If you love the mountains, a Colorado road trip through the Rockies should invariably be on top your list of places to visit while you are in North America. Home to the most famous mountains in America, the Rocky Mountains aka Rockies, the state boasts of numerous hiking trails, stunning lakes and adrenaline raising high altitude scenic drives in addition to the abundance of wildlife sighting and offers the best skiing destination in United States. The State of Colorado has plenty to offer and 3 days will do no justice to the numerous places that you can pack into a Colorado road trip itinerary. However given the fact is that the state is so large and that you may need at least 2 weeks to visit all the amazing places, here we have managed to create a 3 day Colorado road trip itinerary if you are running short of time and you only have a weekend to spend in the mountains and yet do not want to miss the best of it.
You can also head over to the last section of this blog if you want to read a little about the Canadian Rockies, another mountain system in North America that impressed us even more with its scenic drives that rand among the top 10 in the world. We have also drawn a comparison between the both that should help you decide which one to choose for the holidays.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Day 1 – Denver to Grand Lake via Trail Ridge Road
Highlights : Scenic drives, Mount Evans Scenic Byway, Trail Ridge Parkway
Arrive at Denver and begin your exploration of scenic Colorado with a drive through the Trail Ridge Parkway road connecting Estes Park on the east to the town of Grand Lake on the west. There are several lakes and parks and picnic grounds all along. Bear Lake is a popular destination on this route. With a maximum elevation of 12,183 feet, this is the highest continuous paved road in the country, is 48 miles long and is built along the ancient path followed by the Native Americans. The temperatures can vary significantly from the beginning of the drive with the increase in elevation and can drop to 30 degrees colder than the lower slopes. The highest elevation points can be quite windy and cold.
Traveler Tip : The pass is open to traffic from May until October. Depending on the weather conditions and snowfall, there may be road closures in early or late September. The park helpline numbers can provide the latest updates on road closures and situations.
There are several scenic overlooks and picnic spots along the length of this stretch of road and provides tremendous photographic opportunities. The alpine tundra along the winding roads is a part of the protected fragile ecosystem. Visitors are advised to remain on the marked trails to avoid damage because regrowth takes longer than normal amount of time.
Mount Evans Scenic Byway
If you are arriving Denver anytime between Memorial Day and Labor day weekend in a given year, weather conditions favoring, you should never miss the drive to the top of Mount Evans covering 5 climate zones and several winding roads leading to the summit at an elevation of 14264 ft above sea level. Mount Evans also makes it to the toppers chart among the 54 “fourteeners” of Colorado – peaks that soar over 14000 feet above sea level. The highest elevation points will have oxygen scarcity and can make it suffocating for some people. This can be minimized by avoiding exerting physical activities and allowing the body to acclimatize.
Towards the end of the day you can stop at the Grand Lake Resort for the days break. With stunning views of the lake, the property boasts of excellent facilities with a cozy bar, heated pool and restaurant with view of the mountains and the lake. The rooms though expensive are average and small. The place is worthy of staying if you have enough time to enjoy the surroundings or take a hike around the property. The rooms are fitted with heaters and fan is provided on demand. Rooms are not airconditioned and is almost never required because the temperatures dip in the night. There are numerous other lodging facilities available near the Grand Lake area and you can find suitable accommodations here.
Day 2 – Grand Lake to Aspen via Glenwood Spring
Highlights : High altitude drives, Hanging lake trail
We decided to use the second day in Colorado to drive from Grand Lake to Aspen via the scenic routes near Glenwood Canyon. This also provides an opportunity to experience one of the most well-kept treasures of Colorado – the Hanging Lake Hike. The lake is a well preserved travertine geological formation located in the heart of Glenwood Canyon in the White River National Forest. More details on the trail are provided below
During the drive from Grand Lake to Glenwood , google maps directed us through a dirt road track that worked out as wonderful off-roading experience. The road was winding and appeared to be the choice for bikers as well for the sheer thrill of it. Ensure you have sufficient fuel in the vehicle because there are limited gas stations and rest stops along this route except for towns that pop up occasionally.
