Here's an unforgettable Colorado road trip guide, complete with a 7-day itinerary. This Colorado trip begins in Denver and makes it's way back, but you can start it from any of the other cities that are along the way.
We flew into Colorado (from Houston to Denver) and rented a car at the airport. You may say that flying in is not the same as a road trip, but I concur. The drive from Houston to Denver is a 15-hour, nonstop drive that is more than 1,000 miles in distance. That is JUST TO GET TO THE STARTING POINT. That means a hotel stay in North Texas, a lot of fueling up, and—having driven Houston to Colorado multiple times—spending the majority of the driving hours in nothing-to-see parts of Texas, I can tell you the cheap flight and inexpensive rental car we got was sooo worth it.
DAY 1: DENVER
Explore the city! Denver is quite walkable (especially compared to Houston!). We stayed at a hotel about 15 minutes out of downtown Denver (a 15-minute drive was worth saving $50-$60 in hotel cost per night.
- Grab a nontraditional hot dog at Biker Jim's. They serve interesting options like boar, pheasant, reindeer and rattlesnake dogs! You can also get beef or pork hot dogs and order them with hardcore toppings like cream cheese, caramelized apples or sriracha lime mayo.
- Walk the 16th Street Mall and check out the people and shops.
- Visit the Denver Mint to see the coin-making process in action and learn the history of U.S. money, or tour around Union Station!
- Eat a super tasty meal at Russell's Smokehouse, an underground BBQ joint with a hip speakeasy that serves up clever cocktails. Absolutely try the homemade ginger beer! I also highly recommend the pigs-in-a-blanket and the burnt ends! Also, Green Russell next door is a nifty speakeasy. If it's open, go!
DAY 2: HANGING LAKE & OURAY, CO
- Check out of the hotel and go eat at Jelly Cafe for breakfast! You'll be hiking, so fuel up for the trek to Spouting Rock waterfalls and Hanging Lake. Be sure to take water and something to snack on. The journey to these jaw-droppers is 2.4 miles total - nothing too crazy; expect your hike to take approximately two hours (plus whatever time you plan on staying to gaze in awe at nature).
- Leave Denver and drive west for nearly 2.5 hours to Glenwood Canyon (a short drive from Glenwood Springs) to hike to the profoundly gorgeous Spouting Rock waterfalls and ethereal Hanging Lake. You'll pass the Argo Gold Mine and Mill (opened in 1912!) in Idaho Springs.
- Hike up among the fir and cedar trees to Spouting Rock and Hanging Lake. Spouting Rock is a series of waterfalls springing out from the rocky terrain. You can actually walk behind the waterfalls! The splashing mist feels AMAZING after the trek up to this sweet sight! Hanging Lake is just 200 yards away from these waterfalls! The climb and descent are pretty rocky, but depending on your hiking experience and whether or not you're used to the elevation, it will take approximately 40 minutes to an hour and a half to reach these other-worldly beauties. For tips and more information about this hike go here, and be sure not to touch the water of the blue-green lake, introducing foreign organisms will throw off the super delicate ecosystem of the lake and ruin it!
- Once you get back to the car, weary and awestruck, you'll drive 3 hours to Ouray, Colorado. Ouray is called the Switzerland of America, and it is a quaint little town that is both welcoming and beautiful. You'll likely grab food on the drive down. We actually loved it so much that we went back and eloped there last Fall!)
- If you didn't eat on the drive down, you're probably famished! Eat at the Outlaw Steakhouse, an awesome old Western-style steakhouse (complete with its own pianist!). The music is really fun, the pianist plays everything from common Western themes to classics. Order an excellent filet mignon or try the drool-worthy ribs. The waitstaff service here is happy and friendly, much like the town itself. Want a fancier dinner option? Dine at BrickHouse 737; we ate here after exchanging our vows on the mountainside.
- Go soak the weariness out of your joints and bones in a natural hot spring!
