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Southwest Colorado Road Trip

Best Places to Visit in Southwest Colorado

Why Southwest Colorado should be your family’s next summer vacation

Unparalleled San Juan mountain views, jaw-dropping waterfalls and drives, three national parks, geothermal soaking and swimming, star-studded camping, free gondolas, whitewater rafting, hiking, canyoning, climbing, biking, wildlife, mining ghost towns, local burgers and brews, wildflower capital, 4X4 trails … need I say more? Southwest Colorado doles out adrenaline rushes for all ages and aptitudes

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Southwest Colorado Road Trip

Starting from Colorado Springs, we spent nine days looping our way through Colorado on an unforgettable road trip including these destinations: Great Sand Dunes National Park, Pagosa Springs, Durango, Mesa Verde National Park, Telluride, Ridgway, Ouray, Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Crested Butte, and Buena Vista.

Without further ado, grab your swimsuit, hiking shoes, and sunglasses for the following Southwest Colorado road trip that makes for one amazing family summer vacation. Here are 10 destinations that will beg you and your kids and teens to come back for more.

Great Sand Dunes National Park

Why go? Rising up to 750 feet from the floor of the San Luis Valley on the western edge of the Sangre de Cristo Range in Colorado, Great Sand Dunes National Park is home to the tallest sand dunes in North America. One of the best national parks for family vacation, the Great Sand Dunes are surrounded by mountains, many of them famous fourteeners, and this park offers seven life zones to explore.

What to do? First on your list is sand sledding or sand boarding the dunes hiking trails. Rent made-just-for-sand boards ($20 each) at the Oasis Store just before you enter the park. If there in early summer, play and cool off in Medano Creek after sledding, then head to the Zapata Falls Trailhead for a wet, adventurous 1/2 mile hike to a powerful canyon falls. In the summer, aim for a week-day visit to avoid crowds in this popular park.

Where to stay? Since we planned this trip on the fly, we banked on a walk-in campsite at Zapata Falls Campground (no reservations / first-come, first-serve). Take the rough, windy, bumpy ride up 3.6 miles and turn right once you see the trailhead parking lot. You can reserve campsites at Pinon Flats campground up to six months in advance. If you’re not into beautiful views and star-studded nights, check out lodging options nearby.

* Don’t forget: Fourth graders get a free national park pass for your family!

Pagosa Springs

Why go? Hot springs are served up resort style alongside the San Juan River in the middle of downtown Pagosa Springs. Soak your weary bones after sand-sledding and enjoy the views.

What to do? Hop between the hot tubs offered at various temperatures making it so everyone can find one to their liking. Step into the natural hot springs nestled in the San Juan River banks, at your own risk of course. Big and little kids can play in the larger pool, where you can also enjoy a movie at dusk. Don’t miss the Adult Terrace, complete with massaging water features, a quieter setting, and the best views at sunrise and sunset.

Where to stay? Staying at the Springs Resort and Spa of course might seem like a splurge at first, but know that when you stay overnight, you’ll have total access to the hot springs the day you check in as well as the day you check out, making it a much better deal than a day pass.



Why go? Besides skiing in the winter, this wild west town offers a great scenic pit stop before heading to Mesa Verde National Park.

What to do? Whitewater rafting takes off from Santa Rita Park, Purgatory ski resort offers alpine sliding in the summer. Visit the Narrow Gauge Railway Museum and take the train to Silverton for a ride you’ll never forget! Mesa Verde National Park is only about 35 minutes away.

Where to stay? For a historic treat, stay at the General Palmer Hotel. Victorian style decor mixed with modern amenities, this hotel is right in the middle of town center.

Learn more: Family Friendly Activities in Durango

Mesa Verde National Park

Why go? Mind-blowing ancient cliff dwellings that lend insight into how Ancient Puebloans were mastermind architectures. Ranger-led tours in Mesa Verde National Park provoke excellent questions about how they lived leading up to the year 1300.

What to do? Cliff Palace and Balcony House are the five star stops in Mesa Verde for kids and adults alike. Ideally, plan to stop the night before at the new Visitor’s Center at the park entrance to buy your tickets — a mere $5 per person — for both the Cliff Palace and Balcony House tours (one hour each) the next day. We lucked out with a shaded 1:30 pm Cliff Palace tour, followed by a 3:30 pm shaded Balcony House tour.

Allow 6-7 hours to experience Mesa Verde in full, making time for stops along the Mesa Top loop and the Cliff Palace Loop. If you just can’t get enough of ancient cliff dwellings, plan a second day for touring Long House on the Whetherill Mesa loop.

Where to stay? We stayed two nights in the Best Western in nearby Cortez, just 12 minutes away, mostly for proximity, laundry facilities, free hot breakfast, and the City Market grocery store just across the street. Treat yourself to the city park’s public pool after touring the cliff dwellings and delicious take-out dinner from Thai Cortez.

For sleeping inside Mesa Verde National Park, camp at Morefield Campground or stay in the Far View Lodge - open seasonally April through October.

Love national parks? We do too! We rounded up 21 of the Best National Parks to Visit with Kids:




Why go? First, the scenic drive from Cortez to Telluride along CO-145 North is stunning. So stunning, you’ll be planning future week-long summer vacations somewhere along Dolores River. The key to seeing Telluride is via the free gondola from Mountain Village. Biking and hiking in the summer, plus fantastic skiing and snow-boarding in the winter makes Telluride a year-round international destination.

What to do? Park at the Free Gondola Parking Lot in Mountain Village. Hop on the gondola up the mountain, take a short hike about, then hop back on a second gondola descending into Telluride. Jaw-dropping views all around. Walk about town and stop for amazing burgers and brews at Smuggler’s Union Restaurant and Brewery. If you’re into mountain biking downhill, bring your bike along on the gondola for an exhilarating ride down the mountain.

