligman is a fun attraction for families too.

Continue to head east along the I-40 and then up to the Grand Canyon.  There are Grand Canyon hikes to suit many levels, educational talks, and unparalleled views.

Stay overnight at one of the rim-side cabins and witness the incredible sunset and sunrise.

The final leg of your journey will take you through some of the most captivating  desert landscapes in Arizona , onwards north towards Monument Valley.  

The land becomes more arid and sparsely populated, and you will get picture-postcard views.  

Your final stop is Oljato-Monument Valley, a Navajo Nation Tribal Park.  This valley of red rock formations is a soul-shaking place to end your road trip.  

Three to five days is a good length of time for this road trip between Las Vegas and Monument Valley.  

You can do the journey in 3 days minimum, but 5 days would offer you more time to explore the by-ways and scenic stops along the way.

Monument Valley as seen near sunset in Navajo Nation

LA to Las Vegas Road Trip Itinerary

From Dhara of Roadtripping California

An  LA to Las Vegas road trip  can be done along several different routes, but you can’t go wrong with a route that includes some of the choicest scenery in the Sierra Nevada as well as the spectacular Death Valley National Park in California.

Admittedly, this is a longer route that involves a little bit of a detour, but for travelers with enough time on their hands, this Southwest national parks road trip itinerary cannot be beaten.

Highlights of the itinerary include the scenic Alabama Hills, Lone Pine, and Mount Whitney, and the spectacular sights in Death Valley National Park.

The Alabama Hills consist of beautiful rock formations nestled at the base of the Sierra Nevada mountains.

The national scenic area is popular for hiking, dirt road driving, photography, camping, and night sky viewing.

dirt road in alabama hills of california, as seen on a southwest road trip itinerary route

At Lone Pine, you can also drive the road that goes part way up Mount Whitney, the tallest peak in the contiguous United States.

The road is open in the summer and fall until snow accumulations close it.

Of course, you can also hike to the peak, either as a grueling day hike or as an overnighter, with a permit.

In Death Valley National Park, the main sights can be found along the road that runs through the park, the one you will be taking to get to Vegas.

If you do the road trip in the cooler months of the year, you can hike. When it’s hot, you can drive through the park and stop briefly at viewpoints for photos.

two women hiking through the desert of death valley, a popular us southwest road trip destinations

The Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes are fun for kids and adults.

At Badwater Basin, you can have your photo taken by the sign for the lowest point in North America. Spectacular views await at Zabriskie Point and Dante’s View.

Once you are done exploring the park, it’s a quick drive to Vegas!

We suggest three days or more for this road trip.

With more than three days, you can spend more time hiking, and also explore the northern part of Death Valley National Park.

mesquite dunes in death valley national park during a pink sunrise

Denver to Moab

From Julia of The Cure for Curiosity

One of the best road trips in the Southwestern USA takes you from the snow-capped mountains of Denver, Colorado to the red canyons of Moab, Utah. 

During this epic  road trip from Denver to Moab , you’ll be able to see some of the best scenery the United States has to offer.

As you travel, you’ll pass through many charming small towns, complete with great hiking, hot springs, and of course panoramic views.

Start your trip in Denver, the capital of Colorado, and make your way to Rocky Mountain National Park.

Here you’ll find some stunning mountain views and world-class hiking.

kate storm at emerald lake in rocky mountain national park

Continue your trip through the renowned ski towns of Breckenridge and Vail, exploring the quaint city centers and everything they have to offer, from skiing to mountain roller coasters and free gondola rides.

The next stop is Glenwood Springs, famous for its hot springs as well as the beautiful hike to Hanging Lake.

If you have the time, you can also detour down to Aspen to check out the popular Maroon Bells, the most photographed mountains in North America.

marroon bells snow covered mountains and lake in colorado

From there, make your way through Colorado wine country in Palisade, CO to the Colorado National Monument.

This is the last stop before crossing into Utah and making your way into Moab.

Moab is the perfect end destination for a road trip as you can spend days exploring the local sights that bring droves of tourists to the area, like Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park, and Dead Horse Point State Park.

While the drive itself can easily be done in just one day, you’d miss a lot of the fun stops along the way.

It’s best to plan about a week for this road trip to have plenty of time to explore Denver, the stops in between, and Moab.

Jeremy Storm sitting in front of a viewpoint in Dead Horse Point State Park in Utah

LA to Bryce Canyon & Zion National Parks

From Ciara of Wellness Travel Diaries

Los Angeles to Bryce Canyon National Park— a red rock road trip experience — is a beautiful and classic Southwest USA itinerary for those wanting to escape and indulge in the unique rock formations found in Utah.

It’s a serene drive that takes about 8 hours from LA to Bryce Canyon. Add an extra two hours for a detour to Zion National Park

Here’s how to make the best of your time when road tripping from LA to Bryce Canyon and Zion .

Starting in Los Angeles, California hop on the freeway heading north toward Las Vegas. On route, you’ll find Death Valley about an hour or so off the freeway for a quick day trip.

Take another quick pitstop, right off the freeway at Eddie’s World for clean bathrooms and exquisite snacks.

Once you reach Nevada, stay the night in Las Vegas to explore the famous strip where the downtown lights, lit up the midnight sky.

It’s about four hours from LA (depending on traffic), and marks the halfway point to Bryce Canyon.

Welcome to Las Vegas sign, one of the most popular weekend getaways in the USA

Continue toward Utah for another 160 miles to reach the first destination: Zion National Park.

Hike the beautiful trails such as Angels Landing (5.4 miles out and back) and Watchman Trail (3.3 miles out and back).

Hop back in the car for another 80 miles to reach the second destination: Bryce Canyon.

Explore the picturesque hoodoos by taking the Rim Hiking Trail (1-11 miles; it’s not a loop so hike the distance you choose) or Fairyland Loop (8 miles out and back).

Pick your route by deciding which park you’d like to visit first, then enjoy!

view of hoodoos in bryce canyon national park, an essential stop on many of the best road trips in southwest usa

About 530 miles — this includes the stop in Zion National Park.

While the drive from California to Utah can be done in one day, there are several fun pit stops along this route.

It takes about seven hours to drive from Los Angeles to Zion, and then about two hours from Zion to Bryce Canyon.

To fully explore these natural wonders 6-8 days would be ideal, and allows you to split your time equally between both parks.

Angels Landing in Zion National Park Utah as seen from the trail

Phoenix to Taos to Road Trip

From Polina of Bucket List Places

One of the best itineraries to explore by car in the states is through Arizona and New Mexico.

If you are doing a winter  ski road trip itinerary , this can also be done in reverse starting in Taos.

Fly into Phoenix and rent a car (or RV for even more fun)! Then head south and stop by Saguaro National Park to view the iconic cactus after which the park is named.

From there head to White Sands National Park in New Mexico and sled down some sand dunes.

This park is vast and can be explored for the day or for multiple days if you would like to hike amongst the sand dunes.

two young women hiking over sand dunes in white sands national park, one of the most beautiful national parks in america

Then head to the city to check out Albuquerque’s bustling nightlife.

In contrast, the next stop on the itinerary is Santa Fe, a beautiful historic city that looks like it is stuck in the past.

Stroll the streets and marvel at the beautiful architecture. Visit the delicious restaurants in town or get your culture on at the numerous art galleries.

Your final stop is Taos where you can view the historic Pueblan village, enjoy the delicious restaurants in town, and hang out in the historic town square.

In the wintertime, make sure to hit the slopes! 

We suggest a minimum of one week to enjoy the beautiful destinations on this road trip itinerary. 

saguaro national park, one of the best places to go in arizona, with a path to the left and large cactus on the right

Route 66 (Southwest Portion)

From Stephanie of Oklahoma Wonders

While Route 66 stretches from Chicago to the east to Los Angeles and Santa Monica in the west, Route 66 is the Great American Road Trip of your dreams.

Of course, when people think of driving Route 66, or the Mother Road as it’s commonly called, they think of diners and motels in the Midwest, but by the time the route crosses the border from Oklahoma into Texas, you’re officially in the part of the drive where southwestern scenery and magnificent landscapes take over.

There’s nothing more iconic than a Route 66 sign in front of a tiny Arizona town or the eye-catching Cadillac Ranch installation in Amarillo.

There are so many  things to see on Route 66 , but in this part of the country make sure to visit Petrified National Forest National Park, take a day trip to the Grand Canyon, and even venture up to Monument Valley.

The total distance of Route 66 is just under 2,500 miles, but you can easily visit only a portion on a Southwest USA road trip.

You can spend months exploring Route 66!

With a week or less, we recommend picking 1-2 states to explore.

jeremy storm sitting on top of a car at cadillac ranch in amarillo

San Jose, CA to Escalante, UT Loop

From Jyoti at Story at Every Corner

The road trip from San Jose to Escalate is an excellent way to get out into nature and have a fun outdoor vacation, and features plenty of of classic Southwestern landscapes along the way.

The drive is about 12 hours plus additional time for stops.

Along the route, you’ll find many parks, camps, Mojave National Preserve, and Las Vegas. 

The little town of Escalante is surrounded by five great national parks of Utah and many recreational areas and national monuments.

man in a yellow backpack hiking through zebra slot canyon, one of the best stops on a southwest road trip route

You could do day trips to national parks but there are many incredible hikes around Escalante to slot canyons, waterfall trails, and natural formations .

You could easily spend 10 days in Escalante and still have many hikes remaining to be explored.

You would definitely want to do day trips to Bryce Canyon National Park , Burr Trail, Capitol Reef National Park, Dixie Forest, and Arches National Park . 

1640 miles.

10 days will be a reasonable amount of time for this round trip.

kate storm in a pink t-shirt standing underneath sand dunes arch, one of the best short hikes in arches np

Planning a Southwest road trip soon and eager to keep planning?

You can browse all of our USA blog posts here , or check out these guides:

  • The Ultimate Utah National Parks Road Trip Itinerary
  • Colorado Bucket List: 25 Cool Places to Visit in Colorado
  • The Ultimate Road Trip Packing List: 50+ Road Trip Essentials You Need
  • 3 Days in Las Vegas: The Perfect Weekend in Vegas Itinerary
  • 9 Best Things to Do in Page, AZ (+ Nearby!)

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3 photos of southwest national parks road trips: saguaro at sunset, canyonlands, monument valley drive. black and red text on a white background reads "19 epic southwest road trip ideas"

About Kate Storm

Image of the author, Kate Storm

In May 2016, I left my suburban life in the USA and became a full-time traveler. Since then, I have visited 50+ countries on 5 continents and lived in Portugal, developing a special love of traveling in Europe (especially Italy) along the way. Today, along with my husband Jeremy and dog Ranger, I’m working toward my eventual goal of splitting my life between Europe and the USA.

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Unseen Colorado

29 Best Things to do in Southwest Colorado

Planning a visit to Southwest Colorado? The stunning landscape and rich cultural history of Southwest Colorado offer visitors a wide range of incredible experiences to explore.

Set out on a breathtaking driving tour along the San Juan Skyway to take in the rugged peaks and colorful wildflowers. Hike to the ancient cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde National Park, or explore the pristine wilderness of the Weminuche Wilderness.

Also Read: Ultimate Southwest Colorado Road Trip Itinerary

Step back in time with a visit to the town of Durango to ride the old-fashioned narrow-gauge railroad, or admire the stunning architecture and vibrant arts scene of Telluride . With so much to choose from, Southwest Colorado is truly a gem of the American West.

Here is an ultimate guide to Southwestern Colorado attractions.

Also Read: 39 Best Things to do in Colorado

Best Things to do in Southwest Colorado

Southwest Colorado is a hidden gem, full of natural wonders and exciting activities.

While there are plenty of things to do, it’s hard to pick the best things to do in SW Colorado.

One highlight not to be missed is Mesa Verde National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that offers a glimpse into ancient Puebloan cultures.

The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad is another must-see attraction, providing a scenic ride through breathtaking panoramas.

For those craving adventure, whitewater rafting down the Animas River or hiking in the San Juan Mountains are sure to get your adrenaline pumping.

Here are the best things to do in southwest Colorado on your next trip.

Also Read: 20 Best Day Trips in Colorado for families

See the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park

Mesa Verde National Park is a captivating historical treasure nestled in the heart of Southwest Colorado.

Known for its well-preserved Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings, the park offers a unique glimpse into ancient Native American cultures.

Its centerpiece, the Cliff Palace, is the largest cliff dwelling in North America, and a must-see for all visitors.

In addition to the Cliff Palace, the park is home to several other impressive structures such as Spruce Tree House and Balcony House on the Cliff Palace Loop.

Taking a guided tour is highly recommended to fully appreciate the history and architecture of these ancient dwellings.

Beyond the cliff dwellings, Mesa Verde boasts over 5000 archaeological sites spread across several acres of land.

Hiking enthusiasts can enjoy a variety of trails, each offering unique perspectives of the park’s diverse landscapes and historic sites.

For a more relaxed activity, take a scenic drive on the Mesa Top Loop Road.

This 6-mile drive is dotted with panoramic overlooks, archaeological sites, and ends with a spectacular view of the Cliff Palace.

Remember to drop by at the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum to enrich your understanding of the park’s history.

Visitors can explore exhibits of pottery, tools, and other artifacts excavated from the site.

Mesa Verde is not just a place to visit, but an experience that leaves you with a profound sense of human history and connection to the past.

Also Read: 17 Best Things to do in Mesa Verde National Park

Ride the historic train of the Durango Silverton Railroad

The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad is a historic icon of South west Colorado that promises an unforgettable journey through the state’s spectacular wilderness.

A ride on this vintage steam train takes you on a picturesque journey from Durango to Silverton, traversing the majestic San Juan Mountains, deep gorges, and the sparkling Animas River.

The journey offers a multitude of scenic vistas that are sure to leave any visitor spellbound – definitely a must on Southwest Colorado things to do list!

On board, passengers can choose from a variety of seating options, from standard class to first class, each providing different levels of comfort and amenities.

The train also offers themed rides throughout the year, such as the Polar Express around Christmas time.

Once you arrive in Silverton , there’s plenty to see and do.

The small town is rich in mining history and visitors can explore the Old Hundred Gold Mine, visit the Mining Heritage Center, or simply stroll around the town soaking up the atmosphere.

Restaurants serve up a variety of culinary delights and shopping venues offer unique souvenirs and trinkets.

The historic railroad is one of the best things to do Southwest Colorado.

Explore the attractions of downtown Durango

Durango is a lively city situated in Southwest Colorado, steeped in rich history and brimming with adventurous activities.

It offers a unique blend of Old West charm and contemporary culture, making it a must-visit destination.

The city’s downtown area is a vibrant hub of activities with a plethora of restaurants, brewpubs, galleries, and shops housed in beautifully restored Victorian buildings of historic downtown Durango.

The Animas River runs straight through the city, offering excellent opportunities for whitewater rafting and kayaking.

The surrounding mountains and trails are ideal for hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding.

From its rich history to its outdoor adventures and vibrant culture, there’s an adventure waiting for everyone in this charming Southwest Colorado city.

Enjoy the views on the Million Dollar Highway

The Million Dollar Highway, part of U.S. Route 550, is one of the most breathtaking drives in Southwest Colorado.

This iconic highway stretches for about 25 miles from Silverton to Ouray, offering stunning views of the San Juan Mountains, deep gorges, and cascading waterfalls.

The road gets its name from the cost of its construction in the late 19th century, but some say it’s due to the priceless views it offers.

Driving the Million Dollar Highway is an experience in itself.

The winding, narrow road with countless steep drop-offs and no guardrails is not for the faint-hearted but the panoramic views are the reward.

The road blissfully threads through the Uncompahgre Gorge to the summit of Red Mountain Pass and then descends into the town of Ouray, also known as the “Switzerland of America”.

Popular highlights along the route include the historic mining towns of Red Mountain Pass, the Idarado Mine, and Bear Creek Falls.

There are several scenic overlooks along the way where you can safely park and enjoy the views, take pictures, or just breathe in the crisp mountain air.

Mountain bikers as well as bikers love this scenic drive, making it one of the top Southwest Colorado attractions.

See the waterfalls in Ouray

Ouray , fondly known as the “Switzerland of America,” is a charming mountain town nestled in the San Juan Mountains of Southwest Colorado.

This picturesque town is a paradise for outdoor lovers, offering a wide range of activities such as hiking, jeeping, and ice climbing.

The Ouray Ice Park is a world-renowned destination for ice climbing enthusiasts.

For those who prefer a more leisurely pace, the Ouray Hot Springs Pool offers a relaxing soak with stunning mountain views.

The hot springs are open year-round, making it a perfect spot to unwind after a day of outdoor adventures.

History buffs will enjoy a visit to the Ouray County Historical Museum, which houses an extensive collection of artifacts and displays depicting the town’s rich mining history.

Ouray is also home to the Bachelor Syracuse Mine where visitors can embark on a guided underground tour.

The town’s compact downtown area is a delight to explore, with beautifully preserved Victorian buildings housing a range of shops, galleries, and eateries.

A must-do in Ouray is the scenic Box Canyon falls, a breathtaking cascade of water falling down into a steep gorge.

Lower Cascade Falls trail is another must visit attraction.

All of these attractions can be accessed via the Ouray Perimeter Trail.

Visit Chimney Rock National Monument

Chimney Rock National Monument is a 4,700-acre archaeological site located in Southwest Colorado.

This ancient Puebloan cultural landmark was occupied from around A.D. 900 to A.D. 1300 and is home to hundreds of archaeological sites spread across several acres of land.

A visit to the monument is a journey back in time, allowing visitors to explore the fascinating history of the Ancestral Puebloans.

A guided tour is available to get a closer look at some of the most iconic sites in the park, including the Great House Pueblo and its two-story tower which served the entire valley.

The monument is also home to a variety of wildlife, including cougars, deer, elk, coyotes and hundreds of species of birds.

It’s an excellent spot for birdwatching with breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains and valleys.

Enjoy the gorgeous beauty of Telluride

Telluride is a beautiful mountain town situated in the San Juan Mountains.

This picturesque town is home to some of the most breathtaking landscapes in Colorado, offering an array of activities for outdoor lovers.

The Telluride Ski Resort offers excellent skiing and snowboarding opportunities from December to April while the nearby Telluride Golf Club offers a challenging 18-hole course for any skill level.

The Telluride Valley Floor is also home to a variety of hiking trails, ranging from beginner to expert levels.

Visitors can explore the area on foot, horseback, mountain bike or ATV.

You can also take the free gondola from Mountain Village to Telluride to enjoy the spectacular views.

Downtown Telluride has charming, historic buildings which house galleries, restaurants, shops and bars.

You can also enjoy a variety of festivals throughout the year like the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, Telluride Film Festival and Telluride Jazz Celebration.

Drive the scenic San Juan Skyway

The San Juan Skyway is a 233-mile scenic route that runs through some of the most beautiful scenery in the Four Corners region.

The drive takes travelers through six different mountain passes, offering spectacular views of the Rocky Mountains and the surrounding area.

Popular stops on this scenic drive include the historic Southwest Colorado towns of Silverton and Ouray, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, and Mesa Verde National Park.

The route also takes travelers through some of Southwest Colorado’s most charming towns such as Durango, Telluride, and Cortez.

The San Juan Skyway is a must-do for any traveler looking to explore beautiful Southwest Colorado.

Enjoy skiing at Purgatory Resort

Purgatory Resort is a world-class ski resort situated on the slopes of Durango Mountain.

The resort offers something for everyone, from novice skiers to advanced powder hounds.

The area boasts nearly 3,000 acres of terrain with over 80 runs and 17 chairlifts across its three peaks – Purgatory Mountain, Hesperus Hills, and Needles Mountain.

The resort also offers a wide range of other activities such as snow tubing, snowshoeing, ice skating, and dog sledding.

Tube down the Animas River

The Animas River is a popular destination for white water rafting and kayaking near Durango.

The river runs through Durango, winding its way through spectacular canyons and gorges before flowing into the San Juan River.

It offers some of the best whitewater rapids in the area with sections ranging from Class I to Class V.

The Animas River is a great spot for both experienced paddlers and beginners looking to test their skills.

Rafting trips are available through several different outfitters in the area, offering half-day and full-day tours with knowledgeable guides.

Visitors can also enjoy fishing, canoeing, or simply floating along the Animas River for a relaxing way to take in the scenery.

Enjoy camping at Molas Lake

Molas Lake is a beautiful lake situated in the San Juan National Forest.

The lake is surrounded by lush forests, offering great hiking and camping opportunities for outdoor enthusiasts.

Visitors can also enjoy fishing, canoeing, kayaking and swimming at the lake.

Molas Lake offers stunning views of its surrounding mountains, making it a great spot for photography.

Molas Lake is one of the most underrated things to do in southwestern Colorado.

Hike the incredible Ice Lakes Trail

Ice Lakes is a picturesque alpine lake located in the San Juan Mountains.

The lake sits at over 11,000 feet and is surrounded by spectacular peaks, offering an unparalleled view of the area.

It’s a great spot for camping and hiking, with trails leading to nearby lakes and mountain passes.

The Ice Lakes trail is one of the best hiking trails in Colorado.

It takes visitors to three gorgeous deep blue lakes of Ice Lake, Island Lake, and Fuller Lake.

This 8 miles trail is the ultimate outdoor adventure with lots of waterfalls, wildflowers, and wildlife on the trail.

Ice Lakes is also a popular destination for photographers looking to capture the stunning beauty of this lake.

Understand about the indigenous cultures in Cortez

Cortez is a charming small town near Mesa Verde Park.

