I had heard that Colorado was a gorgeous state full of natural scenery, but boy, did it exceed expectations.
There were majestic snow-capped mountains (even in September), sparse desert plains, vibrant red rocks, and dense green forest. This central US state had such a diverse range of landscapes, and it was all 100% gorgeous.
We started our road trip by renting a car in Denver, then making our way south to spend 5 days exploring the state of Colorado. Here are the highlights from our epic Colorado road trip!
Exploring Garden of the Gods
Garden of the Gods was a park that I had randomly stumbled across in a blog post on things to see in Colorado. It was a last minute addition to our road trip itinerary, but I am so glad that we ended up including it in our trip.
This natural landmark is situated in Colorado Springs, just over an hour south of Denver, and is completely free to enter. The park’s main feature is the jagged red sandstone rocks that shoot upwards from the ground and stand at about 300′ high.
Cars can be parked at various spots around the rock formations, then you can take a walk around to explore the crazy landscape. Rob and I both climbed all over the rocks as if it was a giant playground for adults. So much fun.
We ended up staying nearby in the foothills of the Rockies in a little lodge called Little Beaver Inn. I was slightly too exhausted to properly enjoy our stay, but it was situated in a gorgeous spot in the forest and had a hot tub and a fire pit!
Driving through The Rockies
Before our road trip, I had been told that driving through the Rockies was pretty awesome. Turns out, it was! This mountain range that cuts right through Colorado was damn spectacular.
There were many points of the drive through the Rockies that we loved, but here are 3 of my favourites:
- Driving into the mountains from Colorado Springs to Great Sand Dunes National Park (we chose to take the scenic route via Buena Vista rather than the freeway). The windy roads took us through forresty landscape and adorable little ski towns.
- Driving along the excessively long, straight roads through the desert plains around Alamosa. Even though the road got boring after a while, it was still a novelty to look as far as we could in either direction and see the road fade into the horizon.
- Driving through the Rio Grande State Forest between South Fork and Pagosa Springs. This part of the mountain range was so incredibly scenic.
Battling the wind at Great Sand Dunes NP
It was funny, really. While we were exploring the sand dunes, it was extremely uncomfortable. The wind was brutal, and it blew the fine grains of sand into our legs so hard that it felt like tiny knives were piercing our skin. We were originally going to walk up to the peak of the dunes, but we ended up turning back half way due to the harsh conditions.
When we climbed back into the safe space of our car and began driving away, wind-swept and covered in sand, we realised that despite the fact that we’d spent the last hour and a half complaining about how windy it was, we’d actually enjoyed exploring the dunes.
The national park was unique in that we didn’t have to follow a path or take a guided tour to see certain parts. We basically parked our car after exiting the visitor center, and then we were set free to walk in any direction we wanted. It felt great to have control of our own national park experience.
If you’ll be visiting this park, keep in mind that there’s no food available for purchase past the visitor center. We ended up eating at a restaurant at the Great Sand Dunes Oasis restaurant. From the outside, it just looked like a shitty lodge/gas station, but it ended up having fairly decent American foods like burgers and quesadillas.
Staying in wood cabin in the desert plains
After our day at Great Sand Dunes, we had booked a wood cabin near the small town of Alamosa – about 40 minutes drive from the national park. The wood cabin was situated literally in the middle of the desert plains, which stretched on forever in every direction.
I had been a little skeptical about booking this cabin on Airbnb as it seemed like a weird place to spend the night, but it ended up being my favourite accommodation from our time in Colorado. There were board games and books lining the shelves, and the WiFi was sketchy enough that we gladly turned off our phones for an off-grid evening of scrabble before climbing into bed under layers of thick blankets. So damn cosy.
Seeing the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde NP
Mesa Verde National Park has ancient cliff dwellings that were inhabited by Native Americans many hundreds of years ago. This place had been on my travel list for a while, so it was great to finally tick this one off.
There are a few ways to see the cliff dwellings. You can drive into the park and see the dwellings from various lookout points, or you can book tour tickets at the visitor center to actually walk through the dwellings and get up close. The tours only cost around $10 USD and are definitely worth doing if you have the time. I found it fascinating to learn about how these ancient communities lived and survived in such strange conditions.
If you’re planning a visit, keep in mind that this national park is HUGE and it takes about an hour to drive to the cliff dwellings from the visitor center, so make sure you factor that in to your trip. There’s also just a handful of places to eat inside the park, so it’s probably best to take in food and water for your visit.