Rocky Mountain Road Trip: Travel Through Colorado’s Greatest Hits

Colorado’s most spectacular places make this one of America’s best drives. It’s almost impossible to…

Colorado’s most spectacular places make this one of America’s best drives.

It’s almost impossible to have a bad time traveling to Colorado. From iconic beauty and adventure destinations to oddball urban legends and the “Bermuda Triangle of the West,” there’s no shortage of options when it comes to visiting the Centennial State. But not all of Colorado is created equal. To get the most bang for your buck while exploring a variety of regions — each with its own unique landscape, vibe, and action — a good old-fashioned road trip is the only real way to experience it all.

I’ve lived in Colorado. I’ve visited literally dozens of times since, exploring the funky ski oases, eerie ghost towns and soaring peaks that make the state a natural wonder unto itself. The below trek — which begins in Denver and snakes southwest — is the absolute best Colorado road trip I’ve ever taken. And while simply driving from point A to point B will leave you awestruck, it’s best experienced with ample time built in to explore at a more leisurely pace.

This gobsmacking five-stop itinerary distills all of Colorado’s majesty into one unforgettable parade of sights and experiences. From scenic drives and fly fishing to hip new hotels and up-and-coming food scenes, you’ll cover a variety of regions with just a few hours travel time in between stops.

Buckle up, kids. This is the Colorado you’ve been dreaming of.

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Stop 1: Golden

Distance from Denver: 15 miles west, 30-minute drive
Start your journey in the up-and-coming town of Golden, the closest true mountain town to Denver. A scant 15 miles west of the capital city, Golden is currently seeing a buzzworthy influx of cool new breweries, eateries, and hotels. Survey the scene from the rooftop patio at the newly opened Golden Mill, a mini food hall with a 50-strong self-pour tap wall and a variety of eats including crave-inducing New Zealand-style ice cream mixed with fresh fruit.

A stroll along Golden’s Clear Creek is an easy introduction to downtown hiking trails that can be found just off the famous “Welcome to Golden” sign — a local landmark almost as famous as nearby Coors Brewery — with additional exploration via a quick drive to the top of nearby Lookout Mountain well worth the minimal extra effort. Golden is also mere minutes from the world-famous Red Rocks Amphitheatre, one of Earth’s greatest concert venues for 80 years and counting.

After taking in a concert at Red Rocks (any concert will do), head back to Golden and keep the mountain vibes alive from one of two gorgeous rooftop patios at The Eddy Taproom & Hotel, a spanking new 49-room boutique property perched on the site of the old Golden Fire Brick Company. It’s the perfect blend of hip amenities without anyone feeling overly cool about it. Kinda like Golden itself.

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Stop 2: Breckenridge

Distance from Golden: 70 miles west, 2.5-hour drive
After you’ve had your fill of Golden, cruise over the Continental Divide and get into some serious mountain action in Breckenridge. The ski-bum magnet boasts a booming summer activity scene along with what is fast becoming one of the best ski-town food scenes in the Centennial State (watch your diamond-bedazzled backs, Aspen and Telluride.) The Breckenridge Arts District — a funky assemblage of studios housed in historic downtown structures — should also be high (pun intended) on your hit list.

Get your bearings navigating the absurdly cute downtown with a riverside meander along the Blue River Recpath before hopping the free gondola to the base of Breckenridge Ski Resort’s Peak 8, where summer activities such as alpine slides and mountain coasters are giving ski season a run for its money. Later, take a scenic drive outside town along Boreas Pass, an aspen-lined high-elevation dirt road glistening with sun-soaked fall foliage amid towering mountain vistas.

Keep the views coming with a quick hike at Sapphire Point or a leisurely boating excursion on nearby Lake Dillon from Frisco Bay Marina, where you can kick back in a pontoon boat from early June to late September and gawk at life-affirming mountains-over-water views. Back in Breck, grab a burger on a floating barge at Ollie’s Pub & Grub or hit a glorious local dive like Gold Pan Saloon. Then dive head-first into Breck’s white-hot food scene at the more high-end Rootstalk, housed in 1800s Victorian digs and specializing in elevated new American classics from pork chops to handmade pastas. After, make haste for Breckenridge Distillery, the world’s highest distillery, which pairs world-class cuisine focused on flawless steak cuts like Kobe New York strip with a cool “Founder’s Experience” where you can build your own whisky blend.

The rustic Lodge at Breckenridge may not be the fanciest hotel in the world, but the view from your room might just be the finest in Colorado. Perched on a serene forested cliff at 10,200 feet within Arapaho National Forest, you could spend your entire vacation drinking wine on the patio while watching the sunset and no one would fault you. Don’t leave town without checking out the oddball nearby town of Alma, where unique character-filled spots like the Al-Mart General Store and Otto’s Food Cart make for an unforgettable experience. Not only is the drive awesome, but the fried chicken sandwich is beyond legit and Otto is quite the dude.