The town is home to some of the area’s best attractions, including the Cortez Cultural Center and Museum of Indian Arts and Culture which showcases the region’s Native American heritage.

The nearby Ute Mountain Tribal Park offers an opportunity to explore ancient ruins, petroglyphs, and pictographs.

The town of Cortez also offers a variety of outdoor activities such as mountain biking, horseback riding, and fishing at nearby McPhee Reservoir.

It is one of the best towns in Southwest Colorado for culture lovers.

Explore the San Juan National Forest

The San Juan National Forest is one of the most beautiful and remote national forests in Colorado.

The forest covers over 1.8 million acres of land, offering seemingly endless opportunities for outdoor exploration.

Popular activities include camping, fishing, hunting, hiking, mountain biking, snowmobiling and more.

Visitors can also explore some of the area’s historic sites, including the mines of Silverton and the ghost town of Animas Forks.

The San Juan National Forest is a great spot for adventurers looking to get away from it all and explore Southwest Colorado’s rugged wilderness.

Take a photo for the ‘Gram at Four Corners Monument

The Four Corners Monument is a unique sight in Southwest Colorado.

It’s the only place in the United States where four states meet at one point and visitors can stand in four different states all at once.

The monument offers an interesting glimpse into Native American history, with Navajo, Hopi, Ute and Zuni tribes having inhabited the area for centuries.

It’s a popular spot for photography and offers great views of the surrounding landscape.

The Four Corners Monument is also home to an art market, which showcases artwork from local Native American artists.

Visitors can buy handmade jewelry, pottery, and other traditional crafts as souvenirs of their visit.

Enjoy hiking in Weminuche Wilderness

The Weminuche Wilderness is the largest wilderness area in Colorado.

It spans over 500,000 acres of rugged terrain and offers unparalleled opportunities for exploration.

Popular activities include backpacking, camping, fishing, hunting, and horseback riding.

The area also boasts some of Colorado’s most spectacular scenery with towering mountains, pristine alpine lakes and lush forests.

Visit Canyons of the Ancients National Monument

The Canyons of the Ancients National Monument is an archaeological site in Southwest Colorado.

The monument features more than 6,000 ancient ruins and provides insight into the region’s Native American history.

Visitors can explore the area on foot or horseback, with trails leading to archeological sites and stunning views of the surrounding landscape.

Guided tours are available to learn more about the area’s history and archaeology, as well as its wildlife and plants.

The Canyons of the Ancients National Monument is a great spot for visitors to explore Southwest Colorado’s fascinating past.

Go fishing at Curecanti National Recreation Area

The Curecanti National Recreation Area is a picturesque area located near Gunnison.

It is one of the hidden spots when you visit southwest Colorado.

It features three reservoirs, offering great opportunities for fishing, boating and other water sports.

The recreation area also has several hiking trails, including the popular Blue Mesa Loop Trail which offers stunning views of the area’s canyons and lakes.

The reservoir is also a great spot for birdwatching, with over 170 species of birds having been spotted here.

Also Read: 17 Best Vacation Spots in Southern Colorado

Dig into the past at Crow Canyon Archaeological Center

The Crow Canyon Archaeological Center is a nonprofit research center located near Cortez.

It offers educational programs and tours focusing on the area’s ancient history, specifically the Ancestral Pueblo people who lived in this region for centuries.

Visitors can take part in archaeological digs or hikes to explore and learn about the area’s past.

Be awed by the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

The Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is a stunning canyon located near Montrose .

It’s one of the deepest and narrowest canyons in North America, featuring sheer cliffs that plunge 2,722 feet to the canyon floor.

Visitors can explore the canyon on foot or by car, with trails leading to spectacular views of the canyon and its surrounding mountains.

The area also offers plenty of opportunities for scenic drives, camping, and rock climbing.

Go birding in Alamosa

Alamosa is a small city located in the San Luis Valley.

It’s home to some of the area’s best attractions, including the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve which showcases North America’s tallest sand dunes.

The nearby Rio Grande Scenic Railroad offers a unique way to explore the stunning mountain scenery of the region.

Alamosa also offers a range of outdoor activities such as hiking, fishing, and biking at nearby Zapata Falls.

The city is also home to the San Luis Valley Brewing Company which offers local craft beer for visitors to enjoy.

Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge is a great place to go birding.

Go sand boarding at Great Sand Dunes National Park

The Great Sand Dunes National Park is located near Alamosa and is home to North America’s tallest sand dunes.

The massive sand dunes are a popular spot for hiking, camping, and other outdoor activities.

Visitors can explore the surrounding area on horseback or by four-wheel drive vehicle, with trails leading to spectacular views of the sand dunes and San Luis Valley.

The area is also home to a variety of wildlife, including bighorn sheep, mule deer, coyotes, golden eagles and more.

Soak in the hot springs at Pagosa Springs

Pagosa Springs is a small town located in Southwest Colorado.

It’s home to some of the area’s best attractions, such as the San Juan River which offers excellent fly fishing and whitewater rafting opportunities.

The nearby Wolf Creek Ski Area has over 1,600 acres of terrain for skiing and snowboarding.

The town also offers year-round outdoor activities such as hiking, hot air balloon rides, horseback riding and mountain biking.

Visitors can also explore the town’s local shops and restaurants or take a soak in the therapeutic waters of the nearby Pagosa Hot Springs.

Walk across the Royal Gorge Bridge

The Royal Gorge Bridge is a world-famous suspension bridge located near Canon City .

It spans over 1,000 feet across the gorge and features stunning views of the Arkansas River below.

Visitors can explore the area on foot or by taking a ride on the aerial tram which travels above the canyon.

The bridge also offers a variety of activities such as bungee jumping, rock climbing and zip lining.

The nearby Royal Gorge Park is also home to some of the region’s best attractions, including an animal park, amusement rides and more.

Enjoy the charming scenery of Crested Butte

Crested Butte is a small town located in Southwest Colorado.

It’s known for its laid-back mountain lifestyle and stunning scenery.

The area offers plenty of outdoor activities such as skiing, snowboarding, rafting, hiking and more.

The nearby Crested Butte Mountain Resort also provides great opportunities for downhill skiing and snowboarding.

The town also offers a range of cultural activities, such as the ongoing Crested Butte Music Festival and the popular Crested Butte Wildflower Festival which celebrates the area’s diverse wildflowers.

Visitors can also explore the many local shops and restaurants in town or take a soak in one of the nearby hot springs.

Enjoy whitewater rafting at Buena Vista

Buena Vista is a small town located in the Arkansas River Valley.

The area offers plenty of outdoor activities, such as hiking, camping, fishing, and rafting on the Arkansas River which runs right through town.

The nearby Buena Vista Whitewater Park is a great spot for whitewater kayaking or stand up paddleboarding.

The area also offers plenty of opportunities for horseback riding, mountain biking and ATV tours.

Visitors can also explore the town’s local shops and restaurants or take a scenic drive along the nearby Cottonwood Pass to enjoy stunning views of the area.

Hike the Colorado Trail… or a section of it!

The Colorado Trail is a 486-mile long hiking trail that runs through Southwest Colorado.

It offers stunning views of the Rocky Mountains, as well as a variety of outdoor activities such as camping, fishing and backpacking.

The trail also passes by some of the region’s best attractions, including Mount Elbert which is Colorado’s highest peak.

Visitors can explore the area on foot or by bike, with the trail providing access to some of the area’s most beautiful scenery.

The Colorado Trail is also a great spot for wildlife viewing, as it passes through some of Southwest Colorado’s best wildlife habitats.

Hunt for prehistoric creatures at Dry Mesa Quarry

In the sweeping canyons of Southwest Colorado lies the incredible Dry Mesa Dinosaur Quarry.

Known to the world as a dinosaur lover’s paradise, the quarry boasts an impressive collection of over thousands of bones from almost every Jurassic dinosaur species.

At this historic site, the Morrison formation is exposed and you can see almost 150 million years of history engraved within its walls.

The site offers an unparalleled glimpse into the prehistoric world and visitors can look at an impressive array of dinosaur fossils found on-site.

Visitors are transported to a time when towering creatures roamed freely across the landscape.

With breathtaking geological formations and rugged terrain, there are plenty of opportunities for hiking, photo-taking, and experiencing the natural wonders of the area.

Explore the ancient ruins at Hovenweep National Monument

Hovenweep National Monument is a hidden gem located in Southwest Colorado that’s well worth a visit.

This amazing historical site boasts some of the most impressive architecture of ancient American civilizations.

The structures that remain at Hovenweep today give visitors a glimpse into the lives of the early Pueblo people who once thrived in the region.

Some of the things to do at Hovenweep include exploring the stunning cliff dwellings…

…learning about the ancient peoples who built them, and taking in the breathtaking views of the surrounding desert landscape.

How to plan a Southwest Colorado Road Trip

Planning a road trip to Southwest Colorado is an exciting and memorable experience.

You can start your trip in Denver or Salt Lake City or Albuquerque.

When planning your road trip, make sure you set aside enough time to cover all the mountain towns and natural attractions.

The region, while in the south, does get a lot of snow due to high elevations.

It makes a great early summer road trip and is good to plan through late fall.

The region offers visitors an endless array of activities to experience – and you can see them all on Southwest Colorado road trip.

From scenic drives and hiking trails to national parks and snow capped mountains…

…..visitors are sure to fall in love with Colorado’s southwest corner.

Southwest Colorado is the perfect destination for an unforgettable adventure.

What are your favorite things to do in southwest Colorado? Let us know below.

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Cascading Waterfalls and Craggy Peaks: The Ultimate Southwestern Colorado Road Trip

This loop around the san juans soars over stunning mountain passes and into victorian-era mining towns, spanning some of the most rugged terrain in the lower 48..

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Cascading Waterfalls and Craggy Peaks: The Ultimate Southwestern Colorado Road Trip

The San Juan Scenic Skyway is a 232-mile loop located in southwestern Colorado.

Courtesy of Gestalt Imagery/Shutterstock

Why settle for a mere byway when you can cruise across a skyway? A 232-mile loop through the San Juan Mountains, known as the San Juan Skyway, will have you asking yourself this very question. The rugged range in southwestern Colorado is home to some of the country’s most dramatic panoramas. Craggy peaks soar high above idyllic, pond-pocked meadows. Hugging the near-vertical landscape are alpine forests of aspen and evergreen. And you can access it all by sealed road (Highway 145, Highway 62, Interstate 160, and Interstate 550).

On this journey, you’ll encounter more than a dozen 14,000-foot summits—a quarter of the state’s total—as well as Victorian-era mining towns, waterfalls, and wildlife of all shapes and sizes. You can easily tackle the loop in two days, but allow at least four if you want to fully explore the backcountry along the way. Plan your trip during the summer months to enjoy snow-free transit, and maybe even a live concert or two. Telluride, at the journey’s halfway point, is the state’s festival capital.

Illustration by Emily Blevins, animation by Claudia Cardia

The Hotel New Sheridan features a rooftop bar with views of downtown Telluride.

The Hotel New Sheridan features a rooftop bar with views of downtown Telluride.

Photo by Rebecca Stumpf

If neither camping nor “glamping” is your thing, however, you can still enjoy a leisurely circuit across the mountain range without driving more than 100 miles in a single day.

Day one: 10,000-foot passes and your choice of breweries Begin your journey in Durango , the biggest “city” on the Skyway, with a population of just over 18,000 year-round residents. If you have time to spare, take a stroll along the Animas River, which winds its way through downtown. One of the last free-flowing rivers in the state, it is loaded with rainbow trout, a popular attraction for fly-fishers.

Stop for barbecue at Ska Brewing Co. , a wind-powered microbrewery just south of downtown. From a charming beer garden, it serves potent IPAs and its signature Mexican Lager.

Mount Sneffels soars at 14,157 feet.

Mount Sneffels soars at 14,157 feet.

Courtesy of Marilyn D. Lambertz/Shutterstock

Head north out of town to begin the 48-mile drive up to Silverton. As you make the slow climb over two successive 10,000-foot passes, you’ll catch your first glimpse of those 14,000-foot peaks (“14ers”)along the route—Eolus, Windom, and Sunlight tower over the passenger side view. But be sure to keep your eyes on the road; bighorn sheep, elk, mule deer, and black bears roam these dense forests in great number. Use even greater caution negotiating the road’s switchbacks as you descend into the preserved mining town of Silverton . It rests at the seat of a mountain valley as steep as it is stunning. Most of the buildings along Greene Street—anchored by the red-brick Grand Imperial Hotel —date back to the late 19th century, when prospectors settled in with lofty dreams of gold and silver.

Recharge at Avalanche Brewing Company , a cozy brewpub and coffee shop on Blair Street. A colorful front patio provides an unrivaled setting for enjoying pizza and porter.

Continue on toward Red Mountain Pass, the Skyway’s highest point. A pullout here overlooks its namesake formation: a rust-hued mound, the remnants of an ancient volcanic cone.

Ouray is known as the "Switzerland of America" for its deep canyons and many waterfalls.

Ouray is known as the “Switzerland of America” for its deep canyons and many waterfalls.

Courtesy of Sopotnick/Shutterstock

Next you’ll drop down into the 550-acre municipality of Ouray . Boxed in by steep, waterfall-lined canyon walls, it’s been called the “Switzerland of America.” If you’re in need of a recharge, check out the town’s hot springs—a series of natural thermal baths that have been converted into a local pool, of sorts. From here, the mountains begin to fade in favor of alpine meadows and cowboy country. Snowcapped peaks give way to sprawling pasture, strewn with cattle and wildflowers. In the ranching town of Ridgeway , you’ll veer west on Highway 62. Crumpled earth reemerges in dramatic fashion as you cross the Dallas Divide. Directly outside the driver’s-side window, Mount Sneffels reveals its triangular apex, unobstructed, at 14,157 feet in elevation.

Follow the road 15 miles west to Placerville , a former mining camp along the banks of the San Miguel River . Here you’ll pick up Highway 145 south and ride it 15 more miles into Telluride . This storied resort town is well worth the stop. It sits at the base of a box canyon, with horizontal layers of red sedimentary rock closing in from three sides. A playground for outdoor adventurers and Hollywood celebrities alike, the town kicks off its summer season with the annual Telluride Bluegrass Festival , continues with the Telluride Film Festival , and ends with a Horror Show festival in October.

Ska Brewing Co. is a wind-powered microbrewery with barbecue near downtown Durango.

Ska Brewing Co. is a wind-powered microbrewery with barbecue near downtown Durango.

Courtesy of Ska Brewing Co.

Your best bets for overnight lodging are also found here. Book your stay at The Hotel Telluride , with its charming, wood-cabin aesthetic in the lobby and modern rooms. Or rest your head at the New Sheridan Hotel , a Victorian-era lodging featuring a rooftop bar overlooking town and the ski resort. Enjoy dinner at The Tunnel , a speakeasy restaurant billing itself as a throwback to the Prohibition Era during the town’s mining days. A preset menu is served at shared tables, with only two seatings per night. To gain entry, you’ll need to find the password printed in the most recent issue of the Telluride Daily Planet.

Day two: Sprawling vistas and Mesa Verde

Get an early start on your second day, as you still have 123 miles of road left to complete the loop. The first leg takes you down the remainder of Highway 145. Ascend Lizard Head Pass and stop to take photos of the oddly spired, towering rock formation that inspired its name. In the distance are two more 14ers— Mount Wilson and Wilson Peak . The latter, depicted on cans of Coors Light, became world-famous.

Telluride is home to several arts festivals, including a bluegrass festival, horror film festival, and the Telluride Film Festival.

Telluride is home to several arts festivals, including a bluegrass festival, horror film festival, and the Telluride Film Festival.

Courtesy of Ryan Bonneau/Visit Telluride

Over the next two hours, you will skirt the Dolores River Valley as the topography slowly opens. Eventually, just north of Cortez, the tight-grip mountain vista releases you into a sprawling, mesa-rimmed panorama. From here, you’ll slowly start to descend back into civilization. If you’re a fearless gourmand, stop in at the Main Street Brewery in the heart of Cortez for an order of Rocky Mountain Oysters. They’re deep fried, which certainly has a way of making bull testicles more appealing.

After lunch, you’ll turn east on Interstate 160 for your final 52-mile stretch of Skyway. Allow at least two hours to fully explore Mesa Verde , your last stop before returning to Durango. The 81-square-mile archaeological preserve is the nation’s largest, containing some 600 cliff dwellings that once belonged to the Ancestral Puebloans. Following an afternoon of immersive cultural exploration, you’re just 35 miles away from completing your loop back in Durango.

At 81 square miles, Mesa Verde is the largest archaeological preserve in the U.S.

At 81 square miles, Mesa Verde is the largest archaeological preserve in the U.S.

Courtesy of Jeffrey M. Frank/Shutterstock

What to bring A guide. To help navigate the scenery, purchase a copy of One Drive in a Million . It’s a mile-by-mile guide to the Skyway, available on Amazon for $15. If you’re in the mood for something more contemplative, consider Desert Solitaire , naturalist Edward Abbey’s ode to the majestic, untamed beauty he discovered in this part of the world.

A camera. Most of this sweeping scenery cannot be properly captured with your smartphone alone. If you own one, make sure to pack a proper digital-SLR camera—preferably with a wide-angle lens.

Additional tips

Ride a gondola for epic views. Telluride Station Gondola provides free transit between downtown and Mountain Village by way of this sustainably powered lift. It affords jaw-dropping views of the canyons and valleys below while climbing to nearly 12,000 feet in elevation.

Keep in mind that weather in the San Juans fluctuates rapidly. A clear blue sky may belie the impending menace of a thunderstorm just over the distant horizon. If you plan to explore the region by foot, a lightweight rain jacket and sturdy hiking shoes are essential. Also consider bringing a tent and backpack; the surrounding San Juan National Forest contains nearly 2 million acres of pristine wilderness. Much of the land is open to dispersed camping—no amenities or facilities—so you must pack out whatever you pack in.

The Telluride Station Gondola reaches nearly 12,000 feet, offering aerial views of the canyons and valleys.

The Telluride Station Gondola reaches nearly 12,000 feet, offering aerial views of the canyons and valleys.

Go off-road. If you want to get much deeper into the backcountry—and you have access to a reliable 4x4—the Skyway isn’t short on rugged off-road diversions. The Alpine Loop National Back Country Byway is one option. Open only from June to September, it’s a 65-mile four-wheel-drive trail traversing treeless tundra and rocky ridges. You can pick it up in Silverton or just south of Ouray on U.S. 550. Conquer Imogene Pass. And if you’re absolutely certain you don’t have a fear of heights, try climbing out of Telluride’s steep box canyon by way of Imogene Pass . Seven miles of dirt switchbacks leads to its 13,114-foot zenith—the highest mountain pass in all the San Juans. Along the four-hour drive, you’ll pass the ghost town of Tomboy . Drive carefully.

>>Next: Colorado’s Best National Parks and Monuments

The Santiago Calatrava-designed Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge spans Dallas’ Trinity River.

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These Southwestern Mountain Towns Show a Quieter Side of Colorado — With Hot Springs, Hiking, and Boutique Hotels

Colorado is an outdoor paradise, but escaping the crowds can be a challenge. Here's how to plan the perfect road trip through Southwest Colorado, which is less-visited, but just as spectacular.

southwest co road trip

When it comes to mountain playgrounds, Colorado has an embarrassment of riches. Boulder, a college town with seemingly endless hiking and biking trails and a burgeoning dining scene, was the one that lured me away from New York City six years ago. It seemed like I had only just begun to explore my adopted state's best-known outdoor destinations, like Aspen and Breckenridge — then, with the onset of COVID, every other urbanite had the same idea.

So last July, when the pandemic surge had slowed, I set out on a weeklong road trip to explore southwestern Colorado, a corner of the state that still feels off the beaten path. It's home to historic train towns like Del Norte and Silverton, which once linked mining centers to vital trade routes. After the mines dried up, the wild stretches of river near these remote outposts began to attract rugged outdoorsy types and, more recently, young entrepreneurs with pioneering spirits. Now some of the latter have opened chic hotels and hip art and music venues to complement the region's natural beauty. I couldn't wait to dive in.

Buena Vista

From Boulder, I zipped down Highway 285 and reached Buena Vista in just over two hours. Surrounded by the Collegiate Peaks, some of the tallest mountains in the Rockies, this riverside town has been shaped by centuries of boom and bust. In the 1880s, it was an unruly railroad depot, with 68 saloons and dozens of brothels and dance halls. Its residents — desperados, gamblers, and frustrated prospectors — earned it a reputation as one of the most lawless places in the West. By the 1920s, Buena Vista's lettuce-farming industry had become so lucrative that the town held an annual harvest celebration marked by rodeos and airplane stunts. The town's good fortune continued until the Wall Street crash and recession of the 1980s, which devastated the place.

Reggae drifted from a section of river where dozens of kayakers and paddleboarders were navigating rapids, and a band was setting up on an adjacent lawn lined with food trucks. If it hadn't been for the alpine backdrop, I would have sworn I was in Austin, Texas.

Forty years later, when Jed Selby rolled in, nearly every storefront was boarded up. But the pro kayaker, then 24, saw opportunity just east of town in the rolling Arkansas River, one of the largest tributaries of the Mississippi. He didn't see the town as another skiing and climbing mecca, like Vail or Crested Butte. For Buena Vista, he envisioned a future based on a free public whitewater park — a section of riverbed with artificial features to create waves and chutes for paddlers, surfers, and tubers.