Once you reach Ouray, check in to your hotel of choice. We stayed at the Hot Springs Inn-- the yellow Uncompahgre River that runs behind it is picture perfect! If you want to soak your tired muscles, the city's hot springs are open daily during 10am-10pm, and costs $12 for adults, $8 for children (ages 4-12), $10 seniors (62-74) and free for children under 4 or seniors over 74; there's a $2 towel rental.
We learned about the Wiesbaden Hotel while eating at the Outlaw Steakhouse. We planned our stop in Ouray around experiencing the sulphur-free hot springs, but they were closed for renovations during our visit. We were talking about this and our bubbly waitress explained that there are a couple other options, including the hot springs in super nearby Ridgway (which she bashfully told us were for nudists) and the hot spring and vapor cave at the Wiesbaden Hotel a couple streets over. We went after dinner, guests of the hotel can use the springs and cave to their heart's desire, and it's only $15 for 3 hours for nonguests (they provide you with ice water, robes, showers and towels). Go to the Wiesbaden-- experience the insane vapor cave and the mineral springs!
PRO TIP: At the Wiesbaden's hot spring they have an apple tree –if they are in-season– they don't mind if you pick one for yourself!
DAY 3: OURAY
Ouray is teeny tiny, but it is such a gem in the mountains! The views are spectacular and unforgettable.
- Go to the Box Canyon Falls! The Box Canyon Waterfall pours thousands of gallons of water over the falls each minute. This isn't a hike, it's a short walk and an insane view. The Box Canyon is open from 8am-8pm. The Falls only take 5-10 minutes or so to get to from the parking lot, via a walk along a path. Stay for an hour or so and enjoy the incredible landscape--It's more than worth the $4 entry! The Box Canyon Falls are a stunning site of force and power! It's easy to feel so small in when you're surrounded by and touching 2-billion-year-old rock that was forced up along the fault line. Seeing the water shoot out of the ancient rock is a sweet experience!
- Grab brunch at the Roast and Toast Café! The Happy Hippie sandwich is great.
- Stroll around the town's shops and pop into Mouse’s Chocolates and Coffee for a sweet treat to take on the road and try the cider. PRO TIP: Take one to-go and walk along the Uncompahgre River to take in some more of Colorado's beauty.
- If you've got an hour and a half to burn, don't miss the opportunity to drive the MILLION DOLLAR HIGHWAY (the 23ish-mile stretch of Hwy 550 from Ouray to Silverton; 45 minutes or so each way). It is gorgeous and we saw MOOSE. Some say they call it the Million Dollar Highway cause the view alone is worth that. You won't be disappointed, and you'll see remnants of old mining operations along the way! PRO TIP: Remember, don't ride your brakes on the downhill parts-- you don't burn them up. This driving tip goes for much of Colorado.
- Go to the Ouray Hot Springs or to the Wiesbaden, even if you soaked yesterday. Be sure to stay hydrated!
DAY 4: OURAY TO COLORADO SPRINGS
- On the way out of Ouray (12 miles along 550) is the Dennis Weaver Memorial Park in Ridgway. You are going to pass it regardless, so definitely stop by. It's a 60-acre wildlife preservation park that you can hike, bike or simply wander over to the impressive bald eagle statue from the parking area and relax while gathering a few prayer stones to stack amongst the varying heights of stones left by others. The sagebrush smells sooo good and you cannot beat being surrounded by mountainsides.
- Drive from Ridgway to Colorado Springs. It's a beautiful 5-hour drive that winds along the Gunnison River before snaking through the Gunnison National Forest and parts of the Pike and San Isabel National Forests.
- At a little more than 3 hours into the trip, grab a bite to eat in Salida (pronounced Suh-LY-da by the locals). Craft beer is abundant in Colorado, so grab a pint with some pizza at Amicas Pizza & Microbrew or Moonlight Pizza & Brewpub (No drinking and driving!).
