Southwest Colorado is one of our favorite places in the United States. In this guide we’re sharing a detailed itinerary for a Southwest Colorado road trip, including Mesa Verde, Durango, Silverton, Ouray, Telluride, and Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park!
We have been to Colorado a few times and have always enjoyed it, but during our two months “living” there in our van, we fell madly in love with Colorado more than ever before and we think a lot of it has to do with where we explored in the state.
We focused the majority of our two months in Southwest Colorado and it BLEW us away with its beauty and mix of history and fun activities! During our time in the area we went on some of the most gorgeous and challenging hikes, visited two national parks, learned about a mine, rode a historic train, drove a 4×4 jeep through the mountains, and explored charming towns.
We never wanted to leave and as full time travelers that love to hop around and see as many places as possible, that is saying a lot! It is pretty rare that a place resonates with us so much that we could see ourselves staying for a long time.
Watch all of our experiences in Southwest Colorado (and beyond!) on this YouTube playlist!
Nothing makes us happier than sharing places we love with others and having them fall in love too! In this guide we’re sharing all that we learned and experienced during our time in Southwest Colorado to help you plan your own adventures in this stunning region of the state.
We’ve adapted our own route and itinerary to fit into 12 adventurous and beautiful days and have also included info about the different towns and parks, tons of tips and important things to know before you go, some suggestions of where to stay, and more!
We hope this guide helps you experience the beauty of Southwest Colorado, prioritize your time in the area, and most importantly, have a blast!
WARNING: This is a long guide, but we hope it provides everything you need to know to plan your own epic Southwest Colorado road trip! We have a table of contents feature below if you’d like to skip ahead to any section. Looking for even more detail? We will be linking to other helpful and more in depth Colorado guides in this guide to further help with your planning.
Read more Colorado Guides:
- 4 Days in Colorado Itinerary: Denver, Boulder, RMNP, & Colorado Springs
- A Complete Guide to Visiting Mesa Verde National Park
- Driving the Million Dollar Highway in Colorado
- How to Hike the Ouray Perimeter Trail in Colorado
- Things to do at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
- How to Hike the Gunnison Route at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
- Hiking to Blue Lakes in Southwest Colorado
- About Southwest Colorado
- Southwest Colorado Road Trip Route
- How to get around Southwest Colorado
- When to visit Southwest Colorado
- Where to stay during your Southwest Colorado Road Trip
- Things to know before your Southwest Colorado Road Trip
- What to bring on your Southwest Colorado Road Trip
- Some things to know about this Southwest Colorado Road Trip Itinerary
- 12 Day Southwest Colorado Road Trip Itinerary
Note: this guide contains affiliate links, which means that if you use the links provided and make a purchase, we get a small commission at no extra cost to you. We will only ever recommend products we truly love, actually use during our adventures, and think you can benefit from too!
About Southwest Colorado
Southwest Colorado, as the name implies, is located in the Southwest corner of the state, starting in the Four Corners, where the state meets up with Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico, and expanding Northwest to near Gunnison and Crested Butte.
While just one region of the state, this area is LOADED with diverse scenery, Native American and mining history, and things to do. Southwest Colorado is home to two national parks, Mesa Verde and Black Canyon of the Gunnison, historic mining towns, Native American ruins, lush forests, rocky peaks, epic hikes, hot springs, canyons, rivers, and so much more! It’s pretty wild how much there is to see and do in just this area alone!
Before embarking on your adventure, please review the Leave No Trace principles to ensure you leave every place better than you found it, so that others can enjoy these beautiful places for many years to come!
These seven principles include planning ahead and preparing, hiking and camping on durable surfaces, disposing of waste properly (pack out what you pack in!), understanding campfire rules and always fully extinguishing your fires, respecting wildlife, and being considerate of other visitors.
Southwest Colorado Road Trip Route
There are many ways to experience Southwest Colorado and many different cities and towns to choose from, but for this guide we’ll be focusing on what we personally experienced during our time in Southwest Colorado, which we highly recommend for first timers to the area.
One way route:
The first option for your Southwest Colorado road trip is to do a one way route, starting and ending in different areas. This option is the best for those who plan to visit other areas in Colorado as well or are on a larger road trip (or full time travelers like us) and will be continuing their journey elsewhere afterwards.
You could also do this route if you’d like to fly in and out of different airports.
You could also do this road trip as a loop, starting and ending near Durango. This option makes the most sense if you’re flying in for this road trip, so that you can start and end in the same area (which makes flights and rental cars easier) and will not be visiting other areas afterwards.
For this guide, we’re focusing on the one way option, but you could restructure the itinerary to fit the loop option as well!
Flying to Colorado
If you’re flying into Colorado, the closest airport to the start of the road trip is the Durango-La Plata County Airport (DRO). This is a small airport, but it is serviced by American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Frontier Airlines and United Airlines and has nonstop flights from Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW), Phoenix (PHX), Salt Lake City (SLC), and Denver (DEN).
