Four Spectacular Rocky Mountain Road Trips

Road through Rocky Mountain National park with trees and mountains surrounding

What can be more exciting than a road trip? A road trip between national parks, of course! 

There are many incredible road trips to take that can start at Rocky Mountain National Park reaching in all directions to offer some of the best Rocky Mountain scenery and experiences. In this piece, four such trips are described.

Squee! Nothing gets me more excited than an upcoming road trip! It’s my favorite way to travel, and I’m not alone: an estimated 40% of adults in this country are planning an upcoming road trip each year. 

Living at the doorstep of Rocky Mountain National Park for the past 25 years, I’ve incorporated it into nearly every road trip I’ve taken since moving to Estes Park. National parks offer breathtaking scenery, historical landscapes, and a variety of learning opportunities for my curious son while he was growing up.  They also offered affordable vacation solutions for a busy, single mom!  Some of my best – and most challenging – memories arise from road trips.  Read on as I describe four of my favorites, incorporating Rocky Mountain National Park into each itinerary. 

There are several amazing road trips that start (and end) at Rocky Mountain National Park. Here’s the view from Deer Junction on Trail Ridge Road in the spring. /author photo

1. Five National Parks in Eight Days: Rocky Mountain National Park to Yellowstone Park and Back

Map showing directions on road trip from RMNP to Utah to Grand Teton and Yellowstone

Starting point: Estes Park, Colorado

Travel window: late May-early October (when Trail Ridge Road is open)

I’ve done this road trip twice: once with my son and 25 years prior to that, with his dad. Decades ago, it was a fun, rollicking camping road trip with hardly a care in the world.  When I took my son, it was an entirely different, albeit much more rewarding, experience.  I’m grateful for both trips and all the wonderful things I learned along the way and over the years.

First Park: Rocky Mountain

OK, so maybe this is cheating since I live only five miles away from Rocky Mountain’s borders, but this is the first Park you will experience on this trip.  If you are not a regular visitor to Rocky Mountain, I encourage you to take at least two days to visit it.  Stay over in Estes Park since you will want to start driving west through Rocky Mountain by mid-morning at the latest.

Let us help you plan your trip! We have a detailed itinerary for Rocky Mountain National Park that gives you a step-by-step game plan so you can get to the best places at the right times.

There are two sides to this national park, literally. The east side is where most people access Rocky Mountain from the Front Range via Estes Park, your starting point.  You will travel over the Continental Divide via Trail Ridge Road, dropping into the west side of Rocky Mountain before driving into Grand Lake and Granby. After Granby, Highway 34 ends at Highway 40, where you will be taking a right to go north toward Steamboat Springs. 

Before you reach Steamboat Springs (which I recommend for the first night’s stay), you will pass by Hot Sulphur Springs – a natural hot springs resort.  I recommend a soak before continuing to Steamboat Springs!

river in Kawuneeche Valley
On the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park, you can experience the headwaters of the Colorado River as it winds through the Kawuneeche Valley. / author photo

Visit Rocky Mountain with Confidence with
Our Complete Guide to the Trail Ridge Road

Guide includes reservation requirements, driving tips, and things to do along the way.

Second Park: Dinosaur National Monument, Colorado

You will be traveling for a while on Highway 40 before you reach Dinosaur, an amazing destination if you have kids who love dinosaurs!  But before you get there, you will be traveling through the high desert of western Colorado for hours.  Keep your eyes peeled for antelope that run wild in these types of environments.  This may be a good stretch for an audiobook.

Dinosaur National Monument is on the Colorado/Utah border and showcases a cliff face of dinosaur fossils, along with providing amazing hiking (among the petroglyphs!) and rafting opportunities.  After you visit Dinosaur, continue to Vernal, UT, where I recommend you stay the night.  In Vernal, there are micro-breweries and shops, and lots of rafting guides for the Green River.  You can find an economical place to stay there, as well. 

Child sitting in front of wall of dinosaur fossils
At the wall of fossils in the interpretive center of Dinosaur National Monument,/ author photo
Child hiking in the desert
Dinosaur National Monument has many beautiful hiking trails. /author photo

Third Park: Flaming Gorge National Recreational Area

After leaving Vernal, you will travel north on Highway 191 almost into Wyoming before reaching Flaming Gorge, a reservoir of the Green River.  The area was first named by John Wesley Powell in 1869, after seeing the sun setting in the area, turning the rocks a fiery red color.  This is truly an amazing place to visit, even if you are just sightseeing. 

Flaming Gorge is known for its world-class trout fishing and water sports.  Viewing the changing colors of the surrounding rocks as the sun moves through the sky is a must-see!

