When the spring snows melt and ski season comes to an end, it makes way for the beautiful warm summer and fall months in colorful Colorado. The open road winding through the towering Rocky Mountains awaits, as the perfect southwestern Colorado road trip beckons. As much as I love Boulder and the greater Denver area, the rest of Colorado is just too wonderful to overlook. The 230-mile San Juan Skyway loop is a prime route for your journey and will take you through some of the most striking landscapes in Colorado and beyond.
The best time to take your southwestern Colorado road trip? I recommend September, when the rich fall colors will brighten your drive but before the weather gets too cold. Alternatively, June is another ideal time with the fresh smell of early summer before it gets too hot and crowded.
We did the whole trip over the course of three nights, but if you have more time I would absolutely extend this trip so you’re not too rushed amidst the incredible mountainous landscapes along the way. We started from Boulder of course, but this route can also easily be taken with Denver as your starting point.
Stop in Buena Vista
Distance from Boulder: 2 hours, 35 minutes (134 miles)
Distance from Denver: 2 hours, 20 minutes (123 miles)
Buena Vista is a great stopping point to grab some food or simply just to pass through for the views. Nestled at the foot of the Continental Divide, Buena Vista literally means “good view” in Spanish. The Arkansas River lies alongside the town, so if whitewater rafting or fly-fishing piques your interest, this is the place to be.
Night 1: Ridgway
Distance from Buena Vista: 3 hours, 15 minutes (174 miles)
Ridgway is a good starting point for the first night as it’s just over a five-hour drive away from Boulder/Denver. I liked the feel of this small western town, right in the heart of Southwest Colorado. It is known as the “Gateway to the San Juans,” a beautiful mountain range in the Rocky Mountains.
If you haven’t signed up yet for Airbnb, use this link for a $40 credit toward your next stay of $75 or more. Then, book your Ridgway stay at Dick and M-E’s lovely mountain home. I’d suggest arriving when it’s light outside because the roads near their home are pitch dark at night.
I normally only use Airbnb for entire home rentals, but they rent out the entire top floor so you still generally have your own space. Plus, there is a large porch up there with breathtaking views of the San Juan Mountains and you may even get a glimpse of their pet llamas!
Stop in Ouray
Distance from Ridgway: 15 minutes (10.6 miles)
Referred to as the “Switzerland of America,” Ouray is a must-see town to stop at along your southwestern Colorado road trip. Although we didn’t fit this into our trip, the million-gallon Ouray Hot Springs are known as some of the best in the area and have been in operation since 1927. They are open all year round, and the admission price is a steal for $12 all day!
We did get to visit Box Canyon Falls, where Canyon Creek narrows into a 285-foot waterfall that plummets into a deep canyon. You can view the thousands of gallons of water rushing down the walls from above or below, with stunning mountain vistas making up the backdrop.
Start out at the Nature Center, where you can pick up a map outlining the different trails. All the trails make up about one mile, and I would allow for at least an hour to explore. Whatever you do, don’t try and navigate here with GPS. Follow these instructions at the bottom of the page and you will get there just fine. Daily admission is between $2.00 and $4.00 per person.
Distance from Ouray: 45 minutes (24 miles)
As you continue on out of Ouray, you will drive along a stretch of US 550 called the “Million Dollar Highway” that is known for its beautiful views along the twists and turns of the mountain road. Don’t get too distracted by the views though, the drive can be quite challenging if you’re not used to driving winding mountain roads!
Soon you’ll hit the town of Silverton, which was one of my favorite stops on this whole Colorado road trip. It’s a paradise for outdoor lovers, and has a colorful mining history.
Although the last major mining operation in the area shut down in 1991, Silverton still pays tribute to its mining past with tours like the Old Hundred Gold Mine Tour. For $18.95 per adult, you’ll go a third of a mile into the 13,000 foot Galena Mountain on a vintage electric powered mine train.
The temperature underground is always a cool and damp 48°F (8°C), so bring a light jacket or sweater along even if it’s the middle of summer. Reservations are not needed, but arrive early to purchase your tickets and allow at least an hour for your tour. You can even pan for gold and silver afterwards!
If you prefer to stay above ground, there are picturesque Colorado views everywhere you look. I didn’t have a chance to try it this time around, but Ice Lakes hike was recommended by a friend of mine. It’s known as one of the best hikes in Colorado, so I’d say it sounds like a good place to start your outdoor adventures.
Distance from Silverton: 15 minutes (5.8 miles)
This is one stop you won’t want to drive right past. Pull into the Molas Lake campgrounds and admire the stunning scenery. Spend the night and camp among the views if you have an extra night. Molas Lake was rated the “Most Scenic Campground in Colorado” by AAA!
Night 2: Durango
Distance from Molas Lake: 1 hour (44 miles)
The historic downtown is full of restaurants, microbreweries, art galleries, and more, yet I wasn’t all that crazy about Durango. However, I would like to go back to take the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, which has been chugging along since the 1880s.
I would recommend grabbing a beer and/or a bite to eat at Steamworks Brewing Company. They’ve been around since 1996, brewing beers unconventionally in their rare steam generated brewery. The food is delicious, and they offer enough beers to choose from that you’re sure to find something you like. If I can’t convince you, these fabulous TripAdvisor reviews may! Prepare to wait as it can often be very crowded, but munch away on their free peanuts in the meantime!