If you can get a decently priced flight to Durango from where you live, even with layovers, this would definitely be your best bet!
Another small airport option is the Montrose Regional Airport (MTJ), which offers nonstop flights from Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW), Phoenix (PHX), Chicago (ORD), Houston (IAH), and Denver (DEN) on American Airlines, JetBlue, Southwest, and United. If you chose to fly into Montrose, we’d suggest restructuring the loop option to be:
Montrose -> Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park -> Ouray -> Silverton -> Durango -> Mesa Verde National Park -> Telluride -> Montrose
If you cannot find a flight to Durango or Montrose, the closest major airport is Albuquerque International Sunport (ABQ), which is a little over a 3.5 hour drive to Durango.
Driving time along the route
The driving time between each of the stops on this itinerary, in the one way order listed above, is:
- Durango to Mesa Verde: 40 minutes
- Mesa Verde to Durango: 40 minutes
- Durango to Silverton: 1 hours, 5 minutes (we suggest giving yourself a half a day, which we will explain below)
- Silverton to Ouray: 43 minutes (we suggest dedicating at least 3 hours for this, which we will explain below)
- Ouray to Telluride: 1 hour, 6 minutes
- Telluride to Black Canyon of the Gunnison: 1.5 hours
How to get around Southwest Colorado
Since this is a road trip itinerary, you’ll definitely need to rent a car or drive your own to fully enjoy all of the sights on this guide, as public transportation isn’t really an option between all of the towns, without hiring a tour guide.
But when it comes to how to get around, you do have a couple options, plus something to keep in mind!
Type of vehicle
Any type of vehicle will work just fine to roadtrip around Southwest Colorado. The majority of the items on this guide are along paved roads, so even a small sedan would be sufficient. However, you will have a bit more freedom and comfort if you have a vehicle with higher clearance and/or 4×4, as roads to some trailheads are a bit rough. Our non 4×4 Sprinter Van did just fine, but we did have to go slow on some roads.
One fun thing to do in this area, which we will cover in the itinerary, is go on some of the 4×4 trails in the mountains. To do this, you will need a 4×4 vehicle, like a Jeep or a side by side. If you’re able to rent one, even for just a day or two, you’ll have the most freedom when exploring this area.
There are many rental spots in the mountain towns to rent a Jeep or side by side for a day or more, which would be our recommendation vs. renting one from a traditional rental car company, who may have restrictions on taking your rental on these trails.
Rent a van!
We LOVED van life in Southwest Colorado! There were plenty of free campsites, some with solid cell service, and it was so fun to have a home on wheels while exploring these areas. Being able to pull over and cook with a view is a priceless experience.
If you want to rent a van, we suggest looking into Outdoorsy, which is like Airbnb for campervans!
Minus Mesa Verde and one specific area of Black Canyon of the Gunnison (East Portal), which have some restrictions for RVs, there are no vehicle restrictions on this itinerary. We saw many people driving massive RVs through these mountain roads and towns just fine! And for the most part, parking wasn’t too difficult for us in our 22.5 ft Sprinter van, although it would be hard in a giant RV, so we would suggest having a campground to leave it at for most day trips and taking a smaller vehicle around.
When to visit Southwest Colorado
One of the best things about Southwest Colorado is that it’s a year round destination! However, your experience will vary depending on the season.
In the winter and early spring, this area is full of snow and popular for skiing in Durango, Crested Butte, and Telluride.
However, this guide is specifically crafted for the late spring (May) and summertime, when the snow is mostly melted and trails are open to hike and off-road.
We road tripped through the area in May and June, and while we had to delay or adjust a couple things due to snow still being too present, for the most part the conditions were incredible. We had sunny days, perfect temperatures (highs in the 60s-80s), less afternoon thunderstorms, and slightly less crowds since it was earlier in the summer.
Fall is also a gorgeous time to visit, with the changing aspens, but can be a bit risky when it comes to the weather, as early snow storms can occur. While most activities on this guide would be accessible, some may not be, so we’d suggest visiting earlier in the fall to have the best chance of following this guide. Next time we visit, we would LOVE to go in the fall!
Where to stay during your Southwest Colorado Road Trip
Since this road trip itinerary covers quite a bit of ground, we’d suggest staying in different places throughout the trip to limit how much time you spend driving each day. We will include suggestions of places to stay under each day of the itinerary!
Things to know before your Southwest Colorado Road Trip
Before you go, here are a few important things to know before hitting the road on your Southwest Colorado road trip!
Book in advance
Since this guide is built for summertime exploring in Southwest Colorado, which is the busy season, we highly recommend booking things in advance, such as lodging, tours, Jeep rentals, and anything else that requires a reservation. This will give you the most options and ensure you are able to do everything you want!
Pets are mostly allowed
This itinerary includes a mix of dog friendly and not dog friendly activities, with the two major NOT dog friendly spots being Mesa Verde and Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Parks (Black Canyon of the Gunnison does have some dog friendly spots though), as well as some of the activity options.
