Colorado Road Trip
Last summer we booked a short trip to Colorado. Only having a few days to spend there, we packed as much as we could into our 96 hour trip. When planning a trip like this, we spend a lot of time looking for local recommendations, mapping out routes, and researching activities.
When you are going to somewhere new, sometimes it’s hard to put all the puzzle pieces together. Sometimes your plan goes perfect, and sometimes you just have to go with the flow. Here is our itinerary from our Colorado Road Trip. We tried to maximize our time and mileage to cover the most ground in our short time. We tried to create a good mix of outdoor activities, historic tours, and scenic drives. We hope our experience will help you plan a great trip!
We like to take the very first available flight when going somewhere new, it helps maximize our time, especially on a short trip like this one. And as an added bonus, sometimes the very early flights are the cheapest. We left Tampa at about 5:00am, and landed in Denver around 11:00am, accounting for the time change. We hustled to pick up our bags, grab a rental car, and then the adventure began!
Paint Mines Interpretive Park
Our first stop was at the Paint Mines Interpretive Park, about an hour and a half from the Denver Airport. This is a Totally Free Activity, so no worries about admission fees. This geological park is made up of formations of hoodoos, colored clay and sandstone-capped spires. The multiple layers of clay get their colors from oxidized iron, and were used by the Indigenous Peoples of the area, to create paints.
The park consists of multiple trails, with over 4 miles to explore. But, if you have mobility issues, don’t let that stop you from visiting. The park offers multiple overlook lots, with absolutely amazing views just steps away from the parking lot.
We braved the rocky terrain and made our way down into the mines to get a closer view of the formations. These areas are very delicate and susceptible to erosion, so it is crucial to stay on the marked paths. Admittedly our trip was in July, so the heat quickly got the best of us, so pack yourself some water to stay hydrated.
Garden of the Gods
For our second stop of the day, we visited the Garden of the Gods. This is another free thing to do in Colorado, and it is arguably one of the most awe-inspiring. The Garden of the Gods is an hour east of the Paint Mines, and is located in Colorado Springs, so this is also where we booked our hotel for the evening.
The park offers a variety of activities, including hiking, horse back riding, and even a Segway tour. We opted for a classic visit by car, which was the perfect amount of low impact and low stress after our travel day. You can grab a map at the visitor center, or download one from the website. We were there in the early evening, just before sunset, and the light was perfect for some great photos.
A few of the areas not to miss are the High Point Overlook, the drive along Juniper Way Loop, and they would be hard to miss, But stop at the formations just off the Main Parking Lot. But this just scratches the surface of what you can see at the park. If you’ve got the time, there is much more the explore. The park is free due to a generous gift from land owners son in 1907. They stipulated that the Garden would always be free to enjoy, so everyone could appreciate it like he did.
There is no rest for the weary travelers, we’ve got places to go and people to see. We started this day in Colorado Springs, and ended back at Colorado Springs, making both of our main activities for the day very accessible from the city or surrounding area. We like to always start our day off with a local coffee shop, for today we selected Switchback Coffee Roasters. Their handcrafted lattes were the perfect start to our morning.
Helen Hunt Falls
Not named after the actress, but rather a famous author from the area, the Helen Hunt Falls is a great easy, very low strenuous hike. The Falls themselves can be seen from the parking lot, making that view accessible to anyone who visits. The drive on the way up through North Cheyenne Cañon Park is also quite enjoyable, especially for someone from the flattest state in the East.
If you are up for a little more uphill adventure, you can follow the path up and behind the waterfall. Only .3 miles, and you will reach the top of the mountain, where the waterfall originates. It may be a short walk, but it is steep. And be sure to bring enough water, because we did not. We’ve learned to over prepare since this trip.
Pikes Peak Cog Railway
The best tip we can give you for riding the Cog Railway is to plan your trip well in advance. We booked our tickets online for the day and time we wanted to take the train ride as soon as we had booked our plane tickets. By booking tickets that early, we had the whole train available to choose from. It is widely accepted that sitting on the side with 3 seats gives you a better view. And if at all possible, the front row is the absolute best view of all.
Along the ride the conductor shares the history of the railway and the surrounding area. And being in the front row, we were able to see the engineer in control of the train. After a brief 1 hour and 10 minute ride up to the summit, you are able to get off the train, stretch your legs, and experience the oxygen deprivation at 14,000 feet of elevation.
On our way down we were greeted by a hail storm, which is just a reminder of how quickly the weather can change at the top of the mountain. If you are brave enough, you can drive the Pikes Peek Highway to the summit instead. But, Instead of white-knuckling your way to the top, I’d rather sit back and enjoy a nice relaxing ride.
By day three, we were basically natives of Colorado. Don’t tell anyone from Colorado I said that. We checked out of our hotel in Colorado Springs, and headed down to Cañon City. On our way out of town we stopped at Wayfinder Coffee Co for our caffeine and breakfast. If you are ever in the area, stop by, and hope they still have the s’mores latte!
