Car camp on this 10-day fall road trip that loops from Denver through some of the state’s most stunning landscapes to Colorado Springs

Drive to Carbondale, Colorado
Creative Commons photo by David Deaton is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Day 1: Denver to Rocky Mountain National Park

Photo courtesy Visit Denver

This state is gorgeous year-round, but fall makes for an epic Colorado car-camping trip. As the leaves change, mountain towns host festivals most weekends and locals head out on the trails in droves. The best way to see it all is by hitting the road. Camp along the way and you’ll save money on lodging while maximizing your time outside. The adventure starts in Denver, where you can get supplies before steering west toward Rocky.

Stop 1: Stock Up in the City

Courtesy Topo Designs

Home to thousands of weekend warriors, Denver is loaded with outdoor retailers. Get any last-minute supplies at Wilderness Exchange, where you can find killer deals on consignment base layers, tents, daypacks, hiking poles—anything you need. REI has a store in the city, too. And, you can go to the flagship of the outworld-favorite Topo Designs, in RiNo—they have a repair program to rehab your Topo gear when it gets worn out. From there, make a stop at Nooch for vegan trail snacks like mushroom jerky and s’mores supplies. And for beer, Craft Alley stocks tons of locally made options sold in crowlers (growler cans) filled fresh from the breweries.

Stop 2: Find Bison at Rocky Mountain Arsenal Wildlife Refuge

On your way out of town, it’s worth taking a small detour to the Rocky Mountain Arsenal Wildlife Refuge. The largest urban wildlife refuge in the country is a sight to see with its 15,000 acres and more than 300 species—including bison and eagles—set against the Denver skyline.

Bonus: Catch a Show at Red Rocks Park & Amphitheatre

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People plan entire trips around concerts at Red Rocks. If you’re one of them, know that you can car camp at Bear Creek Lake Camp, which has a walking trail that leads to the venue. You can reserve the campsite online to guarantee a spot (just do it months in advance). Plus, it has electricity and showers.n entire trips around concerts at Red Rocks. If you’re one of them, know that you can car camp at Bear Creek Lake Camp, which has a walking trail that leads to the venue. You can reserve the campsite online to guarantee a spot (just do it months in advance). Plus, it has electricity and showers.

Stop 3: Eat and Drink in Boulder

Courtesy Upslope Brewing Company

Plan for a brewery lunch in outdoor-loving Boulder. Hikers, climbers, and well-to-do pro athletes congregate in places like Avery Brewing and Upslope (pictured), which is on the outskirts of the town on the way to Rocky Mountain National Park. There’s not much camping in Boulder proper, so if you’re looking for a fun night on the town to start your trip, camp close by in Nederland (a highly underrated, quirky gem of a town in and of itself) at Camp Wilder, located on a secluded private site. The host greets you with a bundle of wood and may schedule a guided walk around the property.

Stop 4: Car Camp at RMNP’s Moraine Park Campground

From there it’s on to Rocky Mountain National Park. Best to time your Colorado car-camping trip to arrive in the park mid-week. Weekends are absurdly busy as everyone from the Front Range and beyond descends upon the country’s third-most visited national park to peek at the fall color. Set up camp at the reservable Moraine Park, which has more than 200 campsites scattered around the forest. There isn’t much shade, but the views and accessibility (with stops for a free shuttle to trailheads like Sprague Lake) are stellar. Hunker down here for two nights.

Day 2: Rocky Mountain National Park

In late summer and fall, elk take over the park and its basecamp town of Estes Park. Spend the day hiking and scoping out the wildlife, then head into Estes for some grub and a nightcap.

Stop 5: Hike Rocky Mountain Trails & Chill in Estes

One of the best fall color spots in Colorado, Rocky delivers on the foliage. Spend your time tackling a few shorter gold-filled hikes like Alberta Falls (continue to Loch Vale to extend this one) and trails in the remote Wild Basin area. If you have pups in tow, go for the 7-mile Twin Sisters trail, off Highway 7, or Lily Lake, where you can picnic on boulders overlooking Estes Park. End long days of hiking and elk spotting, carousing with the locals at Rock Cut Brewing, Lumpy Ridge Brewing, or Elkins Distilling.