If you’re traveling with your pup, we’d suggest having a dog friendly accommodation so that you can leave your furry friend behind for a bit for some of the activities on this guide. You can also get a dog sitter in some of the towns if you prefer that.
Learn how we travel with a dog and what we do with Kona when she cannot join us on our adventures.
Cell Service is limited
There were many times where we had zero cell service in Southwest Colorado, mostly when driving along mountain roads or hiking further away from civilization. We highly recommend downloading offline AllTrails Maps and offline Google Maps so you can navigate without cell phone service and don’t get lost!
Be aware of afternoon storms
Afternoon storms are very common in Colorado, especially in July and August, and you do not want to get caught in one, especially at exposed high altitudes above the treeline. We suggest planning to spend the mornings outdoors (you’ll want to start early!) and plan to be off of a mountain or in a town in the afternoons to avoid getting trapped in one.
This article is also helpful and shares tips on what to do if you find yourself on a trail during a storm.
Stock up on food in the larger cities
The largest cities on this guide are Durango and Montrose (near Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park) and have large grocery stores, as well as other stores for any needs you may have.
But the smaller towns, especially Silverton and Ouray, do not have as many options when it comes to groceries and stores and what they do have tends to be smaller and pricier. We suggest loading up on food and water in the larger cities before heading into the smaller ones, so that you can have more options and also save some money.
What to bring on your Southwest Colorado Road Trip
To see everything we recommend packing for outdoor adventures, check out our hiking gear, where we share everything we bring with us when we hike, including the 10 essentials. But for Southwest Colorado, we have a few items we really want to stress bringing with you.
If visiting in the late spring, early summer, or fall, microspikes may be good to have just in case there is some snow still on the trails. We feel much more confident walking on icy surfaces in these!
This entire road trip is over a mile high in elevation, with some spots up to 11,000+ feet depending on activities you choose. This means that you can expect cooler mornings and evenings, even if the daytime highs are warmer, so make sure to bring lots of layers so you are always comfortable.
Umbrella or rain jacket
With the afternoon storms in Colorado, it’s a good idea to pack an umbrella or rain jacket! I (Kathryn) love my Patagonia Torrentshell rain jacket.
Having a portable charger is key when out hiking all day to ensure your phone stays charged so that if you need help, you’re able to get it.
It is much easier to get a sunburn at higher elevations and with Colorado being pretty sunny, you’ll definitely want to bring sunscreen, sunglasses, and a hat to stay protected. We have been using Bare Republic, which is a “better for you” sunscreen, although it may give you a nice white, vampire-esque sheen.
Because of the higher altitude and the warmer summer days, make sure to bring and drink plenty of water. The air is super dry and our throats and noses were not fans!
We love our 3L Camelbak bladder for hikes because it stores a ton of water and it’s easy to drink from while moving. If you are bringing less water, we highly suggest packing a filtration system as well so you can fill up on trails. We use the Sawyer Water Filtration System and it works pretty well and packs up pretty small!
National Parks Pass
Since this itinerary includes two national parks, make sure to bring your America the Beautiful pass if you have one! If you do not have one, we highly recommend purchasing one, which you can do at any national park. It costs $80 per year and will get you into any national park, monument, or forest for free.
These two parks each cost $30 per car in the summertime, so this pass will almost pay for itself in just this trip!
As we mentioned above, we’d highly recommend downloading the AllTrails maps for all hikes you plan to do before you go. While the trails are mostly easy to follow, we like to use the map to track our progress along the trail. You will need an AllTrails Pro membership to download maps, which is $30 a year and so worth it!
Some things to know about this Southwest Colorado Road Trip Itinerary
Before we jump into all of the best things to do in Southwest Colorado, here are some notes we wanted to make about this itinerary.
- While it’s for 12 days, you can shorten it to fit your trip length. If you have any questions or want any tips on what to prioritize, send us an email at email@example.com. We’d be happy to help!
- We love jam packed adventures and typically need a vacation from our vacation. This guide is loaded with hikes and activities, with many early wake up calls, so it may not be super relaxing, but it will be a blast!
- On a similar note, we have included a variety of hikes and activities on this guide to make it doable for different activity levels and to give you options to choose from.
- We are also including some optional add ons if you have more time or are just looking for even more options!
12 Day Southwest Colorado Road Trip Itinerary
Now that you know a bit more about the area, how to get there, and what to bring, it’s time to plan out your time in Southwest Colorado! Below is our 12 day itinerary for the area, which can of course be adjusted to what you want to do, how much you want to do in a day, and how much time you have.
To keep this itinerary easier to follow and not too overwhelming, we’re keeping it a bit more brief than our individual guides and are linking any full, in depth guides we have for these spots so that you can get more information if desired.
Day 1: Travel to Colorado and drive to Durango
Welcome to Colorado! Depending on how early you arrive and how much time you have, you can wander around Durango, hit the road to Mesa Verde National Park and explore a little bit (using some of our tips on our Mesa Verde guide), or rest up for a big day tomorrow.
