A drive past a ghost town on the Colorado loop — Photo courtesy of Aimee Heckel
Note from 10Best: Check with individual businesses and attractions before going, because of sporadic closures due to COVID-19.
Experience Colorado from top to bottom with this full Colorado loop, a 10-day road trip that will take you from Northern Colorado through Southern Colorado and back up north. And since this trip is set up as a loop, you can start at any point in the loop and circle back around.
You’ll hit a ton of highlights, from college towns to ski towns, from hot springs to historical monuments. Prepare to be amazed by ancient cliff dwellings, alpine wine, culinary delights and the highest railway in America.
This Colorado loop spans Fort Collins, Vail, Beaver Creek, Grand Junction, Ouray, Durango, Mancos, the Mesa Verde National Park, Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, Antonito, Pagosa Springs, Colorado Springs and Boulder.
Note: This drive does include mountain driving and roads that may be difficult or closed during winter, so plan accordingly.
In total, this trip will cover a little more than 1,100 miles and include about 20 hours of driving. But don’t worry; we’ve broken it up into perfect, bite-sized chunks so you can wake up, drive in the morning and have the full day to enjoy each destination.
While this trip is set up to take 10 days, feel free to extend it to two weeks if you want a more relaxing pace. To stretch it out over two weeks, we’d recommend extra time in Durango, Boulder and/or Colorado Springs, or spend a night in Glenwood Springs, Palisade and/or Pagosa Springs along the way.
The terrace of the Ritz-Carlton, Bachelor Gulch, from above — Photo courtesy of Aimee Heckel
Day 1: Fort Collins to Beaver Creek
2 hours & 45 minutes, 170 miles on Interstate 25 and Interstate 70
Enter the loop in the most northern area of Colorado, Fort Collins, an upbeat college town and home to Colorado State University. Before you set out, grab a to-go lunch from Next Door American Eatery in downtown; the Korean BBQ pork belly wraps are a healthy, tasty choice.
The drive to Beaver Creek can be traffic-packed, especially during rush hour and on weekends (even more so during ski season), but at least it’s scenic. Interstate 70 cruises past many ski towns that make a fun stop along the way, including Vail.
But the best place to stop is just past Vail in the small and charming ski town of Beaver Creek. The best place to stay is the Ritz-Carlton, Bachelor Gulch, with its own private mountain (and ski area in winter).
Book a guided hike with a naturalist in warmer weather and learn about the wildlife, history and plants of the region. After a refreshing hike in the mountains, swim in the outdoor, heated pool and then unwind in one of Colorado’s top spas, which features an underground stone hot tub grotto with waterfalls.
Dine outside on the terrace at WYLD, where the views are as delicious as the fresh food.
A view of the grapes at the Two Rivers Winery in Grand Junction — Photo courtesy of Aimee Heckel
Day 2: Beaver Creek to Grand Junction
About 2 hours, 140 miles on Interstate 70
Depart from ski country and head to wine country. A unique variety of grapes can grow at this altitude, and as you keep driving, I-70 will drop you right in the heart of it: Palisade. Make sure you stop by Two Rivers Winery and Chateau in Grand Junction, where you can see the vines, learn how the wine is made and do a full wine tasting.
Grand Junction is worth an extra day’s stay if you have the time. It’s surrounded by rivers, canyons, mesas and mountains. It is home to the Colorado National Monument and the Dinosaur Journey Museum, a hit among kiddos.
Stay at the hip Hotel Maverick, with a rooftop restaurant and peaceful pool out front. Request a room with a queen-sized bunk bed (you read that right!). For dinner, you cannot top Bin 707. Owner, Josh Niernberg, is a James Beard-nominated chef and was also part of the prestigious Colorado Five.
A view of Ouray from above — Photo courtesy of Aimee Heckel
Day 3: Grand Junction to Ouray
About 2 hours, 100 miles on US 50 and US 550
Day three hits perfectly; after three days of driving, it’s time to soak in some of Colorado’s best hot springs. And today’s drive is only two hours of gorgeous views along US 50 and 550.
First, you must stop in the tiny town of Ridgway, home to an adult-only, nude hot springs (Orvis Hot Springs) and some of the best, innovative street tacos you’ll find in the state (Tacos Del Gnar). Many tacos at this casual eatery have an Asian twist.
Then head to Ouray, nicknamed the “Switzerland of America,” because this small town is surrounded by towering mountains on all sides. You can hike around the perimeter, choose from a wide variety of hot springs. Our favorite is the hidden gem, the Historic Wiesbaden Hot Springs Spa and Lodgings, which has a mysterious, underground hot springs steam cave.
Stay at the simple Box Canyon Lodge, not so much for the rooms (they’re basic), but for the access to a hillside of small, cedar hot springs tubs.
The Durango Hot Springs Resort and Spa — Photo courtesy of Aimee Heckel
Day 4: Ouray to Durango
1 hour & 45 minutes, 70 miles on US 550
The drive to Durango is less than two hours, if your mountain driving is sharp. This road can scare folks new to cliffside cruising, but if you can calm your jitters, the views are worth the fear sweats. This is the Million Dollar Highway, named for its priceless views through the San Juan National Forest.
For a journey back in time, make a quick stop in the mining town of Silverton, where colorful, Victorian buildings line the streets.
In Durango, continue that historical vibe when you stay at the impressive Strater Hotel, a living historical museum packed with antique furniture, photographs and Durango’s rich history.
In Durango, bike the Animas River Trail, take a stand-up paddleboard on Lake Nighthorse and visit the scenic Durango Hot Springs Resort and Spa, the only hot springs in the world that infuses its water with these special oxygen bubbles that keep the waters pristine with no chemicals.