Stop 6: Drive Across Trail Ridge Road

The highest continuous paved road in the country peaks at 12,183 feet. Head out early enough to catch the sunrise and avoid traffic. From Moraine Park, it’s about an hour and a half to the other side of the park if you drive straight through, but allow added time to check out the small trails and overlooks along the two-lane road. Expect Trail Ridge to close around the third week of October. Consider extending your trip if you want to spend time hiking the lesser-visited western side of the park.

Day 3: Rocky Mountain National Park to Carbondale

You’ll cross one of the highest paved roads in the country (and likely spot elk and moose), then head south toward Frisco, before kicking west to Carbondale.

Stop 7: Trek Around St. Mary’s Glacier

You could take your time and stop for lunch at one of the restaurants on the water on Grand Lake, or make haste and take a 30-minute detour (each way) to St. Mary’s Glacier, near Idaho Springs. It’s one of Colorado’s most hikeable glaciers. Make sure you’re properly outfitted with good hiking gear—especially boots with solid traction (the trail is rocky) and maybe traction

Stop 8: Have Lunch in Frisco

An old mining town, Frisco gets overshadowed by the major ski resorts that surround it (Breck, Vail, Keystone), but that’s what keeps it awesome. Mountain town culture prevails at this adventure basecamp with a cute, historic Main Street that harkens its frontier-town beginnings. Among the reliable mom-and-pop lunch spots, new places are starting to move in. Refuel for more days of hiking at Pure Kitchen, which opened earlier this year, with colorful power bowls, sandwiches, and flatbreads.

Stop 9: Car Camp at Avalanche Campground

Located within White River National Forest, this six-site campground puts you next to one of the major trailheads of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness area; 10 minutes from downtown Carbondale; and right next to Avalanche Ranch, a cabin lodging area with three hot springs and showers. The springs and shower are accessible with a $16 day pass. Book yourself for the 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. slot to soak away achy muscles and freshen up before you continue on your Colorado car-camping route.

Days 4 & 5: Carbondale and Roaring Fork Valley

The Roaring Fork Valley is gorgeous with its towns of Glenwood Springs, Aspen, and Carbondale. About 40 minutes from the valley’s glittering Aspen, Carbondale may just be one of raddest towns in Colorado.

Stop 10: Have the Best Day in Carbondale

The town’s Main Street houses artists priced out of Aspen and young entrepreneurs who have come back to invest in their hometown. Hop around between places like Carbondale Arts, Carbondale Clay Center, and Steve’s Guitar, a guitar shop that often hosts live music. For food, Village Smithy (pictured) is a classic for brunch and Señor Taco has some of the best tacos in the area. Meanwhile, the stylish Batch tasting room pours its Roaring Fork Valley Brewing beers, some of which are made with fruit from nearby Paonia. The Rio Grande Trail’s 42-mile corridor runs through town, so you can easily get between places downtown like True Healing Arts (a wellness center with a free, public garden that has a stone reflexology path perfect for soothing tired hikers’ feet), and the nearby warehouse district with cool and sustainable restaurants and shops like Silo (its farm-fresh breakfasts are out of this world).

Stop 11: Hike to Crystal Mill

This part of the state is awash with fall color. While you could cruise to Aspen and up to one of the great Western scenic drives, the Top of the Rockies, we suggest you earn your views on a hike to Crystal Mills, near Marble. The oft-photographed 1892 mill, a remnant of the once-prosperous mining town, stands on a rocky outcrop above the Crystal River. The hike is about 4 miles each way. The first mile is the hardest, so don’t get discouraged on the front end. Plan to be out there half the day, then come back for another hot spring soak and shower before retreating to your campsite at night.