Where to stay:
For day 1, we recommend staying either in Durango or close to Durango, that way you do not have to move lodging for a couple nights. Durango is close to Mesa Verde National Park, so it won’t be a tough drive the next morning!
Campgrounds: Mancos State Park, Snowslide Campground, Target Tree Campground
FREE Dispersed Camping: Madden Peak Road (one of our favorite boondocking spots ever!), Sauls Creek, or Crystal Creek Ditch.
Hotels: Strater Hotel, Hampton Inn Durango, Fairfield Inn & Suites
Airbnbs: Private Studio – Downtown (this is where we stayed on our last visit to Durango), Hip In-Town Condo, New, Modern Condo, Cedar House Condo
Day 2: Mesa Verde National Park
For a more indepth look at all of the best things to do at Mesa Verde National Park, plus helpful tips for visiting, check out our complete guide to Mesa Verde.
About Mesa Verde National Park
Mesa Verde National Park is home to over 4,700 archaeological sites, including 600 cliff dwellings of the Pueblo people, who lived in this area from 600 to 1300 AD. In the park you can see a variety of types of Pueblo structures, including pithouses, a farming community, towers, and temples. And on top of all of the history, the park is home to some gorgeous views too!
The entrance of Mesa Verde National Park is located about 40 minutes from Durango, but to get to the bottom of the park, it can take 40 additional minutes, so make sure to plan accordingly.
A few quick tips for Mesa Verde National Park:
- Don’t start too early! Normally we suggest arriving at the national parks before or right at sunrise, but most trails and sites do not open until 8 AM. We suggest arriving at the park around 7:30 AM so that way by the time you enter the park and head to where you want to explore first, everything is open and you can still beat the crowds.
- Book a ranger tour. The BEST way to experience this park is to go on a ranger led tour of a cliff dwelling. These are only available between May and October (the exact dates vary), so check the Mesa Verde National Park website to see what tours are currently being offered, as well as the time slots and months they are offered.
It’s important to know that getting tickets for these can be tough! For those that require a ticket, they go on sale 14 days before at 8 AM MST and they go FAST (like, within a minute), so make sure to set many alarms so you don’t forget.
- Dogs are not allowed on most trails or in any buildings at Mesa Verde National Park. There is a kennel at the Morefield Campground if you need somewhere to leave your pup for a few hours!
- Check for closures. During our visit there were quite a few closures for construction. Please check the NPS website for an up to date list of closures before visiting.
Providing an itinerary for Mesa Verde is tricky because if you do a ranger led tour, the starting time varies and the locations vary. But we’d suggest prioritizing the following during one day in Mesa Verde:
- Go on a ranger-assisted or ranger-guided tour or do the self guided tour of Step House.
- Hike the Petroglyph Point Trail and see Spruce Tree House along the way.
- Drive the Mesa Top Loop and stop at all of the sites.
- Visit the Cliff Palace Loop (if open) to get more views of Cliff Palace and hike the Soda Canyon Overlook trail.
- Explore the Far View Sites.
- Watch the sunset from the Park Point Fire Lookout or Point Lookout Trail.
Where to stay:
For day 2, we suggest staying in Durango and staying at one of the recommended spots we listed under day 1!
Day 3: Durango
Watch our experience in Durango and riding the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad here!
Durango was founded by the Denver & Rio Grande Railway in 1880 and today the city, which is located at the base of the San Juan Mountains, is still home to the same railroad from the 1800s, plus a cool mix of history and outdoor adventure, with the Animas river running right along town, historic buildings, and many epic hikes nearby.
We have been to Durango a couple times and both times have absolutely loved it! It’s a great sized city and offers some very fun activities!
- Start your morning with coffee at Taste in downtown Durango. And while you’re there, grab a breakfast burrito from Backcountry Gourmet, a food truck right next to the coffee shop! Or for a more traditional breakfast, head to College Drive Cafe or Oscar’s Cafe.
- For the afternoon, there are quite a few activities to choose from, depending on your interests and budget.
Option #1: Ride the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. We LOVED this train ride and you get many beautiful views along the way. There are multiple train options, but we recommend doing the Cascade Canyon Express, which is 5 hours and takes you to a beautiful area with river and mountain views, where you get off the train for a short break. It costs 81-$86/per adult depending on where you sit, but we highly recommend booking the open air gondola!
You can also take the train to Silverton, but this is an all day activity and you’ll be visiting Silverton by car soon!
Option #2: Go rafting! The Animas River is a great rafting spot and there wasn’t a day where we didn’t see folks out on the water having a blast. There are a handful of rafting companies in town, including Durango Rafting, that can take you on a half day or full day adventure (starting at $50 per adult).
Option #3: Go mountain biking! Durango is home to some great mountain biking trails ranging in skill level.
