A few years ago I spent 7 days in Colorado on my first road trip out West. Coming from New Jersey, I had never really seen mountains before. The first day we spent in Rocky Mountain National Park, I cried genuine tears a few times over how beautiful it was. Cue Rocky Mountain High by John Denver.
Green lush forests, tall mountain peaks, wildflowers. And I fell in love with hiking.. something I never thought I would say! I loved the way a good hike makes you feel so strong and capable, and rewards you with these incredible views.
This is also the trip that initially sparked my ‘wanderlust’. While I had always wanted to travel far and wide, after Colorado I was hooked on chasing views and hiking.
In 2017 me and my boyfriend flew into Denver International Airport and picked up a rental car to jet off into the heart of the Colorado Rockies! We went to Boulder, Rocky Mountain National Park, Hanging Lake in Glenwood Springs, and Maroon Bells in Aspen. It was a busy trip with many miles put on our blistered feet and rental car over a week!
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Planning your trip? Use my favorite resources!
Accommodation: I recommend Booking.com to find the best deals on hotels.
Flights: I recommend Skyscanner to look for the best prices and deals on flights.
Rental cars: I recommend DiscoverCars to shop around at multiple car rental agencies and get the best deal.
Travel insurance: I recommend Safety Wing; keep your trips insured to protect yourself while traveling.
Tours/experiences: I recommend Viator!
How many days should you spend in Colorado?
7 days in Colorado is a great amount of time to spend to be able to explore multiple parts of the state and get some great day hikes in. I would say a minimum of 5 days is needed to explore some of the best parts like Denver, Rocky Mountain National Park, and Boulder.
If you’re able to spend 10-14+ days in Colorado, you’d be able to do everything in this itinerary as well as spots like Ouray, Telluride, Mesa Verde National Park, Gunnison National Park, or Great Sand Dunes National Park.
What month is best to go to Colorado?
Colorado is great year-round, depending on what outdoor activities you’re into. If going to Colorado for the sole purpose of hitting the hiking trails in the mountains, then visiting during the months of June- October will work best for snow free trails.
But there are still some hiking trails accessible in the off season of spring and fall, and winter brings out the snowboarders and skiers. Do note that winter storms can make for unsafe driving conditions and shut down high mountain passes.
Day One: Denver to Boulder
The best way to get to Colorado is to fly into Denver International Airport. From Denver you’ll have the option to drive a few hours in any direction to hit so many fantastic spots in the state.
For many, their first stop in Colorado is Boulder. Boulder is just 25 miles West of Denver, or a 45 minute drive. The town sits at the base of the Flatirons and there are numerous hiking, biking, and climbing options right in town!
For our one day in Boulder, we hiked the Rattlesnake Gulch Trail, situated about a 20 minute drive from the center of town.
This was the perfect warm up moderate half day hike to prepare us for more hikes in the days to come. It was about 4 miles round trip with just less than 1,000 feet elevation gain.
The hike to Rattlesnake Gulch gives you great views of the canyon and through the pine trees. The trail also brings you across the ruins of a burned down hotel, which is pretty neat to see.
Other great hikes in Boulder
- Sugarloaf Mountain: 1.3 miles round trip & 440 ft elevation gain. Short and sweet hike to a beautiful mountain peak with views of the Rockies.
- Bear Peak: 5 miles round trip & 2,675 ft elevation gain. Hard hike with great views of the front range.
- Royal Arch: 3.4 miles round trip & 1,500 ft elevation gain. Moderate to hard hike with great views of the surrounding area and brings you to cool rock formations that distinguishes the area of Boulder.
After our hike, we explored downtown Boulder. The main strip is lively and nice to walk around with plenty of dining options. We ate at Bartaco during our night there and had a great meal.
Best Hotels in Boulder
- Boulder Twin Lakes Inn: This hotel is highly rated with lower budget options. There is a year-round hot tub available as well as a breakfast buffet.
- Fairfield Inn & Suites: Mid range option with a continental breakfast included.
- Colorado Chautauqua Cottages: A group of historic cottages across from Boulder Mountain Park. Highly rated with rustic decor and an onsite restaurant.
Day Two: Rocky Mountain National Park
The next day we drove from Boulder to Rocky Mountain National Park, which took about one hour.
If you’re visiting the park between May 26- October 22 of 2023 you will need a timed entry reservation to get in. No matter when you visit you also need to purchase a National Parks Pass.
There are 1- Day or 7- Day Vehicle Passes, or you can use your Annual National Parks Pass. IF you visit a National Park at least 3 times in one year the Annual Pass pays for itself!
On our first day here, we hiked to a few different lakes. We first stopped at Bear Lake, which takes next to no effort as it is right next to the parking lot.
From Bear Lake, we hiked the Emerald Lake trail. This hike is about 3 miles roundtrip with an elevation gain of 700 feet. On the way to Emerald Lake you will also pass Dream Lake.
We originally were going to end our day here, but we decided on our way back down to the Bear Lake Trailhead, to turn up the trail to hike to Lake Haiyaha. This trail is 3.6 miles roundtrip and has over 800 feet elevation gain.
This lake was breathtaking! It had this beautiful turquoise hue to it. However, this is not like the other lakes where you just sort of walk up to the shoreline. It was surrounded by huge rocks and boulders that you had to climb and walk over to see the lake!
