Colorado is a tourist hot spot, especially during the winter months when travelers from across the country flock to our mountain towns to hit the ski slopes. However, a summer trip to Colorado to bask in the mountain sunshine is what I would recommend. One week is not enough time to explore and take in all the beauty and excitement that this outdoorsy state has to offer, so I have done my best to compile an itinerary that I believe would help you maximize a Colorado vacation. The state does lack an efficient public transportation system outside of its metro areas, so you will need a rental car, preferably with four-wheel drive, to complete this 916-mile road trip.
Day 1: Arrive at Denver International Airport (DIA) Denver Metro
Denver is the bustling metropolitan state capital of Colorado with endless excitement and entertainment options. Home to the Denver Broncos, the Colorado Rockies, the Colorado Avalanche, and the Denver Nuggets, sports fans can always find an event to attend while visiting. If you are more of a music lover, check out the concert schedule a the Red Rock’s Amphitheater. Just outside of Denver in Morrison, CO, Red Rocks is a world-renowned open-air event venue carved into the Red Rocks State Park. You can take your rental car to the venue where there is usually plenty of parking or, for those 21 years of age and over, you can cut back on emissions and board an adult beverage and 420 friendly party bus that will drop you off at your concert and pick you up when it ends.
For the entire family, be sure to find out if your vacation will land during any of the 2019 Colorado Free Days. The Zoo, the botanic gardens, and various museums in the surrounding areas frequently allow the public to visit their facilities completely free of charge!
Denver is also home to Elitch Gardens and Lakeside Amusement Park, both of which can offer hours of fun for people of all ages, but especially teens and thrill seekers.
Day 2: Manitou Springs
Approximately 76 miles south of Denver on I25, you will come into Colorado Springs, CO. There is a lot to stop and see in Colorado Springs, including the Garden of the Gods and Cave of the Winds, but I recommend that you make your way just outside of town to Manitou Springs. This quaint destination is a must see for people of all ages. Finding parking in the area can be tough, but once you have a spot you can take the free shuttle anywhere in town. The free shuttle will even take you and your family to the base of the Incline Trail. This trail is no leisurely mountain hike. It is an intense fitness challenge with an elevation gain of just under 2000 feet. While this is a great way to wear out antsy teens, the steep climb is probably not safe for young children.
In the town’s center, children and all family members can soak up the nostalgia of the Manitou Springs Penny Arcade. Be sure to bring plenty of coins (pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters) so you can enjoy classic arcade games such as Pac Man, Ski Ball, Donkey Kong, etc., to your heart’s content. Manitou springs is also a great place to do some souvenir shopping. Their picturesque downtown shops offer a little something for everyone. Be sure to stop by one of their most popular shops, Christmas in Manitou, serving up the Christmas spirit any time of year.
Day 3: Alamosa
South on I25 and then west on highway 160, Alamosa, CO, rests in the heart of the San Luis Valley. Home to the Great Sand Dunes, Alamosa area has a lot to offer visitors.
Often, guests get so caught up in the majesty of the dunes sidled on the Mountain’s edge, that they miss out on other great tourist destinations in the area, including the Zapata Falls. The Zapata Falls is a hidden gem whose parking lot sits so near the Great Sand Dunes that many stop there to take in the views of the dunes. The falls are only a half a mile from the parking lot, but the short hike is still very adventurous and will keep the entire family entertained. When you are nearing the falls, you must wade through the icy water to enter a cave where the actual falls are housed. This is much less intimidating than it sounds. The rocks are slick, and you do have to be careful, but this is a hike that I have completed at every age level of my life, and I do not fancy myself a great outdoorsman. In other words, if I can handle it, most anyone can!
Also, in the area is the Colorado Gators Reptile Park. In areas where natural hot springs bring geothermic waters bubbling to the earth’s surface, many business men decide to open soaker pools and spas. In the 1970’s Erwin Young decided that he would purchase alligators instead. Locals are glad he made this decision as the gator park is now a thriving educational tourist destination where people of all ages can visit the “largest alligators in the west”. However, speaking of hot springs pools, a relaxing way to end you day of hiking and gator viewing is to take the whole family to the Sand Dunes Swimming Pool. This naturally heated pool is open until 10PM with swimming for people of all ages and an adults only section where cocktails are served while you soak.