When I arrived it was mid-afternoon, and a dry summer heat had settled in the air. Reggae drifted from a section of river where dozens of kayakers and paddleboarders were navigating rapids, and a band was setting up on an adjacent lawn lined with food trucks. If it hadn't been for the alpine backdrop, I would have sworn I was in Austin, Texas.

"Surf's up," Selby yelled as he waved me over and shoved a paddle into my hand. "Welcome to my little stretch of paradise."

I grew up surfing ocean waves on the Jersey Shore, but quickly learned that the niche sport of river surfing is completely different. Geared up in a wet suit, life jacket, neoprene boots, and a helmet, I paddled into the water on a sturdy inflatable board. Once I felt it catch the man-made wave, I popped to my feet. My ride lasted for as long as I could maintain my balance–in this case, just a few seconds. Then Selby took a turn, effortlessly spinning 360s in the wave.

When various locals described Selby to me as the de facto mayor of Buena Vista, I wasn't expecting a guy with X Games athleticism and a passion for jam bands like Phish. As it turned out, he's also a student of urban planning with a head for business. As we chatted over craft beers in town that evening, he told me that the neighborhood now known as South Main was all a landfill fated for time-share development until he and his sister, Kate Urban, bought the 42-acre parcel and transformed it. "When I moved here, there was a prison and a retirement community," Selby told me. "This town had no young people, no nightlife. I saw a blank slate."

The mixed-use area now blends Craftsman-style bungalows and Victorian homes with small businesses like Eddyline Brewing and cult burger spot Buena Viking ( entrées $10–$18), all of which have easy access to a network of trails and two free bouldering parks. The development's success has made it a case study in how outdoor recreation can revive the economies of rural mountain towns.

Today, Selby also has two boutique hotels in Buena Vista. The 20-room, French-countryside-inspired Surf Chateau ( doubles from $300) opened in 2014, and the 42-room, Scandi-minimalist Surf Hotel ( doubles from $300) launched in 2018. Both are buzzing with hip urbanites. Surf Hotel has a cocktail bar in the lobby; the Ivy Ballroom, a music venue; and a summer concert series in the town square.

Once in my second-floor room at the Surf Hotel, I ordered room service so I could nosh on a pizza — Canadian bacon and goat cheese — while watching a concert from the balcony. From my perch, it was easy to spot Selby, rocking Tevas and a tie-dyed Grateful Dead shirt in the front row.

Thirty minutes by car from Buena Vista, Salida has emerged as another hub for outdoor adventures. Paddlers, kayakers, and river surfers from all over come to prove themselves at its whitewater park, which includes a river slalom.

The downtown area, Colorado's largest historic district, channels a sporty-meets-artsy vibe. Victorian-era buildings are decorated with colorful murals, and the main drag is lined with cycle shops, running stores, and art galleries. After settling into my hotel, the apartment-style Manhattan ( doubles from $225), I popped into Howl Mercantile & Coffee , where a selection of outdoor essentials (axes, hiking packs, camping blankets) and handmade crafts (porcelain pins and bandanas printed with imagery from Old West posters) perfectly captured the Salida vibe.

Over the next two days, I watched kayakers and hiked the nearby Hunt Lake Trail, a seven-mile out-and-back that sits just below the Continental Divide. A few steep sections left my quads sore, but the terrain was mellow enough to allow me to savor sights like the remains of a mine shaft tucked in to a cliffside. After the hike, I ate at the Fritz ( entrées $10–$30), a gastropub with dishes like duck confit and house-made pâté.

Little Red Hen Bakery gave me a reason to wake early the following day. This local institution mills its own flour and opens at 6 a.m. to sell whole-wheat cinnamon rolls slathered in icing and breakfast bagels made with eggs and chiles from nearby farms. I chased both with strong coffee from local roaster Mountain Phoenix before getting back on the road.

I drove south on Highway 285 into the San Luis Valley. It's hard to believe that the rural communities along the road were, in the 1880s, once prosperous boomtowns on the old Santa Fe Trail. In recent decades, this ranching and farming region has become one of the most impoverished in the state. For miles, I was the sole car whizzing past wheat fields and grazing cows. The solitude and scenery were so meditative I turned off my Taylor Swift road-trip mix to just soak it all in.

Previously, there wasn't much reason to visit Del Norte, the one-stoplight town longtime locals would jokingly refer as Dead Norte, but now a renaissance is under way — thanks to newcomers like Corey Hubbard and her husband, Ryan Methfessel. When COVID derailed the Florida residents' plans to relocate to Greece, they embarked on a road trip west and fell for Del Norte's high alpine desert landscape and self-reliant community.

They bought an antiques shop on the main drag and reinvented it as the General Specific Store , a highly curated collection of art and curiosities. Hubbard, with her Audrey Hepburn bob and taste for vintage fashion, told me customers are often shocked to learn that she lives in the rural community, and I'll admit I was, too.

Hubbard and Methfessel aren't the only recent additions bringing a new vitality to the town. Two other spots that caught my eye were Raisin' Rye , a sourdough-focused micro bakery, and Mellow Moon Lodge ( doubles from $120), a restored 1940s motor lodge. Jessica Lovelace, the owner, greeted me at check-in. Burned out from a career designing for brands like New Balance, she purchased the run-down property on a whim back in 2017, while visiting her husband's family in the area. Since then, 10 rooms have been updated with organic bed linens and retro design touches like flamingo-print pillows. Her husband, Sam Bricker, a filmmaker, opened a cycle shop in the hotel to cater to the mountain bikers who come to ride the area's extensive single-track network.

Lovelace grabbed two cruisers from the shop and invited me on a tour of Del Norte. "Everyone thought I was a city girl when I arrived, but this town is bigger than the one in Washington where I grew up," she said as we pedaled down Grand Avenue. We stopped for pints of citrusy Sipster Hazy IPA at Three Barrel Brewing before parking in front of the Windsor ( doubles from $183), a 20-room brick hotel with a plain façade that stretches nearly half a block.

Silverton once drew prospectors for the gold and silver in its hills, part of the jagged San Juan mountain range.

One of the oldest hotels in the state, the Windsor was destined to be condemned in the 1990s, but two local philanthropists stepped in to save the building. These days, it's become a social nexus again, thanks to a new food truck and entertainment such as film screenings in the courtyard. "This is our community anchor," Lovelace said.

We were joined by a handful of her friends, including Hubbard, Methfessel, and Adam Gildar, a Denver art gallery owner and program director at the Frontier Drive-In , an old theater in the neighboring town of Center that's being reimagined as an art venue. We feasted on po'boys from the food truck, and when Hubbard told me the hotel bar made a mean Corpse Reviver cocktail, we ordered a round.

"No one ends up here by accident," Lovelace explained. "There are longtime Hispanic and ranching families from the boom years and new artisans coming to the area. What we all have in common is gumption and idealism."

After a second round of Corpse Revivers, we headed across the street to Hubbard's General Specific Store. She led us upstairs to a ballroom with high tin ceilings and original wallpaper peeling off the walls, where she has begun hosting community events such as art shows, readings, and potlucks. "I see myself as a social entrepreneur, creating spaces for human connection and conversation," she told me. We talked late into the night, and I came away feeling inspired by the group's small-town camaraderie. By the time I left town the next day, I was convinced I should move to Del Norte too.

I skipped breakfast the following morning, knowing my 2½-hour drive along U.S. 160 would end at James Ranch ( entrées $10–$15). The farm, just off Highway 550 in Durango, is proof that change in the region isn't just bringing in new blood. It's also convincing a younger generation of locals to stick around and invest in their communities.

When Dave and Kay James bought their cattle ranch in 1961, they never imagined their children would return home as adults to get involved in the business — or that their beef would become pilgrimage-worthy. Cynthia James Stewart put James Ranch on the food lover's map a decade ago when she started selling grass-fed beef burgers made by her brother, Dan James, from a cart on site. In 2019, the family opened a proper restaurant, the Grill, as well as a market that sells the farm's organic produce, eggs, and cheese. I grabbed a table on the terrace and devoured a juicy burger topped with cremini mushrooms, caramelized onions, and rosemary aioli.

Another local stepping up the Durango experience is Kevin Wright, who opened the Nugget Mountain Bar ( cabins from $250) in 2018. Located about 40 minutes outside of town, the ski-bum watering hole — set within a historic cabin — has a loyal following for its lineup of live music on the patio. "So many bars cater to tourists with fancy cocktails and high prices," Wright told me when I stopped in. "I wanted this to be a community bar." In 2020, he built two neighboring tiny homes — Kerouac Cabin and Hemingway's Hideout. Outfitted with hot tubs, fireplaces, and books by their respective muses, they provide a cozy base for skiers and hikers.

This part of Colorado is known for its hot springs, which the native Ute people called miracle waters. For centuries, the pools were used for healing ceremonies. There are dozens in the area, but Wright clued me in to his favorite, the newly renovated Durango Hot Springs Resort & Spa . Originally called Trimble Hot Springs, the property has lived many lives — it was a gambling hall in the 1930s, I learned, and became a dude ranch in the 40s. It's now a mountain oasis with 22 mineral pools, six soaking tubs, a 25-meter saltwater pool, and a spa — the antidote my trail-weary muscles needed before facing the drive to Silverton the next day.

A mini Telluride — minus the polish and celebrities — Silverton is only 23 miles from the Nugget's cabins, where I spent the night, but the drive along Highway 550 is riddled with hairpin turns and drop-offs that call for slow, careful driving.

The town once drew prospectors for the gold and silver in its hills, part of the jagged San Juan mountain range. Today, its attractions are wildflower-carpeted meadows, high alpine lakes, and the coal-fired Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, which shuttles tourists, rather than precious metals, between its two namesake towns.

Though Silverton is going through a transformation, the town remains true to its Wild West past, with just one paved road and plenty of old-fashioned B&Bs and mercantile stores. The 2019 debut of the Wyman ( doubles from $260), a 15-room boutique hotel decorated in pastels and jewel tones, delivered a dose of modern-day style and has attracted a different type of traveler.

Owner Haley Morgan, who moved to the area from Brooklyn with her ski-obsessed partner, Shane Fuhrman, loved how undiscovered it felt. "You can hike in summer and not see a soul on the trails," she told me. Morgan has been instrumental in helping the Silverton Creative District become the town's new draw: she regularly hosts receptions for visiting artists at her hotel.

Veering off the dusty main street, I popped into shops like Quiet Bear Art , a studio and gallery space shared by jeweler Carol Wilkins and blacksmith Ken Webb. I spotted him transforming a bike chain into a heart sculpture in his adjacent workshop.

Silverton's nightlife options are either old-school saloons or the low-key lobby bar of the Wyman. I chose the latter for its natural wines and charismatic bartender, Mikie Beatty. As he poured me a taste of Macerato Catarratto, an orange wine from Sicily, he told me he had recently moved to the town from Los Angeles.

Reading the "how did you end up here" look on my face, he said, "I was drawn to Silverton's sense of possibility." How ironic, I thought: that sense of potential was what drew miners and prospectors to southwestern Colorado all those years ago. Now it's up to a new wave of pioneers to capitalize on it.

A version of this story first appeared in the July 2022 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline Striking Gold.

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Southwest Colorado: A Travel Guide to the San Juan Mountains

Nestled in the Southwest corner of Colorado, the San Juan mountains are well worth the long drive from the Denver metro area. Get away from busy highways and find peace and quiet in the small towns, National Parks, and trails of Southwest Colorado.

Whether you’re road tripping around the state or looking for a place to elope, Southwest Colorado has it all. From beautiful vistas to great eats, and all the charm you can hope for from small towns, you’ll find it all on the San Juan Skyway. 

The San Juan Skyway is a loop road that traverses the San Juan mountains, from Durango – Silverton – Ouray – Ridgway – Telluride – Rico – Dolores – Mancos – Durango. These towns are all worth stopping at for a bite to eat, a museum, a trail, a campsite, or a place to spend the night.

This blog will focus on most of the towns along the San Juan Skyway, but Telluride is getting its own separate guide. Read on to learn more about the best places to visit on your Southwest Colorado road trip! 

Southwest Colorado Travel Guide

How to get to Southwest Colorado

Southwest Colorado is pretty remote. It takes about 7 hours to drive from Denver to Durango, due to all the mountains! Durango is actually closer to Albuquerque (about a 4-hour drive) and Salt Lake City (about a 6-hour drive) than to Denver! 

If you’re planning a trip to southern Colorado, you might as well make it a road trip of the whole region. When driving from Denver, you can either head straight south, stop at the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Pagosa Springs before heading west to the San Juans, or drive through the mountains, either via I-70 through Grand Junction or US-50 through Gunnison—a great opportunity to stop by Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park! 

But if you don’t have that much time, you can fly into Durango, Montrose, or Cortez and rent a car for your San Juan mountains road trip, and skip the long drive across the state.

Durango is also about a 2.5 hour drive from Moab, and it’s easy to link up your Southwest Colorado road trip into a Southeast Utah road trip, if you have the extra time. There’s so much to see, you’re going to wish you had more time no matter what!

When to visit Southwest Colorado

Every season has its ups and downs in Southwest Colorado. Here are some things to consider when planning your road trip through the San Juan Mountains. 

Yellow aspen season in Colorado is incredible no matter where you explore, and the San Juan mountains are no different. Drive the Million Dollar Highway between Silverton and Ouray this time of year to get blown away by fall colors. Make sure to allow for extra time to stop at every single pullout!  

This is also generally a nice time to visit to assure good weather. September and October are usually sunny and not too hot or too cold. But you’ll still want to bring all the layers, as temperatures can be as low as below freezing and as high as in the 80s.

The San Juan mountains get the most snow in Colorado! While the designation actually applies to Wolf Creek Pass, the whole area is a winter wonderland. But, when it’s not snowing, it is blue skies and sun, so winter can still be a great time to get outside in Southwest Colorado. 

If you’re trying to escape the snow, head to Mesa Verde National Park or into the deserts west of Telluride. Or hit the ski resort at Purgatory or Telluride for all day shredding. The Ouray Ice Park is also a unique local winter attraction if you’ve ever wanted to learn how to ice climb. 

Ah spring, when the land comes alive again. In Southwest Colorado, spring is unpredictable. It can be 70 and sunny, or it can be dumping snow well into May. This area often gets a lot of wind in the spring as well, which can make the temperature feel a lot colder than the thermometer reads. 

Spring can be a great time to visit if you want to avoid other tourists. Come prepared for any weather with layers! Late spring in May and early June is typically a warm and pleasant time of year to visit the San Juan mountains. 

Visit the San Juan mountains in the summertime to see wildflowers covering grassy ridges on mountain hikes. It’s the perfect time of year to take refreshing dips in alpine lakes. It can be an idyllic time to visit, but it’s also important to prepare for afternoon thunderstorms—a very common occurrence.

Southwest Colorado, along with much of Colorado, can get a strong monsoon season. It starts in early July and lasts through August. Storms build in the mountains starting around 11am, and you generally want to plan on being back below the treeline before noon. It can go from blue skies to hailing far faster than you’d think! Start your hikes early in the day, and always watch the sky for approaching storms when heading into the mountains in the summer. 

Ridgway, Colorado in winter

Where to stay in the San Juan Mountains

There are so many options for lodging, whether you’re wanting to camp or stay in a luxury resort. While there are other options besides the ones we’ve listed below, here are some things to consider when choosing which towns to stay in while traveling through Southwest Colorado. 

If you’re looking for more amenities and a bigger town to serve as a base camp while you explore the San Juans, Durango is the best option. Full of delicious restaurants, a fun downtown, grocery stores, affordable gas (compared to the mountain towns), and more, Durango is a great place to stay. 

Lots of chain hotels, locally owned motels, cabins, and home rentals make Durango a pretty easy place to find somewhere to spend the night. My personal favorite is The Rochester Hotel , but the Strater Hotel and The General Palmer are also good options if you like historic hotels. For camping or cabins, check out Lightner Creek Campground , Junction Creek campground , or rv parks in town. Or, head up La Plata canyon to get away from town and find peace and quiet in the La Plata mountains. 

The quaint mountain town of Ouray is a beautiful place to stay year-round, although it can be tricky to get to from the south (via the Million Dollar Highway) during the winter. But the town, although small and somewhat remote, has a very cute downtown for exploring and several great dining options. 

I always stay at Box Canyon Lodge and Hot Springs when I’m in Ouray, because, well, they have hot springs, and that’s hard to beat! If you prefer a more classic historic hotel, the Beaumont Hotel & Spa , St. Elmo Hotel , and Hotel Ouray are all good options right in the heart of Ouray. If you’re looking for something more affordable, the Main Street Inn is a hidden gem. Based in a cute old house on Main street, the inn has very unique and comfortable rooms and provides complimentary Bakery Baskets on arrival. If you want to camp, there are several campsites up Camp Bird Road, or check out the Amphitheater Campground overlooking town. 

Nestled in the middle of the San Juan mountains, Silverton is a backcountry skier’s paradise. During the winter, the town can get completely shut off due to avalanches on the highways leading out of town. But in the summer, it has great access for anyone looking to hike 14ers like Handies Peak or other top-notch trails nearby. Hang out in the cute downtown area or explore the mountains on foot or by bike. 

Silverton has lots of local hotels and vacation rentals to choose from for lodging, but I always stay at The Wyman Hotel . This historic building was recently renovated and turned into one of the most beautiful boutique hotels you’ll find anywhere in Colorado. The Wyman is on the pricey side, but there are lots of other cheaper hotels like Teller House and Kendall Mountain Lodge in town. If you want to camp, check out the beautiful Molas Lake campground on Molas Pass towards Durango. Kendall and Anvil campgrounds are also good options on Mineral Creek road, north of town. 

Dolores and Rico

On the other side of the San Juans, Dolores and Rico are tiny towns that feel less touristy than some of the better known mountain towns in the San Juans. If you’re looking for a quieter place to stay, both of these areas are great options. The communities are tight knit and there are great food and beer options. Plus, there is a lot to do in the area, from biking to hiking to Mesa Verde National Park. 

If you’re looking for luxury, you can’t get much better than Dunton Hot Springs . This old mining ghost town turned luxury resort is by far the nicest place I have ever stayed, not just in Colorado but anywhere in the world, and absolutely worth the splurge if you’re traveling to Colorado to elope, for your anniversary, or any other special occasion. (Even if the occasion is just “treat yo’self!”)

If you’re looking for the basics, you’ll find great camping around Boggy Draw in Dolores or along the highway between Dolores and Rico. Or opt to stay in a home rental with views out to the La Plata mountains. Check out the Dolores Bike Hostel (coming soon Spring 2023) for an affordable place to stay and connect more with the local community. 

Where to eat in Southwest Colorado

Of course, there are endless options for dining in Southwest Colorado. If you’re looking for a few options you can count on for great meals (at least in my experience), check out these restaurants. 

Ouray Brewery

Gnar Taco – Ridgway

One of my all-time favorite places to stop while driving around the San Juans, Gnar Taco is a must-try. Their tacos are loaded with unique flavors, which all go together perfectly, even when unexpected. If you eat meat, the Yardcore and the Drippy Mitch are *chefs kiss*. 

Ouray Brewery – Ouray

If you’re staying in Ouray, or need something refreshing and filling after a long day hiking or exploring, Ouray Brewery is a must stop. The beer and drinks are delicious, and you can’t beat a burger after a long day outside. We’ve loved their “burger of the moment” in the past, but you can’t go wrong with anything on this menu. 

Avalanche Brewing Company – Silverton

Something about breweries and days in the mountains go together. Avalanche Brewing is a local hotspot in Silverton and is always the spot to stop when in town. They make delicious pizzas (love the Mediterranean) and tacos, and their beer and drinks hit the spot. 

James Ranch Grill – Durango

Stop at James Ranch Grill , a regenerative “table on the farm” restaurant north of Durango, for one of the best burgers you’ve ever eaten. Most ingredients come from the ranch itself, while others are sourced from local farms in the area. Check out the market for snacks and treats for the rest of your travels. 

Absolute Bakery and Cafe – Mancos

ABC is my favorite spot for breakfast when in this corner of the San Juans. Mancos is an artsy western town west of Durango, and the gateway to Mesa Verde National Park. Absolute Bakery is a gem, both as a place to hang out, or to grab breakfast on your way to Mesa Verde or the mountains. Try the Mesa Verde Stack or the VegHead to keep you full aaalllllmost all the way to dinner!

Things to do in SW Colorado

Durango/silverton train.

Taking the train from Durango to Silverton is a year-round experience, but it’s especially fun during the winter. For Christmas, the train is all decked out to mimic the Polar Express—a fun activity for kids and adults alike. Taking the train is also a unique way to access certain trails and areas of the Weminuche wilderness without having to hike a lot of extra mileage. 

Mesa Verde National Park

Visit the sites of Ancestral Pueblo homes in this incredible and unique to the area National Park. Take a tour into one of the cliff dwellings or drive the loop road and stop at all the informational sites to learn about the people who inhabited these mesas less than one thousand years ago. Many of their descendants still live in the area today. 

Hiking in Southwest Colorado

Best Hikes in the San Juan Mountains

There are countless spectacular hikes in the San Juan mountains, but here are a few of my favorites. These hikes all have great views, lakes, flowers, and fall colors. 

Ice Lake and Island Lake – Near Silverton

One of the most popular hikes in the area, Ice and Island lakes is well worth the four miles uphill (and 4 miles downhill on the way back). High peaks and alpine meadows full of wildflowers surround the turquoise blue lakes. This is a moderate/strenuous hike so make sure to pack enough food, layers, and water for a full day hike.

