Colorado National Park Road Trip: Explore 4 Parks in One Week!

Great Sand Dunes National Park on the Colorado National Park Road Trip

Do you know about the other three fascinating National Parks in Colorado? Well, as huge fans of the famous Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, we are embarrassed to admit neither did we. So we set off on a Colorado National Park Road Trip to check out Great Sand Dunes National Park, Mesa Verde National Park and Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. Read on for this truly epic road trip! Caution: you’ll want to start planning your adventure exploring the unexpected.

Itinerary for Your Colorado National Park Road Trip

This road trip to all 4 Colorado National Parks could easily be completed in one vacation week, starting on Saturday and ending on Sunday. In the itinerary below, you’ll find the travel days are pretty laid back. You won’t find yourself exhausted at the end of the week.

We’ve also made a few notes recommending extra days if you have more time as this trip would be a lot of fun to expand to 2 weeks!

1 Week Itinerary for Colorado National Park Road Trip

Day 1: Leave Denver and Drive to Great Sand Dunes National Park
(have an extra day? Insert a day exploring Colorado Springs here)
Day 2: Full Day to Explore Great Sand Dunes National Park
Day 3: Drive to Mesa Verde, stopping along Highway 160. Consider a stop in Durango for a historic train ride.
Day 4: Full Day to Explore Mesa Verde National Park
Day 5: Drive to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, exploring along the way. Consider a stop in Telluride.
Day 6: Full Day to Explore Black Canyon of the Gunnison
Day 7: Drive to Rocky Mountain National Park
(have an extra day? Explore around Gunnison and stop at the Taylor Reservoir for world-class trout fishing.)
Day 8: Explore Rocky Mountain National Park
(have an extra day? You could easily spend 3 full days in Rocky Mountain National Park… it’s that big!)
Day 9: Explore RMNP in the morning and head back to Denver in the afternoon

Park # 1: Visiting Great Sand Dunes National Park

When I told Brad that Great Sand Dunes would be the first stop on our Colorado National Park Road Trip he literally rolled his eyes. “Really! Why?” And my very lame answer was that I wanted to check it off our National Park list. I promised we’d be in and out in a few hours.

Little did we know that this park would be a day of play and more fun than a roll of bubble wrap. We were giggling like little kids before the day was over. Today we enthusiastically recommend a day in Great Sand Dunes National Park to anyone planning to road trip through Colorado.

Getting to Great Sand Dunes National Park from Denver

Great Sand Dunes National Park is about 4 hours out of Denver (our starting point), so we figured we could make it a quick lunch stop. For our Colorado National Park Road Trip, from Denver to get to Great Sand Dunes National Park, there are two driving options.

  • Option 1 follows Interstate 25 through Colorado Springs. It’s a great choice if you have an extra day to spend in that fantastic city. (Love, love, love Colorado Springs!) But it can be a rather dull 4-hour interstate drive if you are not stopping along the way.
Scenic View on Highway 285 in Colorado on our National Park Road Trip
Can you believe this view! Highway 285 South of Denver is amazing.
  • Option Two – The scenic route across the top of the mountains along Highway 285. This route was beautiful as we traveled along the mountain ridges. If we were to choose again, I would pick this stunning route all over. However, let me add a few warnings: Per GPS, both ways are 4 hours long. Of course, that’s not necessarily true in real life. This route is mostly two lanes and heavy truck traffic. If there is an accident (as we encountered), you might have to sit awhile. As in any rural area, bathrooms are few and far between! 4 hours without a bathroom stop doesn’t work for this gal, so when we found a little roadside diner, we bought coffee to use the bathroom.

Things to Do in Great Sand Dunes National Park

See the tallest sand dunes in North America at Great Sand Dunes National Park, just north of Alamosa, Colorado. Here you’ll find some of the largest living sand dunes on Earth. Their height makes this place unique; 700 feet tall (almost two football fields!) and extremely steep (about 45 degrees).

