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  • Writer's pictureShayna Gaman-Bean

Landscapes + Wildlife + Activities = The Adventurers Trifecta: a Colorado Road Trip.

Updated: Oct 26, 2022

"Colorado has always been a good place to find what you're made of." ~ John Hickenlooper

This quote resonates with me for a few reasons:

1. It's so true! We discovered so much about ourselves and what we're capable of on this trip.

2. There is so much history and diversity here, it truly is a magical place. And

3. It's like stepping back in time here when times were more simple.

More on all this down below...

The inspiration for this trip was several things:

1. As many times as we've been to Colorado, it's mostly been a drive through state for us and we've never really explored before.

2. There are so many fun things to explore and so many adventures to do in Colorado..

3. I found super cheap plane tickets to Denver!

So about those super cheap plane tickets.... here's how our adventure went starting with the cliff notes version of where we went:

Stops along the way:

  1. Breckenridge

  2. Alamosa

  3. Great Sand Dunes National Park

  4. Continental Divide

  5. Rio Grande National Park

  6. San Juan National Park

  7. Treasure Falls

  8. Pagosa Springs

  9. Cortez

  10. Mesa Verde National Park

  11. Four Corners

  12. Telluride

  13. Montrose

  14. Black Canyon National Park

  15. Ouray

  16. Glenwood Springs

  17. White River National Forest

  18. Aspen

  19. Vail

  20. Boulder

  21. Rocky Mountain National Park

  22. Broomfield

  23. Denver

Day 1:

Our first day started with at 0230 wakeup call for our 0500 flight. Miraculously, everything went off without a hitch and we made it to the airport on time.

Fortunately, our flight was a quick and easy 2 hours.

We landed safe and sound at 0830 and of course everything after that was complicated:

  1. We couldn’t find our luggage with all our toiletries. After lots of searching and even notifying the staff who said it had arrived and there was nothing more they could do, we found it in the oversized area. Who knows why it was there because it was our small suitcase and weighed <50 pounds, but what was most important was that we found it!!

  2. Getting a rental car was complicated too because the first car was too small so we had to get an upgrade. Then the next car we got the seat belt didn’t work. Fortunately, once again, it all worked out and we ended up with a free upgrade to a Tahoe.

  3. Lastly, the hotel, but that I’ll share later..

Then we were off to find breakfast which was about 20 minutes away. We arrived at Morning Story at about 1100. We had a delicious breakfast of omelettes, French toast and pancakes and then headed back on the road for a 1.5 hour drive to Breckenridge. And what a beautiful drive that was through forests and mountains.

One thing to note, it was very stormy, but at this point we didn’t think much of it.

We got into downtown Breckenridge at about 1400 and noticed right away there was a gondola. Unfortunately, it was closed because thunderstorms were coming…. Again another warning we should have paid attention to, but didn’t. So we decided to wander around and find hot cocoa and a sweater for Mike because he forgot his at home and it was chilly.

We happened upon this cute little coffee shop with all sorts of treats like Nutella stuffed churros. Of course we all got some yummy treats.

Then we started walking down Main St. We quickly found a clothing shop for Mike and he got a nice hat and sweater and the girls got stickers for their water bottles. We wandered around for a while and just took in the beauty of the area.

I started to notice the thunderstorm moving closer, but again, didn’t think much of it. But then it started to rain so hard so we started to head back to the car. Then our of nowhere a huge crash of lighting struck right next to us. It was so loud and startling! Poor Kendall was so upset and crying. It was so close we could smell it! We quickly found cover and waited it out for a few minutes. Then we heard lightning strike a little ways away, so we felt safe to hurry back to the car. I got quite the workout because I had to carry Kendall. Add lightning to the list of things Kendall is now afraid of. HAHA!

Then it was another beautiful and very rainy 2.5 hour drive to Alamosa.

And back to number 3 from above...the hotel: Hampton Inn Alamosa

We arrived at about 1800 and checked in only to find out the toilet wasn’t working and there were no other rooms!! I was so exhausted at this point, but by some miracle, I fixed the toilet and all was well again. Phew! Spoiler alert! We ended up loving this hotel!

Then it was dinner time. We went to Downtown Main St and had a delicious pizza dinner at Purple Pig Pizzeria.

What a great first day of adventures!

Day 2:

We started off with a yummy breakfast at the hotel.

Then we headed to Oasis which is just outside Sand Dunes National Park to rent a sand board. It costs $20 and they also give you wax and some quick instructions on how to best experience the sand dunes..