Lizard Head Loop – Near Rico

One of my favorite areas in the San Juans, Lizard Head Wilderness includes several 14ers and beautiful views out over the San Juans. This 12 mile hike can be shorter if you leave a car at each trailhead. Either way, we recommend starting from the north end of Lizard Head pass and hiking counterclockwise. This hike gives you beautiful views of Mount Wilson, Lizard Head, San Miguel peak, and reaches a summit at twelve thousand feet. 

Handies Peak – Near Silverton

If you’re interested in hiking 14ers, Handies is a great one to start on. If you have a high clearance 4×4 vehicle, you will be able to drive to the trailhead in American Basin, making this hike around 5 miles. If not, we’ve hiked the alternate route through Grouse Gulch which is around 12 miles round trip and does not need a 4×4 vehicle to access. Both options are great ways to hike to 14,000 feet!

Shark’s Tooth Pass – Near Mancos

If you’re in Durango, Mancos, or Dolores, the La Platas are a great mountainous area to explore. Shark’s Tooth Pass is a great option for a half day hike. The ~4 mile trail takes you up past a large rock glacier and looks over Hesperus mountain, the Diné (Navajo) sacred Northern mountain. 

Winter Activities in SW Colorado

The fun doesn’t stop in Southwest Colorado in the winter! There’s always something to do in the mountains. Or if you’re tired of snow, you can head out to the desert to find blue skies and red rocks to sunbathe on. Here are a few of my favorite winter activities in the San Juans. 

Downhill Skiing or Snowboarding

Of course, skiing and snowboarding is a great winter activity. There are several ski resorts in the San Juans: Telluride, Purgatory, Wolf Creek, Silverton Mountain, and Hesperus. 

Each resort has its own specialty or reason to go. Telluride has some of the best terrain of any resort we’ve ever skied, Wolf Creek gets the most snow of any resort in Colorado, Hesperus is a small local mountain with one lift, Silverton specializes in guided heli skiing and hike to terrain, and Purgatory is great for learning to ski (as well as just a fun resort!). 

If you don’t have your own equipment, it’s easy to rent skis or snowboards in Durango or Telluride before hitting the slopes!

Cross Country Skiing

If you like hiking during the summer, you’ll most likely love cross country skiing! There are lots of groomed cross country ski trails in the San Juans, including the Galloping Goose trail on Lizard Head Pass, the Purgatory Nordic Center, Boggy Draw, and many more. Cross country skiing is a great way to get a workout and experience beautiful trails in the winter. 

Ice Climbing

If you’re feeling adventurous, then ice climbing might be right up your alley. The Ouray Ice Park, a man-made ice climbing park in a canyon right outside of town, is a great place to try out ice climbing. If you’ve never done it before, hire a guide from San Juan Mountain Guides to assure safety and learn more. Many of the local gear shops rent ice climbing gear. 

Other attractions near SW Colorado

Southeast utah.

If you’re tired of the mountains or want to also experience the red rock desert, add a trip to Southeast Utah to your Southwest Colorado road trip. Of course, Moab and the surrounding area is always a big hit, but if you’re looking for fewer crowds and even more wide open space, go further south. Bears Ears National Monument, Comb Ridge, Valley of the Gods, and Grand Staircase Escalante are all incredible places to explore. You could spend a lifetime in this corner of Utah, so we’ll have to write another blog post all about this special area of the country. 

And that’s that! There are my tips and recommendations for a Southwest Colorado road trip. Whether you’re looking for things to do before or after your elopement, planning a honeymoon, or dreaming of your next vacation, Southwest Colorado is the perfect destination for adventurous couples! 

And if you’ve gotten so inspired that you are ready to plan a Colorado elopement, check out my Colorado Elopement Guide .

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Larsen Photo Co. is an elopement photographer based in Boulder, Colorado. Nina plans and captures elopements and micro-weddings across the Rocky Mountains and in her home country Norway.

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Larsen Photo Co.

Boulder elopement photographer

© 2017-2024 LARSEN PHOTO CO. • DESIGN BY NINA LARSEN REED • TERMS & CONDITIONS

TWO WORLDS TREASURES

Explore Texas & beyond from Dallas/Ft. Worth

The Ultimate Southwest Road Trip Itinerary: 13 Days, 5 National Parks, 3 National Monuments, and more.

Visiting Grand Canyon on a southwest road trip. (Two Worlds Treasures)

Our first southwest road trip in the summer was when we did our National Parks hopping for the first time. We traveled west from North Texas to New Mexico, Arizona, up to Colorado (a bit of West region), and back to New Mexico again before we headed home.

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During this road trip to the southwest from Texas, we visited 5 National Parks and 3 National Monuments, as well as three museums and other fantastic places. All in 13 days.

Sounds crazy and ambitious, huh? But I tell you, it was one of the very memorable vacations for us. And no, it’s not ‘been there done that’ kind of a holiday. Trust me.

Below, you will find the best places during southwest road trip that you need to put in your itinerary. As always, we started from North Texas, and you can adjust this itinerary from where you will begin.  

Southwest Road Trip: Parks Hopping Itinerary

Day 1: Home (North Texas) to Whites City, NM ( 454 miles, about 7 hour. Destination is in a different time zone.)

Place Visited:

  • C arlsbad Caverns National Park.  When we arrived in the afternoon, it was too late to enter the caverns from the Natural Entrance. So, we took the elevator from the Visitor Center to do the Big Room Self-Guided Trail. Then we went back in the evening for the Bat Flight Program. Too bad the park canceled it due to lightning. 

Entrance Fee:

  • Free with National Park Pass, or $15 per person for 16 and older, free for 15 and younger. Valid for three days.
  • Visitors have to get reservations and timed entry to enter the park.

Accommodation & Meals:

  • We stayed at Rodeway Inn and ate dinner at Velvet Garter Saloon and Restaurant by the entrance. Both were pretty bad but we came for the caverns. You can stay and eat at better places in C arlsbad for an extra 30 minutes driving (one-way).
  • If you’re taking your RV, check out Carlsbad RV Park & Campground in Carlsbad. We stayed there during Spring Break 2024 on our trip to Guadalupe Mountains National Park. It’s clean, the bathroom was spotless, and your dog stays for free with you.

Parks Hopping In The Southwest Road Trip Itinerary - Carlsbad Caverns

Day 2: Whites City, NM to Alamogordo, NM (166 miles, about 3 hour.)

Places Visited:

  • Carlsbad Caverns NP in the morning and did Natural Entrance Self-Guided Trail. However, this entrance is not for visitors with heart or respiratory conditions. The trail is extremely steep. Whether you decide to hike up or down, you gain or lose about 750 feet (229 m) – equivalent to walking up or down a 75-story building. If you arrive in the morning and everyone is in good health, enter the caverns through the Natural Entrance, explore the Big Room Trail, then take the elevator to the Visitor Center.
  • N ew Mexico Museum of Space History , Alamogordo. A friend suggested this museum because she knew our son likes everything in outer space. And we didn’t disappointed. In May 2016, the Lonely Planet published a book about 50 museums around the world to blow your mind. New Mexico Museum of Space History was one of them. 
  • W hite Sands National Park , Alamogordo. One of the world’s great natural wonders, where you can sled, hike, or walk on the world’s largest gypsum dunefield. The gypsum sand feels cool and don’t stick to your skin. 
  • NM Museum of Space History: Adult (13-59) $8; Senior (60+), Military, NM Resident $7; Children (4-12) $6; Tots (3 and under) are free. Additional fees for feature films, planetarium shows, planetary combo, galactic combos, or universal triple.
  • White Sands NP: Free with National Park Pass, or $25 per vehicle, $15 per person (per person fee is only charged if there is only one person in the vehicle), and $20 per motorcycle. Entrance fees are valid for entry for seven consecutive days from the date of purchase. Or, buy a $45 White Sands National Park Annual Pass.
  • There are plenty of h otels and restaurants to choose from in the city. Some hotel fee included a snow-saucer to use when you visit the park.

Ultimate Southwest Road Trip Itinerary - White Sands NP

Day 3: Alamogordo, NM to Tucson, AZ (349 miles, about 5 hours. Destination is in a different time zone.)

  • White Sands National Park for more fun.
  • The World’s Largest Pistachio Nut at McGinn’s Farm , Alamogordo. A quick stop for a roadside attraction, and of course, pistachios for snacking in the car. 
  • Saguaro National Park in Tucson, Arizona until dark. A unique park where you can see saguaro cactus. When visiting in the summer, make sure to arrive late afternoon or early in the morning. Temperature above 110ºF is normal here, and it is super dry as well.    
  • Saguaro National Park is free with a National Park Pass. Or buy a vehicle weekly pass for $25, $15 for individual entrance (entering by foot or bicycle), and $20 for a motorcycle weekly pass. The entrance fee is valid for seven days for the Tucson Mountain District (West) and the Rincon Mountain District (East.)
  • We stayed at the Hilton Hotel near the park, and it was the cheapest hotel we had during the trip at $69/night, including tax. You can find all kinds of restaurants around the area.

Image by <a href="https://pixabay.com/users/127071-127071/?utm_source=link-attribution&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=image&utm_content=534758">Frauke Feind</a> from <a href="https://pixabay.com/?utm_source=link-attribution&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=image&utm_content=534758">Pixabay</a>

Day 4: Tucson, AZ to Holbrook, AZ (237 miles, about 4.5 hours.)

  • Petrified Forest National Park . A place to see petrified wood from sizes as tiny as your fingernail to as big as an old Elm tree. You will also enjoy colorful badlands and painted desert here. It is the only National Park with a section of Historic Route 66. We entered from the South End and exited through the North End when it got dark.  
  • Free with National Park Pass, or $25 – auto/7-days pass; $15 – bike/person; $20 – motorcycle (flat fee).
  • Choice of r oadside hotels and restaurants in Holbrook, AZ.

Parks Hopping Itinerary_Southwest road trip_Petrified Forest NP

Day 5: Holbrook, AZ to Grand Canyon National Park, AZ (182 miles, about 3 hours.)

  • Meteor Crater in Winslow, AZ (about an hour from Holbrook). It is where you can see the world’s best-preserved meteorite impact site on Earth. A spectacular result of a collision that rocked the American Southwest about 50,000 years ago with the energy of more than 20 million tons of TNT. It wasn’t in our original Southwest road trip itinerary, and we’re glad we stopped here. Too bad Meteor Crater is a private owner, so they don’t recognize your National Park Pass here.     
  • South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park, about 2 hours from Winslow. It is definitely a must-visit! We entered through the East Entrance. So we started our day in the park from the Desert View to the Village. I think we stopped at every viewpoint between the two places. 
  • Meteor Crater: – Adults (13-59) $27.00, Seniors (60+) $25.00, Juniors (age 6 through 12 years) $18.00, five and under are free, Non-Active Duty U.S. Military/Veterans (with I.D.) $18.00, Active Duty U.S. Military (with I.D.) FREE.
  • Grand Canyon National Park: Free with a National Park Pass or $35 for a seven-day vehicle permit, including the north and south rim.
  • We stayed at Yavapai Lodge and ate at the restaurant in the Grand Canyon South Rim Village.
  • Several years later, we camped at Mather Campground in the south rim.

Parks Hopping In The Southwest Itinerary - Meteor Crater

Day 6: Explored Grand Canyon National Park.

After we picked up the Junior Ranger booklet from the Grand Canyon Visitor Center, we walked to the famous Mather Point. Then, we followed the Rim Trail to Bright Angel Trailhead. After lunch, we went to Hermits Rest. We joined three Ranger Programs and ended the day by watching the sunset at Yaki Point.

We parked the car in front of our room and used the shuttle bus. I also noticed that the family who stayed in the next room brought their small grill. I saw the husband grilled hot dogs in the evening, and I think it was a good idea to save money. Food prices at the Village are not cheap. Expenses significantly increase when there are four adults and two children in a family like them. And not to mention if you stay more than two nights.  

South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park (Two Worlds Treasures)

Day 7: Grand Canyon NP, AZ to Page, AZ (131 miles, about 2.5 hours.)

  • G rand Canyon in the morning. Before leaving for our next destination on this Southwest road trip, we hiked to Ooh Aah Point at the South Kaibab Trailhead. I highly recommend you to do this hike. Views were spectacular, and the weather in the morning was pleasant. Going up is not as easy as going down, but children will love their times here.    
  • Antelope Canyon in Page. You must book your ticket in advance to tour the Antelope Canyon. Page has tons of tourists from all over the world. 
  • The more famous Antelope Upper Canyon Tour prices are $85 for adults (8 & older) and $75 for children (0-7). There is an additional $8 Navajo Park Fee for those aged eight and above, plus surcharges. Prices for visiting at noon from April to September are more. 
  • Page is a vacation destination with Lake Powell. There are lots of h otels and restaurants to choose from.

Parks Hopping In The Southwest Itinerary - Antelope Canyon

Day 8: Page, AZ to Mesa Verde, CO (245 miles, about 4 hours.)

  • Horseshoe Bend Overlook, Page. We stopped at this famous place before we continued to Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado. It’s beautiful nature that you shouldn’t skip during your road trip to the Southwest. 
  • The Four Corners , Teec Nos Pos, AZ. You don’t need to make a special trip here unless you drive through this area during your Southwest road trip.
  • Mesa Verde National Park, CO. The cliff dwellings in the park are fantastic. You must do at least one of the house tours and buy the tickets right when you arrive at the Visitor Center. That’s what we did when we got there in the afternoon. We booked house tour tickets for the next day. After looking through the exhibit, we drove to Mesa Top Loop Road and stopped at several viewpoints. It took an hour to get there from the Visitor Center.
  • Horseshoe Bend Overlook is free. However, you must pay for parking now. $5 – motorcycle, $10 – passenger vehicles (incl. RV and motorhome), and prices are subject to change without notice. 
  • The Four Corners is $8 per person. It is a Navajo Tribal Park, so National Park Passes are unacceptable. Only pay with a credit card. 
  • Mesa Verde NP: Free with National Park Pass; or Private vehicles (May 1 – Oct. 22) $30, Oct. 23 – April 30 $20; Motorcycle (May 1 – Oct. 22) $25, Oct. 23 – April 30 $15; per person (May 1 – Oct. 22) $15, Oct. 23 – Dec. 31 $15. Prices are good for seven days.
  • We stayed at Far View Lodge in Mesa Verde National Park. No TVs. It’s peaceful in the evening. We ate at restaurants in the park.

Southwest road trip_Ultimate Itinerary_Horseshoe Bend

Day 9: Explored Mesa Verde National Park.

Our day in the park starts with a one-hour, ranger-guided tour to Cliff Palace. It is the largest cliff dwelling in the park. Then, we hiked the Soda Canyon Overlook Trails, which location is also in the Cliff Palace Loop.

From here, we visited Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum and Spruce Tree House, just before the Mesa Top Loop. Spruce Tree is a self-guided tour, but today it is closed for the foreseeable future due to safety concerns related to rock falls.

Before returning to our lodge, we drove the Mesa Top Loop again to visit places we didn’t see the day before. Then, we ended the day at the Far View Sites.

The Pit House at Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado. (Two Worlds Treasures)

Day 10: Mesa Verde, CO to Santa Fe, NM (294 miles, about 5 hours.)

  • Before we left for New Mexico, we went to Wetherill Mesa on the other side of the Park. We did a self-guiding tour of the Step House.
  • We arrived late afternoon in Santa Fe and browsed the downtown area to get a picture of the city. Beautiful place.
  • Lots of hotels and restaurants that will match your budget in S anta Fe .

Day 11: Santa Fe, NM to Los Alamos, NM (33.8 miles, about 40 min.)

  • Loretto Chapel , Santa Fe. Famous for its miraculous staircase that has no visible means of support. Loretto Chapel is a beautiful addition to your Southwest road trip. We arrived before the opening hours to avoid crowds. Check their website before your visit because this beautiful chapel is a favorite wedding venue. If time permits, visit the other two old churches in Santa Fe .
  • Canyon Road in Santa Fe. Not too far from Loretto Chapel, Canyon Road is dedicated to the country’s finest art. Enjoy a pleasant stroll while admiring art pieces created by artists from all over the U.S. and the world. Besides art galleries, the street is also home to Santa Fe’s finest jewelry and dining establishments. 
  • Bandelier National Monument, Los Alamos. An incredible place where you can walk through the archeological sites and climb into cavates (small human-carved alcoves). You can also climb to the Alcove House , located 140 feet above the floor of Frijoles Canyon. There will be four wooden ladders and several stone stairs that you must climb to reach the house. I didn’t touch my camera at all when we climbed the ladders. Too scary to take pictures.  
  • Loretto Chapel is $5/person, children six and under are free.
  • Bandelier NM: Free with National Park Pass; or $25 – private vehicle; $15 – individual permit; $20 – motorcycle. The permit is good for seven days.
  • We moved to Albuquerque to get closer to the places we visited the next day. Again, there are lots of h otels and restaurants that will match your budget. In Santa Fe, we had lunch at  Cowgirl BBQ .

Climbing the cliff dwelling in Bandelier National Monument, New Mexico. (Two Worlds Treasures)

Day 12: Santa Fe, NM to Albuquerque, NM (64 miles, about one hour.)

  • Petroglyph National Monument. If your children like history, this is a place to learn about Native Americans and Spanish settlers from 400-700 years ago. Our son had fun finding petroglyphs on volcanic rocks while doing his Junior Ranger Program here.
  • Explora, the science center, and the children’s museum. We had fun exploring this museum, which is full of hands-on activities. If only our local Children and Science Museum like Explora.
  • New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science. Like Explora, you can’t miss this museum while in Albuquerque. You will take a journey through billions of years of New Mexico’s natural history, watching how scientists extract dinosaur fossils from the rock matrix, exploring the night sky of New Mexico, and so much more. And this museum is located right across from the Explora.
  • Petroglyph NM: Free with paid parking ($1 weekdays, $2 weekends).
  • Explora: Free with your museum membership card (check with Explora first); or Children (ages 1-11): $7, Adults (ages 12-64): $11, Seniors (age 65+, with ID): $8, Students or Military (with ID): $8 .
  • NM Museum of Natural History and Science: Free with your museum membership card (check with the museum first); or adults (18-59) – $8, seniors (60+) – $7, youth (13-17) $7, children (3-12) – $5. Tots (2 & under) are free.

Parks Hopping In The Southwest Itinerary - Petroglyph NM

Day 13: Albuquerque, NM to home in North Texas (644 miles, about 9.30 hours. Destination is in a different time zone.)

General tip :

  • We bought National Park Pass for the trip which was also good for National Monument. (Cost $80).
  • Booked hotels in advance, especially for Grand Canyon NP.
  • Found information online, travel blogs, from magazines, and friends who’d been to these places or live around the area.

southwest road trip_parks hopping itinerary_two worlds treasures

Thank you for sharing this:

Umiko Buhl is a travel blogger and the founder of Two Worlds Treasures. She travels around Texas to neighboring states and around the country with her family and dog from their family home in the south of Dallas/Fort Worth. Originally from Indonesia, she tries to go home every 2-3 years to spend time with her families and friends while exploring Indonesia. Her mission is to share her honest reviews of places she visited.

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39 Comments

This sounds like a great road trip in the southwest. You sure did see a lot in 13 days. But I can see why the trip was memorable. You have added a few National Parks to my list for when we are in that area next. We did not book a slot in advance for Antelope Canyon so missed out on that treat. A good reason to go back.

Antelope Canyon is worldly famous now. It’s getting harder to get a spot. So, a better planning for next visit.

Wow! You really did pack SO MUCH into your 13-day Southwest itinerary! And, as always, you’ve provided such thorough information as well. I’ve managed to hit a few of these places (the beautiful Grand Canyon, Antelope Canyon, Saguaro National Park, and the Petrified Forest), but there’s still so much to see of the incredible geological diversity in these regions of the US. I am keen to head to Horseshoe Bend and White Sands National Monument — especially after reading your post. Thanks for sharing!

Friends always thought we’re crazy to do all that in 13 days. But, we’re not the type who likes to stay or swim in the hotel during vacation. I will go back again and again to this region since there are so much to see and do!

Can you belivebit people travel the world to find the worlds wonders and it is right here in the USA. I need to make this a new aroundbtge USA trip soon.

Haha… You got it right!

Have always been amazed by the sheer range and beauty of the National Parks of USA. The parks of the Southwest all seem to have a wild sort of beauty that looks so spectacular. You must have had a great experience visiting these Parks. I have read a lot about Grand Canyon and Antelope Canyon, but many of the others are relatively lesser known gems.

It still amazes me until today, Sandy. I still want to revisit those parks, again and again. Hope one day you will get a chance to visit these parks.

This looks like a great road trip. I love the US National parks but I haven’t been to any of them in the south west. I’m keeping this itinerary because we may be visiting the US again next year.

I’m glad you found this itinerary helpful. Hope it will help you a lot for your next visit.

Great post! I know so little about National Parks up north and love that you explore them all so thoroughly. The White Sands National Monument looks stunning! Was it like silicon? So much rock, canyons and cacti. Sights I am so not use to. Arizona is very high on my list to visit one day so I can see those natural folds in the canyon. what an epic journey!

Hi Amy! I’m not sure whether White Sands looks like silicon, but it didn’t stick to your body at all. There are still lots of nature in the southwest that we need to explore. I think the whole summer won’t be enough.

This is my dream vacation! I would love to take my family on this road trip. Thanks for the great itinerary – it will be so helpful!

Good! I’m glad you found it helpful!

The Grand Canyon and Horseshoe Bend has always been high on our list of places to stay in the USA. We don’t really have anything like this in Australia except for Uluru in the Northern Territory. Thanks for sharing this great information. Now, we just have to book flights and travel.

