The travelers’ hub of Denver is a good starting point for this scenic journey, which really begins once you leave the city behind and head toward Colorado's lushly forested and mountainous southwest. Then from Buena Vista you'll drive west to Crested Butte and on to Ouray and Telluride. Your total driving time over five days will be less than 8 hours, but you'll see some of the most beautiful areas of this spectacular state — and have lots of room in your itinerary for its many outdoor pleasures.
The unpredictability of the coronavirus means travel restrictions are constantly evolving. Be sure to check Colorado’s official website for updates before visiting from out of state, and follow CDC guidelines for safe travel.
Day 1: Denver to Buena Vista (123 miles)
The drive southwest on Highway 285 delivers endless mountain vistas and plenty of pull-offs to snap photos of snowcapped peaks and grazing bighorn sheep. Detour at South Park City, a restoration of a 19th-century mining camp, to get a glimpse of the region's boomtown days. Buena Vista, a one-stoplight adventure hub, provides easy access to a dozen of Colorado's famed “fourteeners” (mountain peaks with an elevation of at least 14,000 feet) as well as mellow hikes such as Lost Lake.
The Arkansas River flows alongside town, making this a paddling mecca. Tackle some white water with rafting outfit River Runners (the Milk Run is great for beginners), then enjoy health-conscious alfresco dining and bocce at House Rock Kitchen. When the sun goes down, catch a movie at the Comanche, a drive-in theater with the country's highest elevation at 8,000 feet.
Where to stay: Located side by side on the banks of the Arkansas River, the 42-room Surf Hotel and 20-room Surf Chateau are sister properties inspired by the French countryside.
Day 2: Buena Vista to Crested Butte (75 miles)
The newly paved Cottonwood Pass debuted in September 2019. Cresting at 12,126 feet, the second-highest paved pass in America connects Buena Vista to Crested Butte, taking in the surrounding Collegiate Peaks and open alpine meadows along the way. Brilliant summer blooms have earned Crested Butte the title of Wildflower Capital of Colorado. And come fall, the charming town is a popular base for leaf peeping. You can access many hiking and biking trails, such as the low-key, 2.8-mile Woods Walk, right from town. Known as one of the country's premier mountain biking destinations, you'll find rides for all abilities. Newbies can rent a bike at the Alpineer and tackle the Lower Loop, a beginner-friendly trail reachable from the edge of downtown. Reward your efforts with a locally crafted microbrew and a Margarita Deluxe pie from Brick Oven Pizzeria & Pub (also available to go).
Where to stay: Three spacious lofts above the Public House bar and restaurant put guests in the heart of downtown without breaking the bank. The five-bedroom, alpine-chic Scarp River Lodge is a splurge but delivers five-star service.
Day 3: Crested Butte to Ouray (128 miles)
Stop in the quiet ranching town of Gunnison and fuel up with a cappuccino and breakfast burrito at Double Shot Cyclery. Stretch your legs with a detour to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. Despite its comparisons to the Grand Canyon, this dramatic wilderness area is the state's least crowded national park. The South Rim entrance is seven miles north of Highway 347 from the intersection with Highway 50, east of Montrose. From the visitor center, you can pick up the 1.5-mile round-trip Warner Point Nature Trail, which is lined with shaded benches so you can rest and take in views of the San Juan Mountain Range to the south. Nicknamed the Switzerland of America, Ouray is a funky town known for its ice climbing, Jeep tours and hot springs. Take a post-hike soak in the mineral-rich waters at Ouray Hot Springs (currently closed due to COVID-19) or book a stay at Box Canyon Lodge and Hot Springs and soak steps from your room. For a great vantage — with no effort required — head to the rooftop of Ouray Brewery and order one of its beloved burgers and a pint of Box Canyon Brown. Whiskey aficionados should swing by KJ Wood Distillers, where the spacious tasting room stays open until 9 p.m. and often hosts live music.
Where to stay: Built in 1886, the restored 12-room Beaumont Hotel is right downtown; prominent past guests include Teddy Roosevelt and Oprah Winfrey. Box Canyon Lodge and Hot Springs is one of three properties in Ouray with on-site hot springs. Four redwood soaking tubs terraced on the mountainside are sanitized regularly and available for guests only.
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Day 4: Ouray to Telluride (50 miles)
Wake up with a pour-over coffee and avocado toast at Mojo's Coffee, then lace up your hiking boots and hit the 6.5-mile Ouray Perimeter Trail, which encircles the mountains that tower above town. Pick up the trailhead at the Ouray Visitor Center. Riddled with attractions, including four waterfalls and old miner caves, you'll want to allow at least five hours to complete the hike. The trail doesn't go much above 8,500 feet, so it's a good option for those still adjusting to the altitude, although some steep sections can prove challenging for the out of shape, so listen to your body — and pack plenty of water.
Leave town heading north on Highway 550 and stop for lunch in Colorado's tiniest foodie town, Ridgway. Head to Eatery 66, a vintage Airstream where Per Se restaurant alum Spencer Graves serves creative dishes such as Korean BBQ pork belly BLTs and truffle Parmesan fries.
Continue west on Highway 62 then south on Highway 145 to reach Telluride, an old mining town nestled in a box canyon. Its main drag — Colorado Avenue — could still double as the set of an old western film. Take time to visit downtown's indie shops and art galleries, such as Between the Covers bookstore, Mixx Projects + Atelier boutique and gallery, and Slate Gray Gallery. The free Telluride Gondola shuttles people between the historic town and the mountain area. Time your ride to catch sunset. The National, downtown's newest restaurant, wows locals and visitors with an ambitious menu of dishes such as braised lamb shank and mustard spaetzle and blackberry and buttermilk panna cotta, as well as big-city worthy cocktails. For social distancing, tables and bar seats are now spaced six feet apart. With limited seating, it's best to book a reservation in advance for dinner, or order takeout.
Where to stay: The historic New Sheridan Hotel has five restaurants and bars and a prime location in the middle of town. Madeline, an Auberge Resorts Collection property located in nearby Mountain Village, boasts a top spa and fitness center plus an outdoor heated pool.
Day 5: Telluride
Cascading down 365 feet, Bridal Veil Falls is one of Telluride's bucket-list attractions. Rise early to avoid crowds on the trail to Colorado's tallest free-falling waterfall. You'll find parking just past the Pandora Mill at the town's east end. The 4.8-mile out-and-back hike is rated moderate with some steep stretches, and Telluride's air-gasping altitude of 8,750 feet makes it all the more challenging. Recharge with a breakfast sandwich of eggs, cheddar, sausage, arugula and house-made pepper jelly from the Butcher and the Baker, a locally loved institution with indoor and outdoor seating. To see some spectacular scenery while learning about gold-mining lore, go on a Jeep tour of Imogene Pass and Tomboy Ghost Town with Telluride Outside. Throughout the summer, Telluride Mountain Village hosts a sunset concert series in Sunset Plaza. Next year Telluride Brewing Company plans to debut a new brew pub in Mountain Village, so you can end the day soaking in views with brews and tacos.
Enjoy some music along the route with this road trip playlist compiled for AARP by the staff of Colorado Public Radio.