Our Colorado Rockies Road Trip included stops at the Great Sand Dunes, Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Rocky Mountain National Park, and more! This post includes our itinerary, FAQs, & overall experience in summer 2023.
After years of guiding adventure trips for teens, I wanted to start hosting trips for adults! I did a ton of research on ways to guide trips when you don't own your own guiding company (summary: this is very hard to do), so I started working with TrovaTrip, a company that facilitates group travel and helps me plan all of my adventures.
I hosted 4 trips with this company in 2022 and planned 4 more for 2023 because I loved the experience so much. This Colorado Rockies Road Trip was my first of 2023. I was excited to do a domestic trip that explores one of the most beautiful states around.
Colorado Trip Itinerary
I'll walk you through the full schedule of our Colorado Rockies Road Trip—where we stayed, what we did, and the fun we had along the way.
Focus: Getting to Colorado
The main goal of the first day was to get all of the travelers to Colorado. Though folks were coming from all around the country, everyone's flights were on time and luggage made it safely—always a great start!
We planned for everyone to arrive at the Denver Airport by early morning. Once everyone made it, we'd make the 3-hour drive to Great Sand Dunes National Park where we would set up camp.
Once everyone got to the airport (14 in all including our guide, Phil), we made sure everyone was introduced, set the scene for the week, and ensured we were all on the same page before we officially kicked things off.
After introductions, we packed up into a van and trailer and made our way to the park. We stopped on the way for lunch/gas/etc. while we made the drive.
We stayed at Great Sand Dunes Oasis campground, which is directly across from Great Sand Dunes National Park. When we arrived, we did a quick primer on how to set up tents and sleeping situations and got a lay of the land.
After initial set up, we hung out around the fire while our awesome guide made us dinner. We ate, cleaned up, and kept enjoying the fire before bed. A lot of day 1 was everyone meeting each other and forming relationships as a group.
Focus: Great Sand Dunes National Park / Video Recap
Like all national parks (in my opinion!), Great Sand Dunes National Park is a special place. Containing the tallest sand dunes in North America (with some reaching nearly 750 ft in height), the park preserves 35.5 thousand acres of land at the edge of the San Luis valley.
When entering the park, visitors will see Medano Creek, which flows with water from melted snowfields in the nearby Sangre de Cristo mountains. Depending on the time of year, the flow of the creek can be high enough to splash around and play in—another great feature, especially for little ones.
Visitors to the park are able to hike on the sand dunes. It's also popular to bring sleds and boards, as the dunes can be enjoyed in a similar way to snowy slopes. We rented a mix of boards and sand sleds and brought them into the park with us.
We trudged through the sand, set up a little base camp, and had an absolute BLAST. It was so, so fun sliding down the dunes. It seems like it might get old after doing it once or twice, but that was definitely not the case. This is a great activity for groups and is also kid friendly which is a plus (though there weren't any kids among us).
I will say that I've never been more sandy in my life. Definitely plan for a shower for the evening after you visit this park. I was still finding sand in my hair days after my visit!
It also takes extra energy to traverse the sand and make your way up the dunes, and the sand can be hot. However, it's very much worth the effort required.
There are also hikes in the park that don't require going on the sand dunes. We explored the nature trail and overlook trail in the park, which was a perfect short hike for our group before we headed back to the van to make the drive to Gunnison, CO—our next destination!
Once we arrived in Gunnison (to the Gunnison KOA), we set up our campsites, cooked dinner, and played games together before showering and relaxing around the campfire.
Focus: Gunnison/Taylor River / Video Recap
We woke up and packed up camp very quickly on this day. After breakfast, we got dressed and ready to hit the road. We headed up into the mountains to the little town of Almont, CO where we would begin our whitewater rafting journey.
We went through a company called Scenic River Tours that guides rafting trips on the Upper Taylor River. When we arrived, they told us the rules, handed out PFDs and booties, and took us to the top of our river route in a school bus.
At the drop off point, we got into groups of 4-6 people to raft, got assigned to a raft guide, and went over commands and paddling essentials.
We put in at the river and it was FRIGID. I mean 41 degrees Fahrenheit. Most of us were not wearing wetsuits. I wore a swimsuit, shorts, and my rain jacket, which all worked fairly well to keep me warm. The booties they provided also helped to insulate my feet.
