Colorado is the crown of the Rocky Mountains in the Lower 48, and there are enough rugged alpine peaks, summits to ski, even in summer, wildflower meadows, canyonlands, white sand deserts, geological history, and archeology in the Centennial State to span a lifetime.
You get seven days.
Provided our all-too-short timeframe, the pinch is on to see the best of the best, as many of those unforgettable mountain towns and 14ers as can be packed into a week’s worth of adventures. The variations are too many to count, and no matter which course you choose, there will be casualties to necessity: our corner-to-corner course will miss Great Sand Dunes National Park, one of the most striking scenes in the contiguous U.S., and Salida, of which we hear whispers of a (relatively) undiscovered outdoor adventure Mecca. It will miss the Arkansas River, some of the best whitewater east of the Continental Divide, and fascinating geological destinations of the high plains like Paint Mines and Pawnee Butte.
Just breathe. Let it out. We can’t do it all in a week, but we can hit some of the state’s best.
The northern Front Range is classic Colorado high country, and being so close to Denver metro, the secret is out. Rocky Mountain National Park gets millions of visitors annually, and it is what you might call a keystone park in the National Park System, showcasing one of the country’s most unique environments and wildlife.
You have options for camping, but thanks to the crowds, you need to be aggressive about reservations where possible and securing a site early where first-come, first served is the policy. Aspenglen, Moraine Park, and Glacier Basin are all campground options, but don’t be shy about traveling to the west side of the park to Timber Creek. Thanks to the park's geology, the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park features fewer of those breathtaking cliffs and boulder fields, but also fewer of its visitors. That means you’ll have more of Little Yellowstone to yourself. Check out Holzwarth, a historic homestead at the headwaters of the Colorado, and Lulu City, an early mining boomtown that is literally decomposing into the wilderness and a great place to pause for a picnic. Fun fact! My grandfather proposed to my grandmother here.
On the other side of the park are its classic lake hikes: Chasm Lake, Nymph, Dream, and Emerald Lakes, and Bear Lake. Lumpy Ridge, Gem Lake, and the Cow Creek Trail are easygoing options with wildflower meadows and a waterfall a Bridal Veil. The Wild Basin is also spectacular, and being off the beaten path, it receives far fewer visitors than it should. Head for Ouzel Falls on your way to the Lion Lakes. You’ll have backcountry camping options along the way if you need them. There are a handful of bouldering routes here, too, a good way to escape the crowds. Chaos Canyon above Lake Haiyaha is also highly regarded in the bouldering world.
If the park is too busy for you, head south into Indian Peaks. Allenspark Bed and Breakfast is a gateway to the wilderness, and with hikes like the one to Lone Eagle Peak, who needs the national park?
What goes up must come down. One of canyon country’s lesser-knowns, Black Canyon of the Gunnison has Colorado’s highest vertical cliff face and perhaps the world’s loudest river. Unless you’re a climber, though, you can take in your fill of the park within a day.
Anyone can drive along the rim, so we’re going to give you options: hike down to the river and meet your maker, or drive down to East Portal, easily the park’s best campground for car campers. The latter is nice, but we highly recommend a foray into the canyon proper. Trails drop as much as 2,000 vertical feet over 2 to 3 miles, and backcountry campsites at the bottom of the canyon offer the opportunity to sleep in a gorge the Native Americans once avoided out of superstition. The canyon walls are a spectacle, the fishing is prime, and the park is so lightly visited that you’ll probably have the place to yourself. The Black, as it’s known, is also a fantastic destination for trad climbers, and routes begin at the bottom of the canyon.
On your way out, stop by the canyon overlooks along South Rim Road.
It’s a true tragedy to limit the San Juan Mountains to three days. In this writer’s humble opinion, the mountain range is the most rugged and spectacular in the Lower 48—more character than the North Cascades, more remote than the Front Range, bigger than the Tetons or Glacier National Park. Telluride is its bourgeois resort town, Silverton is its seedy, historic underbelly, Ouray has a most excellent cookie shop—THIS IS IMPORTANT—and the only thing you have to worry about are Texans. When you get tired of the mountains, drive south to Durango, where there’s enough craft beer to float you down a river and sushi-grade fish is packed on ice and flown in from the coast.
By the way, the Texans really are everywhere.
Camping options abound. For a classier stay, book a site in Town Campground, which is situated a short walk from Colorado Avenue in Telluride. If you don’t need much, head to Priest Lake Campground just south of Mountain Village. Dispersed camping is free here.
The San Juans are teeming with summer and winter recreation opportunities. Sometimes, it’s enough just to drive: Last Dollar Road, the Dallas Divide, and the San Juan Skyway are gorgeous during the turn of the aspen in the fall. The range has most of Colorado’s 14ers, like Mount Wilson, Redcloud and Sunshine peaks, and Windom Peak. Backpack the Weminuche Wilderness in the Chicago Basin, where you can ride in on an old narrow-gauge railroad or hike in via Vallecito Reservoir. Climb the Lizard Head, day hike to the Ice Lakes or the Highland Mary Lakes, visit vestiges of the area’s mining history, like Yankee Girl Mine, or climb Telluride’s Via Ferrata.
The character of the San Juans is perhaps its most appealing aspect. You can backpack, climb, ski, and eat anywhere in the country. In the San Juan Mountains, it feels like you can still find a quiet corner for yourself—but you don’t need one. The scenery intoxicates the people who come here, and you become one of them when you summit Red Mountain Pass.
Try to go home. I dare you. But get tacos at Taco del Gnar first.