I hope one day you will make it to Grand Canyon and Horseshoe Bend, like I want to visit Uluru.

I love Mesa Verde, it’s so cool. I haven’t been back in years, but I think another visit is in order. I’ve also always wanted to go to the White Sands National Park, and your pictures make me want to go even more.

I would like to go back to White Sands and Mesa Verde again, too! White Sands is fun and Mesa Verde is just different.

Very well written guide to the area. You included all the information that I could think person would need. Now I just need to go!

We’re big fans of the National Parks, so this is something we’d love to do. I’ve been to most of the Arizona places you listed (we live in Phoenix) except for Saguaro National Park. That’s on my list for this year. My boyfriend has never been to the Grand Canyon, so that might be on our list for this year too.

I wish Texas has more NP or NM like Arizona, so we can use America the Beautiful pass all the time in a year.

This is awesome. I’m dying to get out there and explore some of these areas! Saved this for future reference!

Wow! This is such a gorgeous part of our diverse landscape of the U.S. This is one area I’ve haven’t been to yet. Thanks for all the info and details! 😉

shan The How-to Guru

You are welcome! I hope you will make the trip there in the future.

Wow! So cool you were able to do such a fun road trip! I’ve been to a few of these places, now I’m inspired to visit them all! Thank you!

You are welcome!

Ah we have been to some of the same places! I loved White Sands!

White Sands was fun, but visitors have to make sure they follow the rules.

There are so many places here that I wish I visited when I was in the US. Adding to the bucketlist! Thanks so much! Looks wonderful.

I hope you can make it next time you come.

I always love your photos!

The South West is a bit far from me (we live in Canada and didn’t buy a car yet…) but if we ever do a US road trip, i’d love to visit these parks! You have such stunning wilderness in the US.

I hope one day you will make a visit there. On the other hand, visiting national parks in Canada is in our list. I wonder how many weeks do we need?

Wow, this trip looks awesome! The itinerary is so helpful too because I wouldn’t even know where to begin. I’d love to do this though!

Thank you! I hope it will help you when it’s time to make the trip there.

This is my dream roadtrip! You’ve been to some of the National Parks that I’ve been waiting to visit for years! Especially the Grand Canyon and Bryce Canyon. Pinning this to use on my own road trip, thank you!

I might be driving this way (from the PNW to Austin) this year so I have to check some of these out. Can’t believe I was once a few miles from Antelope Canyon but missed it 🙁

Aww… Make sure you put Antelope Canyon in your `next trip.

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Colorado Southwest: A 10-day Roadtrip Itinerary

Table of Content

Colorado Southwest Roadtrip: The Route

Our Colorado road trip started from Denver and passed through the southwestern part of Colorado, including Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado National Monument, Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Mesa Verde National Park, and Great Sand Dunes National Park, before returning to Denver. The route is as follows.

We have a total of ten days and nine nights planned for the itinerary.

Day 1 - 3 | Rocky Mountain National Park

On the first day, we took an early flight and arrived at Denver Airport at around 9:00 a.m. After picking up our rental car at the airport, we drove to Rocky Mountain National Park. Along the way, we first stopped at Boulder Boulder is a cute little town. We took some time here to get used to the high altitude, had a stroll through Pearl Street Mall, and had lunch before continuing on our journey.

Rocky Mountain National Park offers different breathtaking views in each season. In spring and summer, you can enjoy vibrant flowers, while in autumn, you can witness the stunning fall foliage. During winter, the park transforms into a wonderland of snow-covered landscapes.

(Note: If you are looking for hotel accommodations, we recommend the Estes Park to the east and the Grand Lake to the west.)

  • Booking.com

Day 4-5 | Colorado National Monument

We woke up early on the fourth day and enjoyed the wonderful scenery at Stillwater Campground and spent our entire morning there at the Lake Grandby. We then drove back slightly north to walk the Adams Fall Trail, before continuing west to the Colorado National Monument . We entered the park through the northwest entrance and camped at Saddlehorn campground. The next day, we drove all the way south on Rim Rock Drive and left through the east exit.

(Note: If you are looking for hotel accommodations, Grand Junction is recommended for this area.)

Find a stay in Grand Junction:

Day 5 | Black Canyon of Gunnison National Park

After leaving the Colorado National Monument, we managed to travel south to the Gunnison Black Canyon National Park , and walked to all the viewpoints on South Rim just before sunset.

We stayed at Ridgeway State Park for the night, at the great Elk Ridge Campground .

(Note: If you are looking for hotel accommodation, Montrose is just next to Gunnison Black Canyon National Park)

Day 6 | Highway 145, Uncompagre National Forest, and Hovenweep National Monument

The drive on day 6 was particularly long, as we traveled from the previous stop of the Ridgeway State Park We planned to first drive to the southwest border of Colorado, visiting Hovenweep National Monument , and then head east to Mesa Verde National Park . We were a little worried that it would be a boring drive, but we soon realized that the Uncompagre National Forest area is indeed a gem when we passed through Highway 145 around. The fall colors are so beautiful that I would claim it's the most beautiful place in the whole trip.

Colorado Southwest, Colorado Driving Route 1

After passing through the national forest area, it was a smooth transition into the Hovenweep National Monument . We learned a lot about Ancient Puebloan culture walking the Square Tower Trail. This is a great stop before arriving Mesa Verde National Park . We arrived at Mesa Verde National Park after dusk and stayed at Far View Lodge in the park.

Day 7-8 | Mesa Verde National Park

We spent the next two days at Mesa Verde National Park . If you are interested in history and archaeology like me, you will definitely enjoy this unique national park. Here we learned more about the Ancient Puebloan civilization. Mesa Verde preserves the Ancient Puebloan settlements that were built between 1100 and 1300 A.D. in alcoves (in the cliff!). In addition to the unique architecture, the history of the area is also a fascinating story. At the end of the afternoon of Day 8, we drove east to Great Sand Dunes National Park , and camped at Great Sand Dunes National Park .

Day 9 | Great Sand Dunes National Park

It's only until sunrise in the Great Sand Dunes National Park , we realized that the scenery here was truly unique. If you walked a little in the direction of the sand dunes, it felt like you were in a desert, while all around, the mountaintops were still covered in pristine white snow.

Day 9-10 | Denver

We left Great Sand Dunes National Park in the afternoon of Day 9 and drove back to Denver, our starting point on the way, visiting the Gardon of the Gods on the way, and returning to the city for food and beer. The next day we spent a full day experiencing Downtown Denver , before concluding our Colorado roadtrip.

Further reading

  • More Colorado posts
  • Expedia.com
  • TripAdvisor
  • Best US Credit Card for smart traveler
  • Backpacking 101: How to Pack for a Long Journey | A Beginner Packing List

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Travel by Van in this Epic Colorado Road Trip featuring Mountains, Dunes, and Canyons

May 2, 2024   2 Comments »

Home » Blog » Destinations » North America » America » Colorado » Travel by Van in this Epic Colorado Road Trip featuring Mountains, Dunes, and Canyons

Yes – there are tons of Colorado Road trip articles out there, but I’m going to tell you why this one is different. I live in Colorado. This is my home. I’m not going to tell you to drive I70 to the normal places, nor will I tell you to go to Rocky Mountain National Park. I want you to get off the beaten path in Colorado and support the local small towns and communities.

I have combined some of the well-known sights with the lesser-known sites. This isn’t just about the Rocky Mountains. It Includes dunes, desserts, national parks, recreation areas, canyons, high-altitude lakes you can drive to, hot springs, great green chile breakfast burritos, and yes – it includes mountain hiking. It’s a mix of the best Colorado has to offer.

Plus, I did this trip solo in a campervan, which made it perfect for these pandemic times. I was pretty self-contained and also saved money on lodging and eating out.

This Colorado road trip itinerary comes from my personal experience – and isn’t that what you are looking for…travel guidance from someone who actually travels to the places they are writing about?

Table of Contents

Roadtripping by Campervan – Take a Colorado Van-Cation!

I felt like I was 20 years old again picking up my little camper van as if it were my first car; I was giddy. The whole onboarding process was completed digitally – so all I had to do was get my keys out of the lockbox.

The Smalls Native Campervan was going to be my ‘home on wheels’ for a whole week; it was my pathway to taking the trip I wanted to do ever since I moved here – visit Southwest Colorado.

It wasn’t flashy and colorful like many camper van rentals, it was subdued; I didn’t really want to call attention to myself when I take a road trip by myself. It was perfectly functional and comfortable for 1 to 2 people. I plugged in my first destination on google maps, pointed myself southwest and I was suddenly living a Vanlife !

colorado campervan rental

Check out my article about Campervan Road Trip Tips from an experienced van owner who’s been on the road long term!

Native Campervans a Colorado Company

I decided to use the Colorado-based company – Native Campervans – because they had a competitive price and a small little van that was perfect for one or two people. They started back in 2017 as one of the first American-based camper van rental companies. The travel by campervan phenomenon is actually an Australian and New Zealand trend that made its way to America and many of the first companies here were offshoots of them.

I asked them about their name, and why they weren’t flashy vans,

There is a renewing effect to being in nature. You do your work, spend time with your family, handle the everyday details – but you need to recalibrate, and nature can do that for you. It returns you to your native self. NAtive Camper Vans

This is how I looked at the trip that I was taking – it was a way for me to refresh and renew, get back to nature, and enjoy what my own state had to offer.

How to Pick a Campervan Company to Rent From

This is of course personal to everyone, however, in researching companies and trying to decide who to rent from there were a few things I learned to look for.

Pickup/Dropoff Times

This actually equates to money – so it’s important! Look at the company’s pick-up and drop-off times. Many of the companies I looked at had hours like a hotel – pick up had to be after 3 or 4 PM, and drop off had to be before 10 AM. This affected my ability to do the route I wanted to do – it meant I couldn’t get very far that first night, and the last night, I had to stay right outside of Denver to get the van unpacked and back in time.

Check out 22 unique things to do in Denver, Colorado, from a local

Native Campervans offered great pickup/drop-off times. You could pick your van up as early as 10 AM and drop it off as late as 4 PM. That meant that I could rent the van for seven nights – but have eight full days of travel…bonus!

Are the Extras Included?

campervan cooking crested butte

Actually, I hesitate to call these things extras…bedding, pillows, and kitchenware are not extras to me if you are renting a campervan. Make sure you check out what is included with the rental cost they are quoting – many places didn’t include these things, and they were extra. Native Campervans did include everything you needed for a kitchen (and it was good quality!), as well as two propane bottles for cooking. They also included sheets, a heavy blanket, and pillows, all squeaky clean when you picked it up. And finally, every Native Campervan rental comes with camp chairs and a table!

There are other extras you can rent that I really believe are ‘extras’ – like bicycle racks, stand-up paddle boards, and more.

Are There Any Perks Included?

One really great perk that I used all the time from Native Campervans was their 2-week Pro membership to the TheDyrt app . The Dyrt has a database of more than 30,000 campgrounds located throughout the U.S. Users can search based on their current location or look for places to camp at destinations where they intend to travel to in the future. You can also filter for specific things you are looking for, such as showers. With the Pro account, you could save maps offline (loved this!) and create and save your own route. I used the app pretty much every night as I looked for places to camp!

Discover Piney Lake, Colorado

Look at the Office Locations

Many of the campervan rentals allow one-way trips for no extra cost if they have offices in various locations. My trip was a Denver to Denver trip – so that didn’t factor into this trip – but I could’ve ended in Salt Lake City or Las Vegas if I wanted to.

Campervan Rental Companies Operating in Colorado

Native Campervans Escape Campervans Rocky Mountain Campervans Boulder Campervans Aspen Custom Vans KuKu Campers

Need Something Bigger? Maybe a campervan is just too small for your family road trip through Colorado. Did you know that you can also rent RV’s? Get more space, go on a longer trip, or just have a bit more comfort – check out RVshare. They have a wide range of inventory to choose from, and you can pick it up in any major city.

The Ultimate 8-Day Southwest Colorado Road Trip

Let’s get this campervan (or whatever vehicle you have!) on the road! Check out the map below to see my driving route, along with my stops and campgrounds. I also provide a bit of food/drink info – but remember, my campervan had a kitchen, so most of the time, I was cooking for myself. This route starts and ends in Denver because…well…I live there.

colorado road trip campervan

Note that this was my personal trip – so I did things I like to do: hike, drive, drink, and eat. You’ll notice that I don’t shop…or go to museums very frequently (especially not during COVID-19) – so things like that aren’t included in this itinerary. Of course, though, all of these little towns have a variety of things to offer, including shopping and museums…so customize this however you want and make it your trip. It’s meant to give ideas you may not have considered before in Colorado.

Read about what it was like to do this campervan trip solo

Southwest Colorado Road Trip Route Map

Day 1 – Denver to Sand Dunes National Park – Gin and San Luis

I left Denver around noon after packing up my van with supplies. I decided to take the more scenic route through Buena Vista and Salida instead of just heading south on I-25. The time is about the same – so why not drive through pretty scenery – that’s the point of a road trip – isn’t it?

I stopped in the town of Salida to stretch my legs and to make a stop at one of my favorite Colorado Distilleries – Woods High Mountain Distillery. They carry one of my most loved gins ( and I really love gin ) aged in a whiskey barrel, turning it a lovely caramel color. Treeline Barrel Rested Gin is basically a gin with an identity crisis; it tastes like gin but looks like whiskey, and has a hint of whiskey flavor. Trust me on this – it’s worth stopping for a bottle!

I got back on the road and continued south, entering the famed San Luis Valley. It was flat – super flat. In fact, it reminded me of the Gobi Desert in Mongolia – a rocky, flat desert. Many say that it’s a spiritual place, and Gregory Alan Isakov captured it in his song and video “San Luis” . The landscape is expansive yet simple. As I drove through it for the first time, I fell in love with its moodiness (helped along by the pending storm in the distance).

san luis valley colorado road trip

In the flat landscape, you can start to make out the big sand dunes tucked up against the Sangre de Cristo mountains; even from such a far-off distance, you realize it’s a special place on earth.

I’ve seen my share of sand dunes, but never quite like this next to high-altitude mountains – it was a sight to see – especially when you arrive at a stormy sunset! These dunes were formed from weather patterns in the valley, which is ‘fenced in’ by the San Juan mountains in the west and the Sangre de Cristo mountains in the East.

To experience the best whiskey bars in Denver – go to Whiskey Row in Arvada

The San Luis Valley used to be a big lake where the erosion of the mountains settled at the bottom. When the lake dried up the sand was left. The strong winds from the San Juan mountains pushed the sand up against the Sangre de Cristo mountains and the sand was trapped there. The whole area has a fascinating landscape if you are a geology nerd!

I found my campsite and quickly went to go explore the park after hours just to get some pictures with the intention to spend my next morning there.

sunset great sand dunes national park

Where to Stay

I wanted to be close to the park and ideally have a bit of a view. The National Park campsite fills up quickly so I camped at the Great Sand Dunes Oasis campground – the closest campground (and they have a small lodge and cabins) to the park. The cost was around $23.

The camp spot was simple – port-o-potties only and they were a bit of a walk away. The best part was the view!

Note: It did get really windy that night I was there, so make your dinner early and hunker down! Read Reviews of the Oasis campground on Trip Advisor Great Sand Dunes Oasis Campground Website

This first day was about a lot of driving for me and I made only one stop in Salida. However, there are plenty of quirky stops you can make in the San Luis Valley if you’d like!

AND…Colorado is full of hot springs in every part of the state – if you want to soak, check out how you can pick the right hot spring for you in your Colorado travels.

Tips: You can get into the park free after 6 PM. The park is open 24 hours a day as there are great star viewings in the area!

Great Sand Dunes National Park Colorado

Day 2 – Greater Sand Dunes National Park to Pagosa Springs – Sand…So Much Sand

I woke up early, made a hearty breakfast, and watched the sand dunes change to a glowing orange as the sun came up. The wind had disappeared and it was a beautiful morning!

I rented a sand sled from Oasis for the day, put on my sunscreen, hat, and sunglasses, and headed for the dunes! In retrospect, I might have started the sledding on a bit too advanced of a hill, but hey – I wanted speed…and I got it. I also had a few massive wipeouts and ended up with sand EVERYWHERE!

I spent the whole morning hiking up and down the dunes, sledding, getting sand out of my ears, watching others board and sled, and I took plenty of pictures.

After a nice lunch at a picnic spot in the park, I took off for a scenic drive to Pagosa Springs. On a tip from a local friend, I decided to take a scenic route through a little bit of New Mexico via a part of the Los Caminos Antiguos Scenic Byway that takes you up and over La Manga pass.

I loved the views coming into Pagosa Springs; the quaint little town was surrounded by mountains. I stopped in town to grab some local beer and a refill of ice and then headed out to my next campground across from the Chimney Rock Archaeological Area.

Discover 9 surprises in Olde Town Arvada, Colorado

Ute Campground is a USDA Forest Service Site located 17 miles west of Pagosa Springs on U.S. Highway 160. The cost was around $20, and the sites were set back in the woods with towering pine trees surrounding each site. It had water, a simple toilet, a nice campground host, and few people.

This is your day to play in the sand dunes, so take as much time as you want! You can rent sand sleds or boards from the Great Sand Dune Oasis campground for $20. They even give you wax to put on your sled so you can go extra fast! There are also hikes in the park, and if you have a 4WD vehicle you can go deeper into the park. I also spent a lot of time driving on Day 2 and enjoying the scenery!

Escape straight into the heart of the rockies with classic tunes that capture Colorado’s soul. Whether you’re driving through Colorado’s long, winding roads or dreaming of blue skies and majestic mountains, this playlist will surely make you Come to Life™.

Day 3 – Pagosa Springs to Durango and Mancos – Soaking, Biking, and Brews

This morning I arrived in Durango totally excited to explore the town. I had been hearing about Durango for years now, and I was finally there!

I started off the morning at the Durango Hot Springs and Spa for a relaxing soak in their various pools with a lovely mountain view. And I really enjoyed the locker room shower after camping for a couple of nights!

Durango Hot Springs

I took my time and walked around the historic town that had spilled out onto the Main street due to COVID-19 regulations. You’ll lose yourself for hours in the cute Main Street shops!

I stopped for some tacos and then rented a bike from Pedal the Peaks to bike the 9-mile urban bike trail that runs along the Animas river. the Animas river is the heart of Durango. You can raft, float, and kayak down the river (water is best in the spring). I biked over bridges and even stopped at a farmer’s market by the high school to pick up fresh peaches!

After my sweaty bike ride, I deserved a beer at one of Durango’s best breweries – Ska Brewing. It’s a little bit outside of the historic town, but well worth the stop.

Finally, I went towards the little town of Mancos and camped there on a friend’s property!

Weekend in Colorado Springs: where to eat, stay, and adventure

There are many campgrounds around the Mancos area, which is a gateway to Mesa Verde National Park. Target Tree Campground was a nice-looking USDA Forest Service campground and where I would’ve stayed if I didn’t have friends to stay with!

There’s so much to do in and around Durango – that’s why I stayed in the region for 2 days! I suggest when you get into the historic district stop by the welcome center on Main Street . They were a wealth of information; after 30 minutes of talking to the people there, I had planned all of my activities and where I was going to hike and camp in the region.

Durango Hot Springs and Spa : it’s undergoing a major remodel – but the majority is expected to be completed by Oct. 2020. And while they are finishing, there are 4 different hot spring mineral pools and one saltwater swimming pool that are finished and useable! The views of the mountains were lovely from the pools. And coming in October they will also have Onsen-style individual hot spring pools for adults!

In addition, they have a secret spa superpower – micro bubbles of oxygen are infused into the natural mineral water. They are the only hot spring in the world that has this feature. It not only purifies the water but allows oxygen to enter your body and increases your oxygen levels. It may just help you for hiking and adventures around the high-altitude region!

Pedal the Peaks Bike Rental – This welcoming local shop is a family-run business that is oozing with small-business charm. Established in 1992, they ARE Durango’s bike scene. You can rent bikes from 4 hours to a full day, and they have a variety of styles (including e-bikes). I rented a hybrid bike to ride along the 9-mile urban trail along the river. The shop is close to where you can get on the trail, so it’s quite convenient. They also have a wealth of information about all of the trails around the area.

pedal the peaks durango bike rental

The Animas River Trail is a lovely paved ride along the river with plenty of places to stop along the way for a drink or snack. Dow n load the map of the trail here .

Mesa Verde National Park – I didn’t make it there, but if you are out near Mancos, you are really close to the park and it’s supposed to be spectacular.

Take a Northern Colorado Road Trip to experience a different side of Colorado culture

Nini’s Taqueria was a great taco stop on Main Street. I got the combo plate of tacos they recommended, and each came with a different fresh salsa – it was delicious! Plus, they also had a big shady patio in the back where you could dine.

Ska Brewing Company has a whole new outdoor beer garden where you can try their award-winning beers as well as a snack. It’s a popular place with the locals, so you may even make some new friends!

FenceLine Cidery in Mancos – I stopped by this little local Mancos Cidery to grab a bottle of their award-winning cider to bring to my friend’s house. The cidery was in a cute little outdoor setting and every cider I tried was delicious! I especially like the French-style dry cider and I loved the artwork on the labels!

