camper van road trip us southwest

Three Stunning Road Trips From Denver

U.S. WEST

Three itineraries for exploring the natural wonders of the U.S. West – from 5 to 10 days

The possibilities for road trips from Denver are plentiful, with the city at a geographic intersection; the great plains are to the east and the Rocky Mountains to the west. And because Colorado borders seven states, there is much to explore within even a few hours. 

We moved to Colorado in 2010 and immediately set out to explore this beautiful state and beyond. Coming from Toronto, the open landscape of the west felt remarkable. We’ve taken many road trips over ten years and from those, I’ve compiled three itineraries of various lengths that I recommend to friends who ask where to explore from Denver. 

Moab, Arches & Canyonlands National Parks

5 days / 12 hours drive time

Two remarkable Utah parks and an outdoor adventure hub

This shorter road trip from Denver takes you to the town of Moab, Utah, the western town known as a gateway to incredible adventure, as well as two spectacular national parks: Arches and Canyonlands.

The two parks feature otherworldly landscapes and stunning sandstone arches carved by millions of years of erosion. A four-night itinerary allows for three full days for exploring, one for each of the parks and time to enjoy some of the adventures available in Moab. In the summer when it’s very hot, you will want to hike early and then find other things to do around Moab. Spring is a great time to visit if you want to experience Moab’s famous mountain biking.

Delicate Arch at Arches National Park
Delicate Arch at Arches National Park
Grand Canyon South Rim
Grand Canyon South Rim

Denver to Moab - Itinerary

Day 1   Depart Denver and drive 5 hours to Moab, Utah

Day 2   Explore Arches

Day 3   Explore Canyonlands

Day 4   Moab Adventure

Day 5   Return to Denver

canyonlands national park
Canyonlands National Park

Road Trip Highlights

dining view red cliffs lodge
Dining with a view of the Colorado River at the Red Cliffs Lodge
riverfront cabins red cliffs lodge
A cabin with a living area, kitchen and verandah at the Red Cliffs Lodge outside Moab

Where to Stay in Moab

Moab positions you perfectly to explore both parks.  If you want to be close to town and are looking for something budget-friendly, I recommend the Fairfield Inn & Suites Moab. It has a nice pool is just outside of town so close to the entrance to Arches. Suites are available with separate sitting areas, a mini fridge and microwave.  

If you are looking for something a little more upscale, or want more of a resort experience, I recommend the Red Cliffs Lodge, where we stayed on our last visit.  It’s about 20 minutes outside of town, and has a gorgeous setting right on the river with towering cliffs all around. There is a nice pool, lots of activities and you can choose between a regular room and a cottage with a kitchen, living area and balcony overlooking the river. The dining room has a fantastic view. 

For a luxury experience, consider the Sorrel River Ranch. It’s pricey but supposed to be exceptional with lots of amenities including a spa. I would love to stay there on my next visit. You can also just pop in for lunch or dinner. 

Crested Butte Wildflowers

Colorado Loop: Two National Parks & Crested Butte

7 days / 13.5 hours drive time

Colorado has four national parks and this week-long road trip from Denver includes two of them: Rocky Mountain National Park and Great Sand Dunes National Park. Beyond that you will visit one of the state’s most beautiful mountain towns: Crested Butte.  The itinerary begins at Rocky Mountain N.P.  so the two longer drives are mixed with shorter ones; and the Crested Butte visit is between the park stays. I also suggest stopping at Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs on your final day. Its sandstone rock formations are spectacular and you can see them easily by just driving around the main loop. 

Rocky Mountain National Park
Rocky Mountain National Park in Summer

Road Trip Itinerary

Day 1 Depart Denver and drive 1.5 hours to Rocky Mountain N.P

Day 2 Explore Rocky Mountain N.P. 

Day 3 Drive to Crested Butte, about 5.5 hours

Day 4 Explore Crested Butte

Day 5 Drive to Great Sand Dunes N.P., about 3 hours

Day 6 Explore Great Sand Dunes

Day 7 Return drive to Denver, about 4 hours. Take Interstate 25 to Denver, in order to stop at Garden of the Gods Park in Colorado Springs. 

great sand dunes national park
Susan at Great Sand Dunes National Park in early spring

Highlights

zapata ranch lodge colorado
Zapata Ranch near Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado

Where to Stay

Rocky Mountain National Park does not have any accommodation within the park, so stay in nearby Estes Park (it’s preferable over Grand Lake on the other side of the park.) Popular options include: the Rams Horn Village Resort and the Stanley Hotel which gives you the experience of an old-time summer lodge (it’s also where Stephen King was inspired to write The Shining). 

