The Central Rockies road-trip is through the heart of the Rocky Mountains, with destinations in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and Nebraska. However, you’ll pass from snow-capped mountains surrounded by lush aspen forests to rocky deserts with remarkable sandstone formations. This trip is best for early fall, since you’ll be trying to dodge both the hot desert summers and the first snowfall of winter in the mountains. This is also a great trip for camping (find tips for beginners here), since campgrounds are just as common as hotels in this region of the United States. If you're planning on flying to the starting point, I suggest flying into Denver, since it hosts a large international airport. This trip also features many national parks, so investing in a National Park Service "America the Beautiful" annual pass may save you a lot of money on park admission fees.
Route-trip distance: 1900 miles
Suggested trip length: 3-4 weeks
The Mile-High City is one that I’ve visited often for both work travel and outdoor adventures liking hiking 14ers. Although many of the attractions associated with Denver are contained in the Rocky Mountains to the west, there are still plenty of things to see within the city. Take in a civics lesson by visiting the Colorado State Capitol Building and the U.S. Mint near Civic Center Park. Walk along 16th Street to find a great place for dinner before catching a baseball game at Coors Field, the home of the Colorado Rockies. In the morning, drive to the summit of Mt. Evans (a 14er) and visit the Mother Cabrini Shrine on your way back to Denver. Spend 1-3 days in Denver, depending how eager you are to get camping and how much time you have for your overall trip. The next destination will be a couple hours south of Denver in Colorado Springs.
Colorado Springs, Colorado
In Colorado Springs you’ll start to get a taste of the vast geologic variety that Colorado has to offer. At the Garden of the gods, you'll be stunned by dozens of intriguing natural rock formations. Also, consider driving to the top of Pikes Peak which reaches 14,115 feet towards the sky, but be prepared to pay the pricey admission fee (If you want to visit a less touristy 14er, you can either hike to the top of one, or drive to the summit of Mt. Evans). However, keep in mind that it’s the only 14er with a donut stand at the summit!
Great Sand Dunes National Park
Head south on Interstate 25 to US Highway 160, which features a scenic drive as you travel westward to Great Sand Dunes National Park near the beautiful Blanca Peak (another 14er). The visit to Great Sand Dunes National Park is truly unique experience, as you have the opportunity to hike along massive sand dunes that are puzzlingly surrounded by snow-capped mountains. The sand dunes, which are the tallest in North America, rise hundreds of feet in the air in stark contrast with the Rocky Mountains in the background. At the base of the dunes runs Medano Creek, a wide, shallow creek perfect for relaxing, cooling off on a hot summer day, or building a sand castle.
Continue traveling west along US Highway 160 to Durango, Colorado. Make the nearby Mesa Verde National Park your home base, spending a couple of days camping and taking in the sights of the park and the surrounding area. Spend a couple days within the park hiking and exploring the Puebloan cliff dwellings. Spend another day enjoying the scenery of the San Juan National Forest by taking the 3.5 hour ride on the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad from Durango to Silverton, 50 miles to the north (This is a great activity that kids love!). You can decide to take the train for the return trip, take a bus, or if it’s a family outing, have Dad skip the train ride and drive the car to Silverton instead (that's what my Dad did when my family visited when I was a kid). You can also make a day trip to Canyon of the Ancients National Monument, an archeological site of Native American villages.
Capitol Reef National Park
Spend some time in Utah by making your way to Capitol Reef National Park, home to all sorts of geologic formations, including cliffs, slot canyons, and natural bridges. The park encompasses the site of many pioneer homesteads, so there are several historic orchards of cherry, peach, apple, and pear trees in the park. You can even pick the fruit from these trees if you visit in season and make a delicious campfire dessert (my family made apple cobbler in the cast iron Dutch oven - yum!). Great hiking trail abound, and the park is also a great location for stargazing, since light pollution is limited and the sky is generally free of haze. I suggest camping a couple of days here.
Arches National Park
After Capitol Reef National Park, make your way to Moab and Arches National Park. Arches National Park features amazing red rock formations, including over 2500 stone arches. The most popular arch in the park is Delicate Arch, which you’ve probably seen a picture of at some point. Like Capitol Reef National Park, the hiking and stargazing is fantastic, but it’s a whole different unique experience. Stay a couple days.
Colorado National Monument
Heading back east along Interstate 70 into Colorado, stop at Colorado National Monument to view more unique rock formations and canyons. You can camp for a couple days or make it a quick stop, since it’s right off the interstate near Grand Junction, Colorado.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Get off interstate 70 at Grand Junction and head southeast along U.S. Highway 50 to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. It may not be the Grand Canyon, but it still offers amazing views, scenic drives, and some great hiking, including along the canyon rim. If you're looking for more adventure, the park also features rock climbing and kayaking.
Buena Vista, Colorado
If you actually want to hike a 14er, head to Buena Vista, Colorado. There are several great options there, including La Plata Peak (a beautiful hike) and Mt. Elbert (the tallest 14er in Colorado). I suggest spending a combined total of 3-4 days at Black Canyon of the Gunnison and the Buena Vista area.
Rocky Mountain National Park
Make your way north to Rocky Mountain National Park. If long tunnels excite you, travel there via Empire, Colorado, to get the chance to drive through the Eisenhower-Johnson Memorial Tunnel. The tunnel is the longest mountain tunnel (1.67 miles) and features the highest point on any U.S. interstate highway. You’ll enter Rocky Mountain National Park via the west entrance near Grand Lake, Colorado. You could easily spend a week here, since there are so many great hiking trails, scenic views, and campgrounds to choose from. Drive the Trail Ridge Road across the Continental Divide. Visit the Alpine Visitor Center which sits at an elevation of 11,796 feet. Hike around Bear Lake. Drive the Old Fall River Road. If you don't have young kids with you, hike to the summit of Longs Peak!
Perhaps not as popular as the Colorado sights, Wyoming still has plenty to offer. Take the drive north to Cheyenne, the capital of Wyoming, and visit the Wyoming State Capitol Building, Wyoming State Museum, and Cheyenne Depot Museum.
Scotts Bluff National Monument and Chimney Rock Historic Site, Nebraska
Never been to Nebraska? Cross it off your list of states by visiting Scotts Bluff National Monument and Chimney Rock National Historic Site. Both are iconic sites along the famed Oregon Trail and feature unique rock formations. Spend some time at the visitor centers to learn more about the unique history and geology. Finish off the road trip by making the drive back to Denver. On a clear day, you’ll have a clear view of the front-range of the Rocky Mountains, a sight that can’t be beat.