Day 6: Carbondale to Salida

Black Canyon of the Gunnison via the West Elk Loop (Highway 133), which follows the Crystal River and a sea of color (especially around McClure Pass, pictured above). After Black Canyon, loop back around to Salida and Buena Vista, another two burgeoning Carbondale mountain towns.

Stop 12: Check Black Canyon of the Gunnison off Your Bucket List

The least-visited national park in the country, Black Canyon of the Gunnison plunges up to 2,700 feet and stretches for 42 miles. It’s epic and something you have to see at least once in your life. Chasm View on the North Rim of the canyon is one of the most breathtaking vantage points. If you plan to linger, Morrow Point Boat Tours offers a 1.5-hour ride through the canyon for a different perspective.

Bonus: Car Camp in Gunnison

Black Canyon is well worth the detour, even for a quick view, but if you want to take it slow, there are a few car camping options within the park as well as dispersed camping right outside the southern entrance. Or, drive a little further east toward Salida and set up camp at Curecanti National Recreation Area, which has three reservoirs, including the state’s largest body of water. The rangers here host stargazing events with the Gunnison Valley Observatory in summer.

Stop 13: Car Camp at Angel of Shavano

Salida is one of the most outdoorsy towns in Colorado. Car camping is plentiful, and Angel of Shavano, at the base of Mt. Shavano (a 9-mile fourteener that climbs 4,600 feet), is one of the best spots. Its under-the-radar campsites are surrounded by aspens right along the Arkansas River. The Colorado Trail starts here, too, so the hiking options are plentiful.

Days 7 & 8: Salida and Buena Vista

This Colorado car-camping road trip is all about spending time outside, and these two burgeoning mountain towns offer a plethora of outdoor recreation.

Stop 14: Raft and Hang out in Salida

Some of the state’s best kayaking and whitewater rafting happens on this part of the Arkansas River. Look to River Runners and Absolute Bikes for gear rentals. Then, spend time wandering the tiny downtown to see the historic buildings, craft drink spots, shops, and galleries—all of which earned it certification as Colorado’s first Creative District.

Stop 15: Discover Buena Vista

Buena Vista’s calling card is still adventure, but the art and restaurant scenes are coming in strong. Go there to river surf, tube, or rock climb, then head somewhere like Simple Eatery, inside The Trailhead gear shop, or Deerhammer Distilling. If it’s summer, check the schedule for the riverside outdoor music venue, BEACH.

Day 9: Salida to Colorado Springs

Take highway 50 to Colorado Springs—you’ll only add 10 minutes to your drive and get to squeeze in a quirky roadside attraction.

Stop 16: Get High at Royal Gorge Bridge & Park

What’s a road trip without stopping at an offbeat only-here kind of place? At this adventure park, the founders have figured out every which way to get you to tackle the 1,200-foot gorge. There’s the suspension bridge, which allows you to cross the 1,270-foot gap on foot; a gondola; skydiving; and the Skycoaster, which starts with a free fall before dangling you over the gorge. Acrophobics can stay closer to land on the Royal Gorge Route Railroad that cruises along the base of the canyon.

Stop 17: Car Camp at Cheyenne Mountain or Mueller State Park

Just 10 minutes from downtown Colorado Springs, Cheyenne Mountain stretches out over 2,701 acres. Since it sits at a lower elevation, the fall color will last longer here. Take the new (opened last year) Dixon Trail, a grueling 15-mile, round-trip hike with big aspen groves at the top. The park has showers and laundry on-site, which is a godsend if you’re flying out of Denver the next day. If you’re less interested in stopping at Colorado Springs and Garden of the Gods, camp at Mueller State Park instead. It’s overloaded with aspens.

Day 10: Colorado Springs to Denver

Wrap up your Colorado car-camping road trip with a visit to one of the most iconic places in the state.

Stop 18: Snap a Pic at Garden of the Gods

On your way out of town, it’s worth a drive or short hike through the Garden of the Gods park with its dramatic red sandstone formations. The Palmer Trail gives you a solid overview and stellar vistas with only a 2.5-mile round-trip detour.