This is an activity where you get WET. Don't expect to get through a rafting trip dry, because you definitely won't. Additionally, if you go in June like we did, your feet will get quite the chill. At the same time, we had some amazing weather and plenty of sunshine, which helped things balance out.
The rafting was SO fun, and definitely a highlight for everyone. It was a blast and we loved it. So much adrenaline! We would totally do this one again—worth adding to any Colorado Rockies Road Trip.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison
After our rafting trip was over, we changed clothes, ate a picnic lunch, and then headed off for Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.
In the park, we hiked the Rim Rock Nature Trail and Gunnison Point Overlook Trail. Both of these provided a great way to see the beauty the park has to offer—and there's plenty of beauty to go around!
After exploring on those trails, we saw the visitor center (I always check these out at the national parks I visit) and saw a couple of other viewpoints before moving on to Montrose to see our campground.
The Montrose KOA was in a good location for our travels. However, the campground seems to be more suited to RVs and trailers rather than tents—the tent sites were not the highlight of the layout. This was probably one place I'd skip if you're planning on a tent during your colorado rockies road trip.
The end of the night was still a fun and familiar scene: we set up camp, had dinner, sat around the fire (our chats grew increasingly longer as the trip went on), and went to bed.
Focus: Maroon Bells / Video Recap
After breakfast, we packed up camp and headed from Montrose to Aspen. The drive was unfortunately lengthened because of ongoing construction (always a possibility with road trips!). Despite the delays, we eventually made it and were able to undertake the day's main activity: e-biking to the Maroon Bells.
Todd, the owner of Maroon Bells E-Bikes, helped everyone get set up with an electric bike fit for them. He gave us a demo, made sure everyone knew what they were doing, and let everyone practice before our journey began.
The Maroon Bells are one of the most popular areas of Colorado for visitors and natives alike. They're said to be the most photographed features in the state, and for good reason.
The "bells" themselves refer to the bell-shaped "fourteeners" (mountains with peaks over 14,000 ft) that tower over the glacial valley west of Aspen. These are Maroon Peak and North Maroon Peak.
Because of the assistance provided by our e-bikes, we had no problem covering the miles and elevation needed to reach the Maroon Bells Scenic Area. We biked to the very top parking lot in the area and walked over to Maroon Lake for a gorgeous picnic lunch.
After lunch, we hiked on the Maroon Bells Scenic Loop Trail. This was a beautiful hike—the group's only qualm was that we wished we could have spent more time hiking! But of course, we still had to bike back down to Aspen. The journey back was a blast in itself, and we even saw moose along the way.
After returning our bikes we drove into downtown Aspen and walked around for a while. We only spent a bit of time doing this, and our primary goal was to get ice cream, which we did at Paradise Bakery. Well, almost—we actually got Gelato. This was absolutely magnificent. I can highly recommend!
By this point, you know the drill: we set up camp, had dinner, congregated around the fire, and slept.
Focus: Rocky Mountain National Park (Part 1) / Video Recap
We woke up on day five, ate breakfast, packed up the van and drove to the Grand Lake area of Rocky Mountain National Park. After parking at East Inlet trailhead, we hiked up to Adams Falls and on East Inlet Trail. We had a picnic lunch and hiked all afternoon. This was a blast!
After this, we drove all the way up to the Alpine Visitor Center, which is very much worth the drive. You can hike up the Alpine Ridge Trail to the very very top of the park. There was plenty of wildlife on the drive up and down, and even near the beautiful visitor center.
There's so many places to hike in Rocky Mountain National Park, and we didn't have enough time for it all.
We drove down into Estes Park. If you have time, this is a great town to walk around and spend some time in. There's tons going on in the summer there.
We camped at the Estes Park KOA. As with Montrose, the tent sites here weren't my favorite, but I'm also quite picky about tent sites. These were close together and not particularly scenic. The facilities were very nice, however!
We made dinner and had a big trip debrief. Every night around the campfire we did highs, lows, and buffaloes as a way to recap our days and share about the most most meaningful parts of the adventure for us. On the last day, we did one for the whole trip where we recapped the entire week.