Carver Brewing Company is our restaurant of choice in Durango, for both tasty local brew and a full menu of some of the most delicious, casual food in the region.
A kiva in Mesa Verde — Photo courtesy of Aimee Heckel
Off-loop bonus – Day 5: Durango to Mesa Verde National Park
1 hour, 45 miles on US 160
Durango is close enough to Mesa Verde National Park to make Durango home base for a day trip, if you’re having too much fun at the Strater Hotel. But if you want a new taste of small-town, southern Colorado, the tiny towns of Cortez and Mancos are even closer to the famous cliff dwellings.
The stunning, lakeside Willowtail Springs cabins in Mancos are without doubt the best place to stay near Mesa Verde, if you can score a room. There are only three cabins, plus a working studio for guest artists.
The must-see site in this area is Mesa Verde National Park, with about 5,000 different archeological sites and some of the best-preserved cliff dwellings in the nation.
Canyons of the Ancients in southern Colorado — Photo courtesy of Aimee Heckel
Off-loop bonus – Day 6: Durango to Canyons of the Ancients National Monument
1 hour, 63 miles via US 160 and Colorado 184
There’s so much to see in Mesa County that it’s worth staying an extra day. (Plus, you can probably use the bonus rest day after six days).
Your only driving today will be an hour to the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, a lesser-known but equally-as-impressive archeological site that tells the stories of the Native American people in this region. Book a private hike and tour with the Southwest Colorado Canyons Alliance, which will teach you everything you could ever wonder about southern Colorado.
Pack a lunch and bring plenty of water.
All aboard the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad — Photo courtesy of Aimee Heckel
Day 7: Durango to Antonito
3 hours & 15 minutes, 160 miles on US 160 and US 84
It’s time to hit the road again, and this time you will drive so deep into Colorado, you’ll actually cross the border and briefly touch New Mexico before swinging back up to the small town of Antonito. Along the way, you’ll pass Pagosa Springs (if you need more hot springs magic or want some stunning hiking) and you’ll see Chimney Rock, a unique rock formation that looks like a (you guessed it) chimney.
The site to see in Antonito is the historic Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad, the nation’s most complete example of a 19th-century narrow gauge railway. Book a ride on this steam train and you’ll cross back and forth from Colorado to New Mexico 11 different times.
A quirky place to stay while in Antonito is at the Indiana Jones Bed and Breakfast, the childhood home of Indiana Jones’s character in the movie, “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.” Yup, the movie was filmed in this wee little town.
Dinner at the Penrose Room overlooking the mountains — Photo courtesy of Aimee Heckel
Day 8: Antonito to Colorado Springs
3 hours, 200 miles on Interstate 25
Today’s drive is three hours, but it’s simple: a straight shot up I-25 until you hit the hoppin’ town of Colorado Springs. There’s so much to do here: the Cave of the Winds (underground, naturally occurring cave), the Garden of the Gods (massive red rock formations that jut up from the ground) and the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo (the country’s only mountainside zoo), to name just a few.
While here, you will want to stay at the Broadmoor, one of Colorado’s most impressive, luxurious resorts that’s sprawled around a private lake. A highlight here is the state’s most prestigious restaurant, the Penrose Room. Request a private cottage on the golf course for the ultimate splurge.
In 2021, the Broadmoor is scheduled to reopen The Broadmoor Manitou & Pikes Peak Railway, which underwent a $100 million renovation project. This railway, built in 1891, is the highest railway in America and the world’s highest cog train. Take a ride to the summit where “America the Beautiful” was inspired.
A view above Boulder — Photo courtesy of Aimee Heckel
Day 9: Colorado Springs to Boulder
2 hours, 100 miles on Interstate 25
Instead of taking the straight shot from the Springs back to Fort Collins, make a quick detour to hit Boulder before headed home. This artsy college town is more than worth it. Stroll down the Pearl Street Mall with a locally brewed coffee from Ozo and enjoy the talented street buskers.
Then, venture to the base of the Flatiron rock formations, where you can stay in a cabin at the Colorado Chautauqua, a National Historic Landmark and the country’s only still continuously running, year-round “Chautauqua.” (That’s an educational and social hangout made popular in the 19th century.)
Today, Boulder’s Chautauqua has immediate access to some of the city’s best trails and is home to an auditorium that attracts big-name musicians and speakers. Staying at the Colorado Chautauqua feels like a mini, turn-of-the-century bubble — inside the bubble that Boulder already feels like.
The most memorable place to eat in Boulder is at the Flagstaff House, a high-end, family-run restaurant perched 6,000 feet above Boulder on the side of the mountain.
Art at the Elizabeth Hotel — Photo courtesy of Aimee Heckel
Day 10: Boulder to Fort Collins
1 hour & 15 minutes, 65 miles on Interstate 25
The drive back to Fort Collins from Boulder is short: just an hour and a half at most back up the interstate. Along the way, you could stop by the cute town of Loveland, at the foot of the Big Thompson Canyon that leads to the Rocky Mountain National Park. Loveland is known for its impressive sculpture gardens.
If you end up in downtown Loveland, a meal at Door 222 is a lovely way to cap off the trip. You’ll find ever-changing, innovative cocktails and elevated cuisine in a sultry vibe.
If you’re staying the night in Fort Collins, book a room at the music-themed Elizabeth Hotel. Rooms come equipped with record players and access to a record library, and you can rent instruments to play in your room. Strumming yourself to sleep with a banjo? Only in FoCo.