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6-Day Southwest Colorado Loop Road Trip: Visit 3 National Parks, 6 National Forests, Fun Mountain Towns

    black canyon of the gunnison colorado

    Colorado is noted for its wide range of landscapes; breath-taking mountains, beautiful forests, high plains, spacious mesas, stunning canyons, plateaus, rivers, and desert lands. You can easily plan four vacations for your big family to cover the beauty of Colorado; Denver, Northwest Colorado, Southwest Colorado, and of course a ski vacation. 

    We put together a six-day itinerary that loops through 3 National Parks, 6 National Forests, 2 divide passes, and fun mountain towns. This route includes gorgeous drives throughout the state. Colorado mountain highways can be a bit hair-raising to those not used to massive road shoulder drop-offs but the planned route has tried to keep that factor to a minimum. Safe Travels!

    Day 1: Denver to Colorado Springs

    Start your day off early! We’ve got a lot planned, starting with a drive down to Colorado Springs. Drive time is around an hour and a half give or take for traffic and construction. Activities for this first day include the Garden of the Gods and the Cheyenne Zoo.  Both activities will take 2-3 hours to enjoy although Your Mileage May Vary (YMMV). You can decide which attraction to visit first.

    garden of the gods colorado

    Garden of the Gods is a registered National Natural Landmark that is free to visit. The loop through the park is about seven miles with 16 parking lots to give you a chance to enjoy the scenery and stretch your legs.  There are seventeen rock formations of red, pink, and white sandstone and limestone. Twenty-three trails are available to hike. The Ridge Trail is only half a mile while the Chambers/Bretag/Palmer Trail clocks in at around 3 miles. We suggest you schedule about 2 hours to cover the park and the visitors’ center. Read our 10 Tips for Visiting the park.

    Cheyenne Mountain Zoo has been named the #4 Best Zoo in North America by USA TODAY 10 Best Readers’ Choice Awards. This mountainside attraction has one of the largest reticulated giraffe herds and allows visitors to hand-feed them. With its distinctive elevation of 6,714, you’ll discover wild animals, engaging exhibits, and educational attractions. You can visit the 800+ animals 365 days a year. Read our tips for visiting this great zoo.

    Enjoy a night at Great Wolf Lodge in Colorado Springs


    Day 2: Colorado Springs to Durango

    great sand dunes colorado

    Day two starts with a 2.5-hour drive to Great Sand Dunes National Park. Seemingly out of place in the San Luis Valley, the park has 5 billion cubic meters of sand and is the tallest dunes in North America. Which, when you leave, you might feel like you’re taking 3 of those 5 in your kids’ shoes.

    Buy a U.S. Park Pass when you arrive as you’ll use it at two more parks during this trip.

    While the park has multiple trails, the most fun is probably sand sledding and sandboarding. You can rent equipment before entering the park. Plan on spending at least two hours at the park. Be aware that during the summer months, the sand temperature can reach 150 degrees Fahrenheit.

    After visiting the park, check out Colorado Gators, a short 22-mile drive west.

    Depending on when you started your day, you may want to eat a packed lunch or visit Alamosa to eat.

    From Alamosa, drive west on Highway 160 to Durango. Travel time is around 3.5 hours. A few places to stop and stretch your legs include Treasure Falls, located about 15 miles northeast of Pagosa Springs. Be aware that there isn’t a turn lane into the parking lot located on your left. You’ll want to pull off to the right and cross the highway into the lot. There are a couple of hiking options to the falls, although they aren’t visible from the parking lot. The energy of the falls will vary depending on the time of the year related to the amount of snowmelt.

    Twenty miles past Pagosa Springs, you’ll find Chimney Rock National Monument. Historical sites include the Great Kiva, Pit House, Great House Pueblo, and Ridge House. Chimney Rock covers seven square miles and preserves 200 ancient homes and ceremonial buildings. Restrooms, guided tours, and self-guided tours are available. You can visit the site by taking Highway 151, the entrance is located 3 miles south. This stop can add 1-2 hours to the trip.

    durango colorado

    Day 3: Durango

    A full day is dedicated to Durango so your family can fully enjoy the offerings of this scenic town. Enjoy the beautiful surrounding landscape of sandstone bluffs and the San Juan Mountains. Explore Durango’s Western heritage and outdoor activities. 

    Find big family hotels in Durango

    Day 4: Mesa Verde National Park/Telluride/Montrose

    On your fourth day, you’ll want to rise early to make the short trip over to Mesa Verde National Park. From Durango, the park is a short 30-minute drive.

    mesa verde colorado

    Mesa Verde National Park was established to protect the 600 cliff dwellings and part of the nearly 5,000 known archaeological sites found within the park. It is the only park that protects man-made works instead of only nature.

    Depending on your crew and how much you cover, your visit could be 3-4 hours or longer. Read our guide and tips

    The next stop is Telluride. After Mesa Verde, you’ll want to stop in Cortez to eat/fuel up/ grocery shop. Or you might want to try to eat in Telluride. Travel time to cover highways 160 and 145 is less than two hours.

    The scenery is immensely fantastic. We found ourselves stating that “I could live there”. And there, and there, and here. How about you?