Day 4: Antonito
A short 28 miles south of Alamosa, Antonito, CO, is home to the Cumbres and Toltec Railroad. This railroad offers full or half day trips through beautiful southern Colorado, all the way into New Mexico. Trips include meals and offer education on the railroad system that once ruled the west. A half day trip will leave you with enough time to visit other attractions in the area. A local favorite is Cano’s Castle. This structure really does stand as a testament to the statement that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. While erecting an entire building of beer cans and other trash may seem odd, it is certainly a feat of architecture that one must see to believe.
A final spot of interest in the area that I recommend you visit is The Lady of Guadalupe Parish Church, also known as Colorado’s Oldest Church. While adults may appreciate the history more than their younger counterparts, this beautiful parish gives all guests a look into Colorado’s history.
Day 5: Grand Junction
The stretch of road between Antonito, CO, and Grand Junction will be your longest. The 272-mile drive will take you a little under 5 hours to make. I recommend an early start on this day so that you can arrive in Grand Junction around 12PM for an afternoon on the water.
White water rafting is an experience that you will find across Colorado, but Grand Junction is a premiere location for this adrenaline pumping sport. It is a great, heart pounding adventure for teens and thrill seekers of all ages. If paddling through river rapids is not your idea of a good time, maybe a restful, scenic innertube float from Grand Junction to neighboring Fruita, CO, will be more your pace.
You can wrap your day on the river up with a nice stroll through the Down Town Grand Junction Creative District. Grand Junction is known for their vibrant art scene. Home to the Western Colorado Center for the Arts, Grand Junction boasts numerous local art studios and shops as well as the year round, outdoor sculpture exhibit, Art on the Corner.
Day 6: Steamboat Springs
As your Colorado vacation winds down, day 6 is a great opportunity for some rest and relaxation. Steamboat springs is 192 miles north east of Grand Junction and will take a little over 3 hours in your vehicle. Once you have arrived you can take in the views from the top of Mt. Werner. No, I am not sending you on another physically demanding hike. All you must do to enjoy these views, is kick your feet up as you and your entire family sway up the side of the mountain in your spacious gondola. Scenic Gondola Rides are an amazing way to enjoy the mountaintop sights, with none of the hassle. Sad news, though: Steamboat’s scenic gondola rides will be closed during the 2019 summer season for renovations, so next summer may be a better time to plan a trip in this area. They also offer Sunset Happy Hour gondola rides for those who want an up close and personal view of the skies turning pink and purple as the sun dips below the surrounding mountain peaks.
You can then further wind down from your Colorado road trip with a dip in the Strawberry Park Natural Hot Springs. Like the Sand Dunes Swimming Pool, these pools are naturally heated with geothermal waters; however, the pools at strawberry park are more rustic, having kept more of their natural features intact. Their facility includes three large pools, all naturally occurring with earth floors, but with each being a different temperature. The cooler pool and medium temperature pool are great for children to swim and horse around in while the hottest pool is better suited for adults to soak aches and stress away. If the sun is up, people of all ages are welcome in the pools, but be aware that as the sun sets the pools become clothing optional and most opt to leave with their children before the adults start shedding their swim ware in the fading light.
Day 7: Return to DIA for Flight Home
You will have a 156-mile drive from Steamboat Springs back to where you started at DIA. While the airport is not usually anyone’s favorite part of their vacation, I recommend that you take a free tour of the Denver International Airport if you are able to before your flight. DIA is shrouded in mystery and rumors and will offer family members of all ages one last educational experience before your board your plane.
We hope you’ll come back and see us again. This travel guide barely scratches the surface of what Colorful Colorado can offer as a vacation destination!
About the Author:
Sage Parsons is a Colorado native. Born and raised in the San Luis Valley, she has lived with her husband and their fur-children in the Denver Metro area since 2013. She works full time as Probation Officer and manages her blog Be Well, Lovely, on a part time basis. Developed from her experience in a helping profession, her blog is made up of stories, recipes, and tips to increase wellness in herself and her readers.
Sage! We are going to go to Colorado this summer, I hope! Thank you for the great suggestions!