Colorado Road Trip Itinerary: Denver to Durango in a Week
Lots of people who take a road trip out of Denver wind up traversing the same well-worn highways towards Colorado’s more famous Rocky Mountain destinations such as Aspen and Breckenridge. But this time, we want to explore the back roads through the heart of the Centennial State so we can uncover a much more fascinating side of this endlessly diverse state.
We'll start our journey in the increasingly dynamic cultural hub of Denver before heading off into the country to encounter aliens, alligators, high alpine sand dunes, and large-scale outdoor art installations.
If you have a week to spare and a curiosity about this authentic slice of Colorado, where the Wild West spirit thrives a world apart from the fancy ski resorts and usual tourist attractions, plug this route into your GPS and click the links we provide and see what adventures you wind up having.
Perhaps no American city has undergone a greater transformation in recent decades than Denver, which continues its steady evolution from dusty cow town to dynamic cultural powerhouse while retaining its status as one of America’s fastest-growing population centers.
Must-visit summer locations in Denver include the iconic Red Rocks Park & Amphitheatre, one of the world’s most stunning outdoor music venues, and Coors Field (pictured above), which is regarded by many as one of America’s finest baseball stadiums. Watching the sunset over the mountains from your seat certainly doesn’t hurt.
Wander the endlessly hip, art-heavy neighborhood of RiNo to catch a rock concert at the intimate Larimer Lounge, knock back a beer at Our Mutual Friend Brewing (one of many craft breweries in the neighborhood and this brew-heavy city), and explore the colorful bars and shops along the main drag of Larimer Street. Local options for cool boutique hotels are always in flux, but The Ramble and Catbird Hotel are among the best for their top-shelf nightlife-and-cocktail scenes and thriving young vibes.
Now it's time to get out of Denver and prepare to get weird via a 3.5-hour drive along U.S. 285 to the San Luis Valley, a once-barren desert wasteland that is being transformed into an oasis for artists, spirit seekers, UFO enthusiasts, and off-the-grid adventurers.
Smoke a bit of the legal green and then decide that wrestling an alligator is a good idea at the Colorado Gators farm, or discover why the area is home to such a large number of alien encounters at the wonderfully bizarre UFO Watchtower (pictured above), where true believers have been coming since 2000 to try to spot proof of alien visitation.
The town of Crestone hosts a fascinating mix of religions as a hippie-flavored New Age spiritual center, while the area surrounding it is home to the tallest sand dunes in North America at the gorgeous, windswept, and criminally underrated Great Sand Dunes National Park (pictured above).
As for accommodations, they don’t get much more unique than Frontier Drive-Inn, a recently renovated 1955 drive-in movie theatre (marked by this beautifully restored neon sign) where you can sleep in a yurt while watching movies beneath the big screen.
While you're in the area, don’t forget to take a dip in the clothing-optional waters of Valley View Hot Springs, a 2,200-acre preserve off U.S. 285, or get your mind blown even further wandering the Burning Man-styled Orisons, a massive 160-acre earthworks art installation opened in 2023 in the town of Hooper.
Now you'll be taking CO-112 and CO-149 west. Fans of historic Western mining towns will get a kick out of this next leg of the trip, which passes through a pair of Colorado’s most underrated small towns, Creede and Lake City, en route to the charming Old-West style paradise of Ouray.
While only an hour away from the glitzy resorts of Telluride, Ouray retains much of its laid-back mountain town charm via an immaculately preserved historic district surrounded by rugged peaks and natural wonders such as Box Canyon Falls.
Catch the best views of those peaks hiking the 5.8-mile Ouray Perimeter Trail surrounding the town, or try your hand scaling rocks via the Ouray Via Ferrata, which are basically hiking trails carved into the steep face of the mountain (one of only a handful of via ferratas in North America).
For a less labor-intensive outing, try the easy, more family-friendly, two-mile Uncompahgre River Walk loop past waterfalls and old mines before kicking back with a good book at the Western Hotel, built in 1891, reopened in 2023, and one of the most successful revivals of a historic hotel that this writer has visited. Upscale but not pretentious, the Western is a central gathering place in town for both locals and travelers. (Bonus points for working typewriters and photos of Hunter S. Thompson in each room.)
The 50-or-so miles of U.S. 550 from Silverton to Durango is known as the jaw-dropping Million Dollar Highway (pictured above), which is easily one of the most scenic drives in North America.
You'll pass through the town of Silverton (home of the popular Silverton Durango Narrow Gauge Railroad) en route to our final destination, the delightfully friendly outpost of Durango. The town’s vintage Western ethic is unmistakable on a stroll down the admittedly touristy Main Avenue, yet Durango manages to effortlessly meld the old with the new at hipster-approved spots like the fun Rochester Hotel, where you can catch occasional live bands alongside locals in a romantic outdoor courtyard.
This part of Colorado is cattle country, so beef fans should carve into an expertly cooked steak at the cozy Ore House, while enthusiasts of dive bars can hit the dance floor and commiserate with well-lubricated locals at El Rancho Tavern. Love it or hate it, but you can still smoke in the bar at the one-of-a-kind Orio’s Roadhouse on Main Avenue.
You can hang around a few days longer in this iconoclastic part of the country or push on about 90 minutes southwest to see Four Corners (where four U.S. states, including Colorado, come together). But if you choose to fly home from here (never fun after such a fantastic and free-spirited journey), at least you get to do so while joking with laid-back TSA agents out of Durango’s hilariously cute little airport.