Animas River Durango Colorado

Day 4 – Mancos to Vallecito Lake and Lemon Lake – Cinnamon Rolls, Hiking, and Lakes

After an urban day in Durango, I was ready to get out and hike! But first – I needed some hiking energy. Absolute Bakery in Mancos is known for their cinnamon rolls; get there early to get one and enjoy every finger-lickin’ moment of this gooey, delicious roll!

mancos colorado bakery

I drove out to Vallecito Reservoir, 40 minutes outside of Durango. However, I didn’t stop at the lake; instead, I went straight to the Vallecito Creek trailhead at the far end of the lake. This out-and-back trail was perfect for an afternoon hike. The trail follows the creek, so there is a constant sound of water, which I love. The trail climbs high up above the creek and then right down to its edge. I went about 5 miles total stopped for a little lunch next to the creek, and took the opportunity to dunk my feet in the cold mountain water.

After the hike, I went on to Lemon Lake/Dam, where I found a rustic campground perfect for an early night. The Florida Campground was basic but also just what I was looking for: pretty remote, small, and located right next to a river.

Florida Campground, located in the San Juan National Forest , can be reached by a dirt road a few miles past Lemon Lake. It only has 20 campsites with basic toilet facilities and water. The campsites were fairly secluded, with lots of trees and shade. They had really nice picnic tables, and all sites practically had access to the river. The cost was around $20.

There are a number of other campgrounds around the Vallecito and Lemon Lake area that are great to choose from too!

Hiking – There are so many trails around the region – but I hiked the Vallecito Creek Trail. It’s a 12.7-mile out-and-back moderate trail featuring bridges and a waterfall. I only went 5 miles out and back due to pending thunderstorms, but it exceeded my expectations the entire time. The rolling trail follows Vallecito Creek, which is full of little waterfalls and perfectly crystal clear. You’ll wind through woods, up on cliffs, and down to the river. Be ready for some really cold water if you put your feet in like I did – but it was perfect for a short break! See the Vallecito Creek Trail map and more information at All Trails.

vallecito creek hiking trail colorado

Absolute Bakery – Stop at Absolute Bakery in Mancos for a delicious cinnamon roll or pastry of your liking! I sat outside on a bench and watched the little town come to life in the morning while eating my cinnamon roll. I savored the ooooey, gooey middle of the roll where all of the delicious butter and cinnamon reside and thought about how this winter I really needed to work on perfecting my cinnamon roll recipe! It was a wonderful opportunity to slow down and soak up this small, cute town, and I tried not to think about the calories I was consuming!

Sherry Ott hiking a rocky creek in Colorado

Day 5 – Lemon Lake to Silverton – Farms and Mountain Passes

I had a leisurely breakfast and enjoyed writing by the river, not in a hurry to get anywhere. Isn’t that what Van-Cations should be anyway? I drove back to Durango and headed north towards Silverton. Based on a tip from the Durango Welcome Center, I had a small breakfast so I could stop and enjoy a big lunch at James Ranch, a must-stop restaurant/grille and market just outside of Durango.

This is a real farm-to-table experience, and it’s a lovely place to sit outside and enjoy the view of the Animas River Valley in all of its green glory! They also have a market where they sell meat, cheese, and other fresh goods from the farm. I picked up some sausage and a cookie for my next camp meal!

The rest of the day was about the drive. I didn’t have far to go; it was only 48 miles, but it took me most of the afternoon to get to Silverton! The views as you climb higher into the San Juan mountains are spectacular, and eventually, you come to Molas Pass at 10,900 ft. Segment 25 of the Colorado Trail begins at Molas Pass and stretches into the west on its way to Durango. If you are lucky, maybe you’ll see some thru-hikers!

Molas Pass Colorado

I went down the hairpin turns into the colorful old town of Silverton to take a look around before the sun went down. The views coming into Silverton are epic, in fact, it’s hard to keep your eyes on the road when there’s so much to see!

Silverton is the quintessential mining town that had 2,000 people living in it during its boom in 1883; 400 buildings – 2 banks, 5 laundries, 29 saloons, several hotels, and a bawdy red light district – Notorious Blair Street. In the present day, many of the old storefronts are still there on its dirt streets, but it’s now a hub for outdoor adventurers instead of miners. I parked and walked around the town and into a few of the stores.

Discover 10 reasons why you should take a solo road trip

silverton colorado road trip

I headed back up towards Molas Pass and stayed at the Molas Lake Campground for the night. The campground is located right next to the high alpine lake and panoramic mountain views. I absolutely loved my little camping spot that night. I walked to the lake and watched the sun go down and the lake light up with incredible reflections.

Molas Lake Colorado road trip

Molas Lake Campground was easily worth the $21 I paid! The access to the lake was spectacular as well as the mountain peaks. The campground has everything you would ever need – warm showers (extra $), water, a little store, kayak/SUP rental, and wifi. They didn’t have any electric hookups, and generators weren’t allowed, which meant there were no big motorhomes there – yay! I loved it so much there that I actually considered staying two nights.

molas lake campground colorado

Drive Highway 550 and simply enjoy the view. Stop at Andrews Lake to get a close-up view of a high alpine lake you don’t have to hike to! You can also hike around the lake if you have time. Also, stop at Molas Pass for the views.

Silverton is a great town to explore. Don’t be surprised if you see more ATVs there than cars on its dirt streets! Stop at the local brewery and check out the cute, artistic stores on Main Street.

Stop at James Ranch and try their grass-fed hamburger – it was sooooo good. And definitely stop in the market and pick up some fresh veggies and maybe even a steak to grill out!

james ranch durango colorado

Day 6 – Silverton to Ouray – Hiking and Beer

This was my shortest driving day – only 23 miles, but it was one of my most challenging days! I left the campground and drove to the Ice Lake Trailhead just outside of Silverton on a bumpy road just off Highway 550.

I had heard about this popular hike to Ice Lake and Island Lake in the San Juan Mountains and this was one of the main goals of my trip – to hike and photograph it. It’s a 9.5-mile heavily trafficked loop trail traversing two stunningly beautiful blue lakes, Ice Lake and Island Lake. Sounds great – but you have to really work to get there – it also climbs 3,100 feet to as high as 12,500 feet. This trail is no joke.

I got a later start than I wanted, however, when I started out at 10 AM, the skies were blue, and I looked up at the huge peaks and was excited about the challenge. I had read it was better to go counter-clockwise once you got to the loop section which takes you to Island Lake first.

However, the skies started to get dark, the wind picked up, and when I was already at 12,000 feet, it started to thunder. Thunder at that altitude is ominous as it feels like it’s right on top of your head! I was moving slowly at this point – but only had about 500 more feet to go to get to Island Lake. Sadly, the thunder kept getting more frequent and in the name of safety, I had to turn around…before I even saw a lake!

ice lake hiking trail

It was a hard decision but a smart one. Altitude and storms are dangerous – especially above the tree line . As I quickly tried to hustle down 3,000 ft (is that even possible…my knees didn’t think so!), I consoled myself by focusing on the incredible hike I did and the beautiful views. I had pushed myself pretty hard, and that’s nothing to be sad about, even though I didn’t make it to the lakes!

Once I got back down, I dried out from the rain and took on another daring challenge – I drove the Million Dollar Highway to Ouray.

Originally built in 1883, the highway between Silverton and Ouray is pretty legendary now. It’s known as one of the scariest drives in the US – or maybe just Colorado. It’s certainly scenic; full of switchbacks, epic climbs, and descents. Often times, there aren’t guardrails, so it’s not for the faint of heart. However, I must admit, I’ve been on scarier roads , but I also think my fear depends on if I’m driving or not; being a passenger is always more scary than driving!

Why is it called the Million Dollar Highway? According to Visit Durango – “Historians aren’t certain of why this highway has its name. One explanation is that an early traveler was so overcome by vertigo on the steep and winding stretch of road that he insisted he would never travel it again, even if he was paid a million dollars.” It could also be because millions of dollars of silver and gold traveled through these mountains…who knows…but it’s worth the drive!

Once I got to Ouray, I decided to call it a day, I was pretty exhausted from the hike. In addition, I decided to get myself a cheap hotel and enjoy walking around the old historic town. I stayed at the Historic Western Hotel established in 1891! This old hotel is unique, as soon as you walk in you get a feel for its quirkiness and history. All of the rooms share bathrooms, so you really did feel like you were time-traveling!

Hike the Ice Lake Trail – but start early! Colorado is notoriously known for afternoon storms in the mountains; it’s ideal to be below the tree line by noon. See the map for Ice Lake Trail Basin and more information at All Trails

Drive the Million Dollar Highway – go slow and take it all in! I stopped for a number of photo ops as well as to see some of the old abandoned mining settlements.

mining million dollar highway

Ouray also has lovely-looking Hot Springs. I didn’t have time to take a soak, but I wanted to!

Grab a drink in Ouray at Mr. Grumpy Pants Brewing Company – yes, that’s really the name, and yes, they are a bit grumpy there. But it has the best little porch on Main Street where you can drink your beer and people-watch!

I had a delicious burger at Full Tilt Saloon that night, but there are tons of great places in Ouray to choose from for good, basic food!

Million Dollar Highway Colorado

Day 7 – Ouray to Crested Butte – Canyon Land and Something Familiar

I woke up with a craving for a breakfast burrito. I said goodbye to the San Juan mountains and headed into Montrose in search of a good burrito. Google delivered me to Sunrise Burritos and made my morning. All I can say is…green chile to the rescue.

Discover winter things to do in Beaver Creek for non-skiers

Once I was all fueled up, I headed to the land of canyons in Colorado – the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. The 2,700-foot-deep canyon is impressive to see; no other gorge in North America combines the narrowness, depth, and sheer drop-offs as the Black Canyon. I didn’t go into the National Park, instead, I went to the North Rim of the canyon to the Curecanti Creek National Recreation Area .

My first time in this area left me so surprised at how stunning the landscape was. I had suddenly driven into mesas and canyons – so different from the mountains I just left.

I stopped to hike the Curecanti Creek Trail from the north rim of the canyon down to the bottom! It’s a 3.7-mile lightly trafficked out-and-back trail that gently takes you down into the canyon. After about a mile, you are in the deeper part of the canyon and are following the creek down to the end, where a beautiful pool of water flows through the canyon. It’s the most spectacular green I’ve ever seen!

black canyon of the gunnison colorado

After the hike, I drove to Gunnison and then up to Crested Butte, one of my favorite towns in all of Colorado! Crested Butte also narrowed their main street and let the businesses spill out onto the street for ample outdoor seating. I stopped at Brick Oven Pizza and Bar, inhaled a pizza, and enjoyed a beer.

Learn these solo car camping tips for road trips of all kinds !

I found the most incredible dispersed camping site off of a forest road and quickly snagged it. It had a view of Gothic Mountain on one side and Mt. Crested Butte on the other, with a beautiful golden valley in between. It was the perfect spot for my last night of the road trip!

Lots of dispersed (Free) camping in Gunnison National Forest around Crested Butte. No facilities.

Dispersed camping crested butte

Drive a part of the West Elk Loop Scenic Byway by Blue Mesa Lake and take in the scenery.

Hike the Curecanti Creek Trail down to the bottom of the canyon. I suggest bringing a swimsuit if you want to take a dip in that beautiful green water at the end! I also recommend hiking poles as it is quite a bit of up and down. See the Curecanti Creek Trail map and more information at All Trails .

Sunrise Burritos in Montrose is just a little drive-through hut in a parking lot, but it is big on taste! And the green chile is delicious!

Curecanti Creek Trail Colorado

Day 8 – Crested Butte to Denver – A Final Pass

I woke up to a pink sky and a layer of white fog hovering over the grass. The cool mountain air spilled into the open back doors as I just lay there enjoying the view. I made an incredible breakfast and finally took off from my idyllic spot in Crested Butte.

crested Butte colorado

It was time to head home via a new route back towards Denver past Taylor Park Reservoir and over the newly paved Cottonwood Pass. The summit is at 12,126 feet with incredible views from the top that show both sides of the Continental Divide.

Taylor lake colorado

The pass drops you back down in Buena Vista (another beautiful mountain town) and from there a few more hours to Denver.

As much as I wished I could keep driving for days around Colorado in my little campervan, I had to return it after a week. It was a great test drive of ‘van life’; it made me dream of doing this full-time one day! But for now, my Colorado road trip around the Southwest part of the state was all I could fit in!

view of Crested Butte, Colorado

Want some great tunes for this trip? Check out this Colorado Road Trip Playlist

Escape straight into the heart of the rockies with this Colorado Spotify Playlist. Classic tunes that capture Colorado’s soul. Whether you’re driving through Colorado’s long, winding roads or dreaming of blue skies and majestic mountains, this playlist will surely make you Come to Life™ courtesy of Colorado.com

Don’t Leave Home Without This Road Trip Gear

Dramamine Tablets Less Drowsy Formula

12V DC / 110V AC Dual Power Tire Pump with Inflation and Deflation Modes, Dual Powerful Motors, Digital Pressure Gauge

Heavy Duty Booster Cables

Energizer 6 Gauge Jumper Battery Cables 16 Ft Booster Jump Start - Heavy Duty Booster Cables, UL Listed

Super Bright LED Tactical Torch

LE CREE LED Flashlight, Small and Super Bright LED Tactical Torch, Handheld Flash Light, Zoomable, Water Resistant, Adjustable Brightness for Camping, Running, AAA Batteries Included

300W Power Inverter DC 12V to 110V AC

BESTEK 300W Power Inverter DC 12V to 110V AC Car Inverter with 4.2A Dual USB Car Adapter

Shade Sox Universal Car Sun Shade

Shade Sox Universal Car Side Window Baby Sun Shade (2pc) | Protects Baby and Kids from the Sun| Fits All (99%) Cars Most SUV's | Travel ebook included!

ComfiLife Gel Enhanced Seat Cushion

ComfiLife Gel Enhanced Seat Cushion - Non-Slip Orthopedic Gel & Memory Foam Coccyx Cushion for Tailbone Pain - Office Chair Car Seat Cushion - Sciatica & Back Pain Relief

OtterBox Venture Cooler, Hudson, 45 Quart

Use an optional Dry storage tray or separator (both sold separately) to organize the interior however you like: keep Dry or soft items separate and create custom compartments

VIM & VIGR Compression Socks & Sleeves

Compression socks are great for faster muscle recovery and to fight blood clots on long flights or long road trips.

PLUS - use d iscount code OTT15 for 15% off orders!

Contigo AUTOSEAL Water Bottle, 24oz, Spirulina

Great for travel - at 24oz, it's small enought to fit into most backpack bottle holders or cup holders. Plus, I love that you can lock it so I can put it in my bag without fear of it leaking!

2 Responses to "Travel by Van in this Epic Colorado Road Trip featuring Mountains, Dunes, and Canyons"

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By Kim August 15, 2021 - 12:41 am

Great descriptions. Thanks for including all the campsites.

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By Sherry August 29, 2021 - 1:33 pm

Hope it helped your planning!

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A trail surrounded by cacti at Saguaro National Park. In the background you can see a large mountain range.

Southwest Road Trip Itinerary: 5 Days, 10 Days, and 2 Weeks!

February 25, 2024 //  by  Follow Me Away //   Leave a Comment

If you are looking for stunning Southwest road trip ideas, then I have you covered!

The Southwest is a beautiful part of the United States that is full of natural wonders, unique towns and cities, and so much more.

There is so much to do and see, so I’ve come up with multiple epic road trip itineraries. No matter your interests or what states you want to see, there are options for you!

The Southwest is a vast region of the U.S., so keep that in mind when you are planning your American Southwest itinerary. You won’t be able to see everything in one road trip.

I have road-tripped the Southwest many times as both a kid and an adult. I keep coming back for more and I know you will too!

So, let’s take a look at the best Southwest road trip itineraries for your bucket list!

A woman in a white dress holding hands with a man in all black standing on a red and orange striped rock formation. The sky is blue and there are big fluffy clouds.

Table of Contents

Las Vegas To Bryce Canyon

  • Valley of Fire State Park
  • Zion National Park
  • Bryce Canyon

Start this Southwest road trip itinerary in Las Vegas, Nevada. Make sure to take some time to explore the famous city. Once you’ve had your fill of the neon lights, head to the nearby Valley of Fire State Park.

This is a stunning park full of amazing massive red sandstone rock formations. You can also find 2000-year-old petroglyphs carved into these Mojave desert rocks.

Next, head to Zion National Park in Utah. Zion is known for its beautiful sandstone cliffs. The cliffs are pink, red, and cream, and scattered with trees. They look especially beautiful on a clear, sunny day.

Outside of Zion National Park, you can choose to check out the Transition Zones as well. These are areas where the geology, geography, and even weather change drastically.

If not, continue onto Bryce Canyon National Park where you’ll finish your road trip. It is known for its dark red hoodoos, which are rock formations formed by erosion.

If you want an introductory 5 days in the Southwest, this is a great road trip option if you do not have a lot of time.

Sunset over the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon covered in snow with a couple holding hands.

Utah Mighty 5 Road Trip

  • Arches National Park
  • Canyonlands National Park
  • Capitol Reef National Park
  • Bryce Canyon National Park

If you want to enjoy an epic Southwest national parks road trip itinerary, plan on hitting Utah’s Mighty 5. This is the best Utah road trip for nature lovers! It is a great introduction to the Southwest!

Begin at Arches National Park outside of Moab. This park is known for its many unique rock formations, including over 2,000 natural arches. There are a ton of hiking trails to explore.

Next, head to nearby Canyonlands National Park for over 330,000 acres of rugged Utah wilderness. It also has arches, as well as canyons, mesas, and buttes. It’s a perfect example of Utah’s wild landscapes.

Continue to Capitol Reef National Park where you’ll find white sandstone cliffs. Even if you don’t love hiking, you can experience beautiful views along the scenic drive.

Then, head to Bryce Canyon National Park. Admire the crimson hoodoos and excellent hiking trails.

Finish this desert road trip at Zion National Park. Enjoy the sandstone cliffs and bright blue skies before you head back home.

This itinerary is great for 10 days in the Southwest!

Rugged Hickman Bridge rock arch in Capitol Reef National Park.

Las Vegas To The Grand Canyon

  • Las Vegas, Nevada
  • The Hoover Dam
  • Flagstaff, Arizona
  • Grand Canyon National Park

If you are looking for the best Grand Canyon road trip , this is it! Start by exploring Las Vegas before heading to Valley of Fire State Park.

At Valley of Fire, make sure you explore some of the hiking trails. On your hikes, you’ll be able to see some of the 2000-year-old petroglyphs.

From there, stop at the Hoover Dam. This historic dam is a really impressive manmade structure on the border of Nevada and Arizona. I recommended taking a tour and learning about its important history.

Once you’ve learned a little bit more about the Hoover Dam, head to Flagstaff, one of the best weekend getaways in Arizona !

Flagstaff is a really cool city nestled in the mountains near the Grand Canyon. It’s a great spot to enjoy delicious restaurants or bars, but don’t stay out too late.

You’ll be heading to the Grand Canyon, and you’ll want to get there pretty early to beat the crowds. End your vacation by hiking through one of Southwest USA’s most iconic national parks.

This is easily one of the best road trips from Las Vegas! It is a popular trip in the summer.

Sunset over the rugged and colorful Grand Canyon with a river in the bottom.

Highlights Of New Mexico

  • Albuquerque
  • Bandelier National Monument
  • International UFO Museum and Research Center
  • White Sands National Park

I love this ultimate New Mexico road trip itinerary ! It is a beautiful state with so much to do and see.

Start in Albuquerque and explore New Mexico’s artistic city before heading to Bandelier National Monument. You’ll especially want to stop by the Santa Fe National Forest area of the national monument.

After enjoying the great outdoors, head to the city of Santa Fe. Explore New Mexico’s capital city and its many historic buildings and plazas.

Once you’ve soaked in the sights, you’ll want to do one of the most iconic New Mexico activities. You can’t visit New Mexico and not see the International UFO Museum and Research Center.

New Mexico is known for being the site of one of the most famous supposed alien craft crashes, Roswell. At the UFO Museum, you’ll learn all about alien activity in the world and more.

From there, head to White Sands National Park, your last stop. Explore the perfect white sand against the expanse of bright blue skies before you make your way back home.

This unique park is one of the best places to visit in the Southwest!

An expanse of rolling white sand dunes in White Sands National Park.

Top Highlights Of Arizona Road Trip 

  • The Grand Canyon Loop

Start this epic Arizona road trip by flying into Las Vegas and driving to Flagstaff. Las Vegas is typically cheaper to fly into, and it’s pretty centrally located.

While you drive from Las Vegas to Flagstaff, I suggest making stops at the Hoover Dam and the Flagstaff Mountains.

In Flagstaff, you’ll get a break from the heat because it is high up in the mountains. It is a charming city full of things to do like exploring unique shops, restaurants, and bars.

Next, drive the loop that takes you from Flagstaff and around the Grand Canyon. While on the loop, there are several stops you can make to get great views of the Grand Canyon or to get out and hike.

The last stop is the city of Sedona. There are a ton of epic hikes in Sedona ! Places to explore include Oak Creek Canyon, Slide Rock State Park, Devil’s Bridge, and Cathedral Rock.

When you are ready to end your road trip, head back to Las Vegas to fly home.

Morning golden hour over the Devil's Bridge in the colorful hills of Sedona, Arizona.

10 Day Southwest Road Trip

  • Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument
  • Page, Arizona
  • The Grand Canyon

Like most Southwest road trips, you’ll want to start your journey in Las Vegas. Spend some time there or head straight to Zion National Park.

At Zion National Park you’ll find great hiking opportunities amongst the pink and cream sandstone cliffs. Ride the park’s shuttle and take in the views.