If you’re into sandboarding, this is a great place to bring your board and enjoy the rolling waves of sand. The view from atop the dunes alone makes it worthy of a visit.

The best part of this park is you are encouraged to “mess up” the landscape! Usually, when you hike in a National Park, there is an overwhelming emphasis on leave no trace behind, right? Well, here, mother nature is going to clean up right after you. By that, I am referring to the number one activity on the sand dunes: sliding down the dune as if it were snow.

Heart stomped out on big sand dune with Brad and Ladona written in the center. Great Sand Dunes National park
It had rained, so we were able to stomp out our names. Within a couple of hours the wind will erase it!

And graffiti is welcome. Stomp out your name in the side of a dune for fun pictures. By morning the winds will have blown and smoothed away all your markings. Two hours quickly turned into a full day as we climbed up and down the dunes, leaving our mark in the sand.

Plan Your Itinerary for Great Sand Dunes National Park

There are many other fun things to do, and it was a shame we only planned 1/2 day here. If you can swing a couple of days, you will get a chance for a truly unique experience. Here’s what you should include in your road trip itinerary for your Great Sand Dunes National Park stop.

  • Climb to the top of the Sand Dunes, and slide down. You’ll find families enjoying the steep sand dunes with everything from cardboard boxes to those old-fashioned flying saucer sleds.
  • Hike the dunes, which cover over 30 square miles. There are no trails since the wind wipes the surface clean daily, so wander wherever you like.
  • Experience solitude in this dark sky park. The lack of ambient light at night makes stargazing opportunities here some of the best anywhere on Earth. The Milky Way is glorious most nights from mid-summer to early fall.
  • Raft the Medano Creek – A sure-fire way to work up an appetite after a day in the sand is to take a walk along Medano Creek. This stream is carved deep into the sand, creating beautiful scenery and great places to wade. Spring and early summer mean the water is flowing fast, perfect for light family rafting and tubing.
  • Hike forest trails – Yes, there are forested trails within the park where you can find excellent relief on a hot summer day. A popular hike is the Montville Nature Trail, a relic of an early settlement.
  • Drive Medano Pass Primitive Road – 4 Wheel Drive with a high lift is required for this adventure due to the soft sands and creek bed crossings. This road is a challenging 22-mile route linking the Great Sand Dunes with Colorado State Highway 69 and takes 3-4 hours to traverse. Note the road is closed in winter and often in spring for high water. However, if you are game for this trip, you will likely find bighorn sheep and wilderness few experiences.

Tips for your Great Sand Dunes Itinerary

👍 The sand surface temperature can be up to 150 degrees on a summer day, so plan your adventure early or later in the day to avoid the extreme summer heat. And of course, wear sunscreen. Please make sure you are prepared for hiking in hot weather.

👍 Rafting and sledding can be very inexpensive family activities. You’ll see a lot of dollar store blow-up rafts in the water. And for sledding, if you don’t have a smooth bottom sled, a shiny piece of cardboard will work.

👍 Great Sand Dunes is fairly pet friendly. Just make sure you are clear on where dogs are not allowed in the park.

Park #2: Mesa Verde National Park

I first went to Mesa Verde in fifth grade, and the recollection of those structures is still vivid. So I was eager to show Brad this marvel on our Colorado National Park Road Trip.

There is something very different and unique about Mesa Verde. Perhaps it’s because the structures are in such good shape that you can clearly imagine the ancient cliff dwellers living and working in them.

Ruins in Mesa Verde National Park, the 2nd stop on a colorado national Park road trip
Cliff Palace in Mesa Verde

Getting to Mesa Verde National Park

Having stayed too long at Great Sand Dunes, we scooted West on Highway 160 towards Mesa Verde National Park. To get to Mesa Verde National Park from Great Sand Dunes, it is a straight drive West on Highway 160.

The trip takes about 4 hours if you don’t stop. But you will want to stop at several of the pull-offs along the way to enjoy the amazing views.

