A few years back we went on a grand tour of the National Parks in Colorado and Utah. It was actually our first big road trip out west and got us hooked. This trip is a surprisingly easy driving trip that breaks up long stretches and gets you to every park in Colorado plus the eastern Utah parks (Arches and Canyonlands). There are two main approaches people take to trips like this: dive deep and take a long time at each park or go broad and take a peek at everything you can. Either trip has upsides and downsides and you'll likely be happy with either choice. If it's your first visit to an area, you might want to see more places and then plan ahead to spend more time in the ones you found most fascinating. Whichever approach you take will determine how many days you need for this trip. We are presenting a bare bones trip that gets you to the most parks as possible. To take the 'dive deep' approach, simply add days at any destination you'd like! We'd recommend extra days in Estes Park, Moab, and Durango if possible.
Day 1: Arrive in Denver, Drive to Estes Park. (Driving time: 1.5 hours)
Day 2: Explore Rocky Mountain National Park
Day 3: Do a morning hike in RMNP. Drive to Gunnison, CO (Driving time: 5 hours)
Day 4: Explore Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. Try a short hike from the Visitor's Center. Head out to Moab (Driving time: 4 hours)
Day 5: Explore Arches National Park. Hike up to Delicate Arch. Hike Park Avenue.
Day 6: Explore Canyonlands National Park. Island in the Sky is the region of the park closest to Moab. The Needles is a bit further away and is more rugged but is awesome.
Day 7: Drive to Mesa Verde National Park (Driving time: 3 hours). See if there are any tickets left for guided tours (we highly recommend). If you are in a rush, take one of the self-guided tours. If not, pick up tour tickets for the following day and head on out to Durango (Driving time: 1.5 hours) or Alamosa (Driving time: 4 hours).
Day 8: Head out to Mesa Verde National Park. Explore the sand dunes as much as your heart desires.
Day 9: Return to Denver and your flight home (Driving time: 4 hours).
Total Driving Time: 21 hours and 11 minutes over ~1100 miles (according to Google Maps). That time does not include your driving time inside the parks or to/from the parks and your hotel. It's definitely a lot of driving! But the scenery is great throughout the whole trip so even the driving feels like a vacation. If you have kids who might nap, you could probably time things to drive during nap time and do more of your exploring in the morning/evenings.
Other Considerations: Rocky Mountain's trails will have snow into May. Lower elevations hikes will be open and it will still be beautiful. But expect not to be able to see everything if you go that early. Utah can be miserably hot in the summer (including May). We went at the end of June and spent several days in Moab when it was over 110 degrees. We made it work with early morning and late afternoon/dusk hiking. Think about where you are most excited to do traditional things and plan the timing of your trip accordingly.
We have suggested starting and ending in Denver because it is likely the cheapest airport for flights. But you might find flights to Colorado Springs or Grand Junction and both of those are perfectly on this route.
Where to Stay: We used Homeaway to book rentals in Moab and Durango. We'll highlight those in a later post because we really liked both places we stayed. It was easier to find a hotel in Alamosa and Gunnison. We stayed with family in Denver for the RMNP portion but there are plenty of hotels near Estes Park and Grand Lake. If you're staying long enough, a home rental is probably a good idea.
Pro Tips: Create your own route at Road Trippers. Consider booking a home for at least part of your stay to easily do laundry.