I could reel off a bunch of Colorado Facts that are currently stuck to my fridge in a bid to convince you to take a Colorado road trip, but I’ll focus on one.
The summer heritage sport of Colorado is Pack Burro Racing. A burro is a donkey in Spanish. The burro owner runs alongside their donkey, who carries a pack containing at least a pick, gold pan and a shovel (lol). This tradition honours the Colorado miners, who would walk along their donkeys that would be loaded with goods, gold and more. The race is between 12 and 29 miles. What a choice for a heritage sport. Don’t you want to see what else is on offer?
Outside of the US, most people volunteer the name of ski haven Aspen, when we mentioned we lived in Colorado. Only Colorado is treacherous for avalanches. In 2018-2019 there were 4,273 slides recorded. The state attracts the crème de la crème of skiers to the powdery snow bliss, so prone to avalanches. However, this Colorado road trip is crafted for those not so adept at sliding down mountains, but more keen on what is hidden below the heaps of snow.
Aspens. The leaves of Aspen trees quiver in the wind. Shimmering green in summer and gold in Autumn. There are 58 fourteeners, or 58 mountains reaching 14,000 ft or higher. The trails up those mountains and Aspen foliage are revealed only late spring onward. Additionally some roads are only accessible May onward and yet there’s still some permanently snow-capped mountains to marvel.
Colorado is more than a pinch rural, a generous serving of nature and smattering of class planted by the remnants of the gold rush.
Part of our Feasible Road Trips from Denver, Colorado in 6 hours a day or less series
Each region of the US mid-west is weaved from a complex amalgamation of history, geology and the immigrants it attracted during different eras. We’ll show you the best of Colorado and the towns marked and populated by the Gold Rush. Then Utah a region swamped in fossils and landscapes dreamed up from Sci-fi movies. Moving up through the farms and planes of Nebraska and the Dakotas and Southwards to the adobe architecture of New Mexico (which only become a US state in 1912!).
We’ve been lucky enough to venture out of Denver in almost all directions and this is your short guide to 5 feasible road trips from the Mile-High City. Let’s take a look at a trip into the Colorado Rocky Mountains.
Our Other Feasible Road Trips from Denver:
#2 Colorado Road Trip | Aspen to Gunnison (this post)
When, Where, How Long to Visit Colorado
When to Go?
You can opt to visit Colorado Rocky Mountains both in the summer and winter. A road trip is more enjoyable in late Spring through Autumn though, as you’ll avoid the heaps of snow. Once we waiting for 6 hours, while avalanche mitigation commandeered the only pass to Crested Butte. A journey that would have been 6 hours, turned into a 12 hour one.
Spring: until the end of May there may still be snow. Spring is known as mud season, so hiking deep in the rockies (not the foothills) means sludgy hikes. From June onwards the snow is sufficiently melted.
Summer: a rare opportunity to drive through Kebler Pass connecting Crested Butte to Aspen. The pass is open May to October. At 10,000 feet no one plows it the rest of the year. For hikers this season is opportune for scaling the hefty mountain trails (Maroon Bells, Mt Elbert).
Autumn: Aspens glisten in the summer, but when their leaves shed gold is a whole other ball park. Autumn is also cooler than sweltering Colorado summers, so hikers can perhaps set off a little later.
Winter: A stunning time to ski or just watch the snow. Not the ideal time to road trip, but with a 4×4 it can be done. Monarch pass between Gunnison and Salida offers some stunning mountain views. Note that winter in Aspen is expensive and so are most of the activities.
How Many Days?
You’ll need 3 to 4 nights for the Colorado road trip between Aspen and Gunnison. You can comfortably drive 4 hours a day and visit the region with this schedule.
Where to Stay?
From Denver you can reach Aspen or Glenwood Springs withing 4 hours. This should be your first overnight stop in the mountains. There are plenty of outlying towns too that offer budget prices. We stayed in The Historic Redstone Inn, a heritage building originally built to lodge coal workers for Colorado Fuel & Iron. The hotel is nestled amongst a row of miner’s family cottages and across the road from a string of coking ovens (see picture above).
(Optional extra night near Aspen if your hoping to complete a couple of hikes).
On the second night you can loop round to Crested Butte or Gunnison. If you have time, Kebler’s Pass (open May-Oct) connects Aspen to Crested Butte. Stay somewhere near the Southern or Northern Black Canyon Rim. The canyon hikes are on the Northern Rim and you’ll need a wildlife permit for the day. Between the North and South Rim is a couple of hours drive.
Third night somewhere near Gunnison Canyon. After spending the day in the Canyon it’s good to set up camp somewhere nearby. The drive back to Denver is between 4hr 30mins- 5hr 30mins.
Colorado Road Trip Highlights
There were more private jets parked on the Aspen land strip than I’ve seen my whole live. It’s a little piece of Europe in the Colorado mountains. We loved the rotisserie chicken board for two at the Meat and Cheese. There are constant Aspen festivals to browse or you can get a summer gondola up Snowmass.
The rock on these mountains is a reddish purple because the 2 rocks, shale and silt-stone, contain rusted iron particles. There’s medium to difficult hikes up both these peaks. Equally, you’ll get ravishing views of the mountains from the bottom.
Black Gunnison Canyon (National Park)
One of the 4 National Parks in Colorado, Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park gets just a handful of the tourists that swarm to Rocky Mountains National Park. The canyon is dwarfed in comparison to the Grand Canyon, but the jagged rocky edges offer a truly dramatic view. There are Class V rapids in the valley and only a select few choose/ and are able to kayak it each year. You need a Wilderness Permit to hike in the inner canyon for safety reasons.
Note of caution: it’s windy and sunny. People saw my underwear and the back of my legs were burnt raw. Lather on that sun protector and wear leggings or shorts.
Crested Butte (Kebler Pass)
Crested Butte mountain looks just like a coiffed edge of the Male Grease Lightning Cast’s hair. The top peak folds over slightly at the top. That view is why the ski prices are sky high in this resort. Down in the village there are a handful of great lunch and brunch restaurants. We queued for Sunflower. It was delectable.
Marble and Crystal
As we stayed East of the Maroon Bells, (about a 30 mins drive to Aspen) we were right on the doorstep of Marble. Marble is a tiny mountain town that rose to fame via Instagram shots of an abandoned water mill. The Crystal Mill is only accessible via 4×4, but you must also have a sizeable gap between the wheels and car (alas our Jeep Patriot didn’t make it). Whether you reach the mill or not, the dirt road dips through the mountains, passes crystal clear lakes and reaches a bubbling stream of fresh blue water. The Aspens are pretty stunning too.
Tips for your Colorado Road Trip
- Watch a couple of Westerns before heading out to Gold Rush central. Try Tombstone (1993) based on events of outlaw gangs in the town Tombstone. Also The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018) by the Coen Brothers knits together a series of fictional short stories in the Wild West and is available on Netflix.
- It costs $30 dollars per car to enter Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. Buying the annual pass for $80 is worthwhile if you will visit more national parks.
- Get petrol wherever you see it, because there are long stretches of no gas stations. Like most of America, read our 8 Lessons from the USA for more on that!