- Once you reach Colorado Springs, head for the Cave of the Winds. According to the Colorado Springs Visitor Center, "The Jicarilla Apaches, who lived in the Pikes Peak region around 1000 AD, passed on legends of a cave where the Great Spirit of the Wind resided", this cave is speculated to be the very same cave! This cave has had guided tours since 1881. Take the Discovery Tour (a 45-minute tour) or the Lantern Tour (a 90-minute tour). Tours leave every 15-30 minutes (depending on the tour) and since they close at 9pm, the last tour leaves at 8:30pm.
- If you're feeling adventurous, but also claustrophobic, do the Wind Walker Challenge Course located at the entrance!
- After working up an appetite, go devour super tasty burgers and fries at Crave Real Burgers.
DAY 5: COLORADO SPRINGS & MANITOU
- Today will be a busy one! Start it with breakfast at Mountain Shadows, a local diner. They have giant (seriously half a cinderblock-sized) cinnamon rolls that 4-6 people could eat (and potentially still not finish!).
- Afterwards, drive over to Helen Hunt Falls for a beautiful walk in nature. The history of Helen Hunt and her love for this area adds to the whimsy of this place!
- Pan for gold and get some Colorado history in the Ghost Town Museum. We weren't sure what we were getting ourselves into with this museum, but were pleasantly surprised by how fun and entertaining it actually was. The super short film on Colorado's settlers' history is definitely worth the couple minutes (and is included free with admission). We panned for gold (found a real flake!) and loads of pyrite (fools gold). It was a blast! And the history overall was awesome; we left knowledgeable and happy.
- Explore the homes of Anasazi Native Americans at the Manitou Cliff Dwellings. You can actually go in and explore the dwellings, rather than just look at them! PRO TIP: The museum is super cool, it even has skulls and bones that allude to diseases and ailments these long passed individuals suffered or died from.
Day 6: Colorado Springs - Seven Falls
- Eat the specialty at King's Chef Diner, a silly looking, purple-painted castle that's an itty-bitty valentine diner-- their Breakfast Burrito with green chili salsa (I ordered the salsa on the side instead of on top)! Sooo insanely good, which is a huge compliment coming from a Texan who eats Tex-Mex breakfast tacos and burritos frequently. It's cheap and delicious, and the portions are huge!
- Hike Seven Falls! You'll be climbing the 224 steps to the top of the seven-point waterfall! Be on the lookout for black squirrels and plenty of trout. The Mountain Elevator is super awesome, as is the history on the walls along the way to it. PRO TIP: You'll get the best view of all seven falls from the view at the top of the elevator ride!
- You can grab lunch or dinner afterwards at Restaurant 1858 that you'll pass on the walk to the Falls. We ended the night underdressed from hiking with a fancy dinner at Marigold's Cafe and Bakery. Their dessert options should not be passed over.
DAY 7: PIKES PEAK & GARDEN OF THE GODS
- You'll go to the top of a mountain today! Ride the Pikes Peak cog rail train up 14,115 feet to the summit of Pikes Peak! There is so much history and height in one place. The cog rail is worth every penny! The train's staff know where to point out places, animals and historical tidbits that you can't get while driving up yourself (plus, the driver never gets to see anything if you go by car since they are trying not to drive off the side of a mountain). PRO TIP: It's chilly at the summit, so take a coat and breathe deeply, because the oxygen is wayyy thinner up there! The fried donuts at the summit were overhyped and overrated in our opinions, but maybe you'll love them.
- Visit the Garden of the Gods, a free National Natural Landmark park with impressive sandstone formations towering above the land. Explore the park and seek out the various rock forms named for what the resemble. Scroll through the carousel below, you'll find the Balancing Rock, Kissing Camels's shadow and more!
- Afterwards head back to Denver! It is a little more than an hour north of Colorado Springs.
Whether or not you follow this Colorado trip guide city for city or make your own, have fun, make memories and enjoy all the beautiful nature this state offers! What's your favorite Colorado city, park or place?