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Rocky Mountain Road Trip: Best Things To See & Do From Denver To Telluride

Rocky Mountain Road Trip: Best Things To See & Do From Denver To Telluride

Special Thanks LISA WRIGHT

See the best of the Rockies with this quintessential road trip from the Mile High City of Denver to the bustling town of Telluride.

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There’s no better way to experience the Rockies than on one of Colorado’s most iconic road trips from the Mile High City of Denver to the preserved mining town and hip, the small city of Telluride. Full of quirky, small-town stops and breathtaking natural sights along the way, this amazing two-day itinerary takes travelers deep into the heart of some of CO’s best Rocky Mountain scenery. Fully customizable and with plenty of optional stops along the way, this breathtaking journey is set to the backdrop of one of North America’s most iconic mountain ranges—and gives visitors the chance to experience the best of Colorado’s frontier past while enjoying the cool, small town vibes of its present—all in one memorable trip.

RELATED:What To Know Before Camping In Rocky Mountain National Park

Denver To Telluride: The Details

Though there are two major routes from Denver to Telluride—via I-70 West or US Highway 285 South—the 285 route is by far more scenic. Traveling through charming small towns and cities; stunning natural attractions; and quirky, offbeat stops, the 285 South route winds its way through both the Pike and San Isobel National Forests and is a bit more off the beaten track—the perfect way for visitors to experience both the eclectic sights and the jaw-dropping mountain scenery of the Rocky Mountains. And while the following itinerary can easily be completed in one day, it’s best that travelers take at least two days to fully soak up the singular beauty of this CO road trip. Note: The following distance and drive time does not include optional stops.

  • The Main Route: US Hwy 285 South, then US-50 West to Telluride
  • Total Distance: About 330 miles
  • Total Drive Time: >Seven Hours
  • Recommended Travel Time: Minimum Two Days

Red Rocks: Welcome To The Rockies

The first stop on this amazing itinerary is a trip to the Red Rocks Park and Amphitheater, about a half hour from Denver. Feel free to stop and explore—snap some photos of the impressive amphitheater and marvel at the stunning views, or stroll one of the nearby trails—or simply enjoy the scenic drive ringed by steep, red-stoned canyons.

Optional Stop(s): Tiny Town and Kenosha Pass

One of the best reasons to take the US Hwy 285 South route to Telluride is the multitude of fun, quirky stops along the way—and one such stop is Tiny Town, undoubtedly one of Colorado’s most must-see, off-the-beaten-track attractions. A literal “tiny town” consisting of a (100 building!) miniature village and mini railway, this fun stop is a CO roadside icon.

From Tiny Town, continue South on US-285 for about an hour before reaching the Kenosha Pass (those that want to skip Tiny Town can get here via Hwy 470 instead). One of the most scenic stretches along the route; the Kenosha Pass gradually gains elevation as it winds its way alongside lovely Aspen forests that give way to a vast landscape of mesas below—a picture postcard of some of the state’s best scenery. Be sure to stop at one of the many viewpoints along the way for some great photo ops!

RELATED:10 Places To Find Colorado's Best River Tubing

Fishing In Fairplay And Exploring The Real South Park

About a half hour from Kenosha Pass is the lovely town of Fairplay, known as the trout fishing capital of the state—so drop a line for an hour or two, or simply stop and grab an early lunch or snack and a delish cup of coffee. Both The Java Moose and Mr. Burro’s Café are popular options for an early afternoon bite and cup of joe.

After lunch, it’s time to head on down to South Park—a historic city on the edge of Fairplay and, yes, the namesake of the popular animated show. However, fans won’t find Stan, Kyle, Kenny, or Cartman here—just a recreation of an 1890s mining town and an open-air museum where visitors can learn all about the area’s history Gold Rush past. There’s also a guided tour and locomotive (and a nearby cut-out honoring the animated show—photo op!)

Optional Stop(s): Historic Rocky Mountain Towns Along US-285

Fairplay and South Park are about an hour from the trip’s halfway point, Salida, so visitors can opt for a more direct route to save time and settle in for an afternoon/evening of exploring. However, the route to Salida is dotted with small towns that have a historic charm all their own; and those with more time may want to stop at one (or more) along the way for an immersive look at Gold Rush-era Colorado towns that still exist today.

  • At the south entrance of the Boreas Pass lies Como, a former mining spot and erstwhile ghost town with plenty of historical highlights and scenic beauty.
  • Hartsel, aka “The Heart of Colorado” because of its location at the geographic center of the state, is a former ranching town now known for its outdoor recreation.
  • A former riverside resort destination, Shawnee is now a very small hillside town overlooking the valley and is home to a general store and historic post office.

An Overnight Stay That’s Halfway To Telluride

Salida is a great place to stop for the night because it’s almost halfway between Denver and Telluride—and its location near the Arkansas River makes it a bastion for outdoor enthusiasts. However, Salida is also full of cool mountain town vibes, which can be seen throughout its hip downtown area.

  • Check out Salida’s craft beer scene with a visit to the local fave Soulcraft Brewing.
  • Grab a bite at the Boathouse, located along the banks of the Arkansas River and serving up Baja Mexican classics; or head to Amica’s for wood-fired pie (and another local brew or two)
  • Stay the night at the Manhattan Hotel, a self-service boutique lodging in the heart of downtown.

Next Day Salida Optional Stop(s): Hiking At Monarch Mountain (30 mins); Princeton Hot Springs (25 minutes)

Picturesque Gunnison And The Blue Mesa Reservoir

Start the day by further exploring scenic downtown Salida, then head out of town for breakfast along US-50 at Robin’s Restaurant on the way to Gunnison, just a short 45-minute drive from scenic Monarch Mountain. An old mining/cattle town, Gunnison is situated at the heart of the Rockies, and its picturesque downtown is definitely worth a look.

  • The Gunnison Pioneer Museum is a great way to learn about 1890s frontier life.
  • Stroll through the scenic Western Colorado University campus
  • Grab a to-go lunch at Firebrand Delicatessen (recommended for a picnic at Blue Mesa Reservoir)
  • Head to CO’s largest body of water, the Blue Mesa Reservoir (25 minutes). Relax on the shore (and enjoy your picnic!) after enjoying water sports like kayaking, paddle boarding, and windsurfing; then hit the road for a scenic drive to the top of the Blue Mesa Dam for the best panoramic views

Optional Stop(s): Bachelor Syracuse Mine On Gold Mountain (one hour+ from Blue Mesa)

Ridgeway: The Gateway To The San Juan Mountains

Though Ridgeway is just an hour-long drive (and climb!) away from Telluride, it’s a nice place to stop and explore—historic, charming, and packed with a number of recreational opportunities; this quintessential Colorado small town is an idyllic penultimate stop.

  • Have a soak in the Orvis Hot Springs
  • Take a True Grit Walking Tour and see scenic spots where the movie was filmed in and around Ridgeway.
  • Explore the Ridgeway Creative District
  • Tour the Ridgeway Railroad Museum
  • Grab a taco at Gnarly Tacos
  • Head to Telluride for an unforgettable day (or two!)

RELATED: Glamping In Colorado? Check Out These 10 Luxe Campsites

The journey from Denver to Telluride is a microcosm of some of Colorado’s most iconic sights: set to the imposing and breathtaking backdrop of the Rocky Mountains, this two (or three!) day itinerary takes visitors back in time to the state’s Gold Rush past by visiting some of its most charming small towns; stops at some of its most iconic, scenic spots where outdoor recreation is king; and offers a plethora of quirky, optional stops for a signature CO itinerary that’s an immersive journey into the heart of the Centennial State.


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