Flaming gorge in Utah
The Flaming Gorge National Recreational Area in northeast Utah is a beautiful area. / author photo

Fourth Park: Grand Teton National Park

Keep driving north on Highway 191 and you will come to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and then Grand Teton National Park.  The stunning range of the Tetons soar up to 7,000 feet above the valley floor which make this one of the most recognizable mountain ranges in the country. 

Wildlife viewing and hiking opportunities are plentiful in Grand Teton.  I recommend staying the night in Jackson after your long drive from Flaming Gorge to explore Grand Teton the next day.

Need a game plan so you don’t miss out on the best things to do in Grand Teton? Check out our itinerary.  Not only that, but we’ll tell you about the park while you drive with our audio guide!

Teton mountains in the background of a lake and trees in the fall
The Teton range in Grand Teton National Park is stunning. / author photo

Fifth Park: Yellowstone National Park

This is the first National Park in the country, established in 1872. It encompasses more than 2 million acres of unusual landscape, created by the volcanic caldera in which it lies.  Vibrantly colored hot pools dot the landscape and wildlife, including elk, moose, and bison, is abundant throughout the Park.  Explore up to the northern edge of Yellowstone, including Lake Yellowstone, taking Highway 14 to exit the Park on the east side.

If you stay the night in nearby Cody, Wyoming, you can explore Yellowstone a second day, too.

Planning a vacation shouldn’t be stressful. We created a step-by-step itinerary so you can visit the best places in Yellowstone at the right times. It also includes a free audio guide to listen to while driving with over 3-hours of stories about the park!

prismatic pool in Yellowstone
In Yellowstone National Park, the caldera hosts a plethora of prismatic pools. / author photo
child standing in front of Steamboat Geyser in Yellowstone
Steamboat Geyser at Yellowstone National Park. / author photo

Wind River Canyon and Thermopolis

The next day, drive east on Highway 14 until you get to Highway 20, which travels south through Thermopolis, a wonderful little town in Wyoming with natural hot springs.   I recommend spending the night there and visiting the hot spring pools.

The Wind River Canyon is a stunning landscape along Highway 20 as you travel south back toward Colorado.  When you’ve finished the beautiful drive through the canyon, work your way east to 1-25 and head south back to Colorado. 

2. The Peak-to-Peak Scenic Byway

Map of Peak to Peak scenic byway

Starting point: Estes Park, Colorado

Travel window: year-round (with good snow tires in the winter)

You can take this road trip going north from Blackhawk or south from Estes Park; the intervening 55 miles will take you several hours; give yourself at least three or more. This spectacular road trip is a feast for the senses, and you will want to stop and explore the small shops and communities that are located along this road.

The Peak-to-Peak Scenic Byway was designated as such in 1918, making it Colorado’s oldest!  From Estes Park, you start by driving south on Highway 7, a narrow, two-lane highway that skirts the eastern edge of Colorado’s Continental Divide. Towering peaks interspersed with mountain valleys and forests greet you around every bend in the road almost immediately after leaving Estes Park’s limits.

You will be driving along the eastern edge of Rocky Mountain National Park, and several outlying entrances to the Park are located on the first part of Highway 7.  One of the first pullouts is Lily Lake on the right; and, Twin Sisters to the left.  At Lily Lake, those with limited mobility and/or those with young children can take a stroll around Lily Lake while those who seek a more moderate to challenging hike can try Twin Sisters.  It’s a great stop for a multi-generational family traveling together.

Lily Lake in the mountains
Lily Lake is one of the first scenic spots on the Peak-to-Peak Scenic Byway. /author photo
Map of sites along Peak to Peak Scenic byway

The Longs Peak entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park is located along Highway 7 and on this trailhead, you can not only climb Longs Peak (Colorado’s northern-most 14er), but you can also hike to the old Eugenia Mine – the first of the mining “ghost towns” you will come to along this stretch of highway.  At Eugenia, there are no more standing buildings, but some remnants of mining activities remain. 

The Chapel on the Rock is located at St. Malo retreat and has a stunning view of Mount Meeker towering over the stone church and statue of St. Catherine, which is installed on the property as well.  If there are no official ceremonies, you can tour the small chapel.

Chapel on the Rock with snowy mountains in the distance
The Chapel on the Rock is a stunning sight, with Mount Meeker towering overhead. /author photo

If you are looking for an easy hike to a wonderful waterfall, make sure you turn into the Wild Basin entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park.  In the summer and fall, you can drive straight up to the trailhead, and in less than a half-mile of easy hiking, you will come upon Copeland Falls.  Wild Basin is also the starting point for many more challenging hikes and rock climbing opportunities.

