A Colorado to Utah road trip is the ideal way to experience the natural beauty of these two mountain states in the U.S.A. This road trip will take you to five national parks, numerous historic western towns and some of the most spectacular natural scenery on earth.
Start your Colorado to Utah road trip in Steamboat Springs, a friendly, northwestern Colorado town with a laid-back vibe nestled in the bucolic Yampa Valley. It lies about 3 hours north of Colorado’s capital city, Denver.
“The Boat” – that’s what the locals affectionately call Steamboat Springs – is an internationally renowned ski resort. The slopes in the area are stunningly beautiful with soaring mountains and dramatic drops. Some of the best-known slopes include Mount Warner, Howelsen Hill, and the majestic Outlaw Mountain. No matter a skiers’ level of expertise, there is an appropriate slope to enjoy. Can’t ski? Tale a course at the local ski school. Want something more challenging? Try Alpine skiing.
Every February, Steamboat Springs celebrates the skiing season with the Winter Festival and Parade. This is the only parade where performers march to the music on skis! In fact, skiing is such serious business in The Boat, that more winter Olympic athletes come from Steamboat Springs than any other city in the U.S.
Despite the local fascination with skiing, there is plenty more to enjoy in Steamboat no matter what time of year you go. The Steamboat Balloon Festival attracts people from around the country to witness the colorful parade in the sky, and summer is for enjoying watersports like kayaking, tubing and paddling in the town’s many cool springs and lakes.
The local downtown area around Lincoln Avenue has a western vibe with picturesque shops lining the streets. September offers Restaurant Week and a chance to sample the wide variety of the town’s culinary treats, a real foodie’s paradise. Some favorites include Besame for Nuovo Latin, Mambo for an interesting take on Italian and Yampa Valley Kitchen for farm-to-table deliciousness.
You can buy the freshest produce at the regular Farmers Markets as well as partying the night away at the various music venues and bars. Hike the beautiful Yampa Core Trail by the river, visit the Yampa River Botanical Garden or climb to the top of Fish Creek Falls. What’s not to love about Steamboat Springs!
Check out the different accommodation options in Steamboat Springs.
From Steamboat Springs, head southwest to kick off your Colorado to Utah road trip.
About 300 miles (480 km) southwest of Steamboat Springs is the gateway to two of the most spectacular national parks on your Colorado to Utah road trip: Arches and Canyonlands National Park in Moab, Utah. The parks have a single vehicle entrance fee of $30USD and different fees for motorcycles, bicycles and camping. If you are over 62, you are eligible for discounts on entrance fees to all the U.S. National Parks.
The town of Moab is is a quaint western-style town with shops, restaurants and hotels lining the main street. The art galleries capitalize on the spectacular scenery of the national parks nearby and the southwestern jewelry of turquoise blue, coral red and silver is especially beautiful. This is a great place to stock up on western gear at reasonable prices.
Don’t miss the petroglyphs on Potash Road. These are rock art designs created by native Americans that inhabited the area between 600 and 1300 CE. The designs represent animals, human-like figures with horns and capes as well as a line of people holding hands. These petroglyphs are right by the road and are visible from your car. They are extremely fragile and even the oil from human hands can mar this unique and irreplaceable patrimony.
There are plenty of restaurants in Moab offering everything from Asian fusion to classic American. On Main Street try Dewey’s Restaurant and Bar for casual, no-frills American. Josie Wyatt’s Grille has great pasta, steaks and patio seating. A more upscale establishment is the Desert Bistro across the street from the Best Western off Main Street. This restaurant offered a dining experience way above and beyond my expectation. Everything was excellent; the food, drinks, ambiance and service…all stellar. We’re still talking about it.
Insider tips to improve your visit to Moab:
1. Do visit the Visitor Center on Main Street to pick up brochures, maps and information from the helpful staff. Learn about evening programs, spectacular hikes, cycling, backpacking and much more.
2. Be aware of the state’s quirky liquor laws before you make a fool of yourself by complaining to the restaurant’s management that they only served you half a drink. I speak from experience. By law, drinks can only be about 1/2 of what you would ordinarily get at a bar. You can’t order two drinks at once, or a double, and there are many, many more restrictions. Be aware that the state’s DUI parameters and penalties are the harshest in the country. Learn about Utah’s liquor laws before you go. Remember, this is NOT New Orleans or Las Vegas. Cheers!!
Moab is the ideal location to use as a base from which to explore the national parks as well as La Sal National Forest and Loop Road and the accommodations in Moab are plenty.
Arches National Park
Arches National Park is 5 miles (8 km) north of Moab and is all about…well, arches. And what arches they are! There are over 2000 arches in the park along with many otherworldly natural sand and stone formations chiseled by nature over the millennium.
The park receives over 1.5 million visitors a year who come to bike, hike and take in the fabulous scenery. Among the most spectacular arches are: Turret Arch, Delicate Arch, perhaps the most photographed, Landscape Arch and Navajo Arch. The park is open all year but fills up quickly so get there early or be prepared to wait on line until space opens up.
