Colorado is at the heart of the incredible Rocky Mountains, and nature lovers from around the world flock here to take in the stunning mountain vistas and enjoy outdoor activities. One of our favorite road trips of all time runs from Denver to Grand Junction straight through the Continental Divide near the Utah border.
While you could make the trip in 4 hours on the interstate, we recommend going off the beaten path to take in some truly majestic mountain views and experience a few charming mining towns along the way. It’s a gorgeous trip no matter the time of year -- and a great way to make memories.
Here are some great stops to make when driving from Denver to Grand Junction.
Denver, Colorado’s bustling capital city, is also the state’s largest city. While there are the terrific museums, sights, and amenities one would expect from a city of its size, we love to spend our time close to the city center, since it’s jam-packed with activities and is quite walkable.
Stroll the 16th Street Mall, a pedestrian-only stretch of shops, galleries, and boutiques. Spend some time at the Colorado State Capitol, and marvel at the building’s gilded dome, a nod to the state’s Gold Rush past. And don’t forget a stop at the Denver Art Museum on the outskirts of the Capitol Hill neighborhood, which features more than 70,000 works of art.
Pro Tip: Plan to stay at the Brown Palace; the historic spot located in the heart of downtown offers beautiful accommodations and serves up an epic and decadent high tea. For a dinner splurge, Mizuna is a true French treat with its tiny dining room and incredible ambience.
As you head out on Interstate 70, be sure to make a lunch stop in Idaho Springs, Colorado, about 30 miles west of Denver. The small town was founded by gold prospectors in 1859. Today, the town’s Miner Street is home to charming shops and cute cafes, including the legendary Beau Jo’s Pizza. Forget about counting calories or carbs here -- these mountain pies are deep-dish and feel like they’re mile-high! Be sure to save your crusts; you can dip them in honey for dessert.
Continuing west, you’ll come to the town of Frisco, close to some of Colorado’s most famous ski resorts. While it makes a terrific home base for winter sports fanatics ready to hit the slopes, there’s much more to the area. Main Street has a great collection of shops and eateries, and on the eastern end, there’s the Frisco Bay Marina, the entrance to the Dillon Reservoir. It’s a great place to burn some calories with a quick paddleboat or kayak trip -- or simply kick back with a waterfront meal (weather permitting, of course!).
From Copper Mountain, take Colorado State Highway 91 south for a stop in Leadville, Colorado. This town was founded by prospectors who hoped to make fortunes mining gold, silver, or even lead. Leadville was a place where the West was truly wild, and where Doc Holliday and the Unsinkable Molly Brown had roots. Today, Leadville’s city center is a National Historic District with 70 square blocks of Victorian architecture crammed with tall tales and legends. Consider a walking tour to really take it all in.
Pro Tip: Leadville makes a great overnight stop; the Delaware Hotel is like a step back in time. While not over-the-top luxe, it is comfortable and loaded with history.
From Leadville, a jog west on State Highway 82 will eventually land you in one of the country’s poshest winter wonderlands. We’re talking about Aspen, where celebrities go to ski, shop, and be seen during the winter months.
No matter the time you visit, there will always be something to see and do. Hike nearby Maroon Bells or the trails if you want to get in some cardio. Check out any number of Aspen’s cultural offerings, including its renowned art museum or music festival. For your Gucci or Burberry fix, shop Aspen’s high-end boutiques in the city center, or if the mountain air has you feeling dried out, consider a trip to the spa. The Auberge in Hotel Jerome is a favorite of locals and visitors alike.
Take State Highway 82 another 40 miles out of Aspen, and you’ll rejoin Interstate 70 at Glenwood Springs, Colorado. You’ll want to make time to explore this town, made famous by its restorative mineral hot springs. If you’ve got the time, consider a dip! There are three hot springs in town. You can’t go wrong checking out the original at the Glenwood Hot Springs Resort, home to the world’s largest hot springs pool. It has been welcoming visitors since 1888, and you can take a soak, schedule a spa treatment, and even stay the night at the historic lodge.
Like most of the mountain mining towns on this road trip, Glenwood Springs has a terrific downtown with great shopping and dining options. For a delicious, no-fuss meal, get to Slope & Hatch, where you’ll find some of the best tacos anywhere. The hot dogs are also tops!
Heading west on Interstate 70 from Glenwood Springs, you’ll notice a shift in the landscape. Instead of high country, you’re now in the mesas, where the land has historically been used for ranching. It’s also here where the town names start to get pretty interesting.
Take Rifle, Colorado, for instance. Legend has it that the town was named after a rancher set his weapon along a creek in the area, which is now quite popular with rock climbers and adventurers. Rifle Mountain Park has 250 climbing routes, most catering to the sport’s elite. Rifle Falls, with its limestone caves and triple waterfall, is a terrific place to explore and enjoy a picnic. The Rifle Heritage Center is also worth a stop to learn more about what life was like in this part of Colorado way back when.
Continue west on Interstate 70; you’ll pass the small town of Parachute, Colorado, which means you’re getting close to your final destination on this epic mountain road trip.
The final stop on this road trip is located in the heart of the Grand Valley at the junction of the Garrison and Colorado Rivers. Grand Junction, Colorado, founded in 1881, has always been bustling, once serving as a commerce center due to its railroads. It’s still an agricultural crossroads and the center of Colorado’s thriving wine country.
Downtown Grand Junction is tree-lined, charming, walkable, and packed with fun shops and cafes. The recently renovated Avalon Theatre hosts a wide variety of fine arts performances and concerts, while the Museum of the West tells the story of all the people who shaped this area -- including Native American tribes, Spanish colonists, and later pioneers, cattle ranchers, and cowboys.
Hiking, biking, and rafting are all popular activities in the area, and the nearby Colorado National Monument, with its epic sandstone formations and sweeping vistas, is absolutely worth a visit.
Pro Tip: Grand Junction is big enough to offer travelers a wide range of accommodations, but the Wine Country Inn in nearby Palisade, Colorado, stands out. The Victorian-style hotel is set in the middle of a 21-acre vineyard and is adjacent to two wineries.
What To Know Before You Go
Remember, you are traveling at altitude -- and in some spots, high altitude. Be judicious with your alcohol consumption, guzzle water, and keep Advil on hand should you start to feel ill or get a headache.
Also, don’t forget to stop along the way, even outside of the suggestions here, to take in the majestic scenery. Of course, you’ll want to get lots of photos, but make sure you stay safe when snapping those selfies.