Option #4: Hit the trails and hike! There are several amazing trails right by Durango. A few we suggest are: Animas Mountain Trail (6 miles, 1,519 ft of elevation gain), Purgatory Trail (10.3 miles, 1,820 ft of elevation gain), Castle Rock (5.3 miles, 1,666 ft of elevation gain), or hike part of the Colorado Trail to Gudy’s Rest (9.1 miles, 1,309 ft of elevation gain).
- Spend the rest of the afternoon wandering around downtown and along the Animas River. There is a great pathway that takes you along the Animas River, right by town, and is one of our favorite things to do while in the area.
- Grab dinner at one of Durango’s local restaurants. We recommend checking out: Rice Monkeys, Taco Libre, Carver Brewing Company or Steamworks Brewing Company, or go to the 11th Street Station where there are a handful of food trucks!
- End the day with ice cream at Cream Bean Berry, one of the best local ice cream shops we have been to in the US!
Where to stay:
For day 3, we suggest staying in Durango and staying at one of the recommended spots we listed under day 1!
Optional Add On: Pagosa Springs
If you have more time while near Durango, we recommend a day trip to Pagosa Springs, which is located about 1 hour and 15 minutes from Durango. This town is known for its hot springs and is also close to some great hikes, waterfalls, and scenic drives. To see all of our suggestions for one day in Pagosa Springs, watch this video!
Day 4: Drive to Silverton
Watch our experience driving from Durango to Silverton in this YouTube video!
For day 4 of your road trip, make the 48 mile drive up to Silverton along the San Juan Skyway (Hwy 550). We LOVED this drive so much and it’s one that is best to dedicate most of a day to, as there are some great stops along the way. We recommend stopping at the following places.
Open 9 AM-5 PM
Honeyville is a third generation beekeeping and honey bottling business and their store and factory is super fun to check out! You are able to see their machinery and if you come at the right time, their bottling process, as well as see the bees that make the honey! There are tons of honey treats to purchase as well, including the delicious whipped honey.
James Ranch Market
Hours and dates open vary by season
Just across the street from Honeyville is James Ranch, which is a regenerative farm, which means they utilize farming and ranching practices that are better for the environment by rebuilding soil, improving the water cycle, and sequestering carbon in the soil.
They also have a market with tons of local products, as well as a grill, with insanely delicious burgers and fries…all with a view of the mountains and the farm! Oh, and they have ADORABLE baby goats to play with too! Does it get much better than that
Pinkerton Hot Springs
This “hot” spring is on the side of the road and is a fun and quick stop! The hot springs were discovered in the 1800s by explorer James Pinkerton, and quickly transformed into a resort and tourist attraction for all Americans to enjoy. It’s said that even Marilyn Monroe made visits to soak in these healing waters.
The resort burned down a total of three times, so it’s no longer what it once was. But back in 2001, the Colorado Department of Transportation altered the direction and flow of the spring by inserting a vertical pipe to protect the nearby vegetation and structures. Now the colorful, mineral rich rock pile builds upon itself indefinitely, creating unique formations, shapes and a kaleidoscope of colors.
If you have a higher clearance vehicle to get to the trailhead, this quick 0.4 mile hike takes you to a pretty cool waterfall!
This is one of our favorite stops along this drive! This pulloff on the side of the road has views in all directions of the San Juan Mountains, as well as bathrooms if needed.
Molas Lake is a small lake (plus campground) with epic mountain views. We kayaked here and it was a lot of fun! If you don’t want to kayak, you can hike the Little Molas to Molas Lake Trail (6 miles, 757 ft of elevation gain) or the Molas Lake to Animas River Trail (8 miles, 2,129 ft of elevation gain), which takes you to where the Durango and Silverton train goes by!
Where to stay:
For day 4, we suggest staying in Silverton, a small mining town with tons of historic charm, which you’ll explore more tomorrow!
FREE Dispersed Camping: Kendall Camping Area, Anvil Camping Area, Sultan Camping Area, Golden Horn Campground
Hotels: The Wyman Hotel, Grand Imperial Hotel, The Avon
Airbnbs: Most Airbnbs in town have 2 night minimums, so they may not work for this itinerary.
Day 5: Explore Silverton + Drive the Million Dollar Highway
Silverton is a small historic mining town that was established in 1874, but grew immensely starting in 1881, when the Denver & Rio Grande Railway reached the town. The town is now more of a tourist destination, it is still full of historic charm, with many of its original buildings remaining, plus mostly unpaved streets, making you feel like you’ve stepped back in time when wandering around town.
- Grab coffee and a breakfast burrito at Coffee Bear and make sure to go to the top deck to admire the town from above!
- Spend the morning wandering around town and admiring the old buildings. We recommend going up to the Christ of the Mines Shrine for amazing views of town. This is a memorial perched on top of a hill, which was created to honor and protect those in the mining industry. You can hike up to this view point or drive up to it!
- Tour the Old Hundred Gold Mine, which costs $28 per adult (less for kids and seniors) and you get to ride in a vintage electric powered mine train that takes you 1/3 of a mile into the heart of the 13,000 foot Galena Mountain.