Best Hotels near Rocky Mountain National Park:
Estes Park is the closest and most convenient town to stay in near the park. The town of Loveland, where we stayed, is about an hour’s drive away but you may find cheaper accommadations.
- Discovery Lodge, Estes Park: 10 minute drive from the park’s entrance. There is a pond on the property for fishing and a hot tub to soak in after your hikes!
- Coyote Mountain Lodge, Estes Park: Log cabin inspired rooms, 10 minute drive the park’s entrance.
- Blue Door Inn, Estes Park: This hotel has a seasonal outdoor pool and games like shuffleboard and corn hole. Highly rated with budget options.
- Wingate by Wyndham, Loveland: Budget option in Loveland with breakfast included.
- Microtel Inn & Suites by Wyndham, Loveland: Another highly rated budget option in Loveland with breakfast included.
Day Three: Rocky Mountain National Park
Our next day in RMNP we did a long day hike and left the crowds behind us going from Bear Lake to Fern Lake. We were your definition of beginner hikers, so this hike to us was pretty hard at 9.5 miles one way with over 1200 feet of elevation gain.
The trail begins at the Bear Lake trailhead, takes you up through a fairytale enchanted forest to Lake Helene, over to Lake Odessa, finally bringing you to Fern Lake.
From Fern Lake, you will walk further down the trail to catch a shuttle from the Fern Lake Trailhead back to Bear Lake.
This is one of the prettiest and underrated hikes in the park and a must do if you’re looking a longer day hike. I also love that it is one way so you can take your time at each stop and not backtrack.
Day Four: Rocky Mountain National Park + Trail Ridge Road
The next morning, we packed up our bags and headed back to RMNP for our last hike before driving Trail Ridge Road and heading to our next Colorado destination.
Our day hike started at the Glacier Gorge trailhead. We first went to The Loch Lake, then backtracked back to go up to Mills Lake.
In total, this was about 7 miles with 1300 feet elevation gain. The trail also features some waterfalls, and the area heading up to Mills Lake is breathtaking! It has some of the best panoramic views of the park.
After our beautiful day hike, we headed off to our next destination that was a four hour drive away.
We stayed in a town called Carbondale to get to Maroon Bells and Hanging Lake the following days. We were able to take Trail Ridge Road as well, sending a final goodbye to RMNP.
The drive is kind of scary, and its pretty terrifying to look down out of the car, but its not ‘unsafe’ at all. The whole road is paved and pretty wide, and there are plenty of pull offs to take in the fantastic views.
Be sure to wear a coat or jacket though even in summer, since as you approach higher elevation it gets windier and colder.
We stayed in Carbondale like mentioned above as a jumping point to Hanging Lake and Maroon Bells which are both within an hours’ drive of the town.
Best Hotels in or near Carbondale, Colorado
- Days Inn Carbondale: Reliable chain hotel with a hot tub and sauna and american breakfast included.
- Basalt Mountain Inn: A cute inn in the town of Basalt, breakfast is included.
- Glenwood Springs Cedar Lodge: Great option for being close to the Hanging Lake trailhead or you want to explore the beautiful town of Glenwood Springs. This hotel features an indoor heated pool and sauna and a continental breakfast.
Day Five: Hanging Lake Hike
On our fifth day, we drove just 40 minutes from Carbondale to Hanging Lake.
This trail was pretty difficult, although short. It was just 2.5 miles roundtrip, but with over 1,000 feet of elevation gain in that short time and at times there are some pretty sheer drop offs into the canyon.
In 2017 when we went, we did not need to reserve a day pass, however since there has been so much foot traffic, you now need to reserve your hiking time online. Book your 10-12$ reservations here.
This is an extremely fragile ecosystem that needs special attention. Please be mindful of this and leave no trace when you are here.
Day Six: Maroon Bells
The next day, we woke up very early around 4am to get to Maroon Bells well before sunrise. We got to the parking lot a little before 6am; it was less than an hours drive from Carbondale where we were staying.
The early wake up call was so worth it! We were greeted with an incredible sunrise and alpenglow on the face of Maroon Bells.
Next, we hiked to Crater Lake which is a short hike at 4 miles roundtrip with just about 700 feet of elevation gain.
This is just a nice half day hike that’s not too strenuous, which we needed after hiking everyday!
The area surrounding Maroon Bells is gorgeous and I wish we had spent more time hiking around here. Next time. 😉
After exploring Maroon Bells, we ate in the town of Aspen and set off for the town of Gypsum, CO where we relaxed at our Airbnb the evening before driving back to Denver to fly home.
We stayed at this Airbnb that had a nice relaxing space after all that hiking.
Day Seven: Driving back to Denver + Garden of the Gods
Our flight back home to NJ wasn’t until 12:30am that night, so we had basically a whole day to drive from Gypsum to the airport.
So, we took a detour down to Colorado Springs and went to Garden of the Gods. On our way, we accidentally drove through the actual town of South Park that the show is based off of!
We just walked around a bit at Garden of the Gods. It’s a cool park, but we found all the mountain scenery we had seen in previous days to be a lot cooler. 🙂
After Garden of the Gods, we started our drive up to Denver and filled up on a filling, delicious Mexican meal at El Jardin restaurant. Then we boarded the plane back to the east coast, sad that we were leaving but overjoyed that we came.