Planning a Colorado Road Trip

Wander With Wonder – Discovering Wow Moments Around the World or Across the Street

Fly into Denver and plan a Colorado road trip from the Front Range into the Rocky Mountains for some of the country’s most breathtaking scenery. Read on for where to stop during your Colorado road trip. 

Growing up in Colorado was a blessing. My parents exposed us to hunting, fishing, and camping throughout the state. Although I moved away in 2008, Colorado has always been near and dear to me.

Denver’s 16th Street Mall near sunset in March. Photo by Kurt Jacobson

My wife loves Colorado, too, and didn’t get to visit in 2022. I planned a trip to see some of our favorite places to make amends. The Fourth of July week seemed a good time to undertake this ambitious trip.

We flew into Denver on June 29th, picked up our rental car, and drove through crazy-thick Peña Boulevard traffic. The impending Fourth of July week attracted thousands to the Rocky Mountain state.

A view of Denver from Red Rocks. Photo by Kurt Jacobson

First Stop on the Colorado Road Trip: The Foothills

On the drive to my sister’s home in southwest Denver, we marveled at how green the Front Range was due to unusually generous rainfall. The foothills, typically brown by July, were green and alive. My sister told us, “It’s rained almost every day in June, and sometimes it hails too.” Sure enough, just after we arrived at her home, the rains came, and so did a bit of hail. We scrambled to help her bring in her potted flowers to escape hail damage during the brief weather event.

The skies cleared after a brief rain and hail storm, and we saw the moonrise over Littleton. Photo by Kurt Jacobson

That night at dinner, we set in motion the plans. We’d hike Waterton Canyon the following day and have lunch in Evergreen by the lake. Then I’d meet my mentee Brandan for a hike along the Highline Canal. On day three, we’d head to Pagosa Springs to visit friends for a three-day stay, then head back by way of Aspen for a night in one of Colorado’s best historic mountain towns.

A Morning Hike in the Colorado Foothills

Coming from the East Coast time zone made it easy to get up early and hit the Waterton Canyon trail by 7:15. It was a bluebird day with clear skies and comfortable temperatures. Parking can be difficult at Waterton Canyon’s trailhead, but at that hour, parking was a breeze.

Early morning joggers and bikers joined us on our hike of Waterton Canyon. Photo by Kurt Jacobson

We hit the trail and felt energized by the clean air scented with pine and sagebrush. Birds were singing and bees were buzzing as we set a quick pace. Besides a few service vehicles, cars are not allowed on the road. Plenty of hikers, mountain bikers, and joggers shared the trail with us that Saturday morning.

We hiked to the 2-mile marker and turned around. An hour and 30 minutes would have to do as there was much more to accomplish that day. At least we reached the Black Bear picnic area, where restrooms and covered picnic tables are popular.

A Fantastic Picnic Spot

Back at my sister’s house, we regrouped. I packed our lunch and then headed to Evergreen. We took Highway 285 to Highway 120 through Indian Hills, down to Kittredge, and up to Evergreen. Highway 74 from Kittredge to Evergreen follows Bear Creek and has some of the tallest blue spruce trees in the state. I was humming the Dirt Band’s song Rippling Waters most of the way, feeling great to be home.

The road around Evergreen Lake was under construction, and we had to detour through Hiwan Hills to the Evergreen Parkway. We hadn’t set a place for our picnic, but the detour putting us near Dedisee Mountain Park determined our lunch spot.

Dedisee Mountain Park is a great place for a quiet picnic. Photo by Kurt Jacobson

I used to take my dog for regular hikes at Dedisee when we lived nearby. This uncrowded park owned by the city and county of Denver has good access to Evergreen Lake. The park also has about a mile of peaceful hiking trails through fragrant Ponderosa pines and super cool rock outcroppings.

A walk around Evergreen Lake is an unforgettable Rocky Mountain experience. Photo by Kurt Jacobson

Our favorite picnic spot was devoid of humans, which was amazing on the Fourth of July weekend! We had a wonderful lunch listening to the wind in the pines. After lunch, we climbed the nearby rock outcropping and marveled at the pine trees growing out of the rocks.