Once in the mine, the guide walks you around and shows different mining techniques (and even let us try the tools!) and shares a lot of history about the mine. This tour is only operational in the summer and leaves every hour. They don’t take reservations, but we recommend arriving for the first tour, as it was way less busy than the second tour.
- Head back into Silverton for lunch! Some good spots to check out are Handlebars for burgers and Avalanche Brewing Company for pizza, tacos, and other bites.
- Drive the Million Dollar Highway! This is a 25 mile scenic drive that runs from Silverton to Ouray and is famous for its hairpin curves, drop offs and lack of guardrails, mining history, and mountain views.
The road was first built in the 1880s by Otto Mears as a narrow wagon toll road to connect the two mining towns and was rebuilt in the early 1920s to be a two lane road like it is today. In our Million Dollar Highway guide we share a lot more information about the road and the best stops to make! We suggest giving yourself a couple hours to drive this road so you can enjoy the views and history.
- Once you make it to Ouray, grab dinner at either Maggie’s Kitchen for burgers, Ouray Brewery for beer and pub food, or Brickhouse 737 or Bon Ton Restaurant for a nicer meal.
Where to stay:
For day 5, we suggest staying in Ouray, which is where the Million Dollar Highway ends and is the general area you’ll be exploring for the next couple days.
FREE Dispersed Camping: Ironton Park Dispersed Camping (no cell service, but it’s convenient to town)
Hotels: Imogene Hotel, Beaumont Hotel & Spa (adults only), Box Canyon Lodge & Hot Springs
Airbnbs: Downtown Ouray Townhouse, Updated Ouray Condo w/AC, or Walkable Ouray Condo
Day 6: Rent a Jeep!
One of our favorite things we have done, not only in Colorado, but in all of our adventures is rent a Jeep and drive some of the 4×4 trails in the San Juan Mountains! We had never driven a Jeep offroad or gone on these types of trails before, but there are 4×4 trails in the area for all skill levels.
During our visit we did Corkscrew Gulch, Animas Forks (closer to Silverton), and part of Yankee Boy Basin. They each had totally different scenery and challenges.
Corkscrew Gulch took us up to the top of mountains, where we had endless views of the San Juan and Red Mountains (it was INSANE)! At Animas Forks we got to see a ghost town and learn mining history. Then we drove to Yankee Boy Basin, which was the most nerve wracking (in our opinion) and although we didn’t go to the end due to snow, the views and waterfalls were stunning. They were all a BLAST!
Watch our experience driving a Jeep in the San Juan Mountains!
If you would like to experience this and do not have your own Jeep or 4×4 vehicle, we highly recommend renting a Jeep from Switzerland of America Jeeps in Ouray. It cost $232 for the day and we were able to pick it up the night before, which was a huge bonus and gave us extra time with it! Another big perk was Kona was also allowed (for free!), we just had to keep the seats covered.
Some things to know before doing this:
- The trails close in the winter and reopen around late May to early June. We were there in the very early season and not everything was open yet, but we used Switzerland of America’s website for updates and asked them for suggestions when we picked up the Jeep.
- There are trails in both Silverton and Ouray, as well as in between, so you could start your Jeep adventure in either town (Silverton has Jeep rentals too).
If you do not want to spend money on this or it doesn’t sound fun to you, you could spend more time relaxing in Ouray or Silverton, cut a day off of the itinerary, or build in one of the optional add ons to your itinerary!
Where to stay:
For day 6, we suggest staying in Ouray at one of the lodging options we listed above!
Day 7: Explore Ouray
Ouray, which is nicknamed “the Switzerland of America,” is a small mountain town tucked into the San Juan Mountains and is named after Chief Ouray of the Ute tribe, as the area was inhabited by the Ute Native Americans.
For centuries, the tribe traveled here during the summer months to fish, hunt, and to soak in what they called their “sacred miracle waters.” In fact, the town’s original name was “Uncompahgre,” which is the Ute word for “hot water springs.” The town is still home to these springs, as well as many other outdoor adventures!
- Ouray doesn’t have a ton of breakfast and coffee options, but if you’re looking to eat out for breakfast, Mojo’s Coffee, Chai, & Teas is open early and Camp Bell’s Cajun Cuisine has full breakfasts!
- Head to Box Canyon Falls Park, which is a 285 foot waterfall that drops thousands of gallons of water per minute inside a narrow canyon. It costs $5 to visit and we thought it would just be a tourist trap, but we were SO impressed by this waterfall!
A couple things to know before going. There are multiple trails here, but we suggest the Falls Trail (a MUST!) and the High Bridge Trail. Dogs are NOT allowed here, except for on the actual bridge on the High Bridge Trail, which is also on the Perimeter Trail (more on that below). If you plan to do the Perimeter Trail, you could just do the Falls Trail and then save the high bridge for later in the day.
The park opens at 9 AM and we highly recommend getting there right when they open, as it can get very busy!