One activity that is unique in this part of the world is stargazing. The farther you get from Moab that darker the sky will be and the more spectacular the stargazing. Park rangers regularly offer stargazing programs in the summer. Check the details at the visitor center and see the stars like you’ve never seen them before.
Canyonlands National Park
Canyonland National Park is another one of nature’s gems in the United States. It is 338,000 acres of the wildest land formations you’ll ever see: mesas, buttes, canyons with blazing colors and spires piercing the sky.
The area is actually four parks in one divided by the Green and Colorado Rivers:
- Islands in the Sky is the most visited and the closest to Moab.
- The Needles is a bit farther – but totally worth it. It’s great for a day trip from Moab and prime territory for backpacking and hiking to the spectacular land formations.
- The Maze is the least developed section of the park and requires a four-wheel-drive. Horseshoe Canyon, part of The Maze, has native-American rock markings.
- The Rivers in Canyonlands separate the sections and offer exceptional white-river-rafting. Check out the various outfitters that specialize in river rafting when you visit the visitor center.
If you are short on time or simply prefer to have an outfitter show you the coolest spots in Canyonlands, I highly recommend Adrift Adventures of Moab; professional, prompt, pleasant, knowledgeable and good value for your money. They’ll take you places and show you sights you might not see otherwise, like the spot where Thelma and Louise was filmed when the actresses drove off a cliff into the vast canyon below.
La Sal National Forest and Loop Road
A few miles outside of Moab is the La Sal National Forest and Loop guaranteed to have scenery unlike anything you have ever seen. The loop takes about 2 hours to complete by car but the vistas and topography will undoubtedly lure your into stretching out this drive into a much extended road trip.
This is a spectacular drive with views of the Moab Valley and majestic La Sal mountains. It’s fascinating to see the geography of the forest go from desert to pine forest to verdant valley all within a few minutes. It seemed every bend was occasion to ooohhh and aaahhh. For my money, these forest, mountain and lake views are just as amazing as the national parks.
Some of the most breathtaking sites on this loop include Kens Lake, the desert and mountain overlooks, Oohwah Lake and the scenic drive bordering the Colorado River. Don’t underestimate this scenic wonder!
Tip: Pack a picnic lunch and have a meal while viewing the multicolored horizon and snowcapped mountains.
If you are interested in native American culture and archaeology, and even if you are not, you should schedule a stop at the intriguing Newapaper Rock, a national monument about an hour south of Moab.
This fascinating piece of history is a panel carved in sandstone representing figures created by people over the centuries to 1300 CE. Some of the cultures that contributed to the rock are the Fremont and Pueblo people among others.
Archaeologists and other scholars are unsure what the figures; animals, human-like figures, and geometric designs represent. Are they religious symbols, artistic expressions or merely doodles and ancient graffiti?
Leave Utah behind, loop back into Colorado and head to Cortez, less than two hours southeast of Moab.
Named after the Spanish conquistador, Hernan Cortez, this pleasant little town of about 8,500 is full of lush green parks and sparkling lakes. Many travelers opt to stay in Cortez hotels due to the town’s proximity to Mesa Verde National Park, Monument Valley National Park and other important cultural centers.
Cortez has a number of hotels and restaurants and is a great place for a stopover as you continue your Colorado to Utah road trip. It is also a good destination from which to deviate from your Colorado to Utah road trip and explore some of the cutest small towns of western Colorado like Silverton, Telluride and Durango. And don’t miss the tapas and martini happy hour at the Farm Bistro.
Mesa Verde National Park
About 10 miles (16 km) east of Cortez you’ll find the Mesa Verde national Park, a UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE site and the largest archaeological preserve in the United States. Wow! That’s a mouthful.
Established in 1906 to preserve the heritage of the original inhabitants, the Pueblo people, the park is like an outdoor museum. Depending on what section of the park you visit, you’ll see nearly 5,000 archeological sites which include the cliff dwellings created from 600 to 1300 CE. The dwellings are so well preserved that it almost seems like the inhabitants left them that morning only to return later that day.
Built beneath overhanging cliffs, the dwellings range form small storage units to structures with up to 150 rooms. You can gaze at the dwellings and imagine a bustling community of villagers going about their lives centuries ago.
Make sure to stop at the visitor center at the entrance to plan your visit depending on what interests you most. There is nothing quite like this anywhere that I know of.
After visiting Mesa Verde National Park you can detour to visit the charming southwestern Colorado towns or continue on your Colorado to Utah road trip to Durango.
Just a half hour east of Mesa Verde is the town of Durango, a cute southwestern town near the New Mexico border. Some people use Durango as a base to visit the nearby attractions like the breathtakingly beautiful San Juan Forest but there is plenty to see and do in Durango itself. The city has a vibrant art scene – visit the Durango Arts Center – and cool restaurants with innnovative cuisine.
