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
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.
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
Road Trip Highlights
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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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.