Map of Wild Basin Area

Attention: As you keep driving south, be careful – Highway 7 turns into Highway 72 at Allenspark.  If you keep following the signs for Highway 7, you will drive down the South St. Vrain Canyon and end up in Lyons.  Be sure to follow the signs for Highway 72 to continue on the Peak to Peak. 

The small communities of Ward, Nederland, and Rollinsville are quaint little towns, left over from Colorado’s gold rush days (1859-1861) and you will drive through each of them on your Peak-to-Peak tour.  Several quaint attractions, like the Carousel of Happiness in Nederland, may be an appropriate stop.  Keep your eyes peeled for shops and restaurants as you travel through these towns. 

Upper and Lower Copeland Falls in Wild Basin, Rocky Mountain National Park. / author video

This scenic byway stops at Blackhawk, one of the few mountain communities in Colorado that legalized gambling.  It’s a bit appropriate because of the past mining history (“thar’s gold in them hills”), but the real treasure is the trip to get to these communities.

From Blackhawk, you can drop down via Highway 6 to reach Denver, or you can turn around and go back the way you came.  Trust me, the light changes during the day and the views will be even more spectacular when the sun begins to set.

3. From Mountains to Hills: Rocky Mountain National Park to the Black Hills

Map showing directions from Estes Park to Black Hills and sites in the area

Starting point: Estes Park, Colorado

Travel window: Spring – Late Fall

For this trip, we are going to travel north from Rocky Mountain, through Wyoming and end up setting up a base in Rapid City, South Dakota, to visit the surrounding national parks and monuments in the Black Hills area.

Sacred to indigenous people, this area boasts magical scenery and a plethora of wildlife.  There is also evidence of how badly the native peoples were treated by white settlers, and there are efforts to bring this history to life in all the surrounding national parks. 

But first, we leave the community of Estes Park and travel north on I-25 through Wyoming.  It will only take you about an hour to reach the state line, but then it’s approximately five hours on I-25 to US-85 N and finally, to WY-585 N in Weston County.  At Sundance, Wyoming, you will merge onto 1-90 west for a short stretch, followed by an exit onto Highway 14. Without stops, this stretch will take you a little more than six hours.  From here, keep your eyes peeled for your first stop, Devils Tower National Monument. 

Devil's Tower in Wyoming
Devil’s Tower National Monument in northeast Wyoming is the perfect way to start your roadtrip to the Black Hills. / author photo

This striking bit of natural landscape can be seen from miles away.  If you’ve seen the movie, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, you know what Devils Tower looks like, but nothing prepares you for how huge it is.  Rock climbers from all over the world climb this tower regularly. 

This site is sacred to indigenous people and is preserved through the National Park System for all to enjoy.  There are great hiking trails, too!

When you’ve had your fill of Devils Tower, it’s just an hour and a half to Rapid City, South Dakota, which is the perfect location to stay a few days to visit the surrounding national and state parks in the Black Hills.

This area is redolent in history: some interesting, and some quite disturbing.  Through the Laramie Treaty in 1868, the land in and around the Black Hills was ceded to the Lakota Sioux.  The Lakota had moved into the area from their homelands in what is now Minnesota and drove out the Arakara, Cheyenne, Kiowa, Crow, and Arapaho nations, all of whom had occupied the land only a few hundred years prior to the Lakota Sioux’s arrival.  The Lakota Sioux were declared the de facto owners of the land – until gold was discovered in the 1870s.

Prospectors, trappers, and gamblers were the first white people who entered this land and there are many accounts of fierce “Indian Wars” between these pioneers and the native peoples.  In particular, the town of Deadwood was established illegally by such settlers.  It proved to be a lawless “Wild West” community that attracted colorful characters such as Wild Bill Hickock and Calamity Jane, both buried in Deadwood’s Mount Moriah Cemetery

Find out all you need to know about visiting the Black Hills.

Child standing by fence in Mount Moriah Cemetery in Deadwood, South Dakota
The Mount Moriah Cemetery above Deadwood, South Dakota, is the final resting place of several wild-west characters, such as Wild Bill Hickock and Calamity Jane. / author photo

Other amazing locations to visit in this area include Custer State Park, Badlands National Park, Wind Cave National Park, Mount Rushmore, and the Crazy Horse Memorial.

On your way back to Rapid City after visiting the Badlands, be sure to stop at Wall Drug – a famous “general store” harkening back to the 1930s.  They captured many customers with their promise of “free ice water.”