One unique, can’t-miss activity in Durango is a ride on the vintage Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. As the name implies, the railroad connects two historic and interesting towns, Durango and Silvertown. It chugs its way along a track that crosses the San Juan Forest so you can see the awesome views from your window. Along the way you learn more about the towns’ history. This makes for a perfect day trip in the area and an ideal addition to your Utah to Colorado road trip.
The best place to stay in Durango is the historic Statler Hotel. It is so historic, in fact, that the hotel’s tag line is “Admit it, you’ve always wanted to spend the night in a museum.” And they’re not kidding. The hotel was built in 1887 and has remained a hotel ever since. It is decorated in period architecture and furniture. You truly feel like Wyatt Earp or some other character from western late1800s will walk in the door at any minute. Spend some time in the hotel’s period saloon where the staff is costumed in late 1800 garb. It’s not just a hotel stay, it is an accommodation experience.
Dinner at the hotel is an excellent option, or you can choose one of the trendy eateries in town like Ken and Sue’s downtown.
Great Sand Dunes National Park
The drive from Durango to your next stop, The Great Sand Dune National Park, is a little over three hours. The road takes you through the San Juan National Forest and Rio Grande National Forest with scenery so beautiful that the 3 1/2 hour drive will feel like minutes. Guaranteed you’ll stop frequently at the overlooks to take photos.
Unless you’ve spent years wandering around the Sahara you have not seen anything like the Great Sand Dunes National Park. This otherworldly park lies against the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The dunes are North America’s highest and are only about 10% of the 330-square-mile deposit of sand. What’s the big deal about a bunch of sand, you say? The dunes are many stories high and you can climb them!
Depending on the season, the melting snow from the mountains flows down to the dunes creating a rushing creek you need to cross in order to get to the dunes. But don’t worry, the “creek” never get higher than your ankles. So, take off your shoes, walk to the dunes and climb them or bring a snowboard and surf the dunes.
The sight of the massive dunes against the backdrop of the snow-capped mountains makes for a great photo op.
Salida is a cute little town about an hour and a half north of the Great Sand Dune National Park. This picturesque town of slightly over 5,000 punches way above its weight when it comes to outdoor sports and adventures. It is also know as “The Heart of the Rockies.”
The other main attraction in Salida is that it is home to the state’s largest National Historic District with 136 – count them, 136 -preserved buildings representing the town’s wild-west past. Some of the hotels in Salida also have a wild-west theme.
For a hearty dinner of homemade Italian fare, you can’t beat Amica Pizza. But don’t let the name fool you. It’s more than a pizza place. Check out the tasty pasta dishes and micro brewery.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
A stellar attraction in the area and the last of the great national parks on your Utah to Colorado road trip is the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.
Picture the height of the Empire State Building. Now double it. Two Empire State buildings, one on top of the other, is still a little less that the total depth of the deepest canyon in the Black Canyon. Edge as close to the canyon rim as you dare, peek over the top and you’ll see an abyss more than 2,700 feet deep in some places. You might feel a bit queasy peering over the edge due to the depth. The Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is small in size but more than makes up for it in spectacular views.
The park has three sections: East Portal, North Rim and South Rim. The overlook distances are short enough that you could walk through them all. All the views are breathtaking but there are three lookout points that can’t be missed: Narrows View, Chasm View and the deepest, Painted Wall View.
The Black Canyon is home to a large variety of fauna but the coyotes are especially numerous. They are largely nocturnal so if you spend the night in the campground, you’ll hear their earie howls way into the night.
Now here’s a change of pace. Head over to Aspen, about 70 miles north of The Black Canyon of the Gunnison, and find yourself in a cosmopolitan, artsy, more up-market city environment.
Aspen is a great place to visit anytime of year but winter is “the season” due to the excellent skiing conditions. Nevertheless, there is plenty to do in any season. The city is a little cultural Mecca in the heart of the Rockies with its museums, music venues, screen and stage performances.
This town of almost 7,500 year-round inhabitants – that number swells in winter – has a beautiful old west-style town center, a nod to the city’s silver mining origins in 1879. The cobblestone streets are lined with high-end, brand name stores, chic restaurants and art galleries.
As can be expected in a trendy town like Aspen, the restaurant scene is varied. There is plenty to choose from down-home western BBQ and steaks to sushi and haute cuisine…with prices to match. One cozy, moderately priced eatery with tasty Italian fare is Brunelleschi’s conveniently located on S. Hopkins which is also Restaurant Row so, if Italian is not your thing, you have many other choices.
And so ends our epic Utah to Colorado road trip. At this point you can head back to the starting point of Steamboat Springs, fly out of Aspen to connect to larger airports, or drive to Denver – the state’s capital about three and a half hours east – with an international airport for worldwide connections.
If you want to dig deeper into the area’s beautiful nature and history, check out these fine reference books.
What are your thoughts on this Utah to Colorado Road Trip? What suggestions do you have to improve it? Let us know in the comments.
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