All American Road Trip: 3 Days Exploring Southern Colorado

With four National Parks and the majestic Rocky Mountains, Colorado’s diverse landscape attracts adventure seekers every summer. From canyons and rivers to deserts and mountains, there are plenty of remote areas waiting to be discovered, plus adrenaline-fueled activities to match.

But with so much on offer, it can be challenging to know how to use your time during a Colorado vacation. Follow this three-day itinerary to explore some of the best of southern Colorado in a short space of time.

A view of Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado.

DAY 1 – GREAT SAND DUNES NATIONAL PARK

Great Sand Dunes National Park is in southern Colorado and is known for its imposing sand dunes dominating the skyline. Begin your day bright and early to avoid the hottest part of the day as the sand can get quite hot—especially if you’re traveling with pets or little ones.

One of the most popular activities at the sand dunes is hiking. The main part of the dune field is a massive 30 square miles, and you can roam around it as you wish, as there are no marked trails. But there are a few routes that you may want to take to check them off your Colorado bucket list.

Star Dune is one of the tallest sand dunes in the country. It measures 741 feet high and can be hiked from the neighboring High Dune. Alternatively, you can reach the top on the more direct route from the Medano Creek bed. The hike will take you about six hours one way, so plan accordingly.

The National Park is also home to the Medano Creek, a seasonal stream created when the snow melts high in the Sangre Christo Mountains. The wide and shallow stream has surge flows, which are small waves that break every few seconds, allowing you to ride inflatables downstream from the creek’s natural beach. It is a fun place to hang out with the whole family and cool off after a morning hike.

Where to Eat & Stay Near Great Sand Dunes National Park

Why not check out The Great Sand Dunes Lodge for a great place to stay? The lodge is at the base of the Sangre De Cristo mountains, right at the entrance to the National Park. The lodge treats you to incredible views of the mountains, the spectacular San Luis Valley and the Great Sand Dunes themselves.

At the lodge, you can choose to cook in your room or go to the restaurant, just a short walk away.

Wolf Creek Pass Overlook in the Rio Grande National Forest. Photo Courtesy of Lara P Arnold

DAY 2 – RIO GRANDE NATIONAL FOREST

Once the sand is out of your shoes and your bags packed, jump in the car and head west to your next destination: the spectacular Rio Grande National Forest. Begin in the town of Creede, where you can grab a bite to eat and stock up on any essentials for the day.

The National Forest covers 1.86 million acres of south-central Colorado, offering plenty of places to get off the grid. Many people visit the forest and its surrounding areas for its cycling, as there are some excellent mountain bike and road biking routes. Stop by San Juan Sports or Creede Adventure Rentals to rent mountain bikes for the day.

If you like to slip into some lycra and hit the road, you will love the route that follows Route 160. It takes you to Wolf Creek Pass and state Highway 149, crossing the mountains at Slumgullion Pass. This connects the San Luis Valley and Gunnison while taking you to the 10,000-foot North Cochetopa Pass.

Those who prefer their tires more chunky and their cycling to be off-road are in luck. The Penitente Canyon Trails is a 46-mile backcountry loop from the Penitente Canyon Trail system to the top of the 12,000-foot Boot Mountain. The route consists of forest service roads, 4×4 tracks and singletrack along La Garita Creek.

Expect stunning views of the historic stock paths and high country. You can even spot evidence of what’s believed to be the largest volcano eruption in history, 28 million years ago.

Other mountain biking options include the Deep Creek Trail near Creede. But for this, you will need to organize a pick up at the bottom, as it is more of a downhill ride.

Where to Eat & Stay in Creede

When it comes to accommodation near the Rio Grande National Forest, you have a choice of camping and cabin options. But The Antlers Rio Grande Lodge has everything you need for an authentic experience.

The Antlers provides various lodging options, including an RV park, rooms and cabins. This fantastic property sits on the banks of a beautiful river and is considered one of the best places to fish in the area. There is also a games room and playground to keep the kids entertained. After a day of exploring, you can eat at the on-site restaurant for waterside dining.

The Springs Resort & Spa in Pagosa Springs. Photo Courtesy of Milan Suvajac

DAY 3 – PAGOSA SPRINGS

The final day of your Colorado adventure brings you to Pagosa Springs. This is a gorgeous town famous for its hot springs and endless opportunity for outdoor recreation.

Whatever your chosen discipline,—fly fishing, ice climbing, downhill biking or hiking—you will enjoy exploring the area. However, today is dedicated to the ultimate relaxation. We’ll begin our adventure with a scenic drive to the top of the Continental Divide. From Creede to Pagosa Springs, take the drive along Wolf Creek Pass. Along the way, you’ll get to see the breathtaking Treasure Falls, cascading at 100-feet tall, and don’t forget to stop at Lobo Overlook for panoramic views of the San Juan mountains.

Once in Pagosa Springs, get ready for a therapeutic soak in natural hot springs to end your Colorado road trip. There are three different hot springs resorts to choose from, including Healing Waters Resort & SpaThe Springs Resort & Spa and Overlook Hot Springs Spa.

At Healing Waters Resort & Spa unwind in the hot springs and then indulge in a pampering massage. The spa’s pool and bath are filled with 100% spring water, so you can benefit from the minerals’ healing properties. Consider booking one of the many rooms, suites or cabins available.

But if you fancy something a little more rustic, the RiverWalk Inn may suit you better. This boutique-style hotel offers modern rooms in downtown Pagosa Springs. You can enjoy breathtaking views over the mountains from the patio or relax in the hot tub and dry sauna.

In town, discover a wide range of restaurants with varied menus. Check out Thai Pagosa or Rosie’s Pizzeria for delicious options depending on what you’re craving. Order a local beer and raise a glass to your epic three-day adventure.


The Great American Road Trip. Photo from our Original Series Venturing Out: Park 2 Park

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