In Crested Butte, stay in the cute historic town and enjoy great dining options and a lively atmosphere.  There a reseveral popular choices including the Elk Mountain Lodge, a charming property, built in 1919 as a miner’s hotel. 

Camping at Great Sand Dunes  usually requires booking  well ahead, especially during May, a popular time when the Medano Creek at the base of the dunes, fills with water. We stayed at the Zapata Ranch, a working bison ranch a short drive from the park, and had a wonderful experience. The closest town with hotels is Alamosa, about 30 minutes away.   

Monument Valley Arizona

Epic Southwest - National Parks & Monument Valley

10 days / 24 hours drive time

The Utah parks are all incredible and this itinerary takes you to my favourite – Zion National Park. You’ll also visit Bryce Canyon and see the remarkable hoodoo rock formations – tall spires of rock that protrude dramatically from the dry badlands.

After 4 nights in Utah, you will carry on to the north rim of the Grand Canyon. It is only open between May 15 and October 15, and gets a fraction of the visitors of the south rim which is open year-round. There is limited accommodation here so book ahead if possible, especially if you want to camp or stay with the park (details below.)

After the Grand Canyon, you’ll drive east through Arizona and into Navajo Nation – the largest indigenous region in the U.S., and the location of beautiful Monument Valley.

Hoodoo rock formations in Bryce Canyon National Park
Hoodoo rock formations in Bryce Canyon National Park

Itinerary

Day 1 Depart Denver and drive 9 hours to Bryce Canyon

Day 2 Explore Bryce Canyon

Day 3 Drive 2 hours to Zion

Day 4 Explore Zion

Day 5 Drive just over 3 hours to the Grand Canyon, North Rim

Day 6 Explore Grand Canyon

Day 7 Explore Grand Canyon

Day 8 Drive a little over 4 hours to Monument Valley

Day 9 Explore Monument Valley

Day 10 Return to Denver – 8.5 hours

Zion National Park
Zion National Park

Highlights

The view of Monument Valley out of a cabin at the Monument Valley View hotel
The view from a cabin at the Monument Valley View Hotel

Where to Stay

In Zion National park we enjoyed our stay at Flanigan’s Inn. Every room is different and we had one with a lovely outdoor terrace called the Petite Suite. The food was delicious at the restaurant onsite – The Spotted Dog Café. The Zion National Park Lodge is also popular and located within the park. It was built in 1925 and has a historic national park feel. 

I’ve only been to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon but hope to visit the North Rim soon. The only lodging available here is inside the park at the Grand Canyon Lodge. There is also camping in the park. Reserve at Recreations.Gov. Other lodging options are the Jacob Lake Inn and the Kaibab Lodge.

In Monument Valley, we stayed at the Monument Valley View Hotel – the only accommodation within Monument Valley. (It is scheduled to open for the season on April 9, 2021). I booked a premium cabin with a separate bedroom with a double bed, twin bunks and a kitchenette. We had spectacular views of the massive sandstone monuments from our balcony. The hotel is run by Navajo community members and there’s a large gift shop with amazing art and jewelry. Note there is no pool here as the climate is dry and water a valuable resource for Navajo Nation residents.

Susan Heinrich hiking in Zion National Parkon a road trip from Denver
Susan hiking in Zion National Park
Three people on the Angels Landing trail in Zion National Park
The Angels Landing trail in Zion National Park

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More to Explore, Road Trips, Colorado & Beyond

I hope this guide sparks some ideas for planning your own special road trip from Denver through the beautiful U.S. West.

I didn’t mention Wyoming but I especially love it in summer when southern Utah is very hot. If you are interested in learning more about Grand Teton National Park (another of my favorite parks) I wrote about it here: Things to do in Grand Teton National Park.

We also had a wonderful road trip between Los Angeles and Denver. You can read that story here: An Unexpected Los Angeles to Denver Road Trip. 

And I’ve written a separate story about a trip to Great Sand Dunes National Park if you’d like to learn more.

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About - Midlife Globetrotter

Hey there,

I’m glad you’re here. Can we talk about midlife? I reached my late 40’s, realized my kids were growing up, and adventure began calling in a new way: big travel adventures as well as everyday ones. I want Midlife Globetrotter to be a place where we explore how to add a sense of fun, freedom and meaning to these precious years. Let’s celebrate how far we’ve come, and all that’s ahead.

Susan

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