This gorgeous route through the Rio Grande and the San Juan National Forests is worth dawdling to enjoy. In hindsight, had we known how much fun we’d have at Great Sand Dunes and how beautiful this drive would be, we would have camped along this route. There were many National Forest Campgrounds along Highway 160.

Instead, we had an exhausting push for 4 hours to our Mesa Verde campground. So little time… so much to see!

Things to Do In Mesa Verde National Park

Mesa Verde National Park is a popular national park in Colorado. It’s also one of the best-preserved cliff dwellings, with over 5,000 archaeological sites that date back to 1300 CE. There are several tours for visitors and many great hikes on trails through the pinyon pine forest around Mesa Verde Village.

Visiting Mesa Verde generally takes a full day. Make sure you start with a full tank of gas as it is a long drive to the homes of the ancient Pueblo People. The winding road along the mesa is about 20 miles of stunning view after stunning view. And that’s before you arrive at any of the cliff dwellings.

Plan Your Mesa Verde Itinerary

Here are some tips for making your trip to Mesa Verde National Park as memorable as possible:

  • Take a tour of Cliff Palace or Balcony House – these two structures offer amazing views! You can view the cliff dwellings for free from the overlooks, but I’d urge you to purchase a ticket to one of the ranger-guided tours and drop right into these homes. We toured Cliff Palace and were thrilled with the knowledge the ranger guides shared. And it’s beyond cool to walk through the rooms! These and 4 other house tours require the advance purchase of tickets. You can get tickets up to 14 days in advance at Note there is no internet or cell service in the park, so make sure you print hard copies or take a photo of your ticket.
  • Self-tour several Mesa Top Sites like Cedar Tree Tower and Sun Temple for a different view of cliff dwelling life. These ruins and others are found along the Chapin Mesa Loop.
  • Hiking – There are almost a dozen hikes under 3 miles that take you to other ruins and more amazing views. Consider hiking Petroglyph Point Trail to a petroglyph panel or a shorter walk to Farming Terrace Trail, where you can see how check dams were used in farming.

Tips for Visiting Mesa Verde

👍 There is no gas available in Mesa Verde National Park. Fill up before arriving at the park since you’ll be doing a lot of driving. Foodservice is limited in the park, so a cooler with beverages and snacks is a good idea. You can usually get lunch or dinner at one of the restaurants in the park, but on busy days the wait might belong.

👍 Pet access is very limited in Mesa Verde. No pets are allowed on most trails and in none of the ruins.

👍 Mesa Verde National Park is a very popular place, and it can get crowded during the summer months. Plan accordingly when making your trip here! We also recommend visiting the park on a weekday if possible; this will decrease your chances of running into large crowds!

👍 Download the Mesa Verde Tour from GuideAlong before you go. You’ll be driving a lot of lonely miles in this park with very little information about the sites you’ll be passing. GuideAlong’s Mesa Verde tour plays on your phone and covers over 100 points of interest with a very engaging narrative.

Don’t Let the Planning Overwhelm You!

Plan your perfect trip to Rocky Mountain National Park!

Check out our complete digital Guide to Rocky Mountain National Park. This is written specifically for the first time visitor to make your trip planning easy! Over 90 pages of things to do and see on your adventure. Plus get pro tips for planning your adventure.

Start planning immediately with Digital Download!

Park # 3: Visiting Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

If we were to give Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park a human persona, it would be that of a wrinkled and wise old woman. As you drive through the park, you just know that this old woman has millions of years worth of stories to tell.

The Black Canyon of the Gunnison is perhaps the most unique among National Parks in that it is not especially crowded, yet it offers a wealth of unexpected beauty.

Getting to Black Canyon of the Gunnison

Travel time between Mesa Verde and Black Canyon of the Gunnison is only a 4-hour drive North-East through the gorgeous San Juan National Forest. However, we extended this trip into a full-day excursion by adding a stop to explore Telluride. We enjoyed a gondola ride to the top of the ski slope and lunch on the mountain top at Tomboy Tavern.