This rock formation is fun to climb on and is one of my favorite spots in Evergreen. Photo by Kurt Jacobson

The Long Drive on Our Colorado Road Trip

We started the 6- to 7-hour drive to Pagosa Springs on Sunday morning. I’ve ridden Highway 285 with my dad on his way to a part-time gig in Monte Vista in the 1960s and many times solo since. It’s one of Colorado’s best scenic byways, giving drivers spectacular views of aspen groves on Kenosha Pass, towering Collegiate Range peaks approaching Buena Vista, Poncha Pass aspens, and the sagebrush flats of the San Luis Valley.

We diverted our course slightly in Saguache because I was curious to see any changes in this tiny town. It had been almost 14 years since I’d been there. We used to stop on our way to Pagosa for a picnic lunch or restroom break, but there was only one highway café for restaurants back then.

The Fourth Street Diner in Saguache was a perfect rest stop on our long drive. Photo by Kurt Jacobson

I was surprised to see a new restaurant, the Fourth Street Diner and Bakery, open in an old building downtown. We stopped in and had a piece of just about the best pie I’ve ever had! The two ladies running the shop had lived in Leadville for decades before moving to Saguache. I talked with Esther, the owner. She was originally from Saguache and came home to open her restaurant. It’s rare to find a mountain town that looks the same as it did in the 1960s, but the hordes of Colorado tourists have bypassed Saguache.

Other San Luis Valley towns of note were Del Norte and South Fork. Both looked spruced up since my last visit in 2008. Del Norte has a new riverside park, new restaurants, and a brewery I want to explore next time I’m in town.

A Famous Pass and Town

We were making good time, but I had to make two stops on Wolf Creek Pass. The Wolf Creek ski area looked good, with some patches of snow remaining, thanks to a good winter season. The other side of the pass has a scenic overlook, one of Colorado’s most jaw-dropping views.

Wolf Creek Ski Area is known for deep snow. Photo by Kurt Jacobson

A tiny parking lot fits about a dozen cars for the curious to see a long view of the upper San Miguel River Valley; the steep drop-off is breathtaking.

The scenic overlook on the Pagosa Springs side of Wolf Creek Pass is jaw-dropping. Photo by Kurt Jacobson

Pagosa Springs is famous for its natural hot springs and has been covered on Wander With Wonder. What I love about the town is the authentic Western feel, as seen in Goodman’s Department Store, in business since 1900 and still run by the same family.

Goodman’s Department was established in 1899 and is still popular for Western wear and more. Photo by Kurt Jacobson

The Rainbow Gift Shop is a rock shop on the west side of town. It’s also an example of the Old West feel in Pagosa. Find an extensive collection of rocks, gems, turquoise jewelry, and more in this fabulous store.

The Rainbow Gift Shop is excellent for rocks, minerals, and native jewelry. Photo by Kurt Jacobson

We spent three days hiking near our friend’s home in Pagosa Lakes, viewing the Fourth of July parade, walking downtown Pagosa, and doing a bit of shopping at businesses like FABA, an artist’s gallery born during COVID when traveling artists needed a shop of their own.

We saw these hot air balloons during our morning hike near Pagosa Springs. Photo by Kurt Jacobson

Our Colorado Road Trip Continues to Aspen

We left Pagosa Springs and headed to Independence Pass. On the east side of the pass, we stopped at the Twin Lakes General Store, which has been in business since 1879. This store is another remnant of the Old West and used to cater to miners, ranchers, and travelers. They have a good assortment of food, wine, beer, fishing supplies, clothing, etc.

Don’t miss a stop at the Twin Lakes General Store. Photo by Kurt Jacobson

At the top of Independence Pass, we got out for a short hike. It was chilly, but that didn’t stop us or others from taking a hike and getting photos by the sign signifying the summit and elevation of 12,095 feet.

A short hike on top of Independence Pass at 12,095 feet, will take your breath away. Photo by Kurt Jacobson

Exploring Aspen

My wife and I love Aspen. One of the most expensive towns in the US is affordable to visit if you know where to stay and eat. We booked a room at the Inn at Aspen, located at the base of Buttermilk Ski Area. Their free hotel bus runs often between the hotel and the town, and their bus drivers offer good intel on the town and area.