Hanging Lake Trail in Colorado – Things to know
A trail with moderate difficulty, the Hanging Lake Trail is doable in about 3 hours. During the peak season months, there is shuttle service that ferries passengers to the welcome center and back. Advance booking will be needed during the holiday/vacation seasons and during weekends. There are fixed number of slots per day with buses departing with the passengers to the beginning of the trail at scheduled departure times. Rest rooms are available in the departure center and at the beginning of the trail.
You can make your reservations for the Hanging Lake Trail here – https://visitglenwood.com/hanginglake/
Here are a few facts to keep in mind for the hike to hanging lake
- The trail difficulty is moderate but you gain an elevation of about 1000ft in a 1 mile distance, which will qualify it as a steep hike. It may be difficult to walk the trail with toddlers and slightly dangerous because of the rocky bed.
- The hike is about 1.8 miles one way up to the lake with the initial 0.8 on a flat and paved road leading to the start of the trail from where the trail gets narrower and rocky.
- There are few rest points and stop areas and abundance of scenery and streams all along the path. Carry water, energy bars and snacks – there are no food/water options or restrooms available anywhere until you return to the trail base.
- Hike wear and hiking boots are a must. While the ascend is steep by stepping on rocks, the descend can be harder with the gravel from the rocks and the steep incline. Use knee support/hiking sticks if required. Wear long sleeves and dab on sunscreen generously to avoid sunburns from the high altitude.
- Pack light and smart. The trail is normally in the shade of the trees and gets cooler as you hike up the terrain. Carry rain gear if needed and watch for slippery surfaces depending on the weather conditions.
- The lake is most beautiful with its emerald glow with the bright Colorado sun overhead in a clear weather. There are fishes in the lake. Swimming and fishing is prohibited. No one is allowed to enter the water or walk on the logs in the lake or advance to the waterfalls forming the lake.
- Pets other than service animals are not allowed on trails.
Day 3 – Aspen to Colorado Springs
Highlights : Maroon Bells, White Forest River Park, Independence Pass
Maroon Bells – Information Tips and Advice for Visitors
A trip to the Rocky Mountain Nation Park of Colorado is never complete without paying a visit to this much talked about destination near Aspen – the Maroon Bells. Voted as one of the most photographed locations in North America, Maroon Bells should be a familiar picture for most visitors. The mountain peaks dotted by snow reflecting off the lake is a beautiful sight irrespective of the season. The park area encounters an average of 10 avalanches per year every winter which leads to park closing between late October or early November to May.
The road leading to Maroon Bells is closed for all motorized traffic between 8AM to 5PM. Private vehicles may be allowed to the park prior to 8AM and between 5PM and 7PM if and only if the parking lots closer to the lake have available parking. In most cases, these are already taken by overnight campers and photographers. The buses to Maroon Bells depart near Ritz Carlton and tickets can be purchased from the ticketing counter here. Buses depart at scheduled departure windows to the lake – this helps to control the crowd to the most famous destination in Colorado.
Traveler Tip : Peak season at Maroon Bells is during the Fall Colors when leaf peepers from across the country visit Colorado – plan your travel in advance to get to the parking lots near the shuttle area. Pets are allowed in the shuttles to Maroon Bells. The best way to avoid crowds at Maroon Bells is to visit during week days.
There are several trails and proper planning can allow the visitors to choose to spend the day in the woods hiking and camping. Overnight camping will require permits and reservations to be made upfront.
White Forest River and Independence Pass
The scenic drive from Maroon Bells to Colorado springs will take you through the beautiful roads through White Forest River Park and the Independence Pass. The roads along White Forest River park is scenic with the river and waterfalls running parallel to the narrow road. Trucks and trailers are not permitted on this road. Stop by the photo point at the highest elevation of Independence Pass and take a break before proceeding to the road downhill. The road is scenic during spring and fall with the valleys lighting up in greens and yellows. The Independence Pass reaches a maximum elevation of 12095 and should be any riders delight. These roads as others, are closed during the peak winter season.