Lunch at Tomboy Tavern in Telluride

After that, we hiked part of the trail to Bridal Veil Falls, a stunning waterfall with a drop of 365 feet. Then we strolled around Telluride’s historic downtown. It was a great way to spend a relaxing day.

Bridal Veil Falls - Telluride
There is a dog friendly hike to Bridal Veil Falls in Telluride

Much to my chagrin, Brad loves to follow a National Forest campground sign and see where it goes. After driving for 20 minutes down country roads, he was right again, and we found a great campsite near a small fishing lake. We slept under a bright full moon and the view of the mountains out our tent opening was unimaginable.

Camping in the Colorado National Forest
One of my favorite views!

The next morning we started to set up for breakfast when the winds suddenly changed. You could tell something nasty was about to happen! We broke camp in 5 minutes, throwing everything into the back of our car and left camp just as the storm broke loose. Whew!

We found a little country store where Brad was able to get some coffee. You know, one of those places that sell everything including the kitchen sink. Since we were there, he also grabbed a fishing license because, well, you never know when you’ll need one.

The store owner gave us directions to a cute little restaurant for breakfast and then we were off to Black Canyons of the Gunnison National Park.

Things to Do in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

Black Canyon of the Gunnison is a must-see spot for anyone on vacation in Colorado. It’s an impressive gorge with views like no other. The Gunnison River carved a deep, steep-walled gorge through Precambrian rock and formed the canyon’s floor.

With its spectacular drops and the striped Painted Wall cliff, the magnificent Black Canyon may be viewed from routes and trails along the north and south rims.

Looking into the Canyon at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
It’s so far down to the Gunnison River!

Plan your Black Canyon of the Gunnison Itinerary

  • Drive down East Portal Road to the Bottom of the Canyon – Here, you descend to the canyon floor and drive right up to the Gunnison River. It is incredible to stand at the bottom and look up at the towering canyon walls that this river has carved. It’s a very steep drive with a 16% grade, so I was glad we had our 4 wheel drive SUV when we drove back up. It’s rare to have access to the bottom of a deep canyon-like you find in this park. Don’t miss this drive! There’s a parking place for towed campers at the top to make it easier for RVers. We had planned to camp next to the river in the East Portal Campground, with 15 semi-primitive first come, first serve sites. But I backed out when there weren’t any other campers and bear signs were everywhere. Someday I might get over this bear phobia, but then again, maybe not!
  • Drive Scenic South Rim – On our trip, it felt like we had the place to ourselves because there were so few cars in the pull-offs. Most pull-offs had short hikes that led to amazing overlooks. This was definitely a photo kind of day! Plan for a couple of hours for the scenic drive. With the lack of crowds, this is the place to step back and admire the work of nature.
  • Watch for Wildlife – Perhaps because there are fewer crowds, or maybe the wild terrain created by the vertical walls, wildlife is abundant in this park. You are likely to see mule deer and cottontail rabbits in the brush. Mountain lions and bears also make their home here. The steep walls are home to bighorn sheep. We found a campsite for the night in South Rim Campground. Although, we had to pass on our first campsite choice because a deer was guarding it. Perhaps she had a baby nearby!
  • View amazing stars at night – Black Canyon of the Gunnison NP is definitely in the middle of “nowhere”. The nights are very black, which earned it a designation as an International Dark Sky Park. September brings the Black Canyon Astronomy Festival, where you can learn from astronomers.
  • Fish the Gold Medal Water & Wild Trout Water – Trout Fishing in the Gunnison River is famous. Of course, Brad had to try his hand before we left the park. You’ll find fishing lodges all along the river as you follow it East.
  • Hiking – You’ll find many short trails that are family-friendly along the scenic drives. Hiking to the river is more challenging so make sure you prepare with the right equipment and trail information.

Tips for visiting Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

👍 Since this isn’t a busy park, it’s not too hard to get a campsite. However, lodging is pretty limited nearby. Look East towards the town of Gunnison for lodging options, where you’ll find rentals and fishing cabins.