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Stop 3: Buena Vista

Distance from Breckenridge: 60 miles south, 1.5-hour drive
Next it’s time to hit the criminally underrated town of Buena Vista, home to some of the world’s best whitewater rafting along the Arkansas River (get that done with the help of the knowledgeable folks at River Runners). You’ll also be treated to perhaps the best scenic drive in Colorado along the Collegiate Peaks Scenic Byway from Buena Vista to the funky historic town of Salida. The drive takes just about 30 minutes and is lined with a nonstop assortment of some of the tallest peaks in Colorado hitting you in the face one after another.

Another great drive is Cottonwood Pass just outside of Buena Vista, packed with vibrant fall foliage and a number of lesser-trafficked hikes like the off-the-beaten-path Lost Lake Trail just before the summit. The historic Mount Princeton Hot Springs Resort, complete with a stunning new 100-degree mineral water infinity pool, is a fun spot to soak your weary bones after a long day of nature rambling before grabbing an expertly cooked steak on the outdoor patio at their peak-fronting Mary Murphy Steak House.

One of the coolest things about Buena Vista is the uber-hip new Surf Hotel, which houses both hotel and chic French chateau-style accommodations in addition to one of the best hotel restaurants in Colorado at their in-lobby, Wesley & Rose. After dinner, hang with locals at nearby brewery Eddyline or bring an alarmingly addictive “Patio Pounder” cocktail — made with Japanese whiskey and pineapple — from Wesley & Rose up to your room and polish it off listening to the gentle sounds of the rushing river from your balcony underneath a star-filled sky.

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Stop 4: Crested Butte

Distance from Buena Vista: 67 miles west, 1.5-hour drive
The almost unfathomably gorgeous town of Crested Butte is next on your hit list, filled with mind-boggling Switzerland-esque hiking trails and fun-loving mountain weirdos known to cruise down the town’s main drag in mobile concert stages (at least during the Crested Butte Museum’s annual Black & White Ball.) Woods Walk is an excellent introduction to the gobsmacking nature scene being unfurled here, complete with its own UFO-themed “Alien Shack” trekking shelter along the way.

Watch psychedelic-painted buses make their way down Elk Avenue as you embark on a local tasting tour of affable eateries popping up in pastel-colored historic Victorians. Essentials include the popular Secret Stash Pizza, as well as the utterly romantic and always inventive Sunflower Communal Kitchen — a top Colorado restaurant featuring a rotating menu of unique farm-to-table seasonal specials like grilled ono risotto with pesto and oyster mushrooms. The Last Steep is a good-time local dive, while McGill’s is an excellent home base to fuel up for the day’s adventure with a Denver “Scromlette” (scrambled omelette.)

One of the best adventures is a fly-fishing excursion along the Gunnison River with the help of Crested Butte Angler, who will help you expertly navigate one of the top fly-fishing destinations this side of Montana. An autumn drive along nearby Kebler Pass is also a must-visit for fans of mind-obliterating aspen-ensconced fall foliage, capped off by a round of evening cocktails inside the adorable cabin that is the Dogwood.

Local accommodations don’t get much better (or more centrally located) than the Lodge at Mountaineer Square, offering A-plus rooms perched at the base of Crested Butte Mountain Resort just steps from the ski lift. Might want to just camp out here ‘till winter.

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Stop 5: Colorado Springs

Distance from Crested Butte: 160 miles east, 3.5-hour drive
End the trip back on the Front Range in Colorado’s oft-misunderstood second city of Colorado Springs, which isn’t just for evangelicals and Air Force bases anymore. Grab some Korean street food at new food hall CO.A.T.I in the fast-growing New South End neighborhood before checking out a show at hip local concert the Black Sheep.

The increasingly cosmopolitan city is best paired with a stay at the stunning Cloud Camp resort. Perched 3,000 feet above the five-star Broadmoor Resort, it’s a high-end excursion that comes complete with its own (optional) mule ride to the summit along with nightly group dinners in a palatial grand lodge that looks like the kind of place the Illuminati might gather for supper. The cabins are posh, the vibe is chill, and views never disappoint.

Don’t leave town without a journey aboard the Broadmoor Manitou & Pikes Peak Cog Railway, the world’s highest cog railway (hint: it’s a type of railway typical in steep locations, but that’s not important) that recently reopened after three years of renovations. Touristy? Yes. Worth every penny? Also, yes. The free Garden of the Gods located near the delightfully weird town of Manitou Springs is another more touristy must-do, but when you see the views it’ll all make sense.

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Jay Gentile is an award-winning freelance journalist specializing in travel, food & drink, culture, events and entertainment stories. In addition to Thrillist, you can find his work in The Washington Post, The Guardian, CNN Travel, Chicago Tribune, Lonely Planet, VICE, Outside Magazine and more. Follow @thejaygentile