The Inn at Aspen is in a great location, and the rooms are a good value. Photo by Kurt Jacobson

We arrived in downtown Aspen just before noon. We had a fabulous lunch at Las Montanas, a Mexican restaurant, and enjoyed the views of the Smuggler Mine and mountains. A walk around town was worthwhile to see what was new.

Our Argentinian waiter at Las Montanas was delightful. Photo by Kurt Jacobson

The lovely lady at the visitor’s information stand on the pedestrian mall told us, “It’s getting so expensive for shop space that my friend had received notice of the rent being tripled and closed her shop.” Gone was the historic Red Onion, but we were happy that Cache Cache was still open and had dinner there. I met Jody, the owner since 1989, who told me the chef has been with the restaurant for 23 years.

The French onion soup and crispy trout Milanese at Cache Cache were splendid. Photo by Kurt Jacobson

Take advantage of the free John Denver Sanctuary in the summer or fall. The sound of the flowing stream, the bright flowers, the quaking aspen trees, and the rocks bearing inscriptions of John’s songs are priceless. A smiling woman approached me and asked if I’d ever been here, then told me, “I’m a seventh-generation Coloradan from Fort Collins and here for the first time. This place is incredible.” I agree wholeheartedly!

Carbondale is the Next Stop on Our Colorado Road Trip

We headed to Littleton on Thursday and stopped in Carbondale for breakfast. Our favorite Red Rock Diner had closed. The building was the same but had reopened as the Honey Butter Diner.

Since my last visit to Carbondale, Colorado, the former Red Rock Diner got a new name and owner. Photo by Kurt Jacobson

The biscuits were good and came with delicious honey butter. My wife had scrambled eggs, hash browns, avocado, and a biscuit for a filling meal.

A delicious and filling breakfast at Honey Butter Diner. Photo by Kurt Jacobson

With breakfast covered, we headed to Frisco, where I lived off and on for 16 years. Our drive through the spectacular Glenwood Canyon was a trip down memory lane. The stunning red rock cliffs soar almost to space; such is their climb to grandeur. The Colorado River was running high thanks to ample snowfall the previous winter, and the rafters we saw seemed to love the ride.

Glenwood Canyon provides a thrilling scenic drive on I-70. Photo by Kurt Jacobson

As we neared Vail, signs stating the highway was closed had us make a U-turn, and we rerouted toward Leadville over Tennessee Pass. At Redcliff, I pulled over to photograph the iconic Red Cliff Bridge. This cantilevered steel arch bridge design grabs your attention the way it spans the Eagle River.

This bridge over the Eagle River in Red Cliff is worth pulling over to get a good look. Photo by Kurt Jacobson

Another stop by the historical marker for the Tenth Mountain Division for a photo was a must. Our route bypassed Leadville and then headed down Fremont Pass toward Copper Mountain Ski Area. We pulled over to photograph a pretty mountain creek and snowy mountains.

Fremont Pass has a few pullovers where you can stretch your legs and breathe in the clean air. Photo by Kurt Jacobson

Visiting an Old Friend

The Moose Jaw has been in business since 1973 with Lynda Colety, the last of four partners who started the restaurant, still working there. I loved seeing the old dive bar/burger joint still thriving. The town of Frisco has changed much since 1978, when I started hanging out there. We used to say back in 1982, “The town went to hell when they put in the sidewalks.” Only a few visitors or residents would agree with that statement nowadays.

The Moose Jaw in Frisco, Colorado, has served delicious burgers and good times for over 50 years. Photo by Kurt Jacobson

Articles Related to Visiting Colorado

Rejuvenate in the Pagosa Springs Hot Springs
Fall Colors in the Southwest: Where to Find the Best Fall Foliage
Bicycling Pikes Peak: Heart-pounding, Fast, Majestic
Try Something New: Dog Sledding in Colorado
Try Something New: Fly Fishing in Vail, Colorado

Time to Leave Colorado

With eight days of Rocky Mountain fun behind us, we did an excellent job visiting friends and family. We saw significant changes; some places hardly changed in over 50 years. It’s easy to see why we love visiting Colorado; millions of others do, too. We invite you to check out our favorite road trips and other things to see and do in Colorado on Wander With Wonder. We’d love to hear some of your favorite spots to see when you take a Colorado road trip.

Colorado Road Trip: A Local Boy Goes Home