We headed straight to the Sand Dune Parking which is not far from the entrance to the park.

From there you get an incredible view of the ginormous sand dunes.

Since there was a big storm the night before, there was a disappearing creek right there that was actually reappearing! The water was so clean and warm. Quite a few people were playing in the water.

We arrived at about 1000 and there were quite a few people who were already at the top of the biggest sand dunes. We saw a lot of people congregate in the center, so we went to the right. It was awesome. We had the whole place to ourselves!

We started experimenting with the smaller dunes.

And then worked our way up to some big dunes.

We all took lots of turns and had so much fun there for about 2 hours. It was only about 75 degrees, but since we were working hard walking in the sand and of course had no shade, it felt so hot!

Next we headed to lunch at San Luis Valley Brewery for a delicious lunch.

Then we headed back to the hotel to swim. We had the whole pool and hot tub to ourselves which was awesome!

Then time for some showers and relaxing for the evening.

Day 3:

We started off with another yummy breakfast at the hotel and then packed and headed back to Great Sand Dunes National Park. Unfortunately or fortunately, depending on how you look at it, there was road construction and we weren’t able to get back to the park. So we decided to head onto Cortez and stop at a few places along the way.

First stop was 2 national forests: Rio Grande and San Juan. They are stunningly beautiful mountainous forests.

That took us to our next stop: The Continental Divide.

Then on to Treasure Falls. A beautiful lush waterfall.

Next stop was Pagosa Springs, which is where we spent most of our time.

Before getting there you get an incredible view of the whole valley from an outlook, so definitely stop there!

I’ll start with the good stuff about Pagosa Springs:

  1. The tubing on the river with the hot springs was so much fun!!! We rented inner tubes at Pagosa Outside Adventure. We rented 2 for about $50 for a couple hours. The hot springs were so HOT, way hotter than a typical hot tub. But wow did they make the river water feel amazing!

  2. There was a great froyo place called PS FroYo. I would recommend.

  3. The surrounding area is stunningly beautiful

Now for some not so good stuff:

  1. They definitely don’t like tourists here!

  2. We were almost run over here several times and I’m pretty sure they did it on purpose.

  3. We had lunch at the restaurant Riff Raff Brewery. Now the food was very good, but we waited over an hour for food and the staff was the rudest and most passive aggressive I’ve ever met. We almost walked out, but we didn’t because we were starving at this point. I will definitely be writing a bad review and will never recommend this place, but nevertheless, not every experience can be great, right?

After playing in the river for a while we were off to Corez.

We got in about 1900, got some fast food for dinner and then went swimming and then put the kids to bed.

Mike and I went for a late night workout and then headed to bed.

Another amazing day!!

Day 4:

Today was our Mesa Verde Day!

Of course I did enough research to know we needed a reservation for Long House, but totally neglected to read the ticket that said to allow yourself 1.5 hours to get there.

Oddly enough, my instinct was to get there at 0900 and a park ranger quickly told us we need to hurry and get there.

And that is what we did!!

We went as fast as possible down the 20-something mile super slow and windy road. We got caught behind slow cars several times. The views were amazing as we drove higher and higher into the park. Honestly, it was one of the most expansive views I’ve ever seen.

By some miracle we made it to the parking lot for Long House at 1000 and then headed out on the 3/4 mile hike to the entrance of the tour. It was a total miracle we made it on time, literally at 1030. Mike went ahead of us to let them know we were coming while I was slathering sunscreen on the kids.

When we got to the tour and our guide made sure to tell us several times how strenuous the hike was, but it was not the 5 mile hike I was thinking it would be. It was only about 1/4 mile, but strenuous nonetheless.

But we made it and Long House itself was awesome.

The alcove is so cool and we learned how they created a sort of first type of AC. It was amazing learning how they lived here for 700 years and traded with communities as far away as South America.

The caverns were created because the sandstone is porous and allows water to collect in it. As the water freezes and expands in the winter and melts and contracts in the summer it causes stones to break off. Here the kids are sitting on some sandstone that had broken off.

This water also served as one source of their water where they had a natural spring.

The rooms were called kivas and were usually round, but did come in other shapes. They used stone to make everything. Simply amazing.

The tour was so imformative and lasted about 1 hour.

Then the hike out started. It was tough, but we all did it no problem.

Then off to lunch at one of my favorites so far: Loungin Lizard. Food, drinks, and service were great. I loved the Limoncello drink.