- Spend the rest of the morning and part of the afternoon on the Ouray Perimeter Trail. This is a 6 mile dog friendly trail that traverses the mountain sides on the perimeter of Ouray, gaining 1,600 feet of elevation. Along the trail you’ll see 4 waterfalls, 5 bridges, and views of town and the mountains along the way. We have a full guide on how to do this hike and the sights you’ll see along the way, which you can read here! We also suggest getting some snacks from Ouray Meat & Cheese Market for your hike so you can have a picnic along the way.
- After hiking all around town, visit the Ouray Hot Springs, which are located right by where we suggest starting and ending the Perimeter Trail. While these springs are more of a public pool environment, they use the same healing waters the Ute Indians used to enjoy. There are various pools, which range 75 to 106 degrees and it costs between $12-$18 per person to visit.
- Grab a sweet treat from Mouse’s Chocolates & Coffee and wander around town before heading to dinner! A couple spots to check out are Maggie’s Kitchen for burgers, Ouray Brewery for beer and pub food, or Brickhouse 737 or Bon Ton Restaurant for a nicer meal.
Where to stay:
For day 7, we suggest staying in Ouray at one of the lodging options we listed above!
Day 8: Hike in the San Juans
The San Juan Mountains are home to some of the BEST hikes in all of Colorado, so for day 8, we highly recommend spending your day going for one of the iconic hikes in the area! There are quite a few to choose from, but our top picks are:
Blue Lakes Trail
8.7 miles | 2,509 feet of elevation gain
If you love forests, rivers, insane mountain views, and not one, but THREE gorgeous blue lakes, then this is the hike for you! This popular hike is located near Ridgway and is only 50 minutes from Ouray and is one of the most beautiful hikes we have done in the United States!
Ice Lakes Basin
8.6 miles | 3,070 feet of elevation gain
This hike is located back towards Silverton and is one of the most popular hikes in the state! It was closed during our visit due to a wildfire that had happened in 2020, but is now back open and despite being warned that it may become a permit only hike, it still remains open to anyone (but please treat it with respect).
Similar to Blue Lakes, this hike takes you to three bright, blue lakes, as well as has some amazing views of the San Juans. It’s high up on our list for when we return!
8.3 miles | 2,933 feet of elevation gain
This is a tough hike, but you’re rewarded with incredible views of the mountains and a gorgeous blue lake at the end. Parking is pretty tight here and you may have to park by the bridge and walk to the trailhead if you arrive late, so plan to get here early.
Whichever trail you choose, PLEASE leave no trace and help keep the San Juan Mountains beautiful for future generations!
Where to stay:
While you could stay in Telluride this night, in order to be close to tomorrow’s activities, we think that staying another night in Ouray would work out best, as you then won’t have to hop around to yet another hotel or Airbnb and you’re still pretty close to Telluride (about 1 hour).
Day 9: Telluride
Watch us explore the beautiful town of Telluride in this video!
Telluride is a former mining town located in the San Juan Mountains and is tucked into a box canyon surrounded by 13,000 and 14,000-foot peaks. And similar to Ouray, it was a popular summer destination for Ute Native Americans and today, it’s known for its many festivals, epic mountain views, skiing and snowboarding, and more artsy vibe.
We had been told by many people that we should go here, but to be honest, we thought it was just going to feel like a fancy ski resort. But boy, were we wrong! Telluride ended up being our favorite town we visited in Colorado and is high up on the list for the entire US! The downtown area has maintained tons of historic charm, while also being very, very nice, and it’s full of really cool shops and local restaurants.
- Grab coffee and breakfast at either High Alpine Coffee or The Butcher & The Baker.
- Take the FREE gondola to Mountain Village! This is the first and only gondola offering free public transportation in the United States. While Mountain Village has a resort feel, we loved walking around up there, as well as the ride to the top (make sure to stop at the halfway point to see the views!).
- Hike to Bridal Veil Falls, which is the tallest free-falling waterfall in Colorado at 365 feet. It is super impressive and has a TON of mist…we got soaked!
You can take the trail to the top and then Black Bear Pass Road (which has great views) back to the bottom, but make sure to go above the falls to check out the hydroelectric power plant! You can even continue further to Blue Lake (different than Blue Lakes mentioned above) if you want to add on to the adventure!
- Spend the rest of the day walking around town. There are many cool shops and art galleries to check out!
- For dinner, head to Brown Dog Pizza or Wood Ear in Telluride or on your way to your lodging for the night, stop by GNAR in Ridgway for some creative and delicious tacos that we LOVED!
Where to stay:
Since the next two days will be spent at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, we suggest staying in Montrose for the night so you’re close to the park.
Campgrounds: South Rim Campground, Schoolhouse with mountain views, KOA, Cedar Creek RV Park, Riverbend RV Park
FREE Dispersed Camping: Flat Top OHV Recreation Area, Uncompahgre Valley View, Black Canyon BLM
Hotels: Hampton Inn Montrose, Holiday Inn Express Montrose, Double G Ranch & Guest Lodge, Super 8 Montrose
Airbnbs:Charming Blue Bungalow, Private Guest House with Mountain Views
Day 10: Black Canyon of the Gunnison (South Rim)
About Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is located in Western Colorado, near Montrose and gets its name because some parts of the canyon receive only 33 total minutes of sunlight per day because of how steep and narrow the canyon is.