👍 As in many places on our Colorado National Parks Road Trip, cell service is pretty much nonexistent in Black Canyon of the Gunnison. If possible, pay your Entrance Fee online as the gates are staffed for limited hours. Don’t forget to print your receipt out.

Park #4 Rocky Mountain National Park

No Colorado National Park Road Trip would be complete without a stop in Rocky Mountain National Park. It’s one of our favorite parks, and we’ve spent many vacations exploring it. Wildlife is abundant and hiking is terrific here. Sadly, we didn’t make it to RMNP on this road trip through Colorado, but there is no reason why you shouldn’t.

Getting to Rocky Mountain National Park

From Black Canyon of the Gunnison to Rocky Mountain National Park, it’s about a 5 1/2 hour drive over the continental divide. Just to break it up a little for you, it’s 4 hours to Denver. And then from Denver to Rocky Mountain National Park, it’s only another 1 1/2 hours. Other than the traffic around Denver, this is an amazing drive. The scenery can’t be beat!

After we left Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, we stopped in the town of Gunnison just in time for lunch at the Ol’ Miner Steakhouse. There is an excellent selection of restaurants along the main drag; you’re sure to find something for any palate.

Also, along the main street of Gunnison, you will find a variety of hunting and fishing outfitters tucked in between little specialty shops.

After lunch, we headed North out of Gunnison and grabbed a great campsite in the Gunnison National Forest along Rt 742. Fishing along the Taylor River is infamous. In addition to fishing cabins, there are ½ dozen National Forest Service Campgrounds along the river. These were all large wooded campsites, suitable for both tents and RVs.

We found the perfect spot and Brad wandered off to fish for a bit. According to the camp hosts, bears had been sighted in the neighboring campground the night before. I made sure Brad took the fish cleanings to the farthest away dumpster before we went to bed!

Taylor Reservoir in Colorado Rocky Mountains
Imagine yourself relaxing by this lake! Brad caught a couple trout.

Not far up Rt 742, we landed at Taylor Reservoir. The marina offers coin-operated showers, which we immediately enjoyed! Then Brad spent several hours fishing while I enjoyed a book on the beach. It was the most relaxing day of the whole trip.

We continued to work our way towards Denver and crossed the Continental Divide at Cottonwood Pass. Our expectation was this would be “the road less traveled”. Yup, not really! The road was full of folks heading out from Denver for the coming weekend. We joked that every vehicle was a Subaru with either a bike or kayak or both on top!

Things to Do in Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park has something suitable for everyone of all ages and abilities to enjoy. The mountain views are astounding! You’ll find over 300 miles of hiking paths, wildflowers, animals, and starry nights.

Plan your Rocky Mountain National Park Itinerary

  • Drive Trail Ridge Road, the highway to the sky! This 48-mile long highway cuts through the heart of the Rockies. The views are amazing so don’t forget your camera!
  • Take a Hike – The most popular activity at the park is hiking. Enjoy trails that range from super easy like Lily Lake or Sprague Lake Nature Trails to all-day hikes. Our favorite is the hike to Sky Pond. Another popular hike is the trail to Ouzel Falls, which passes 3 different waterfalls. And the hike to Cub Lake is full of wildlife!
  • Check out the Wildlife – Mule deer and grazing Elk are abundant in the park and easy to see. With a little more effort, you can find Moose. Spring brings Big Horn Sheep down from the high elevations. Of course, there are dozens of other critters, including black bears and marmots.
Things To Do in Rocky Mountain National Park
Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park

For more ideas on things to do- check out our post on 9 Amazing Things to do in Rocky Mountain National Park! Or if you are visiting in autumn you’ll want to read 7 Reasons to Visit Rocky Mountain National Park in the Fall. To make it easy for you we created a One Day In RMNP Itinerary, check it out.