Day 4 – Colorado Springs to Denver
Highlights : Pikes Peak, Garden Of Gods
Driving to the Pikes Peak Summit
No trip to Colorado is complete without driving up to the Pikes Peak. With adrenaline raising winding roads, that go all the way to the top of Pikes Peak at 14,115 ft above sea level is famously known as America’s Mountain. Be prepared to take in some of the most breathtaking scenery and jaw dropping inclines while you overtake the clouds and drive through the alpine wonderland to the top of the mountain peak from where the rest of the mainland appears to be a world away.
Depending on the traffic and availability of parking lots at the summit, visitors can choose to drive all the way to the top or take the shuttle service. Shuttle service is complimentary to the visitors. Pets except service animals and bicycles are not allowed on the shuttles.
- 16-Mile Lot: The shortest shuttle ride is from the 16-mile lot and will take approximately 15 minutes to drive up and 20 minutes to drive down.
- 13–Mile Lot: The 13-mile lot from Glen Cove will take approximately 25 minutes to go up and 35 minutes to come down by shuttle.
- 7-Mile lot: The 7-mile lot from Pikes Peak International Hill Club start line will take approximately 30 minutes to go up and 45 minutes to come down by shuttle. The 7-mile lot will be used in July.
At the time of writing this post in September 2019, the train service to the Pikes Peak summit is under renovation and construction and is expected to open up again for visitors in 2021.
Hours of operation and Charges for Pikes Peak
Like all other attractions in Colorado, Pikes peak is also subject to the weather conditions and is impacted by yearly closures after October from weather conditions. Please check the status and hours of operations before planning your trip. It takes roughly about 3 hours only to drive all the way up and return to the base. If there are picnic or hiking plans, additional time will have to be taken into account For charges and more details, please refer to the details provided in this website – https://coloradosprings.gov/pikes-peak-americas-mountain/page/pikes-peak-hours-and-rates?mlid=9056.
There are several other attractions in Colorado Springs if time permits. Colorado Springs was our last stop before returning to Denver and heading back home so we did not get a chance to visit any of these. We would recommend the following for anyone who may have additional time to spend in Denver.
- Cadet Chapel – Air Force Academy
- Glen Eyrie Castle
- Rock Ledge Ranch Historic Site
- Garden of the Gods
Things to Know While Planning Your Road Trip to Rocky Mountains Colorado
- The weather in Colorado can oscillate from hot summer temperatures in the day time to be replaced by surprise showers in the afternoons and settle into freezing cold night temperatures.
- Most of the roads and passes in Colorado are shut in the winter season between October and May. Some road closures extend to the months of June depending on the road conditions and severity of snow. Avalanches happen often towards the beginning of winter and enforces more road and park closures.
- Colorado also has some great wild life sighting opportunities with Elk being the most common sight. Speed limits are to be respected because you would soon realize that there would be packs of deer, elk and moose crossing the road often. There are wildlife rangers who may stop and control the traffic for wildlife crossing.
- Bear sightings are normal and while the bears in the Rocky Mountains are less aggressive, visitors need to take the necessary caution to watch out for them and stay out of trouble while on the trails and in campsites by abiding to the restrictions and following the right trash disposal guidelines.
What to Pack for Your Adventure to Rocky Mountains Colorado
You might find yourself wondering what to pack to the trip to the varying weather conditions in Colorado while planning your holiday. Here is what we believe must have you covered for all the essentials in the journey.
Summer and Fall in Colorado
- If you are travelling to Colorado during the summer to fall time, remember to pack windbreaker jackets and rain coats. It is always good to carry jackets with a hood to cover your head and ears to prevent the headaches that accompany the time spent in the outdoors during windy conditions at high altitudes.
- While the mountains have colder temperatures, the plains of Colorado Springs, Denver etc will still have warmer temperatures. Dressing in layers and choosing the number of layers depending on the weather condition is the optimal way to go for a light luggage packing.
- Despite the cold weather in the early and late hours of the day, the sun can be unforgiving during the mid-day. Do not forget your sunscreens and active fitness wear clothes that can provide maximum coverage. Carry hats or caps for trails and hikes. Wear reflective clothing while biking.
