There is nothing more glorious than a clear blue summer Colorado Rocky Mountain Sky. So bring good sunscreen! Whether you arrive via Denver International Airport and rent a car, or drive in on the Interstate highway system, a self-guided auto tour of this fantastic state will heap a mountain of memories into your bucket list.
Here is a suggested five-day auto tour. We will start with a sleepover in Denver.
Your first night in Denver
Arriving by air? You can stay at the upscale Westin Denver International Airport (a bit pricey for some at over $400 per night), or choose from a group of good, but lower-priced choices around the airport.
If you are driving in and want a day in the Mile High City, you have a choice of a number of great hotels downtown. Check out Coors Field for a major league baseball game if the National League Rockies are at home. Otherwise, a stroll down the 16th Street Mall and a walking tour of central Denver is worth the visit.
Day 1 – Estes Park
Your first destination is Estes Park, the gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park. Head due north on Interstate 25 and take Exit 257 and go west on U.S. 34 through Loveland. If you are renting a car, get one with a sunroof, because you are about to travel a canyon route through the Big Thompson River with some breathtaking rocky views on your 31-mile trip to Estes Park.
Estes Park is a picturesque mountain tourist town complete with a scenic lake bordering on the high Rocky Mountain Peaks. This pretty town is about three miles east of the Rocky Mountain National Park entrance. Book a night's stay at Estes Park and just walk around a bit and enjoy the lake and the shopping by the rushing river that ends at the big lake.
Day 2 – Rocky Mountain National Park
Follow U.S. 36 west out of town where it becomes Trail Ridge Road (U.S. 34). You will stop at the entrance booth and pay the automobile park fee, which is currently $30 per vehicle, valid for seven days. Ask for a tour brochure, and stop at the information center before taking the astonishing hour's drive through our nation's premier national park.
The trip is about 43 miles and takes over an hour. But you will want to take your time and stop along the way. You will be driving through our country's highest paved road and might even see snow at the summit in July. If you can manage it, try to avoid weekend and holiday visits, as the traffic through the two-lane highway tends to be heavy. Stop at the summit parking and shops and take in the high mountain meadow. Take it easy, though – you are up about 12,000 feet.
Days 3 and 4 – Grand Lake
Near the western gate of Rocky Mountain National Park lies the lakeside town of Grand Lake. The lake itself provides a pristine and natural water vista for boaters and anglers and hosts scads of tourists and shoppers during the high summer months. Walk down the lake front and hire a lake tour boat, or just enjoy an ice cream treat at the lakefront stand.
Grand Lake hosts a number of reasonably priced motels and cabins. You will need to book ahead if you want to stay at the famous Grand Lake Lodge. Even if the lodge is full, it is worth the short drive just to see the lodge and its high lookout over the lake. Stop in at the lodge for souvenirs, snacks or refreshments at the bar.
For a touch of fun and culture, check out the Rocky Mountain Repertory Theater on Grand Lake's Main Street and plan on an evening of entertainment in a modern theater with some surprisingly good productions and young talent. You do not need evening wear. Visitors are welcome to wear anything from flip-flops to casual.
Finally, if you are into hiking, start off at Cascade Falls for an easy hike with the kids. Or, you can make a day of it and explore the network of mountain trails around Grand Lake. Take your lunch and plenty of water.
Day 5 – Return through Rocky Mountain National Park or go west and south
If you want more of the Rocky Mountain National Park experience, your pass is still good, and you can retrace your steps. Otherwise, you can do a circular route and spend your final day on a leisurely drive to Winter Park. Take Highway 34 west out of Grand Lake and turn right on U.S. Highway 40 through Granby. Stop for lunch at the winter ski resort town of Winter Park and drive through Berthoud Pass back towards Empire and the Interstate 70 junction.
Alternatively, instead of the Winter Park route, you could take a right on U.S. 40 and head for Gremling. At Gremling, go south on Colorado 9 to Silverthorne. This alternative route skirts the high mountain pass, but you'll end up at Silverthorne and other spots west on Interstate 70 offering more stops and sights. For instance, Idaho Springs, just off the interstate is worth a side trip.
Whatever you decide, Interstate 70 East will take you back to Denver and the airport for an ear-popping descent back to the Colorado plains. In Idaho Springs you are about one hour from Denver International Airport.
Take Exit 262 and follow Peña Boulevard for 10 miles and go straight into the airport, which we should have named Arnold Schwartzenegger National, because, after your first experience here in the Rockies, just like Arnold "you'll be back!"
After all, you still have not visited Durango and the southwest.