As the weather warms up, there is no better place to be than the great outdoors, and Colorado turns on quite the beautiful show all summer long.
This five-day road trip itinerary loops through some of the state’s most spectacular areas, including National Parks, mountains, mesas, desert landscapes, dark sky parks, forests, canyons and charming towns. This road-tripping adventure features hiking and many other outdoor activities that all come with awe-inspiring surroundings and epic views.
DAY 1 – COLORADO NATIONAL MONUMENT
When Mother Nature created sunrises, she was surely keeping places like the Colorado National Monument in mind. So rise early to make the most of this glorious landscape, including red rocks, deep canyons and sandstone peaks. The drive will be easy if you camp overnight or stay in the nearby cities of Grand Junction or Fruita.
Rim Rock Drive is the only paved road you will find at Colorado National Monument; this 23-mile route is a great place to start if you wish to cycle or drive through the canyons adorned with rock sculptures and unique formations. If hiking is your vibe, there are over a dozen backcountry trails to explore. Expect grand views, as some reach elevations above 7,000 feet. The six-mile Monument Canyon Trail is a great hike through the area’s longest canyon, with massive rock formations rising from the earth. Then you can climb the 450-foot Independence Monument or just admire rock climbers scaling the awe-inspiring spire.
The Upper Liberty Cap Trail and the Serpents Trail are also impressive routes to follow. You could easily spend days exploring Colorado National Monument, which leads nature-loving adventurers on many scenic paths.
If you prefer biking to hiking, mountain bikers should head toward the east entrance via Monument Road for a trail system loved by locals. Located between the park entrance and Downtown Grand Junction, singletrack riders can find the extensive Tabeguache/Lunch Loops Trail System and Three Sisters Park.
Where to Stay and Eat Near Colorado National Monument
Once you’ve finished soaking up the sun and the views for the day, head back to Fruita for some delicious fare. The Hot Tomato is a popular spot amongst locals and visitors, serving specialty pizzas and a local and national selection of craft beers. The pizza dough is made by hand daily, so on extra busy days the restaurant can sometimes run out! Grab a seat on the patio and enjoy Colorado’s cool nights before the sun comes out again.
Check out Balanced Rock Inn and La Quinta Inn and Suites by Wyndham for a sample of nearby accommodation options in Fruita. You can find rooms in all budget ranges with everything from quality hotels and luxury inns to rustic vacation rentals and quaint farm stays.
DAY 2 – DOMINGUEZ-ESCALANTE NATIONAL CONSERVATION AREA
Prepare for another early morning to beat the heat. Blessed with red-rock canyons and stunning bluffs, Dominguez-Escalante National Conservation Area is a not-to-be-missed experience that is as historically and culturally significant as it is beautiful. About 40 minutes south of Fruita, the Gunnison River flows through the rugged desert landscape, home to an array of wildlife like mountain lions, reptiles, black bears, elk, deer and golden eagles. Be on the lookout for these wildly inspiring (and sometimes dangerous) creatures.
It is possible to horseback ride through the Dominguez Canyon Wilderness, which features Big Dominguez (12 miles long) and Little Dominguez canyons. You can also go camping, fishing and hiking while taking in the fantastic scenery. Trek along the 12-mile Big Dominguez Trail for magnificent sights, including petroglyphs and rushing waterfalls. Hike as much or as little as you want before returning to the trailhead.
You might see endangered species of fish and cactus along with desert bighorn sheep and many bird species. Some canyon walls and archaeological sites are adorned with ancient rock art created by Native Americans.
Where to Stay in Grand Junction
Spend the rest of your nights in Grand Junction, where there are plenty of places to set up base. Try Hotel Maverick on the campus of Colorado Mesa University or Hampton Inn Grand Junction with a swimming pool you’ll be sure to appreciate after a day of walking around the rugged lands of the Dominguez-Escalante National Conservation Area.
DAY 3 – GRAND MESA NATIONAL FOREST
You can tick seeing the world’s biggest flat-top mountain off your bucket list when you arrive at Grand Mesa on day three of your Colorado road trip. Indeed it is massive, with hundreds of lakes shimmering over 500 square miles of the rustic landscape. The Grand Mesa National Forest looms 6,000 feet above Grand Junction and covers much of the Mesa, which borders the White River National Forest and the Gunnison National Forest.
As you hike the peaceful mesa, you will be serenaded by silence apart from some beautiful bird songs and perhaps the sound of startled moose running into the dense forest. Crag Crest Trail is an excellent hike along an elevated ridgeline that will make you feel like you are on top of the world. Adrenaline junkies might be tempted to try downhill mountain biking at the Powderhorn Bike Park, with lessons available for all skill levels, including children.
If you’re looking to tack on another hike for the day, we recommend the two-mile Lost Lake Trail, which leads to a beautiful lake framed by massive pine trees and basalt boulders. Farther on, you will arrive at South Mesa Lake, where the water is so clear you can see fish swimming around, making it a great fishing spot.
Where to Eat in Grand Junction
Return to Grand Junction for some of the area’s best cuisine at Bin 707 Foodbar. The modern and airy restaurant is known for its seasonal menu, with every item made from scratch. From the artisan cheese selection to the Colorado lamb tenderloin, Bin 707 Foodbar prides itself on sustainable and local sourcing.
DAY 4 – BLACK CANYON OF THE GUNNISON NATIONAL PARK
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is an International Dark Sky Park and is incredible for stargazing with the sheerest canyon in North America, meaning you get dramatic views night and day. There are camping sites and facilities in the South Rim area if you are planning an overnight stay.
Hiking Along the South Rim
The park is separated into two areas: the North Rim and the South Rim, with the mighty Gunnison River flowing through the two. Note there are no bridges, and you will have to drive nearly two hours to get from one entrance to the other. There are many shorter hiking trails that lead to viewpoints with epic views of the roaring river and sheer walls.
Drive the South Rim Road and stop at the dozen viewpoints along the seven-mile stretch, collecting epic photos as you go. Hike the Warner Point Trail or the Oak Flat Loop Trail for a few hours of hiking. You will need a permit and a high level of skill and fitness to hike the Gunnison Route that leads down to the river. The challenging hike is very steep with no maintained trail.
Cedar Point on the South Rim is the best place to enjoy the sunset, and Chasm View on the North Rim is ideal for catching the sunrise.
Stargazing in a Dark Sky Park
Equally as wondrous is the starry night sky, which might be one of the darkest you’ve ever witnessed. Black Canyon of the Gunnison doesn’t close at night, making an after-dark visit a must—you’ll be able to see the Milky Way with both the naked eye or a telescope on clear nights.
DAY 5 – GRAND JUNCTION
Spend the final day of your Colorado adventure enjoying the town of Grand Junction. Head downtown for a leisurely day of shopping and dining. Here, you’ll find more than a hundred local businesses, so be on the lookout for the perfect souvenir to remind you of your time out West. If your trip lands on the weekend, don’t miss the Farmers’ Market loaded with fresh, locally-grown produce and products.
Did you know, that this part of the state is also known as Colorado’s wine country? After you’ve had your fill of shopping, visit a variety of wineries and tasting rooms in Grand Junction. Sample some of the region’s best wines at Carlson Vineyards Downtown Tasting Room or the Two Rivers Winery and Chateau.
As you stroll through downtown, admire the photogenic street sculptures—there are around 100 dotted throughout the area. You can’t miss them!
Your five-day adventure will be the highlight of your summer, leaving you ready to return and discover more of Colorado’s stunningly beautiful natural wonders.