- A sturdy pair of shoes, preferably hiking boots that are water proof should be your best companion for all the different terrains you come across during your trip to Colorado. It is optimal to wear boots with ankle support to reduce the possibility of sprains and twists from the rocky terrains.
Winter and Spring in Colorado
- Most of the passes, loops and trails will be shut during the peak winter season from October to May when snowfall will be at its highest in Colorado’s higher elevation areas. That is when Colorado’s skiing resorts go into full throttle and attracts skiing visitors from far and near. Winters can be harsh in Colorado with temperatures close to 0 degree Fahrenheit. Dress in layers, with thermals if there are plans to stay outdoors for long.
- Woolen socks, gloves and thermals should provide some warmth with extra thick jackets.
- Spring in Colorado can still be cold with the ice and glaciers beginning to melt. Jackets and boots should help you spend your day outside without skidding on the melting ice. It is never too bad an idea to carry a pair of gloves for windy conditions and remember to have your ears covered.
Passes and Permits for visiting the Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado
- Choice of an ideal pass to visit the National Park can be made depending on the duration of stay and possibilities of returning to similar national parks in the same season. While a day pass to Rocky Mountains in Colorado would cost 20 USD, a seven day vehicle pass can be procured for 35USD for cars and at 25USD for motorcycles.
- An annual pass specific to Rockies in Colorado can be procured at 70 USD. The alternative and a better option to that would be to pay 80 USD and obtain an annual National Park Permit that would allow entry to all National Parks in the USA. Complete details on pass and details can be obtained here – https://www.nps.gov/planyourvisit/passes.htm
- For more information on the type of holiday that best suits your personal or family needs, refer to the official site of Colorado here – https://www.colorado.com/
Wildlife in Colorado
Colorado has some amazing wildlife thriving in the folds of its mountains and plains. While Elk and Moose sighting is very usual, you may also catch a glimpse of some mountain goats and the elusive wild horn sheep. The area is also home to several black and brown bears and they are generally not known to be harmful unless its spring and they are with their cubs. The trash bins all over the national park area are bear proof to deter them from approaching areas with human population in pursuit of food.
The higher altitudes of Rocky Mountains of Colorado is also home to one of its famous predators – the Mountain Lion. Sightings of this harmless looking member from the cougar family is very less, and in case you do, it is probably already too late. They normally prey on Elk and Deer and is seldom known to have human interactions. Make a lot of noise while hiking in areas known to have sightings and stay on trails.
Speed limits are to be respected because throughout our road trip we did come across deer, elk and wild horn sheep crossing on several occasions. Be mindful of waste disposal and storage of food items during camping to avoid attracting bears to the camp grounds.
Canadian Rockies Vs Rocky Mountains Colorado
While we definitely fell in love with the Rocky Mountain National Park with its high altitude mountain passes, we still favour the Canadian Rockies comprising of Banff, Jasper and Yoho National Parks as the winner if we have to compare one against the other.
You can find complete details of our experience of Canadian Rockies here
While Rocky Mountains has no comparison in terms of alitutude and adrenaline rushing high mountain passes and drives, Banff and Jasper National Parks wins it hands down in terms of scenic drives, emerald blue lakes and glacial melts.
In the category of wildlife, the Canadian Rockies would again emerge a winner due to the abundance of wildlife sighting during the drives through Banff and Jasper National Parks. Due to the abundance of grizzly bears, hikers and travelers need to exercise more caution while hiking in the Canadian Rockies.
Most of the scenic destinations in Canadian Rockies are easier to access compared to the ones that we saw in Colorado. A scenic drive through Icefield Parkway is guaranteed to fill your mind with what nature has blessed these beautiful mountain systems. The drive is shorter, less cluttered and more scenic as opposed to the mountains in Colorado. Canadian Rockies also boats of the best white water rafting experience in North America with its rafting experience over Kicking Horse Canyon river and Kananaskis.
In terms of expenses, Rocky Mountains offers a much more affordable and easier on the pocket getaway. It can also boast of being home to North America’s most famous skiing destination – Aspen.
However both these mountain systems have something distinct to offer and no adventure lovers travel list would be complete without having paid a visit to these two mountain systems of North America.