Road Tripping Out West: Colorado & Beyond
Updated: Apr 16
After every yacht chartering season, Mark and I always plan a vacation directly afterwards to spend quality time together and explore somewhere new (definitely not on the ocean).
We decided to plan a road trip through Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah. Exploring the National Parks in this area has been a huge thing on my bucket list and I couldn't wait to hop on a plane & pitch my tent.
We bought budget flights that required us to be at the airport practically in the middle of the night and with limited luggage available. We decided to camp for the majority of the time but that complicated things in regards to packing.
Mainly raiding my parents camping gear, we packed the bare essentials- a tent, sleeping bags, one pillow, a solar powered lantern, extra blankets, and cooking utensils. Just this small list took up an entire suitcase. We decided on buying a skillet, cooler, and an air mattress (for warmth) when we arrived.
Even though we were going in August, temperatures in the higher elevations of the mountains were still dropping to freezing temperatures at night. This was a concern for us in terms of packing space and warmth but we made it work.
Our goal was to camp as much as possible in the National Parks that surround much of the West. I bought a Annual National Park Pass for $80. This pass allowed us to enter the parks for free, instead of paying a $30 entry fee for every park. Most camping fees were cheap anyway - ranging from $15 to $30 a night but we still saved some cash by buying the annual pass.
I did make an itinerary before leaving because it helped us stay on track and made sure we had enough time to experience our "must-dos". With that being said, I only booked our first and second night's stay so we had plenty of wiggle room to change directions. Our trip lasted for two weeks, but camped a total of one week. In between camping, we visited friends and family. Mark's brother lives in Salt Lake City, Utah while some of his family live in Gunnison,Colorado. His family live completely off the grid, owning an art gallery. When we arrived they had shot an Elk in the high elevations of the mountains.
Our first night, we stayed in Denver at a hostel, which was definitely the worst night of our trip. We ended up switching hotels at midnight after an experience with a rat and just not so great conditions. After arriving at a random holiday inn well after midnight, we felt pretty defeated. Needless to say, my privilege of booking hotels was revoked. After the first night, it was smooth sailing! It's so hard to pick our favorite place in terms of beauty because the campsites were so unique and different. Our first campsite, in Estes Park, had expansive views of a large valley with perfect streams for fly fishing and hiking trails for miles on end. It was the perfect place to restart our trip after the first night.
After a week on the road, we finally got the hang of it and things became routine. We had an endless supply of firewood, water, and toilet paper stocked in the car and could set up camp within the matter of 20 minutes. The Grand Mesa Forest took us completely by surprise. We got lost for an hour or two, after backtracking, we ended up at a campground that wasn't originally planned. It ended up being AMAZING. Our campsite overlooked a large lake with huge pines surrounding the area, we definitely wished we could've spent a week or more here. We spent the night playing rummy and hanging out by the fire.
How could anything else top these spots? Insert the Great Sand Dunes National Park. Whenever I planned this trip, I knew this campsite would end up being my favorite and boy I wasn't wrong. This blew my expectations out of the water. We hiked for miles up the sand dunes (hardest workout of my life), and camped among wildflowers and the stars. I bought a $5 backcountry camping pass the day of that allowed us to camp in the dunes. They didn't allow camp fires so we ate an early dinner then waited for the heat to subside before trekking up the large dunes. After setting up camp, we explored the dunes even further, enjoying the sunset. The best part was waking up at 2am to experience the stars in all of their glory.
This place didn't seem real. We felt like we were the only people for miles. It looked like something out of a story book. And goes down as one of the best days of my life.
We definitely didn't enjoy the cities as much and next time would probably skip Denver all together other than arriving at the airport. We could've spent months exploring all of the national parks and felt a bit rushed on time. Both, Mark and I, learned so much about the West and its beauty.
Below is the full itinerary from the trip:
Tuesday, August 20
Arrive in Denver at 9am
30 min drive to Red Rocks
Night 1: Denver, CO
hostel in city $100
Grocery store/ pack sandwiches/snacks for camping
Wednesday, August 21
1 hr drive to Estes Park/ Rocky Mtn national Park
Drive through trail bridge road
Night 2: Moraine Campground $26
BRING WATER/ TOILET PAPER/ FIREWOOD
Thursday, August 22
Drive from Estes Park to Flaming Gorge 6 hrs
Night 3: Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area $18
-gorgeous views of gorge
Friday, August 23- Sunday, August 25
Salt Lake City, Utah with family
Monday, August 26
Drive from Salt Lake City to Vail CO 6 hrs 30 mins
Night 7: Grand Mesa National Forest
Tuesday, August 27-Friday, August 30
White Water Rafting
Vail, CO with friends
Saturday, August 31
Drive from Vail, CO to Crested Butte 3hrs 30 mins
Gunnison, CO Night with family
Sunday, September 1
Drive from Crested Butte to Great Sand Dunes National Park 2hrs 30 mins
Hike and Camp in Great Sand Dunes National Park
get a permit to camp in backcountry at the visitors center
Bring water/toilet paper/ trash bag. No fire allowed in dunes.
Monday, September 2
Drive from Great Sand Dunes to Garden of Gods 3hrs
Garden of the Gods- Horseback Riding 2hrs $90 per person
Night: camp in Colorado Springs, CO
Tuesday, September 3
Drive from Great Sand Dunes to Denver, CO 3hrs 45 mins
Hotel until 3am
Wednesday, September 4
Airport at 3am- leave at 5am