Royal Gorge Route Railroad
After browsing a few shops and stopping for a quick lunch in Canon City, we boarded the Royal Gorge for an afternoon ride like none other we’ve ever been on before. Originally seeing this train ride on TikTok, I had saved it on my bucket list and researched it extensively! It might have been one of the main reasons we finally made plans to get to Colorado.
The ride is about two hours long, taking you through canyons, and under the Royal Gorge suspension bridge. The tickets can be pricey, so you’ll want to keep that in mind when booking. We booked our seats in the Vista dome, and paid about $100 each. These seats offer overhead windows to give an incredible view. There are other seats available including coach if you are hoping to keep the cost down.
In the Vista Dome we had a dedicated server who helped us order some snacks and wine to enjoy during the ride. But we didn’t spend the whole time at the table, because one of the absolute best parts of this ride is the view from the open air car. There are at least 3 on the train, and they are open to everyone regardless of your seats. The views from the open air car were incredible. We stood out there for at least half of our trip. We also enjoyed the narrated history of the route played over the sound system. This was overall an unforgettable experience.
After our ride on the Royal Gorge Railway, we made our way up to Denver for the evening. We ordered a pizza to our hotel room, and relaxed, maybe for the first time this whole trip.
The next morning we set off to our next adventure, the famous National Park on everyone’s list, Rocky Mountain National Park. Keep in mind this is not a quick drive from Denver, so you’ll have to give yourself a couple of hours to get to your destination.
Rocky Mountain National Park
At the time we visited, Rocky Mountain National Park was on a timed entry permit reservations system. We were unable to snag reservations for the Bear Lake Rd section of the park, but I was able to get the 2nd option which includes everything else in the park. Luckily for us, the things we had planned on doing where still in our permitted section.
We are not avid, long range hikers, so most of the things on our list were accessible by car. If you are planning on spending hours hiking to see the amazing view, Enjoy, and send us some photos! But I don’t have any recommendations or tips or tricks for you.
We entered the park at Estes Park, making our way past the historic Stanley Hotel. And it wasn’t too long until we encountered our first wildlife. In Sheep Lake we saw a very large bull moose, just enjoying the beautiful summer day. The park volunteers told us they don’t see them very often, so we felt very fortunate to catch him.
Old Fall River Road
We set out on our scenic drive after a brief visit with the moose. From a distance, obviously. Old Fall River Road starts at Horseshoe park, and leads you one-way up an 11 mile road to the highest peak in the park, the Alpine Visitor Center.
This road is not for the faint of heart. Originally build in the 1920’s, there are no guard rails, and the road is narrow, with many switchbacks to navigate. The speed limit is only 15 mph, which is plenty fast for the road conditions, but this journey is mostly about the view along the way, and not the destination.
From the Alpine Visitor center, we took in the views of the Alpine Tundra, where there was still visible snow. Keep in mind we were there in July, so any other time of the year, you are almost certainly bound to see snow as well. On our way to the next hotel we had booked, we drove through the southwest area of the park, which was significantly affected by recent wild fires. It was a somber reminder of the fire season Colorado has to deal with every year.
The final day…
Just as I like to book our first leg of the trip as early as possible, I book our flights home as late as possible. That gets us almost like a bonus day to fit in one or two more things. On our last day in Colorado, we got in one more coffee shop, the Frothy Cup in a town called Idaho Springs. We learned while we were there Idaho Springs is where to gold rush began. There are a couple of gold mines near town that offer tours, but we didn’t get a chance to do that this time.
Mount Evans Scenic Byway
Mount Evans holds the distinction of being the highest paved road in North America. You can start from the exit off the highway and climb your way all the way to 14,000 without ever leaving your car. Mount Evans at the time of our visit was also on a reservation system.
We were fortunate that the weather cooperated for us, and we had bright sunny skies the whole way up the mountain. I don’t think my anxiety could have handled rain or fog. This is a two lane road, but only just barely. But once we were out of the tree line, the views were quite spectacular.
On our way up we encountered a small traffic jam, well a mountain goat jam if you will. It was so fascinating to see them in their environment, just existing on the mountain. We also saw a couple of marmots, which are like a cross between a squirrel and a chipmunk.
Once you’ve made it to Summit Lake, you are only about 1,000 feet from the summit. But Summit Lake is a must not miss stop. Just like the goats on the mountain, they roam freely through the lake area and even in the parking lot. The field is full of wildflowers, and the views of the snowy mountains are gorgeous. Once you reach the summit, all the stress of the drive will melt away as you enjoy the views. However, don’t forget you still have to make the long trip back down.
After our day at Mount Evans we drove right to the airport and boarded our plane home. Well it was delayed, but we got dinner in the airport, and then flew home. But it was fine by us to have a few extra minutes in Colorado.
I hope our journey to Colorado has helped and inspired you to plan your own trip! There are many more things on our list of places we want to see in Colorado and out West, so we will definitely be back someday. Let us know what your plans are, and when you get home, be sure to send us photos!
Links and Resources
The Broadmoor Manitou and Pikes Peak Cog Railway
Rocky Mountain National Park– Reservations