There are four National Parks in Colorado and with this road trip itinerary, you can get to know each of them. Colorado is a big state, though, so even just visiting these four parks will be about 20 hours on the road. Spread across 10 days, that’s really not bad.
Day 1: Arrive in Denver. Drive down to Alamosa, the nearest town to Great Sand Dunes National Park. If you’d like to see some of the Colorado Springs staples, you’ll be driving right by on your way and you could easily pop over to Garden of the Gods to stretch your legs. If you have time in the day, head into the park for an evening stroll in the dunes. Spend the night in an Alamosa hotel.
Day 2: Head back to Great Sand Dunes and try a longer hike up into the dunes. You can really go just about anywhere you want. If it’s a cool enough day, try walking barefoot on the dunes—much easier than in shoes or boots and it feels so free! Drive to Durango for evening (You’ll spend 3 nights in Durango so an AirBnB might be a good option.)
Day 3: Spend the day hiking near Durango (check out Ice Lake if you’re able to manage the distance and elevation) or book a rafting trip on the Animas River. Sometime during the day, pick up tickets for a tour in Mesa Verde. Spend the night in Durango. Get ice cream at Cream Bean Berry downtown (Kelly recommends an ice cream sandwich).
Day 4: Head to Mesa Verde for some hiking and purchase tour tickets if you missed them the day before. We took the Cliff Palace tour and really enjoyed it. If you have more time, you could try other tours or hit some trails through the wilderness. Return to Durango for the night.
Day 5: If you weren’t able to get tour tickets for Day 4, pop into Mesa Verde one more time for a morning tour. Head toward Black Canyon of the Gunnison. Drive along the South Rim for sunset, and hike the Oak Flat loop if you have time. Spend the night in a hotel in Gunnison (or an AirBnB for two nights).
Day 6: Explore Black Canyon of the Gunnison some more, maybe hitting up the North Rim. I’d love to hear what you think of the Vista Trail. Spend the night in Gunnison.
Day 7: Drive to Rocky Mountain National Park. Several iconic Colorado towns are on the route, not too far off, including Aspen and Crested Butte. During the summer, these areas are famous for wildflower displays. The two towns that have easiest access to RMNP are Grand Lake (on the western side) and Estes Park (on the eastern side). Estes is a bit more bustling, if you want access to more stores and restaurants. Grand Lake is on the quieter side of the park and if you’re scouting wildlife (i.e., moose), you’ll have better luck in the mornings and evenings on that side of the park.
Day 8: Spend the day hiking in RMNP. Try The Loch today. Spend the night in Estes Park or Grand Lake.
Day 9: Another day of hiking in Rocky. This time, try scouting out Odessa Lake from the trail that goes past Fern Lake or start at Bear Lake and head out to Dream and Emerald Lakes. Spend the night in Estes Park or Grand Lake.
Day 10: On your last day of adventure, take one last shorter hike in the morning in RMNP. The loop around Bierstadt Lake is quite nice, or you could hike up to Deer Mountain. You’re a short-ish drive to DIA to catch your flight home and by this time of the trip, your feet will probably be ready for some rest.