The canyon is 48 miles long, with 14 miles of it in the national park, and at its deepest point, Warner Point, it reaches 2,722 feet. While there are canyons that are deeper and longer, none combine the depth, sheerness, darkness, and narrowness of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. The canyon has some of the steepest and oldest exposed rock in North America and at its narrowest point is only 40 feet wide.
The park is home to two rims to explore, the South Rim and the North Rim, which may look close on the map, but there is no bridge to get from one rim to the other and to go between the two requires a 1 hour, 45 minute drive. So for this day, we suggest focusing on just the South Rim.
How to explore Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
There are two main ways to explore Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, either along the rim or below the rim.
Along the Rim
At the South Rim, there is a 7 mile scenic drive which has 12 overlooks. Most of these overlooks are reached by short walking trails, but some do offer views right from the side of the road.
Some of our favorite viewpoints from our visit were Gunnison Point (right by the visitor center), Pulpit Rock, Cross Fissures View, Chasm View, and Painted Wall, which is the tallest cliff in all of Colorado at 2,250 feet!
There are also some hikes along the rim, which aren’t too strenuous, which we will mention below!
Below the Rim
The BEST way to explore Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is to do one of the inner canyon routes, which take you down into the canyon to the Gunnison River. These are technically NOT trails, but rather unmaintained and unmarked routes with steep and rugged terrain and should ONLY be attempted by experienced hikers!
These routes require a wilderness permit, which are free. However, you will need to get the permit the day before and they can be tough to get, as the routes are limited to 15 people per route, per day.
We did the Gunnison Route and highly recommend it for those looking for an adventure! It was challenging, but getting to go down the canyon to the river and hardly having anyone else around was a very special and beautiful experience.
You can read all about how to get a permit for these inner canyon routes, plus everything you need to bring and know beforehand in this detailed Gunnison Route guide.
Itinerary Option #1
For your first day, drive along the South Rim, stopping at the different overlooks along the way and going for some of the rim hikes, like the Oak Flat Loop Trail (1.3 miles, 311 ft of elevation gain), Rim Rock Nature Trail (1.5 miles, 187 ft of elevation gain), and Warner Point Nature Trail (1.5 miles, 406 ft of elevation gain). Depending on how early you start, this could take a half day or a full day!
Itinerary Option #2
For the first half of the day, enjoy the South Rim Scenic Drive, stopping at as many overlooks as you have time for until about 3-4 hours before the visitor center closes for the day.
For the second part of the day, hang out at the visitor center to get your wilderness use permit to hike into the inner canyon the next day.
Where to stay:
We suggest staying in Montrose like you did the previous night!
Optional Add On: Black Canyon of the Gunnison North Rim
The North Rim is also home to a scenic drive, which is a maintained gravel road and is a bit shorter, at 5 miles and only 6 stops. However, all of the stops are basically directly off the road and are worth stopping at!
There are also two trails we suggest checking out on the North Rim: North Vista Trail to Exclamation Point (2.9 miles, 406 ft of elevation gain) and the Chasm View Nature Trail (0.6 miles, 108 ft of elevation gain).
Day 11: The Gunnison Route OR go for an easier hike!
If you decided to wait in line for a Gunnison Route permit the day before, spend this day doing that hike. It won’t take the entire day, but you will be tired afterwards. After your hike, you could visit the overlooks you missed the day before, head to the North Rim to explore, or just relax!
If you explored Black Canyon yesterday and did not want to attempt the Gunnison Route, you have a few options of how you could spend this day.
Option #1: Visit the North Rim for the day! It is a bit of a drive, but we found the North Rim to be just as beautiful as the South Rim, offered some unique perspectives, and was WAY less busy!
Option #2: Explore the Curecanti National Recreation Area! We have not personally visited this area, but we did drive through it and WOW is it stunning!
Option #3: Drive Owl Creek Pass, which says it’s an OHV trail, but in the summer it is doable without 4×4. This pass is famous for being where part of True Grit was filmed and has amazing views of Chimney Rock and Courthouse Mountain.
Option #4: Visit Ridgway State Park, which has a beautiful reservoir surrounded by mountains. You can kayak and paddleboard on the reservoir or see it from above on the Ridgway Reservoir Trail (6.9 miles, 856 ft of elevation gain).
Where to stay:
We suggest staying in Montrose like you did the previous two nights or you can travel to wherever you’re flying out the next day or hit the road to your next destination!
Day 12: Travel back home
And now for the worst day of your Southwest Colorado road trip…heading home! If you’re like us, you’ll be very, very sad to leave, but there is still a lot more of Southwest Colorado and Colorado to see that is not included on this guide, so we hope that your goodbye is more of a “see you later!”
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