From there, head to Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. It is full of slot canyons, unique hiking trails, and even arches. It is not a typically crowded park, so it’s a great stop if you don’t love crowds.

Continue to Page, Arizona. It is just outside several smaller parks like Antelope Canyon and Lake Powell. They are very pretty and worth the stop.

End this American Southwest road trip to the Grand Canyon. You can’t visit this part of the country without seeing its most iconic site. You definitely want to take the time to explore the Grand Canyon.

I know you will love this 10-day USA road trip itinerary!

The inside of a rock formation that was created by the river that is flowing through it. It has two arches, a rive bank with trees, and other rock formations near it. The rocks are red sandstone.

Southwest California Road Trip

  • Death Valley National Park
  • The Trona Pinnacles
  • Joshua Tree National Park
  • Mohave National Preserve

Start this Southwest California road trip in Death Valley National Park.

Death Valley is the hottest, driest, and lowest national park in the country and it is stunning. It is a beautiful park with desert landscapes and hidden oases scattered throughout the park.

From there, head to the Trona Pinnacles. They are a unique geological feature in the middle of the California desert and are worth a stop.

Next, head to Joshua Tree National Park. This is one of the most iconic parks in California. Joshua Tree is where the Mojave and Colorado Deserts meet to create a unique and beautiful landscape.

After exploring this vast desert, head to Mohave National Preserve, where you’ll end your road trip. Mohave National Preserve is full of canyons, mesas, mountains, and even abandoned mines.

If you want to road trip the Southwest national parks beyond Utah, this is a great option!

Pastel sunset over the rugged landscape of Joshua Tree National Park with many Joshua trees.

Central Utah Road Trip

  • Dead Horse Point State Park
  • Castle Valley

To start your Central Utah road trip, head to the city of Moab. This cute town is centrally located by some of the area’s best national and state parks.

Take some time to enjoy the town before heading to Dead Horse Point State Park.

This state park is just outside of Moab and is known for its breathtaking lookout of the Colorado River and even Canyonlands National Park.

After getting a view of Canyonlands, head into the beautiful national park to enjoy even more stunning views, great hikes, and more.

From Canyonlands, make your way to Arches National Park. It is north of Moab and is very unique. It has over 2,000 natural rock arches that you can get up close to on various hikes and drives.

End your road trip in the Southwest in Castle Valley. This is a small town named for all the unique castle-like rock formations that surround it.

You will love seeing the most beautiful places in Utah !

A woman in a white dress with long hair running under a red sandstone arch. The area is nothing but red sandstone rock formations. Its a great Southwest road trip stop.

Arizona + New Mexico

  • Scottsdale, Arizona
  • Tucson, Arizona
  • Silver City, Arizona
  • Albuquerque, New Mexico
  • Santa Fe, New Mexico
  • Taos, New Mexico

This road trip focuses on some of the bigger cities in Arizona and New Mexico for those who don’t necessarily love hiking or outdoor adventures.

Start in Scottsdale, Arizona. Outside of Phoenix, Scottsdale is a beautiful city and you can enjoy sites like the Phoenix Art Museum or the Desert Botanical Gardens.

Once you’ve had your fill of Scottsdale, head to Tuscon. Along the way to Tucson, I suggest stopping by Saguaro National Park to see the large Saguaro cacti.

The city itself is full of Spanish and Native American history. Make sure you take some time exploring the historic sites.

Continue to Silver City. You’ll travel through the Gila National Forest on your way, and if you have the time, it’s worth a stop.

In Silver City, explore the old city streets. It was a 19th-century mining town, and many of the buildings are from that period and a part of the area’s mining history.

Silver City is a pretty cool city to explore, so make sure you give yourself some time there.

Next, you’ll head into New Mexico and stop in the city of Albuquerque. Albuquerque is great for seeing some live shows, enjoying a good meal, and exploring the city streets.

From Albuquerque, you’ll head to Santa Fe, New Mexico’s capital city. It is one of the America’s oldest cities and full of fun and unique things to do in the Southwest USA.

Discover historical sites, fun boutiques, delicious restaurants, and more!

End your road trip in Taos, one of the most popular cities in New Mexico. Taos is near some of the USA’s Ancestral Puebloan dwelling sites, which are a must-see.

In Taos, learn about Native American history, explore Adobe buildings, and skiing in the winter. Taos is a perfect ending to your Southwest USA road trip.

If you want to road trip the Southwest USA’s best cities, this itinerary is for you!

A trail surrounded by cacti at Saguaro National Park. In the background you can see a large mountain range.

Four States Southwest Road Trip

  • Valley of the Gods, Utah
  • Monument Valley Tribal Park, Utah
  • Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado
  • Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona
  • Horseshoe Bend, Arizona
  • Antelope Canyon, Arizona

This is called the Four States road trip because it covers the area known as the Four Corners. However, I’ll be focusing on three of the four states.

Start the road trip in Utah at Valley of the Gods. This is a scenic sandstone valley full of unique rock formations.

It’s the perfect stop before heading to Monument Valley, which is a Navajo Tribal Park. Take tours of the 16-million-acre Navajo Reservation, but please remember to be respectful of the land and its people.

From there, head to Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado. Mesa Verde is known for its Ancestral Pubelan cliff dwellings which have been very well preserved.

The most popular of these is the Cliff Palace. Mesa Verde is a really cool national park and a must-see on this Southwest itinerary.

Next, head to the Petrified Forest National Park. The Petrified Forest is a landscape full of trees that have become petrified and turned to stone over millions of years.

It’s a great place to admire one of nature’s most unique effects from time.

Continue to Horseshoe Bend, a horseshoe-shaped curve in the Colorado River. It’s just outside of Page, Arizona, and is often considered the East Rim of the Grand Canyon.

End your road trip at Antelope Canyon. This famous Arizona slot canyon is also near Page. It is located on Navajo land and is a unique rock formation that is perfect for ending your road trip.

Vivid sunset over Horseshoe Bend, a river in a rugged canyon.

Phoenix To Grand Canyon

  • Montezuma Castle National Monument
  • Wupatki National Monument

The Phoenix to the Grand Canyon road trip is the second most popular Grand Canyon road trip. This itinerary is packed with beauty and fun!

Start in Phoenix and explore the unique city before you head out onto the road.

Your next stop on the Southwest itinerary is the Montezuma Castle National Monument.

This historic site features the preserved cliff dwellings of the Sinagua people. Take your time exploring the area on hikes, strolling through the historic museums, and stopping along the drive.

Next, head to the city of Sedona. This is a great city in Arizona to stop in!

While there, I suggest exploring Red Rock State Park and hiking to the gorgeous Cathedral Rock or Devil’s Bridge.

Once you’re done exploring Sedona, head on to Flagstaff, an Arizona city nestled in the mountains.

In Flagstaff, you’ll be near the Grand Canyon and it’s a great place to stop and take a break before heading to the Grand Canyon.

The Grand Canyon is where I suggest spending most of your time. Explore as much of the area and hikes as you’d like to before heading home.

You cannot road trip the American Southwest and skip the Grand Canyon!

On the way home, make one last stop at the Wupatki National Monument. It has five prehistoric pueblos and is worth the brief day trip from Flagstaff.

The National Monument perfectly rounds out your trip as you head home and back to Phoenix.

A historic pueblos at the Wupatki National Monument. They are ruins of what once was a house made of red sandstone bricks. It is a bright sunny day.

Northern Nevada Road Trip

  • Pyramid Lake
  • Black Rock Desert

On this road trip, you’ll explore Northern Nevada. Start in the Biggest Little City in the World, Reno.

In Reno, you’ll find tons of things to do, like the Riverwalk, over 120 murals in Midtown and Downtown Reno, and more. It’s a cool city with an endless amount of things to see.

From Reno, head to Pyramid Lake. It is a beautiful, large lake north of Reno.

I suggest stopping by the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe Museum and Visitor Center to learn more about the area’s Native peoples. You should also take time to walk around the lake and enjoy the epic views.

Continue to Gerlach, see the Fly Geyser, and admire the folk art on Guru Road. It’s the last space of civilization before you head into the Black Rock Desert.

Black Rock Desert is your final stop and is where the Burning Man Festival is held every year.

You’ll find a beautiful desert landscape full of large black rock formations, the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge, and more. The Black Rock Desert is a great way to end your exploration of northern Nevada.

Sunset over the beautiful and colorful Fly Geyser with steaming water in a desert.

Arizona + Utah Loop Road Trip 

  • Zion National Park, Utah
  • The Wave, Utah
  • Buckskin Gulch, Utah
  • Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park, Utah
  • Moqui Cave, Utah
  • The Grand Canyon, Arizona

This is the longest road trip on my list, perfect for 2 weeks in the Southwest. There are a ton of awesome stops!

First head to Zion National Park. It’s a beautiful park filled towering cliffs, wildlife, and famous hikes such as the Narrows and Angel’s Landing.

Continue next to The Wave, a red sandstone rock formation that genuinely looks like a wave in the desert. Then head to Buckskin Gulch, which is a slot canyon in Utah , right on the Arizona border.

Next, head further into Utah to the Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park. This park is full of miles of reddish-pink sand that you can explore for as long as you’d like.

Near the sand dunes is Moqui Cave, a really cool sandstone erosion cave that is worth a stop.

After that, head to Arizona and Antelope Canyon. It is home to two unique slot canyons on Navajo land.

In addition to seeing the slot canyons, because you have to have a certified Navajo guide to tour it, you’ll learn about the Native history of the area as well.

Next, make your way to Horseshoe Bend, a unique bend in the Colorado River often considered the easternmost point of the Grand Canyon.

Near Horseshoe Bend is the Valley of Gods, just over the border in Utah. It’s a valley full of unique rock formations that is definitely worth a stop.

For the last leg of your trip, head to Flagstaff, Arizona. It’s a great place to stop and catch your breath before heading to the Grand Canyon.

Spend as long as you’d like exploring the Grand Canyon before heading home.

A woman in a long white dress with long hair kissing a man in all black on the edge of a cliff. They are surrounded by red sandstone mountains and rock formations on a cloudy day. You can see snow on some of the mountains.

The Extraterrestrial Highway

  • Extraterrestrial Highway Sign
  • Alien Research Center
  • The Black Mailbox
  • Little A’le’inn

This is easily one of the most unique road trips in the Southwest. If you love all things alien, then you have to do the Extraterrestrial Highway in Nevada.

Jump on the Extraterrestrial Highway in Alamo and head to your first stop, the Extraterrestrial Highway Sign.

You’ll find a handful of these signs along the highway, some are rather untouched, and others are covered in stickers and fun graffiti. The one near Alamo is covered in stickers and is a fun stop to take a picture to commemorate your trip.

After that brief stop, head to the Alien Research Center. It is a large airplane hanger and right next to it is the Area 51 container. Also in front of the research center is a large silver alien statue.

Next, head to the Black Mailbox, which used to be the spot of a small mailbox for aliens. It was stolen, but you can find a little shrine created by alien enthusiasts in its place.

After that, you’ll head to the Little A’le’inn. The Little A’le’inn is a hotel, bar, and restaurant all wrapped together. It’s a fun alien-themed pit stop to grab a bite to eat before you finish your trip.

You’ll end this unique road trip in the Southwest outside of Area 51.

You obviously cannot go on the property, but alien lovers are allowed to drive the 12-mile dirt road and at least see the gates, if you’re feeling brave. This is a truly unique road trip that is a ton of fun.

Sign for the Little A'le'inn and a tow truck holding a hanging UFO with big clouds overhead on the Extraterrestrial Highway.

Trail Of The Ancients

  • Cedar Mesa, Utah
  • House on Fire Ruins, Utah
  • Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, Colorado
  • Hovenweep National Monument, Uath

The Trail of the Ancients is a popular route in the Southwest USA for those who’d like to see ancient artifacts.

First head to Cedar Mesa, Utah, where you can find plenty of petroglyphs, ruins, and pictographs on any of the hikes you choose to take in the area.

Next, head to the House on Fire Ruins, which are a set of ruins set into red sandstone. On the hike, there are eight ruins in total you can see. But you don’t have to walk the entire ten miles to see a few of them.

Next, head to Cortez, Colorado. Now, Colorado isn’t typically considered the Southwest, but it is fairly close to the Utah border, so it works.

In Cortez, you’ll find the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument. At the monument, you’ll find over 6,000 ruin sites that were the homes of ancient peoples in the area.

A visit here is a great way to learn more about the Native peoples who called the area home thousands of years ago.

End your road trip at the Hovenweep National Monument. Hovenweep is another spot where you can find ruins from ancient Native peoples.

There are a few really cool ruins. The trail continues further if you have the time to see it, but this is also a great stopping point if you don’t have time.

Red stone House on Fire Ruins under a big rock.

Where To Begin Your Southwest Road Trip

Your starting point depends on which American road trip itinerary you’ll be doing. Some of the most popular starting points are Las Vegas, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, and Albuquerque.

Any big airport in the Southwest is going to be a great starting point. Most of the road trips in the Southwest start in Las Vegas as it is centrally located.

Especially if you are looking to explore the more southern areas, you’ll want to consider flying into the McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas.

If you want to explore more of the northern areas of the Southwest, Salt Lake City International Airport is a great option to fly into. Again, it just depends on where you’re looking to explore!

An RV driving through the red sandstone of the Southwest. In the background you can see a hill with a large red sandstone rock formation on top of it.

Best Time of Year for Your Road Trip in the Southwest

When to do a road trip out West itinerary depends on what you’d like to do and see.

Personally, I really love doing a Southwest winter road trip. The weather is cooler and there are fewer crowds. Car rentals and accommodations are also cheaper.

March through May and September and October are particularly great if you want to go when the weather is cooler.

In the summer months, it can be very hot depending on where you go. You may also see large crowd sizes. But, in the higher elevation areas, it will be cooler.

So really, pick the time of year that seems to work best for you and match the kind of experience you are looking for!

Looking down into a small valley where a woman is standing in a white dress with long hair. She is standing near a yurt. Behind the yurt you can see snow on the ground. A common view during a winter Southwest road trip

Example Southwest Itinerary Options

5-day southwest usa road trip: grand canyon loop.

Day 1: Las Vegas to Grand Canyon National Park

Start in Las Vegas, Nevada. Drive to Grand Canyon National Park, South Rim (Approx. 4.5 hours). Explore Grand Canyon Village and enjoy sunset views from Mather Point.

Day 2: Grand Canyon National Park to Page, Arizona

Sunrise at Yavapai Point. Drive to Page, Arizona (Approx. 2.5 hours). Visit Horseshoe Bend at sunset.

Day 3: Explore Page, Arizona

Morning tour of Antelope Canyon. Afternoon at Lake Powell and Glen Canyon Dam. Stay another night in Page.

Day 4: Page to Zion National Park

Drive to Zion National Park, Utah (Approx. 2 hours). Hike the Canyon Overlook Trail for sunset views.

Day 5: Zion National Park to Las Vegas

Morning hike: Emerald Pools or The Narrows. Drive back to Las Vegas (Approx. 2.5-3 hours).

10-Day Southwest USA Road Trip: Utah’s Mighty 5

Day 1: Las Vegas to Zion National Park

Drive from Las Vegas to Zion National Park (Approx. 2.5-3 hours). Explore Zion Canyon Visitor Center and scenic drive.

Days 2 & 3: Zion National Park

Hike Angel’s Landing and The Narrows.

Day 4: Zion to Bryce Canyon National Park

Drive to Bryce Canyon (Approx. 2 hours). Afternoon hike: Navajo Loop and Sunset Point.

Day 5: Bryce Canyon to Capitol Reef National Park

Morning at Bryce Canyon. Drive to Capitol Reef (Approx. 2.5 hours). Explore Capitol Reef Visitor Center and scenic drive.

Day 6: Capitol Reef to Arches National Park

Drive to Arches National Park (Approx. 2.5 hours). Explore Park Avenue and Balanced Rock at sunset.

Days 7 & 8: Arches National Park

Hike to Delicate Arch and explore Windows Section.

Day 9: Arches to Canyonlands National Park

Drive to Canyonlands (Approx. 30 minutes). Visit Island in the Sky district and Mesa Arch.

Day 10: Canyonlands to Las Vegas

Morning in Canyonlands. Drive back to Las Vegas (Approx. 6.5 hours).

2-Week Southwest USA Road Trip: Desert and Canyon Explorer

Days 1 & 2: Las Vegas to Death Valley National Park

Drive from Las Vegas to Death Valley National Park (Approx. 2.5 hours). Explore Furnace Creek, Badwater Basin, and Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes.

Day 3: Death Valley to Zion National Park

Drive to Zion National Park, Utah (Approx. 4.5 hours). Spend the afternoon on the Pa’rus Trail or visit the Zion Human History Museum.

Days 4 & 5: Zion National Park

Hike Angel’s Landing and explore The Narrows.

Day 6: Zion to Bryce Canyon National Park

Drive to Bryce Canyon (Approx. 2 hours). Afternoon exploration: Bryce Amphitheater from Sunrise to Sunset Point.

Day 7: Bryce Canyon to Capitol Reef National Park

Drive to Capitol Reef (Approx. 2.5 hours). Visit the Hickman Bridge and Capitol Reef Scenic Drive.

Day 8: Capitol Reef to Arches National Park

Drive to Arches National Park (Approx. 2.5 hours). Explore the park’s iconic arches in the late afternoon.

Days 9 & 10: Arches National Park

Full day of hiking: Delicate Arch, Landscape Arch, and Double Arch.

Day 11: Arches to Canyonlands National Park

Drive to Canyonlands’ Island in the Sky district (Approx. 45 minutes). Visit Mesa Arch and Grand View Point.

Day 12: Canyonlands to Monument Valley

Drive to Monument Valley, Navajo Tribal Park (Approx. 3.5 hours). Explore the Valley Drive or take a guided tour.

Day 13: Monument Valley to Page, Arizona

Drive to Page, Arizona (Approx. 2 hours). Visit Antelope Canyon and Horseshoe Bend.

Day 14: Page to Las Vegas

Spend the morning at Lake Powell. Drive back to Las Vegas (Approx. 4.5 hours), possibly stopping at the Valley of Fire State Park if time allows.

Looking down into Lake Powell among sand colored cliffs and buttes.

The Southwest USA is such a diverse and unique area of the country. It is full of stunning state parks, the best national parks, cool cities, and fun tourist attractions.

I am confident there is the perfect Southwest road trip on this list for just about every type of traveler. So let me know which one you like the best, or if you’ve done any of these yourself!

A drone view of the hot springs in Saturnia shows the multiple pools of the thermal springs and the icy blue waters.

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Make travel plans now for disruptive full closure of I-5 freeway in SW Portland next weekend

  • Updated: Jun. 25, 2024, 5:07 a.m. |
  • Published: Jun. 21, 2024, 8:00 a.m.

I-5 closure in SW Portland late June 2024

The closure of I-5 in both direction in southwest Portland will cause delays throughout the metro area 9 p.m. June 28-5 a.m. July 1. Oregonian file photo. LC- The Oregonian

  • Rosemarie Stein | The Oregonian/OregonLive

Remember on Tuesday when propane tanks caught on fire and closed all the lanes of Interstate 5 for more than an hour, and then the northbound lanes stayed closed until the evening commute time? That will seem like small potatoes next weekend when all lanes of I-5 close in both directions between Terwilliger and the Capitol Highway exit from Friday night through Monday morning.

The construction closure will begin at 9 p.m. Friday, June 28, and continue all hours and days through the weekend, reopening by 5 a.m. Monday, July 1.

Southbound traffic will be detoured at Southwest Terwilliger Boulevard, and northbound traffic will be taken off the freeway at the OR 99W/SW Barbur Boulevard exit.

Through traffic into or out of downtown Portland or continuing to or from Washington are advised to use other freeways including interstates 205, 84, OR 217, and U.S. 26 to get around the closure. Barbur Boulevard will be available to local traffic, but drivers should expect long delays and big backups.

The closure is part of the construction of a new I-5 bridge deck over Southwest 26th Avenue. The project started nearly a year ago, and now is in the phase where crews will need to rebuild the roadway. The Oregon Department of Transportation notes that this deck carries more than 100,000 vehicles a day and is heavily worn. All efforts were made to keep the closure to as little time as possible. Read ODOT’s statement on the closure and why this was the method chosen to complete the work here: oregon.gov/odot/Projects.

In addition to the freeway closure these ramps will also close for the weekend:

Northbound on-ramp closures:

  • Southwest Kruse Way.
  • Southwest Haines Street.
  • Southwest Capitol Highway.
  • Southwest Spring Garden Street.
  • OR 99W/Barbur Boulevard.

Southbound on-ramp closures:

  • I-405 on-ramp.
  • South Harbor Drive on-ramp.

ODOT warns drivers of near certain long delays when traveling through the metro area that weekend. Drivers should choose alternate routes or pick travel times that occur during less congested hours including early morning and late evening.

Upcoming freeway closures summer 2024

I-5 closure map in southwest Portland. Map courtesy of ODOT

Following the weekend closure, I-5 travelers in the work zone will see nighttime single lane closures in both directions from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. on various weekdays and from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. on various weekends.

Within 90 days of the weekend closure, I-5 in and near the project area will have up to 30 nights of double lane closures in both directions from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. for prep work, striping, and placement of shoulder barrier.

To read more about the project visit this page: oregon.gov/odot/projects/pages.

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Minnesota Department of Transportation

511 Travel Info

News releases

June 21, 2024

Latest news releases

Heavy rains cause road closures across south central and the southwest corner of Minnesota

Several roads are closed due to flooding, and the situation continues to change. Officials warn that roads may be closed or restricted without warning as flash flooding is difficult to predict. MnDOT advises motorists to drive with caution.