But on the way there we ended up following this cute little guy:

Then a quick pit stop at the hotel and then onto the Four Corners. The drive was only about 45mins and when you got there it was $8/person. It was so hot 104 degrees and there was a line, but it moved quickly because there is a 3 picture limit.

Then back to the hotel for a nice swim.

Day 5:

Another great hotel breakfast and then we packed up and hit the road.

It’s amazing how quickly it changed from a desert to mountains and forest again. It was a beautiful 1.5 hour drive to Telluride.

In Telluride, we had a delicious lunch at Oak, The New Fat Alley BBQ and then headed up the free gondola to Mountain Village.

Telluride is definitely a fun place to explore. The ski slopes turn into mountain bike runs in the summer and it was so much fun to watch the bikers.

The kids got some ice cream at Tracks Cafe & Bar. This was the most expensive ice cream we’ve ever had ($10/single scoop with one topping!), but it was good! We then wandered around town a little.

And then headed back to the car to head to Montrose to check into the hotel.

We checked into Red Arrow exactly at 1600, quickly dropped off our luggage and then headed to Black Canyon National Park.

The canyon is impressive! Very steep and deep.

We stopped at several points that tested my fear of heights to take some pictures.

My favorite spot was Painted Wall.

By now it was about 1900 and we were all getting hungry and tired so we headed to McDs for dinner.

Then a quick Safeway run and relaxing at the hotel.

Day 6:

This started off as an early day for us because we had our Gladiator Jeep Tour with Colorado West Jeeps from 0800-1200 and the plan was to the do the Imogene Pass which is the 2nd highest drivable pass in the continental US. Apparently the highest is only like 40 feet higher, so it pretty much is the highest peak!

Ouray was about 45 minutes away from our hotel so we left pretty early to make it on time.

The town is absolutely beautiful, nestled in between picturesque mountains, it’s easy to tell how it got its name “The Switzerland of America.”

We left for our tour at 0800 and the weather was beautiful. We started with everyone but me riding in the back. I rode in the cab and had a very interesting conversation with Rich the tour guide. He’s been doing this forever and is very experienced. We felt very comfortable with him.

We made several stops along the way up and learned about the history of the area that was used for mining gold and silver. They are still currently mining silver and might start mining for gold again too.

The drive gets intense pretty quickly and it wasn’t long before the kids were in the cab and just Mike and I were in the back.

The wildflowers now are stunning and we saw a lot of the Columbine flower and another fun one was Miner’s sock which literally smells like a rotten sock. HAHA!

We saw lots of deer and marmots. The marmots are adorable and so curious!.

We made it to the tree line which is at about 11,500 feet and hung out for a while looking for a moose family. We never saw them, but that’s ok, because it was spectacular to view nonetheless.

By now the ride was getting pretty bumpy and testing my fear of heights. Apparently it’s a category 4 out of 5 and it’s hard for me to believe there’s one more intense.

I was also amazed at how many people do this solo and with young kids and we even saw a guy running the pass all by himself!

It took over 2 hours to get there, just 10 miles from where we started, but we made it to 13144 feet! Such amazing views from up here!

At the top you can see Red Mountain, red from iron deposits.

And Ptarmigan Lake, a fissure lake, so the depth isn’t known.

You can also see Snuffle Peak which is the highest at 14150 feet.

After admiring the view for a while, it was time to start heading down. Going down the mountain was definitely a little scarier, but still super fun.

The way down was a lot quicker and during the drive back we noticed the clouds were starting to roll in which ended up being the beginnings of an impressive thunderstorm..

We headed to lunch at Ouray Brewing Company where we waited out this super intense thunderstorm. The poor kids were pretty traumatized from the thunderstorm we experienced on day one, so they were happy to hang out inside for a little while.

Lunch was delicious! We had hoped to head to Box Canyon Falls, but because of the storm we decided to head back to the hotel.

We took some much needed naps, then headed back to Black Canyon and drove the East Portal down into the canyon.

And then we went back to Painted Wall for sunset and some beautiful pics.

The sunset, which I was not able to fully capture because Kendall almost lost her phone, was one of the most stunning I’ve ever seen. It was the craziest shade of hot pink! You can almost make it out in the picture below.

Mike and I decided to go to a late night dinner at a Mexican Restaurant right next to our hotel. It was pretty liberating for us to have a date night while on vacay with kids!

