There’s no better way to experience the Rockies than on one of Colorado’s most iconic road trips, from the Mile High City of Denver to the unspoilt and trendy mining town, small town Telluride. Full of quirky small-town stops and jaw-dropping natural sights, this incredible two-day itinerary takes travelers through some of CO’s best Rocky Mountain scenery. Fully customizable and with plenty of optional stops along the way, this breathtaking journey is set against the backdrop of one of North America’s most iconic mountain ranges and gives visitors the chance to experience the best of Colorado’s frontier past while enjoying the cool, small-town vibes of its present, all in one memorable journey.
Denver to Telluride: The Details
Although there are two main routes between Denver and Telluride, via I-70 West or US Highway 285 South, Route 285 is by far more scenic. Traveling through charming little towns and villages; stunning natural attractions; and quirky, offbeat stops, Route 285 South winds through the Pike and San Isobel National Forests and is a bit more off the beaten path — the perfect way for visitors to experience both the eclectic sights and the breathtaking mountainous landscape of the Rocky Mountains. And although the following itinerary can easily be completed in a day, travelers are best advised to take at least two days to fully immerse yourself in the unique beauty of this CO road trip. Note: The following distance and travel time do not include optional stops.
- The main route: US Hwy 285 South, then US-50 West to Telluride
- Total distance: About 330 miles
- Total travel time: >Seven hours
- Recommended travel time: At least two days
Red Rocks: Welcome to the Rockies
The first leg of this amazing itinerary is a trip to Red Rocks Park and Amphitheater, about half an hour from Denver. Feel free to stop and explore – snap photos of the impressive amphitheater and marvel at the stunning views, or take a walk on one of the nearby trails – or just enjoy the scenic drive surrounded by steep canyons with red stones.
Optional Stop(s): Tiny Town and Kenosha Pass
One of the best reasons to take US Hwy 285 South to Telluride is the multitude of fun and quirky stops along the way, and one of those stops is Small city, arguably one of Colorado’s most unmissable off-the-beaten-path attractions. A literal ‘little town’ made up of a miniature village (100 buildings!) and a mini-railway, this fun stop is an OC roadside icon.
From Tiny Town, travel south on US-285 for about an hour before reaching the Kenosha Pass (those who want to skip Tiny Town can get here via Highway 470 instead). One of the most scenic stretches of the route; Kenosha Pass gradually gains elevation as it meanders past beautiful aspen forests that give way to a vast landscape of sunken mesas, a picture postcard of some of the state’s finest scenery. Be sure to stop at one of the many viewpoints along the way for great photo ops!
Fish in fair play and explore the Real South Park
About half an hour from Kenosha Pass is the charming town of Fair play, known as the trout fishing capital of the state, so skip an hour or two, or just stop and grab an early morning lunch or snack and a delicious cup of coffee. Both Java moose and Mr. Burro’s Coffee are popular options for a bite to eat and a cup of coffee in the early afternoon.
After lunch, it’s time to head to South Park, a historic town bordering Fairplay and, yes, the namesake of the popular animated show. However, fans won’t find Stan, Kyle, Kenny, or Cartman here, just a recreation of an 1890s mining town and an outdoor museum where visitors can learn all about the area’s history. There’s also a guided tour and locomotive (and a nearby cutout honoring the animated spectacle – photo opportunity!)
Optional Stop(s): Historic Rocky Mountain Towns along US-285
Fairplay and South Park are about an hour from the halfway point of the trip, salida, so visitors can opt for a more direct route to save time and settle in for an afternoon/evening of exploration. However, the road to Salida is dotted with small towns that have a historic charm of their own; and those with more time may want to stop at one (or more) along the way for an immersive look at Colorado’s gold rush-era towns that still exist today. .
- At the southern entrance to Boreas Pass is Como, a former mining site and a former ghost town with many historic sites and scenic beauty.
- Hartsellaka “The Heart of Colorado” due to its location at the geographic center of the state, is a former ranching town now known for its outdoor recreation.
- A former waterfront resort destination, Shawnee is now a very small hillside town overlooking the valley and home to a general store and historic post office.
An overnight stay halfway to Telluride
Salida is a great place to stop for the night as it sits almost halfway between Denver and Telluride, and its location near the Arkansas River makes it a stronghold for outdoor enthusiasts. However, salida is also brimming with cool mountain town vibes, which can be seen throughout its trendy downtown area.
- Discover Salida’s craft beer scene with a visit to local favorite Soulcraft Brewery.
- Have a bite to eat boathouse, located along the banks of the Arkansas River and serving Baja Mexican classics; or head to Amica’s for the wood-fired pie (and another local infusion or two)
- Spend the night at Manhattan Hotelself-service boutique accommodation in the heart of downtown.
Next day Salida Optional stop(s): Hike Monarch Mountain (30 min); Princeton Hot Springs (25 minutes)
Scenic Gunnison and Blue Mesa Reservoir
Start the day exploring more of quaint downtown Salida, then head out of town for breakfast along US-50 to Robin’s Restaurant on the way to Gunnison, just a 45 minute drive to scenic Monarch Mountain. A former mining/ranching town, Gunnison is located in the heart of the Rockies, and its quaint downtown is definitely worth a visit.
- The Gunnison Pioneer Museum is a great way to learn about frontier life in the 1890s.
- Walk through the landscape Western Colorado University Campus
- Grab a take-out lunch at Firebrand Charcuterie (recommended for a picnic at Blue Mesa Reservoir)
- Head to the largest body of water in CO, the Blue Mesa Reservoir (25 minutes). Relax on the shore (and enjoy your picnic!) after practicing water sports like kayaking, paddle boarding and windsurfing; then hit the road for a scenic drive to the top of the Blue Mesa Dam for the best panoramic views
Optional Stop(s): Bachelor Syracuse Mine On Gold Mountain (one hour+ from Blue Mesa)
Ridgeway: Gateway to the San Juan Mountains
However ridge path is only an hour’s drive (and uphill!) from Telluride, it’s a great place to stop and explore – historic, charming and full of many recreational opportunities; this quintessential Colorado town is an idyllic penultimate stopover.
- Soak in the Orvis Hot Springs
- Take one True Grit Walking Tour and see scenic locations where the movie was filmed in and around Ridgeway.
- Explore it Ridgeway Creative District
- Visit the Ridgeway Railroad Museum
- Grab a taco at Gnarled tacos
- Head toward Telluride for an unforgettable day (or two!)