As of 8 a.m. on June 21, the following highways are closed or have traffic restrictions:

  • Westbound Interstate 90 from Worthington to Luverne. Closed.
  • Eastbound Interstate 90 from Luverne to Adrian. Closed.
  • Highway 13, south of Waseca. Closed, temporary detour.
  • Highway 86 (two miles south of I-90). One lane is closed.
  • Highway 91, north of Adrian. Closed, temporary detour.
  • Highway 75, Luverne to the Iowa border. One lane is closed.
  • Highway 19 east of Henderson. Closed, temporary detour.

MnDOT crews will continue to monitor flooded highways and will open them as soon as it is safe to do so. Highways and bridges impacted by floods need to be inspected for damage and safety prior to opening.

When a road is closed it is illegal to travel in that area. Motorists can be fined up to $1,000 and/or 90 days in jail. In addition, if travelers need to be rescued from a closed road, other expenses and penalties will apply.

Important: Road conditions shown on 511mn.org only reflect state highway conditions. Please check with your county, city, and township for their road conditions and travel guidance.

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WTOP News

Bethesda lane, ramp closures on River Road begin for utility work

Matt Small | [email protected]

June 24, 2024, 6:50 AM

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If you use River Road in Montgomery County, Maryland, between Wilson Lane and Western Avenue, expect slower travel as utility work that begins on Monday is expected to last over the summer.

Drivers can expect a series of lane and ramp closures along River Road , as work crews are schedule to work between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m., Mondays through Saturdays.

Washington Gas will be installing a remote-control valve on a natural gas transmission line in the median of River Road (MD 190), according to the Maryland Department of Transportation State Highway Administration — which said it would be assisting with the utility work.

Closures on River Road include:

  • The southbound left lane between Wilson Lane and Winston Drive.
  • The northbound right lane, southbound right lane, eastbound right lane, shoulder and ramp, and the westbound shoulder and ramp at the intersection of Goldsboro Road.
  • Sidewalk and temporary bus stop closures on northwest and and southwest sides of intersection at Goldsboro Road.
  • The southbound right lane and sidewalk closure on southwest side at the intersection of Western Avenue.

Detours for trucks include:

  • Southbound approaching the intersection at Goldsboro Road, trucks from southwest will be detoured straight along Goldsboro Road (MD 614), right onto Bradley Boulevard (MD 191), right onto Wisconsin Avenue NW (MD 355), right onto Western Avenue and straight back to River Road (MD 190).
  • Northbound approaching the at Goldsboro Road, trucks from northeast will be detoured straight along Goldsboro Road (MD 614), left onto Massachusetts Avenue (MD 396), left onto Western Avenue and straight back to River Road (MD 190).

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© 2024 WTOP. All Rights Reserved. This website is not intended for users located within the European Economic Area.

southwest co road trip

Matt joined WTOP News at the start of 2020, after contributing to Washington’s top news outlet as an Associated Press journalist for nearly 18 years.

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southwest co road trip

New Mexico wildfire map: Track Ruidoso area fires as responders work to contain them

Click here to see live updates on the New Mexico wildfires.

Emergency responders are working to contain the two wildfires that prompted evacuations in southern New Mexico.

As of Tuesday, June 25, the Salt Fire and the South Fork Fire had spread over 25,500 acres:

  • South Fork Fire: 17,556 acres; containment: 54%.
  • Salt Fire: 7,947 acres; containment: 38%.

New Mexico wildfire map and smoke tracker

The fire tracker provides a map with pinpoint locations of each fire and shows where red flag warnings are in effect, among other information. You can also click on each point to see detailed information on the fire in that area.

If you can't see the map above,  click on this link .

SEE: Photos of South Fork Fire

View more: South Fork Fire continues to burn near Ruidoso. Here's what the fire looks like in NM

New Mexico communities ordered to evacuate

The Village of Ruidoso, with a population of nearly 8,000, was placed under mandatory evacuation orders on June 18 as the wildfires rapidly spread and have caused property damage. However, full-time residents have been allowed to return to the area with a week's worth of food and drinking water. The village warned some homes may not have utilities, and a boil water advisory was put into effect Saturday, June 22

Two deaths have been reported  and over 23,000 structures have been affected. Portions of US Highway 70 and US Highway 48 have remained closed.

Tribal members who have been displaced outside of the Mescalero Apache Reservation due to the fires may contact the Tribe’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC) for assistance returning to the reservation. If stranded out of town at other evacuation sites, members may call the EOC at 575-464-9214 for more details. 

Ruidoso live webcams: See the fires in real-time

These live views from Ruidoso are courtesy of  ruidoso.net . Additional webcams are available here .

southwest co road trip

Flooding Continues to Impact Southeast South Dakota Causing Additional Road Closures (Friday, June 21, 2024 - Update #2)

For Immediate Release:   Friday, June 21, 2024 Contact:   Travis Dressen, Mitchell Region Engineer, 605-995-3300

INTERSTATE 29 ALTERNATE ROUTE UPDATE (Saturday, June 22, 2024 – Update #1, 7 a.m.)

The Interstate 29 alternate route from Sioux Falls to Sioux City, IA is no longer viable as several sections of the Iowa portion of the detour are now impassable due to high water. I-29 remains blocked at exit 50 (Centerville) and exit 62 (Canton).

No travel continues to be advised on all state highway sections in southeast South Dakota that are experiencing flooding due to heavy rain in the area that continued overnight. A majority of routes in the southeast portion of the state are currently blocked due to standing or flowing water across the roadways.

It’s recommended that motorists use 511 traveler information systems for South Dakota, Minnesota, and Iowa to plan routes around these impassable roadways. The 511 resources for each state can be found at:

  • South Dakota - https://sd511.org
  • Minnesota - https://511mn.org/
  • Iowa - https://www.511ia.org/

Motorists are reminded to respect all road closures and not drive around barricades. Motorists should not use secondary highways to avoid road closures or highway obstructions. Driving into floodwater areas can lead to potentially dangerous or life-threatening situations. Due to the expected length of this weather event, all motorists are asked to plan their travel accordingly and not travel in southeast South Dakota if possible.

In South Dakota, motorists can also download the SD511 mobile app to view all current road closures, no travel advisories, and highway obstructions. Conditions continue to change rapidly so it’s best to actively monitor SD511 traveler information systems. South Dakota Department of Transportation crews will continue to keep SD511 as up-to-date as possible during this weather event.

ORIGINAL PRESS RELEASE:

MITCHELL, S.D. – No travel advisories continue to be placed on all state highway sections in southeast South Dakota that are experiencing flooding due to heavy rain in the area. As conditions continue to deteriorate a majority of routes in the southeastern portion of the state have become impassable and travel impossible due to standing or flowing water across the roadways.

Interstate 29 remains blocked at exit 50 (Centerville) and exit 62 (Canton). An alternate route has been created in conjunction with the Iowa Department of Transportation and the Minnesota Department of Transportation to allow motorists to safely travel from Sioux Falls to Sioux City, IA and Sioux Falls to the S.D. Highway 48 junction north of Junction City. The alternate route diverts motorists in Sioux Falls to eastbound Interstate 90 to Worthington, MN, turning south on U.S. Highway 59, turning southwest on State Route 60 through Sheldon, IA, and continuing south on U.S. Highway 75 from Le Mars, IA to access Sioux City, IA. Motorists can also use Iowa State Highway 3 heading west out of Le Mars to access S.D. Highway 48 and I-29.

It’s highly recommended that motorists use the alternate route as other secondary highways in the area are impassable due to high water. In addition, many of the major streams/river elevations will continue to rise and are not anticipated to peak until this weekend or later.

A map of the alternate route as well as additional flooding traveler information can be found on the SDDOT website at https://dot.sd.gov/travelers/travelers/flooding-information . Travelers can also find road condition information for the State of Iowa at https://www.511ia.org/ and the State of Minnesota at https://511mn.org/ .

Interstate 90 is currently open but is anticipated to close overnight as the weather system becomes stronger and rainfall increases. Areas on I-90 near Salem and Mt. Vernon are significantly impacted by flooding conditions.

Travel impacts are expected to increase overnight with a high likelihood of rain continuing through Saturday, June 22, 2024. Motorists can expect additional road closures to be put in place if conditions continue to worsen.

Please visit https://sd511.org or download the SD511 mobile app to view all current road closures, no travel advisories, and highway obstructions. Conditions continue to change rapidly so it’s best to actively monitor SD511 traveler information systems. South Dakota Department of Transportation crews will continue to keep SD511 as up-to-date as possible during this weather event. About SDDOT: The mission of the South Dakota Department of Transportation is to efficiently provide a safe and effective public transportation system. For the latest on road and weather conditions, road closures, construction work zones, commercial vehicle restrictions, and traffic incidents, please visit https://sd511.org or dial 511. Read more about the innovative work of the SDDOT at  https://dot.sd.gov .

© 2024 State of South Dakota. All Rights Reserved.

Region & area offices, forms & publications.

southwest co road trip

Road trip tranquility through the Southwest

T ranquility is a rare treasure for a world mired in turmoil. My nine-day road trip with my wife through America’s Southwest helped me take my mind off the heartbreaking images of misery in the world’s war-torn Mideast, where sadly war knows no religion.

October is the best month to drive through the country’s national parks — and in our case, also visit the tribal lands of the Navajo and Hopi people. Both the sun and the temperatures are lower, and the lines not so long to enter into our neighbor Utah’s red rock gems: Arches, Capitol Reef and Canyonlands National Parks. Fall appears in its gold glory, putting the green of summer to rest before the white of winter, which already has arrived on some of Nevada’s highest peaks.

Driving through Fallon on an early Sunday morning reminds you that rural America is mostly quiet and appears still to be enjoying a day of rest. Heading east on Highway 50, "The Loneliest Road in America” (and maybe the most beautiful), we passed through Austin, Nevada, hoping to stop for lunch at the main street eatery that once billed itself as the "World Headquarters” for Donald Trump. Both enterprises were closed — for better or for worse, depending on your gastronomical or political preferences.

After an overnight stay and dinner with Guinn Center friends in Ely, we passed by the morning glory of Nevada’s Great Basin National Park, which is one of the least-visited of national parks in the country. Bathed in the low light of an autumn sunrise, Wheeler Peak greeted us as we passed on our way to Moab, Utah, the gateway to nearby national parks.

Moab is one funky town, especially for Utah. I don’t know if it’s because Moab has the lowest percentage of LDS church membership in Utah, but the town has more multi-body-pierced food servers, road houses, exotic restaurants, rock climbing safaris and off-road vehicles to rent than I’ve seen anywhere — with the possible exception of Boulder, Colorado. Moab (like its Biblical name of “land beyond the Jordan”) is truly a special place to begin a pilgrimage into the promised land of some of nature’s most sacred shrines.

Getting up at 4 a.m. to beat the crowds and reservation-only ticket-takers at Arches National Park’s entrance, Shin and I made it to the famous “Delicate Arch” trailhead when it was too dark to begin the three-mile round-trip hike to one of America’s most romantic natural landmarks. We made it along with the numerous other visitors from Germany, Kansas, and Laos — just in time to take the obligatory couples’ photo as the sun was rising.

The next day we repeated our early morning routine and saw some of the park’s more than 2,000 natural arches in a section of the park called “Devil’s Garden.” I supposed it’s named that because the spires and gruesome-looking monuments look vaguely demonic. Its seemed rather godly to me, being in this garden of early morning delights.

Another day was spent walking thru dried-up narrow washes with sandstone walls that appeared to touch the sky in Capitol Reef’s park. Canyonlands was next. There you see the mighty Colorado River in all its majesty, winding its way to Lake Mead and eventually the Gulf of Mexico. Word to the wise: Stay on paved roads in these remote parks. I ended up trying to ascend a one-lane dirt road that looked like Khunjerab Pass in Pakistan, before discretion got the better part of valor and I somehow managed to turn the car around.

Having seen the best the “new world” had to offer, we decided to visit the land of America’s oldest settlers once occupied. Driving along the Navajo Trail Highway, we came to Monument Valley. You’ve seen it if you ever watched any of John Ford’s cowboy movies with John Wayne. They were filmed in the middle of the Navajo Nation’s lands that they have since re-acquired — in fact, their lands are now the size of West Virginia.

The next day we visited one of the Navajo’s holiest and most beautiful sites at Canyon De Chelly (pronounced d'SHAY). One of the longest continuously inhabited landscapes in North America, it’s a national monument operated entirely by members of the Navajo Tribe. A young Navajo woman named Thedra shared with me the famous Navajo poem, “Walking in Beauty.” The words seemed applicable to someone with as many decades as I have under my belt: “In old age, wandering on a trail of beauty, living again ... it is finished in beauty.” It seems true. As we walked above the ancient Navajo farmlands you could see the pueblo-dwelling remains of ancient homes built in the canyon’s walls by ancient inhabitants.

Returning again the next day, I asked Thedra about how Navajo younger people are faring as they attempt to exist between both the ancient and modern worlds. The answer came in a video she showed me called "Canyon Voices." In it, young Navajo’s express their quandary of feeling like they “don’t belong in either world.” It made me wonder if American young people are facing the same dilemma: Do we belong in the world we now occupy or in a future world we are not quite certain of?

A possible answer came the next day when we visited the Hopi Reservation. Staying in the Hopi Cultural Center, the 80-year-old museum director connected us with her brother, the son of a Hopi chief who took us on a private tour of the iconic Second Mesa’s ruins. Our guide, Dixon, was humorous, and blatantly sarcastic in a most charming way. I could never tell whether what he was telling us was fame or fable. Which — as a case in point — is what the Hopi myth and worldview are filled with. I enjoyed how he toyed with us.

One thing that was as clear as the view the Hopis had from atop the Second Mesa of the invading Spanish centuries ago was the certainty of the Hopi’s view that they “are finally at home” on their ancestral lands overseen by the mesa. I suppose I feel that way to some degree at least — being near my childhood home of Lake Tahoe.

Our road trip brought us a back to the Silver State via Highway 375, the “Extraterrestrial Highway.” Like the Hopi, the residents of Rachel, Nevada, believe there is more than meets the eye when it comes to looking out over desert landscapes and wondering what’s above and what’s below us.

Long road trips leave time to ponder both questions, and more. Ours concluded with a stay at Tonopah’s historic Mizpah Hotel. No ghosts from the non-Hopi world visited us that night. I suppose we were too tired.

Returning to Reno the next day, I thought of the ancient Chinese proverb, “The journey of s thousand miles begins with a single step.” It ends, or maybe just continues, when you finally return home.

It was a tranquil road trip amidst a tumultuous time. I hope the world one day finds the peace we found in America’s oldest canyons and among its ancient first peoples.

Thank you. Please email me at: [email protected]

"Memo from the Middle" is an opinion column written by RGJ columnist Pat Hickey, a member of the Nevada Legislature from 1996 to 2016.

Have your say: How to submit an opinion column or letter to the editor

This article originally appeared on Reno Gazette Journal: Road trip tranquility through the Southwest

Pat and Shin Hickey at Delicate Arch in Arches National Park, Utah.

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Minnesota flooding: Rapidan Dam near Mankato holds, roads and state parks closed

Water flows in a river

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Authorities in Blue Earth County continued to monitor the imperiled Rapidan Dam on Tuesday after the rain-swollen Blue Earth River carved a new channel around the structure.

As of Tuesday morning, the dam southwest of Mankato remained intact — but was bypassed on its west side by a new river channel the rushing water carved out on Monday. Authorities said it happened after debris piled up against the more-than-century-old dam in the wake of recent torrential rain.

debris and building left

While the dam has partially failed since water went over the top and around the side, the dam structure has not broken.

Blue Earth County Engineer and Public Works Director Ryan Thilges said even if the dam fails, the Blue Earth River would only rise by a few inches. Thilges said because the water is not backing up at the dam, it would not result in a major surge rushing downstream.

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“The structure of the dam is still intact and in place. As you can see right behind me, the water ran around the west edge of the dam and is now eroding the slopes to the west and to the north,” Thilges said.

People talk on the side of the road

If the dam does fail, Thilges is more concerned about released sediment flowing downstream.

County officials said Tuesday that the volume of water flowing was slightly lower than it had been on Monday.

That new channel washed away an electrical substation below the dam, knocking out power to hundreds of homes on Monday. Xcel Energy said that service was restored overnight.

Blue Earth County said the Rapidan Dam has experienced regular flooding — but those floods have taken a toll on the structure.

Water flows out of a dam

There are no large-scale evacuations in place below the dam.

County officials said Tuesday that there had been routine monitoring of the dam starting on Saturday. As of Sunday evening, they said, “the dam exhibited high flows and additional debris, but still displayed adequate capacity.”

Problems with water going over the dam, and then carving the new path around it, were first reported early Monday.

A home adjacent to the dam that’s been threatened by the new river channel remained intact as of Tuesday morning — but officials said the water continues to erode that slope.

After viewing flood damage in southern Minnesota by helicopter Tuesday afternoon, Gov. Tim Walz and U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar said the state is likely to be eligible for federal disaster aid.

“I am not an engineer, but looking at that dam and seeing the severe damage there as well as washed out roads in Minnesota, I believe we could well be into our $10.5 million. That is the level at which federal aid would tick in for public infrastructure,” Klobuchar said.

Public Safety Commissioner Bob Jacobson said that initial damage assessments are underway in northern Minnesota, and he’s met with staff from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Walz said damage assessments will take place alongside cleanup. He said a complicating factor is that water levels are still rising in many southern Minnesota.

dam with debris

U.S. Highway 169 closed

Travel in the Minnesota River valley got a lot more difficult late Monday and early Tuesday, as rising river levels forced the Minnesota Department of Transportation to close two stretches of U.S. Highway 169.

The highway is closed between Mankato and St. Peter, and also between St. Peter and Le Sueur. That means all the traffic from that busy four-lane highway is being detoured onto two-lane state and county roads.

Both Minnesota River bridges at St. Peter are also closed. And some on- and off-ramps along Highway 169 in North Mankato also are closed due to flooding.

Find updates on state highway closures on MnDOT’s 511 site .

sandbags & flooded road with pickup truck

To the east, Gov. Tim Walz deployed the National Guard to the city of Waterville on Monday. He called the flooding there and across the state “catastrophic,” and said it could rival historic flooding in 1997 and 2007. Walz and Sen. Amy Klobuchar are set to make an aerial survey of southern Minnesota flooding later Tuesday.

Flooding in southwest Minnesota

State Highway 60 through Windom was also among roads closed due to flooding on Tuesday.

The city is experiencing historic flooding. The Des Moines River at Windom is at its highest level on record . The National Weather Service said it’s forecast to stay near that record high before slowly receding late this week.

Windom City Council member Jenny Quade said city crews have been working hard to keep up with the rising water.

“They put a barricade up to say, ‘there’s water coming up,’ to ... warn you beforehand,” Quade said. “But by the time they get all around the city ... they’re having to go back and move those barricades because the barricades are getting under water.”

Water surrounds homes-1

Some residents have evacuated homes near the river on the northwest side of Windom. The Red Cross has set up a shelter at Jackson County Central High School in the city of Jackson — which also is experiencing flooding .

Jackson city officials reported Tuesday that work continued to reinforce dikes protecting the town from the rising Des Moines River.

U.S. Highway 71 through Jackson is closed due to flooding.

Parks, trails close after flooding

State parks across Minnesota are recovering from recent heavy rains and flooding.

Underground tours at Lake Vermilion-Soudan Underground Mine State Park  were halted last week after the park received more than 7 inches of rain in less than 24 hours. The DNR said underground tours will be suspended for at least three weeks while crews pump water out of the mine. Surface tours of the mine are still available daily.

Cave tours at Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park in southeast Minnesota are also on hold due to flooding. The pedestrian bridge to historic Forestville has been inspected and is open to use, according to the DNR, and the Big Spring trail has reopened to use.

Bison and prairie tours at Blue Mounds State Park in southwest Minnesota are canceled this weekend. The DNR says park staff will assess water levels on Wednesday, and they hope to be able to offer tours next weekend. The bison drive at Minneopa State Park near Mankato is closed due to flooding, as is the Minneopa Falls area and several trails within the park.

A large pine tree on the ledge of a dam

Fort Snelling State Park in the Twin Cities is closed until floodwaters recede and park staff can assess and repair damage.

There are washouts and damage on the Gitchi Gami and North Shore state trails in northeast Minnesota, according to the DNR. And the Minnesota Valley State Trail is significantly flooded.

The DNR is also urging caution on state water trails: ”High currents and floating objects are just two reasons to avoid paddling in flooded waterways.”

Manure overflowing

More than a dozen manure pits are overflowing at feedlots in southwestern Minnesota.

State agriculture commissioner Tom Peterson said the feedlots are working with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. He said the stormwater and manure has discharged onto farm fields and not into any bodies of water.

“Historic rainfalls can cause issues for manure management systems that are not designed to handle extreme amounts of rainfall and we are providing advice on actions they can take to avoid an overflow or lessen the impacts should one occur,” the MPCA said in a statement.

A flooded street with yellow caution signs

The MPCA said it’s received reports of 17 instances where liquid manure storage pits have overflowed on 15 cattle feedlots located in Nobles, Rock and Jackson counties.

“These storage areas hold highly diluted manure that is collected as part of stormwater runoff from the feedlots. The manure becomes further diluted once combined with the high volume of floodwaters,” the MPCA statement said.

The Minnesota Department of Agriculture and the MPCA continue to monitor the situation.

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