Day 7:

Today was our last big travel day. We were headed to Broomfield.

We decided to stop in Glenwood Springs to explore and go the Hanging Lake. We were able to get a Hanging Lake reservation for 1630, which was kind of late, but we decided it was worth it.

Glenwood Springs is one of my favorite towns for sure! So much to do there: whitewater rafting, an amusement park at the top of the mountain with gondola access, really nice hot springs public pool, lots of great restaurants, fly fishing day trips, etc. I definitely want to come back to this place.

Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to do anything other than lunch, froyo, and the hike.

We went to lunch at Glenwood Canyon Brewpub. Another awesome restaurant! Then froyo at Pinwills.

Then off to Hanging Lake.

So, we knew it was 1.2 miles each way with 1200 foot climb in elevation, but we thought no problem. Honestly, it was a lot harder than I expected, but it was so worth it!! The kids were amazing!! They didn’t even complain at all!

It was a long, tough hike, but we made it

If I could do it all over again, I would go in morning light. You can see the turquoise water better in that lighting. After admiring the lake for a while, we headed to Spouting Rock, just a little further. It’s an awesome waterfall.

It took us 3 hours round trip to do the hike, which is how long the website said it would take. Plus you want to hang out and admire the lake and waterfall for a while.

After hiking back down we headed to McDonald’s for dinner and then hit the road for a long 3 hour drive through Aspen and Vale to Broomfield. We got in about 2300 and crashed.

Day 8:

Today we had another relatively early start since we had to be at Rocky Mountain for our reservation at 1000 and it takes an hour to get there from the hotel.

We got there at about 1030 and there was a crazy long line. It took about 45 minutes to get into the park but from there it was pretty smooth sailing.

We parked at the park n ride and took a shuttle to the Bear Lake Trailhead. Of course when we arrived there was a ton of parking even though we took the shuttle because we were told the lot was full.

From there we hiked 3.6 miles roundtrip.

Starting with Bear Lake:

Then to Nymph Lake:

Next to Dream Lake:

and then the final destination: Emerald Lake:

The hike was easier than yesterday’s but still challenging with a pretty big climb in elevation. Each lake is progressively more beautiful with lots of beautiful views in between.

We didn’t see much wildlife except for chipmunks and deer and there were just so many people it was actually quite annoying walking on the trail.

We finished our hike around 1600 and headed to dinner at Smokin' Daves BBQ. The food and drinks were so good!

Then back to the hotel for an evening swim and and early bedtime since we were up early for hot air ballooning the next day.

Day 9:

Today started super early with our 0600 hot air balloon ride with Rocky Mountain Balloon Rides.

We met at a field and launched around 0700. The sunrise was stunning and weather was perfect.

We had a very smooth flight up to 3000 feet above the ground and going about 14 miles. Great views of the Rockies and towns below. Such a beautiful area.

The landing was super smooth in a field. Kids did great the whole time! They brought us a bottle of champagne and “kid” champagne which we saved for later.

Then we went to a delicious breakfast at Goodfellas and then back to the hotel for naps.

After naps we went swimming.

Then headed back to Rocky Mountain for some animal viewing.

We got there at about 1700 and saw lots of activity, including lots of birds, marmots, deer and finally a big herd of female and male elk. So incredible to see the males up close! Evening is such a great time to go to the parks since there are few people and lots of animals out and about.

We drove all the way up to the tundra and hiked around a little.

But had to turn back early because of another thunderstorm coming.

We got stuck in a ton of traffic on the way back to the hotel, thanks to some road construction, but we managed to stay up late to enjoy our champagne from hot air ballooning.

Day 10:

Thanks to the late night the night before, we slept in pretty late.

After checkout, we decided to go to a nearby imax theater to see Thor. Loved the theater, thanks to the comfy seats, and movie was great too!

Then to lunch at Gordon Beirsch and off to Denver.

This aquarium is spectacular!! So new and modern and the exhibits are awesome: a tiger, sharks, all sorts of interesting fish!!

We were there about 2 hours then we headed to the airport.

We dropped off the rental car, checked in to our flight and went through a very long security line.

Unfortunately, there was crazy weather and our flight as delayed.

But we made the most of it and had a delicious dinner and drinks and then headed on the plane.

We were technically in the air at 0030 when Mike turned 45, but then landed at 2330, so we joked that Mike got 2 birthdays.

We safely made it home and unpacked the car and loved on the cats and bunnies.

Such an amazing trip, but so glad to be home.



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