As an example, here are mine for the trip:
High: Friendships. Everyone was amazing, all new friends that I want to hang out with again. We also had great weather.
Lows: I fell on a rock one time while goofing around, but there weren't very many actual lows for the trip.
Buffaloes: I got a surprise visit by a best friend who lives in Gunnison—that was awesome. I learned some meteorology for one of the group members... and much more random greatness.
Focus: Rocky Mountain National Park (Part 2) // Going Home
On the very last day, we packed "for real" (getting bags airport ready), ate breakfast, and loaded the van for one last adventure in Rocky Mountain.
We got dropped off at Bear Lake trailhead and hiked the lake loops (minus Haiyaha). These were very beautiful and worth going all the way up. There was a bit of snow at the top for our June visit, but manageable without spikes or anything. It wasn't too crowded in the morning, but was getting quite busy when we came down.
We hiked around bear lake, had a picnic lunch, and took the shuttle down to the parking lot. The shuttle system in the park works very well. Research and consider using to avoid parking hassles!
We were picked up by our guide and we all made the drive back into Denver. We made it to the airport, said (sad!) goodbyes and then were all on our way home.
Overall Trip Experience
This Colorado Rockies Road Trip was absolutely incredible! I loved it, and it was the perfect start to the summer. As the group reflected on the trip, the highlights were the friendships, the activities, and the weather.
Friendships: This trip was a group of 12 ladies who didn't know each other before the trip. Every single individual on the trip was amazing and it was incredible for so many strangers to make connections and become real-life friends.
Activities: We got to do a little bit of everything and see so much—it was awesome. We got to see several ecosystems and try new activities: whitewater rafting, e-biking, sandboarding, etc.).
Weather: We lucked out! The weather was AMAZING. Nearly perfect?! It was in the 70s and 80s during the day (great for hanging outside) and 40s and 60s at night (not bad if you have a good sleeping situation and proper clothes). It didn't rain a drop and was perfect.
What to pack for a camping trip in Colorado?
Since this trip was a hiking and camping trip, I packed items suitable for that. The company I worked with for the trip provided most of the camping items (tents, cooking supplies, trailer, etc.) This means I just needed to pack clothes and personal gear.
Everything I packed is linked here.
How many days do you need to see Colorado?
We only saw a tiny part of Colorado and some of the highlights. There's so much we didn't get to see! For this trip, we narrowed down to the Rockies and National Parks. I loved what we were able to see!
The only thing I would change about the trip is adding on a little more time at each park. It was a little bit of a rush to get from place to place. We didn't have more time to do that, but if you're doing something similar to this in the future, give yourself more time. We spent 6 days but could have spent 60.
How long does it take to drive through the Colorado Rockies?
We spent 6 days. I feel like if we would have had 8-11 it would have been even better. As I mentioned before, there's so much to see and all of it is worth savoring. Literally the only downside was not having more time!
What is the best time of year to visit the Colorado Rockies?
The summers are the most popular time to visit the Rockies. That is when the weather is usually the best and you have the most access for summer activities. Of course, you can still go at other times, especially if you're ready to take part in the numerous snow activities.
Over 4.5 Million people visit Rocky Mountain National Park every year, and a lot of them do it in the summer, so things can get crowded. However, the weather for that time of year is perfect and worked very well for our trip.
How did meals work during the trip?
We had a similar meal routine every day of the trip.
We had breakfast at the campsite every morning, packed our lunches to take with us and eat in the park, and then cooked dinner back at the campsite everyday.
Our breakfasts were "continental" style and included berries, bananas, yogurts, cereal and milk, bagels, toast, and oatmeal.
For lunches we packed whatever we wanted! There was an assortment of breads, deli meats, cheeses, and sauces to make sandwiches, wraps, and bagels. There were veggies, applies, oranges, chips, and granola bars as well.
Our dinners were cooked at the campsite every evening. Our awesome guide, Phil, made all of the dinners and they were amazing. Everyone agreed they were better meals that we typically cook at home. Lots of veggies, protein-focused, grains... delicious flavors and customizations available.
Many thanks to TrovaTrip and Incredible Adventures for their work in planning this Colorado Rockies Road Trip.
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