Colorado road trip via Rocky Mountain NP

Colorado road trip via Rocky Mountain NP

Big Thompson Canyon

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This wonderfully scenic road trip starts out at a once-dry city now famous for its beers (so best to spend the night there). From here it makes its way high up into the Rocky Mountains, taking in an unforgettable drive along the highest continuous paved highway in the USA. Descend to a historic western town by the side of a lake and end up at one of the country’s oldest hot spring resorts – road trips don’t get much better than this.

This route was first published in 2011 on RoadTrip America. To see this piece in its original form (together with interactive map) and hundreds of other route suggestions covering North America, visit

Here are some of the highlights to look out for along the way:

Fort Collins, Colorado (Starting point)
Considering Fort Collins was a ‘dry’ city until as recently as 1969, it’s kind of ironic that what attracts many visitors these days is its many breweries. For a slightly more off-beat attraction, visit Swetsville Zoo, a park full of sculptures created from recycled metal.

Big Thompson Canyon Road (mile 36)
The mountains may be your goal but don’t be in so much of a hurry that you fail to look around and appreciate the beauty of this stunning 9-mile drive through Big Thompson Canyon.

Estes Park (mile 48)
The roads may grind to a standstill at peak season and it may be packed with cheap souvenir stores but Estes Park still manages to retain the laid-back feel of a traditional mountain resort. As well as being the ideal base from which to explore the Rocky Mountain NP, it also has everything you need to spend your evening wined, dined and entertained. Be sure to stop by the Stanley Hotel and check out the view from the back veranda – It’s one of the most stunning views of the Rockies…

Rocky Mountain National Park HQ (mile 51)
If you’ve got time to explore a little, stop in here for maps and advice on trails. Bear Lake is nice and easy, and extraordinarily picturesque too. Even if you’re just passing through, the road you’re about to travel the Trail Ridge Road, is a destination in its own right, offering quite sensational views of the Rockies’ magnificent peaks and valleys as it reaches elevations of up to 12,183 ft.

Old Fall River Road (mile 54)
Another way to experience the park is to drive Old Fall River Road. Just 9 miles long, this narrow road was the first motor route to cross the Rocky Mountain NP. It’s steep in places with a number of tight curves but take it nice and slow (it’s one-way only so there’s no on-coming traffic) and you’ll be treated to some of the park’s most spectacular views.

Alpine Visitor Center (mile 68)
Whichever road you follow, you’ll end up at the Alpine Visitor Center where you’ll find food, restrooms and a store. If you’re feeling up to it, there’s a short trail behind the center that will take you to an elevation of 12,005 ft but do be aware of the possibility of altitude sickness. Alternatively, simply stand at the overlook and scan the valley below for elk.

Grand Lake (mile 87)
With its wooden boardwalks and historic hotel, the rustic old mining town of Grand Lake is a real contrast to its cousin at the eastern entrance but still offers a wide choice of places to shop, stay and eat.

Hot Sulphur Springs (mile 122)
Looking for somewhere to relax after all the excitement (and maybe even some hiking) in the park? The springs here were first used by Ute and Arapaho hunting parties, then by trappers and, since the beginning of the last century, by city dwellers and other visitors wanting to soak away their aches and pains.