    Telluride is definitely a tourist town. Formally a Victorian mining town, it’s now a place to be seen as you enjoy the scenery. The San Juan Mountains surrounding Telluride contain the highest concentration of 13 and 14 thousand foot peaks in Colorado.

    telluride colorado

    Winter is prime time for the highly-rated ski resort. During the summer, there’s no shortage of outdoor activities – hiking, rock climbing, mountain biking, SUP boarding and so much more. After you walk the downtown area consider one of the following activities.

    Since Telluride is a highly touristy area and accommodations can be pricey, you’ll drive 1.5 hours to Montrose to spend the night. Follow highways 145, 62, and 550.

    Side note –  Not included in this loop, Highway 550, from Silverton and Ouray, has been called the Million Dollar HighwayWhile the road has incredible views with some of the steepest shoulder drop-offs with no guardrails, it is considered one of the most dangerous roads in the US.  

    Depending on how much time you spent at Mesa Verde and Telluride, your arrival to Montrose might be late in the day. If you arrive with enough time, visit the Ute Indian Museum. It’s a perfect way to end the day.

    Find big family hotels in Montrose

    Day 5: Montrose to Gunnison

    Up and at ’em! Today we’ve got another fun-filled day!

    Magnificent views of the stunning Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park are first on the agenda. Located seven miles northeast of Montrose at the intersection of Highway 347 and Highway 50, Black Canyon of the Gunnison was established as a national monument in 1933 and became a national park in 1999. Your family can cover the park in 2-4 hours depending on how much you hike and how many overlooks you stop at. We recently visited and have a full guide with 12 tips to help you plan a visit.

    The afternoon can be spent at Curecanti National Recreation Area located an hour east of the national parkThis 43,095-acre park is composed of three reservoirs, including Blue Mesa Reservoir, the largest body of water in the state. Although there aren’t any designated swimming beaches, there are places you can drive down to the beach to wade in the water. Be aware that the average summer temperature is 65 degrees Fahrenheit. NPS suggests the following swim spots: Bay of Chickens, Dry Creek, and Old Highway 50 beach. We found the below spot off Highway 50 after the bridge for Lake Fork to be a good spot.

    Lunch at the lake and time spent at the water will help tire out the kids for the next leg of the trip.

    Continue east on Highway 50 to Gunnison. You might have enough time to drive up north on Highway 135 to explore Crested Butte and time to explore Gunnison to round out your day. Drive time between Curecanti and Crested Butte is an hour.

    After you walk Elk Avenue in Crested Butte, you can visit the Crested Butte Mountain Heritage Museum or relax at Rainbow Park. During the winter months, Crested Butte Mountain Resort boasts 1000+ skiable acres. In summer, mountain bikers can explore 750 miles of trails. 

    Travel back to Gunnison to spend the night.

    If you chose to explore Gunnison, visit Pioneer Museum or the Gunnison Valley Observatory.

    Find Big Family Hotels in Gunnison

    Day 6: Option 1 – Gunnison, Manitou Springs, Denver

    As you work your way back up to Denver, you have two routes you can take. You can meander your way through heading east on Highway 50, hitting Poncha Springs, taking Highway 285 north to Johnson Village and Antero Junction, and then adding Highway 24 to Manitou Springs. This route takes about 3 hours, allowing your family to enjoy one of the following activities.

    Any of the above activities will tire your crew out and you’ll find the 1.5-hour ride back to Denver really quiet.

    Day 6: Option 2 – Gunnison, Cañon City, Denver

    From Gunnison, your second option is to drive through Cañon City, Pueblo, and then up to Denver. This route allows your family to explore two well-known Colorado attractions.

    • Royal Gorge Bridge and ParkBuilt in 1929, the Royal Gorge Bridge spans over 880 feet across the gorge. At 956 feet high, it is one of the world’s highest suspension bridges. Today the park includes more than 360 acres and 21 rides, shows, and attractions to explore. Read our visit and tips for visiting the Royal Gorge.

    From Cañon City, Denver is a 2.5-hour drive.  

    Colorado is home to 11 national forests that can be found throughout the Rocky Mountains. All of these forests are unique in their own right (you’ll notice differences) and cover over 24 million acres across the state. During this road trip you’ll pass through:

    • San Isabel National Forest
    • Gunnison National Forest
    • Grand Mesa National Forest
    • Pike National Forest
    • Rio Grande National Forest
    • San Juan National Forest

    This loop includes the following Continental Divide Passes:

    • Wolf Creek Pass (Hwy 160) 10857 feet
    • Monarch Pass (Hwy 50) 11312 feet

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    Theresa Jorgensen

    Theresa Jorgensen is a mother to four children including twins. She recognized the necessity for a comprehensive resource of hotels that cater to big families with rooms and suites for 5, 6, 7, or 8 people in a single room while traveling with her own family. In 2008, she established SixSuitcaseTravel to compile a database of such hotels. Over time, the website has grown to include travel advice, itineraries, road trip suggestions, national park guides, and more. Theresa takes pleasure in assisting other big families in creating unforgettable travel experiences.