We stayed at the Super 8 Durango and before you immediately write this off, know that you would never guess you were in a motel at this place. It was recently remodeled, so while the lobby may be discouraging, once you get in the rooms you’ll completely forget you are in a Super 8 (I’d skip the free breakfast though). It was also in the perfect location to head straight over to Mesa Verde National Park the next morning.
Mesa Verde National Park
Distance from Durango: 40 minutes (36 miles)
Get an early start for this day of your southwestern Colorado road trip, as you’ll want as much time as possible to spend in Mesa Verde National Park, a World Heritage Site of hundreds of well-kept cliff dwellings. It’s $15 per car to enter the park, and you can start by heading to the Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center first to pick up a map and learn more about the different options for what there is to do and see in the park.
We opted for the self-guided tour this time, but there are also plenty of guided tours that I would love to try the next time I visit. I would recommend including the Mesa Top Loop Road, a 6-mile scenic drive that spans 600 years of Ancestral Puebloan architectural development.
The largest cliff dwelling in Mesa Verde National Park is Spruce Tree House, one of my favorite sites in the park. Unfortunately, it seems like there have been some safety concerns recently with rock falls and the site remains closed for the foreseeable future. Even though you can’t get up close to these cliff dwellings, you can still get a pretty good view from the overlooks near the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum.
So what’s the story with these ancient cliff dwellings? Spruce Tree House is just one of over 600 cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde National Park. They date as far back at AD 550 and and were inhabited until somewhere around the late 1200s. It is unknown why the people migrated away from this area, but ancient tree-rings show that there was a drought around that time and research also suggests that there had been some social and religious change and conflicts building up in the communities.
Think about how impressive it was to build these kinds of villages with the limited tools they had. Everything was nearly entirely built by physical labor. They didn’t have metal so they used whatever materials were available to them, using trees, plants, animals, and stone to create all kinds of tools for cutting, digging, grinding, hunting, and more. Considering all of this while looking at such intricate structures built into the cliffs was mind-boggling to say the least.
Night 3: Telluride
Distance from Mesa Verde National Park: 1 hour, 40 minutes (83 miles)
Enjoy the scenic views through Cortez and Dolores on your way to Telluride. Although it’s known more as a ski town, it’s still just as magnificent in the summer. Telluride is the one place I really wished we would have stayed an extra night.
We booked another place through Airbnb (remember to sign up here for a $30 credit toward your next stay) and stayed at this studio apartment, which was in the perfect location. It is just steps away from the free scenic gondola, a 13-minute ride that takes you up to Mountain Village. It is also right around the corner from Main Street, which is lined with plenty of shops, restaurants, and bars.
We ended up just exploring the town while we were there, but if you’re looking for more outdoor action check out one of their many mountain biking trails, visit Bear Creek Falls, or hike Lake Hope. Try going early or late to avoid the crowds.
For food in Telluride, I recommend a good hearty pizza from Brown Dog Pizza. I think the reviews speak for themselves, but you know it’s good because they even won first place at the 2015 Pizza World Championships in Parma, Italy.
Grand Mesa National Forest
Distance from Telluride (to the Grand Mesa Visitor Center): 2 hours, 40 minutes (115 miles)
Instead of driving back the way we came through Ridgway, we decided to head back up to I-70 by taking the scenic drive through Grand Mesa National Forest. This scenic and historic byway will take you through alpine forests, lakes, ponds, and meadows packed full with wildflowers.
Take at least an extra 30 minutes on a slight detour (12 miles off the main road) to Land’s End Observatory. Land’s End Road was built in the 1930s by 200 World War I veterans and used to be called Veterans’ Road. The road is all gravel, so it may take a bit longer than you might estimate to drive there — and you may have to stop for cow crossings along the way. At the end of the road, the observatory that still stands used to be the original visitor center, but is now boarded up.
Grand Mesa is the largest flattop mountain in the world, standing at over 10,000 feet above sea level. The views of the surrounding valley from Land’s End Observatory definitely do it justice. On a clear day, you can almost see all the way to Ridgway from there.
Distance from Grand Mesa Visitor Center: 2 hours (97 miles)
Since it was on our way, we made our final stop at the world renowned Hanging Lake in Glenwood Springs. This is a 2.4-mile out and back hike, but don’t underestimate it based on its distance — it’s a pretty steep and rocky hike to the top. If you’re not used to hiking or the higher altitude, I would allow at least 2 hours (maybe more if you’re really taking your time) for the round trip hike.
The view once you get to the top is your reward — and it will literally take your breath away.
As tempting as it may be, swimming in or even touching the water is prohibited to protect the sensitive environment of Hanging Lake. Dogs also aren’t allowed for the same reason.
This is one of the most popular hikes in Colorado, so you’ll want to go early both to avoid the crowds and the hot afternoons. There is limited parking and it fills up fast, so that’s even more reason to go early. If the sign on I-70 says the lot is full, you can still exit in case someone is about to leave. Your other option is to go back into Glenwood Springs and rent bikes (make sure you rent locks as well) to ride over to Hanging Lake.
Keep in mind that when you leave Hanging Lake, you can only exit onto I-70 going west, so you’ll have to take exit 121 to double-back and head back toward Denver.
Feel free to extend your trip by staying an extra night at any of these stops, or adding more cities to your itinerary. There is plenty to see on a colorful Colorado road trip, so if you have the time lengthening your journey is definitely recommended!
Where are your favorite Colorado road trip places to see? Let me know in the comments below!