The Black Hills are confusing because it’s huge and there are so many things to do! Let us help you take the stress out of your trip with our detailed itinerary and free audioguide that includes stories about the park to listen to while driving.

Child looking at scenery in Badlands National Park
The stunning sights of Badlands National Park / author photo
statue of Crazy Horse with Crazy Horse National Monument in the distance
Don’t just visit Mount Rushmore, the nearby Crazy Horse Memorial is another impressive rock sculpture. / author photo

4. The Mysterious Four Corners Region

Map showing Estes Park to Aztec NM showing sites nearby

Starting point: Estes Park, Colorado

Travel window: Spring – Late Fall

Another amazing road trip to take from Rocky Mountain National Park/Estes Park is to the Four Corners region, encompassing southwestern Colorado, northwestern New Mexico, northeastern Arizona, and southwestern Utah. 

The full-day driving (about eight hours with no stops) from Estes Park to Aztec, New Mexico (your home base for travels to nearby attractions) contains such beautiful scenery that I suggest you take two days to complete it, staying overnight in Salida, Fairplay, or Buena Vista: all beautiful small towns in South Park, Colorado. Take I-25 until just south of Denver, where you will get on Highway 285 which takes you straight through South Park. 

Ghost towns and other historic sites in this area make for interesting pit-stops along the way and the mountain weather that rolls in suddenly – any time of the year— makes for dramatic skies.   When you get to Monte Vista, take 160 West through Pagosa Springs and Durango.  Pagosa Springs has many natural hot springs that are worth a soak.  Durango is a wonderful city in southern Colorado that has great restaurants and breweries

At Durango, you can either continue on Highway 160 to reach Mesa Verde National Park, or you can head south on Highway 550 to Aztec, your stopping point for the next three or four days of seeing the sights in the Four Corners Region.

Distant view of Ancestral Puebloan ruins in Mesa Verde National Park
The Square Tower House in Mesa Verde National Park is one of many ruins left by the Ancestral Puebloans. / author photo.

Highway 550 is called the Million Dollar Highway because it was paid for with a million dollars worth of gold tailings; it existed as a toll road until the “million dollars” was paid off! Today, it’s one of the most beautiful, scenic drives in Colorado and northern New Mexico. 

Here are the must-see sights in the region, with your starting point as Aztec, New Mexico.

Aztec National Ruins.  Right in the middle of town exists a series of ruins left behind by the Puebloan peoples, ancestors of the Southern Ute and Navajo Nations.  You can walk right through these, which is often prohibited at other similar sites in the region.  Miles from Aztec: 0

Chaco Canyon National Park. Located within Navajo land, this stunning building accomplishment of the ancient Puebloans is still held sacred by the Navajo Nation.  Miles from Aztec: 74.7 miles, 1.5 hours going south

Mesa Verde National Park. The cliff-dwellers in this ancient site suddenly disappeared, leaving not just their structures, but artifacts.  Miles from Aztec: 89, two hours going northwest

Shiprock. In this small community on the Navajo Reservation, you’ll want to see, rising out of the flat, dry desert, a rock that resembles a large ship.  Miles from Aztec: 43 miles, one hour.

Four Corners Monument. The four states of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah meet at a point in this spot, which is preserved as a national monument.  Miles from Aztec: 76 miles, 1.5 hours

Man standing in ruins in Aztec Ruins National Monument
The Aztec Ruins National Monument is located in Aztec, NM — the perfect “home base” for your Four Corners adventures.
ruins in Chaco Culture National Park
Chaco Culture National Park in the Four Corners area is an impressive complex of ruins. / author photo
Shiprock Formation in New Mexico
The Shiprock Formation rises over the New Mexico desert. /author photo
Four Corners national monument
At Four Corners Monument, you can stand in four states at once! Managed by the Navajo Nation, you can also buy some authentic indigenous art directly from the artisan. / author photo

I really hope you enjoy your road trips in the Rocky Mountain area!


ROCKY MOUNTAIN TRIP PLANNER: To read or watch all of our content about Rocky Mountain National Park, check out our Rocky Mountain Homepage

THINGS TO DO: There is so much to do including hiking, swimming, taking a tour of the Stanley Hotel, and driving Trail Ridge Road and Bear Lake Road

GREAT CITIES TO STAY OR CHECK OUT: Explore some amazing cities nearby including Estes Park

KNOW BEFORE YOU GO: Find out about getting into Rocky Mountain without a reservation, if the park is too crowded, and all about altitude sickness

WATCH: Enjoy videos of gorgeous Rocky Mountain National Park while learning our best tips for visiting by watching our Rocky Mountain YouTube Playlist


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