Planning a dream trip to Colorado can be a challenge. The Centennial State is not only large, it is diverse and fascinating. If you don't have much time to spend, choosing where to go can feel overwhelming. Life is full of obligations that can get in the way, but it's possible to have an amazing, action-packed Colorado Rocky Mountain adventure in just a long weekend.
Get an early start from Denver and head toward beautiful Boulder. Stretch your legs with a stroll down Pearl Street, where on any given weekend there's likely to be an event or festival in a city that celebrates all things outdoors.
From Boulder it's just an hour to Estes Park and the gateway to the Rocky Mountain National Park. Flip a coin as to whether you enter the park through the Beaver Meadows or Fall River entrances. The loop road between the two entrances offers an accessible and leisurely introduction to the park. Take in the open meadows and elk herds surrounding Sheep Lakes and then some classic Rocky Mountain vistas across to the iconic front range 14er, Longs Peak.
If you like the look of those peaks, get closer! Take the meandering Bear Lake Road up a scenic valley with family-friendly interpretive trails options at Sprague Lake or the Bear Lake loop at the end of the road. If you're looking for something a little longer, hike to Nymph and Dream Lakes from the Bear Lake parking lot. Spend your first night in the Rockies at one of the equally pretty campgrounds on the Estes Park side of the park.
Rise and shine! If you stayed at Moraine Park or Glacier Basin campgrounds, you're just a short drive from a cafe and a relaxing start to your day in Estes Park. The keen hiker might skip the latte and head south toward the majestic Chasm Lake in the shadows of Longs Peak or back toward Bear Lake and some of the longer day hikes such as Lake Haiyaha or Andrews Glacier, one of the few remaining glaciers in the state. Both hikes take you into some spectacular alpine backcountry, and both test your fitness as they straddle the 10,000-foot contour.
For the afternoon, shift gears by driving (or riding) the iconic Trail Ridge Road. The only vehicle traverse of the park, this road usually opens on Memorial Day weekend and is crowded for much of the summer. The road climbs over 3,500 feet from Fall River as it crosses the Continental Divide and begins the descent toward the Pacific. The views are unrelentingly beautiful, so take advantage of the pull-outs to savor all the park has to offer in the alpine.
The descent from the Continental Divide at Miller Pass takes you toward the headwaters of the Colorado River and the aptly-named Never Summer Range on the western side of the park. The Kawuneeche Valley is also home to lot of history, much of it on display and open for you to explore as you head toward the Timber Creek Campground and the Kawuneeche Visitor Center at the Grand Lake entrance.
If you spent the night at Timber Creek there's a good chance you'll wake to mule deer and maybe even moose tramping around the campground or adjoining wetlands. From the campground, exit the park at Grand Lake and head west. The terrain changes quickly from the lush forest and rising peaks of the national park, giving way to a drier, more expansive landscape. The Colorado River remains ever-present on this drive, with some of the most striking views along Trough Road, a gravel connector between highways 9 and 31. On this stretch you can enjoy any of swimming, soaking, hiking or floating in the Colorado River.
Leaving the river, head for the interstate and explore your pick of Colorado's famous resort towns that line the route east. Detour off the highway to Breckenridge and a quick hike around beautiful Blue Lakes. This short stroll has beautiful lakes, waterfalls, stunning alpine vistas, inquisitive mountain goats, and - if you look closely - remnants of the area's mining past.
Add on one last detour by hitting the former gold mining town of Fairplay before making a final descent from the mountains back to Denver and the end of a memorable long weekend.