Tips for Visiting Rocky Mountain National Park

👍 This park is extremely busy, so a little planning is required. The National Park Service continues to test ways to control traffic, including requiring timed entry passes for certain months and places. Make sure you check their website before heading out, so you don’t find yourself at the gate unable to get in on that particular day.

👍 Planning also goes for finding the best lodging near RMNP park and the best campgrounds in the Rocky Mountain National Park. It’s hard to get a last-minute hotel or campsite pretty much any time of the year. Summer is super busy, but spring the snow melts brings out new babies and rushing waterfalls that attract visitors. Fall Colors Explode in the Park so autumn is incredibly popular. So get those reservations as soon as you have your dates.

👍 You’ll discover a lot of hidden details about RMNP if you download GuideAlong’s audio tour before you go. We love that it helps navigate through the park while sharing the history or explaining the nature as you pass points of interest.

Tips for Maximizing Your National Park Road Trip

Colorado offers 4 national parks that are full of natural beauty and rich history. If you’re going on a road trip through Colorado, here’s what you should do to ensure you have a great time at each park.

1) Get a map from the visitor center at each park – they’ll have maps available free of charge plus lots of information including hours, fees, things to do, and more.

2) Check out the National Park Service website for each park before you go. You can find information about the history of each park, what you’ll see on your visit, where to stay nearby, hours of operation, entrance fees, and activities available at each park.

3) Print out or pull up the map on your phone before you go. You can use quiet road time between parks to plan ahead. Having a map in hand will help get you around the park easier.

4) Stock up on food and drinks – many National Parks, including Great Sand Dunes and Black Canyon of the Gunnison, do not have stores or shops nearby, so make sure you come prepared with a cooler filled with snacks and beverages. Even Mesa Verde is pretty limited in access to food services most of the time.

5) Have a plan for your days – plan your days around the things that interest you most, split up some of the more popular attractions over two days if you have time, plus don’t be afraid to stop and enjoy the scenery, activities or wildlife on your way around the park.

6) Don’t be afraid to ask – the park rangers love to share their favorite parts of the park with visitors. Their passion for National Parks is why they became a ranger in the first place.

7) Treat yourself to a sunset – in between exploring the day and checking out the views, you’ll be exhausted. Go ahead and find the perfect spot for a picnic dinner and take in a sunset. It’s been scientifically proven: sunsets make people happy, so this is sure to make everyone in your family enjoy their time even more!

8) Bring your camera – National Parks are some of the most photogenic places in the world, and you know we love a good pic! If you want to capture the memories, make sure you have a camera or phone with long battery life because there’s a good chance you’ll be snapping away almost the entire time.

9) Plan for camping or lodging – it can be hard to get last-minute lodgings in many places so avoid the risk of not having a place to stay by making reservations ahead.

10) Start early or stay late. The park will be less crowded in the early morning and evening hours, plus you can take advantage of great views when it’s not quite so hot.

11) Entertain Your Crew while on the road. Check out our article on the Best Travel Games for Adults for dozens of ideas to keep busy during long drives. I also like to take along a Novel Set in the National Park we are visiting to fill quiet time. If you are bringing your dog along, we have Tips for Successful Road Trip with Your Dog too!

A road trip to the National Parks in Colorado is a great way to see some of this state’s most beautiful and iconic landscapes. If you plan ahead with these tips on how to maximize your experience at each park, it will be easier than ever before!  Don’t forget that sunsets make people happy–so go out for an amazing picnic dinner after exploring one of these parks and enjoy this natural beauty right by its side.

For more of our National Park Road Trip Adventures, complete with itineraries and things for you to do check out these posts:

Colorado National Park Road Trip - Everything you need to know to plan the perfect Colorado Road Trip #WalkingTheParks


  • Ladona Stork

    The Authors: Hey, we are Ladona and Brad, avid campers and hikers. We are crazy about getting outdoors at every possible moment and have decades of experience exploring nature. Our current goal is to visit all 63 US National Parks and just completed #42. WooHoo! Our mission is to help you plan your own adventures and create memories beyond your imagination!