Where to stay? We enjoyed Telluride as a day trip before moving on towards Ouray. We’re dreaming of renting a vacation home in Telluride next time around so we can fully explore the area on bike or foot.


Why go? You can’t miss Ridgway on your way from Telluride to Ouray. Sitting at nearly 7,000 feet along the Uncompaghre River, Ridgway is the Gateway to the San Juan Mountains. Ridgway State Park is a popular recreation area for families.

What to do? Rent a jeep and drive the Last Dollar Road from Rockin’ K Jeep Rental for unbelievable mountain views and photo ops. Camping, boating, hiking, and fishing opportunities abound at Ridgway State Park, plus you’re just minutes from Ouray. Stop at Cafe al a Mode for some good ole’ local ice cream flavors.

Where to stay? Ridgway State Park offers 258 campsites for RVs, trailers, campers and motor homes, 25 walk-in tent sites for a more remote experience, and three yurts. Reserve campsites here.


Why go? Jagged, dramatic peaks surround Ouray, dubbing it Switzerland of America. This sweet hospitable town sits in a box canyon, inviting you in for relaxation and heart-thumping adventures. Tour old mining towns, hike waterfalls, and soak in the town’s hot springs. Stay for a couple of days or park yourself here for a week because the possibilities are endless.

What to do? Rent a jeep or take a tour with Switzerland of America and climb up to 13,114 feet at Imogene Pass for a 360 view. Yankee Basin is a hit for 4x4s, as is Animas Forks — an old ghost town at over 11,000 feet. Hike the Baby Bathtubs Trail or take a short hike to Box Canyon Falls right from town. Muster the courage to drive the Million Dollar Highway from Ouray to Silverton for one of the most hair-raising mountain passes in all of Colorado.

Dive into the Ouray Hot Springs Swimming Pool for an afternoon of family fun and relaxation where there are 3 pools ranging from 80 to 105 degree, plus lap lanes, a Wibit obstacle course and slides (both open in the summer). Large shallow areas for toddlers and an adult terrace too!

Where to stay? We laid our heads in Amphitheatre Campground* where the peace and views never got old. Camping too intense for you? Try these cute homes and cabins in town.

*Sleeping in tents under a starry sky is dreamy with the right sleeping gear. Here’s how our family of six rests easy at night with comfy, easy-to-set-up tents, sleeping bags, and sleeping pads.


Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

Why go? Peer over the canyon rim and look down as far as 2,700 feet - you just might spy experienced climbers scaling the walls or paddlers and kayakers commandeering the Class V rapids of the Gunnison River snaking through the park. You can easily check off this national park in a half day.

What to do? For families, this park is best seen from the Visitor’s Center, mini-hikes to lookouts, and down at the East Portal of the Gunnison River. Coming from Montrose, enter the main part of Black Canyon of the Gunnison and visit the only Visitor’s Center along the South Rim.

Then, take in the canyon views from Gunnison Point, Pulpit Rock Overlook, Devil’s Lookout, Chasm View, Painted Wall View, and the easy-going Cedar Point and Warner Point nature trails. Top this park off by driving down the East Portal Road for a family picnic by the Gunnison River.

Where to stay? The Inn at Tomichi Village in nearby Gunnison (62 miles) looks great for families. We opted to drive a bit further up to Crested Butte for the night.


Crested Butte

Why go? Wildflower Capital of Colorado, Crested Butte is home to endless alpine adventure. Couple that with a super cute main street lined with brightly painted stores and restaurants, and this sweet town is tough to beat.

What to do? Mountain biking, hiking, and fishing are popular outdoor adventures in this challenging, rugged terrain. Add in canoeing and paddleboarding at Lake Irwin or floating on Meridian Lake, plus gorgeous camping spots all around.

Where to stay? Known for great last-minute deals and fantastic junior suites, Elevation Spa and Resort sits right on the mountain — ideal for skiers and downhill mountain bikers alike.

Did you know? Crested Butte is just 28 miles north of Gunnison, and about 2 hours from Buena Vista via the gorgeous Monarch Pass. Or add just five minutes to your drive and choose the stunning, yet lesser-known, Cottonwood Pass and top the Continental Divide along the way!


Buena Vista

Why go? The small, rejuvenated mountain town of Buena Vista offers all kinds of outdoor recreation year-round. Plus, the food trucks, main street shops, and Louie’s Ice Cream shop will keep you supplied and fed during your family’s outdoorsy summer adventures.

What to do? Hike, fish, climb, bike, raft, and more along the Arkansas River and within the Collegiate Mountain Range. Head to Mount Princeton Hot Springs for a good soak beneath the mountains or under a star-studded sky. Buena Vista is your starting point for family outdoor adventure.

Where to stay? Just one overnight stay at nearby Mount Princeton Hot Springs is a double-whammy treat for all ages. Two days of soaking in the hot springs and playing in the warm pools surrounded by mountains — for the price of one overnight stay.



Surprisingly, we just might like southwest Colorado the best when it comes to exploring our home state. Hot springs, waterfalls, jagged mountains, and ancient cliff-dwellings mixed with sand-sledding, hiking, biking, climbing, off-roading, canyoning, rafting, fishing, and more make for fantastic, adrenaline pumping memories with your entire family.

Southwest Colorado provides one fantastic family summer vacation, and while we couldn’t unearth very square inch we’d hoped to cover, we know we’ll go again. Next time, we’ll be sure to carve out time for driving the Million Dollar Highway from Ouray to Silverton. The sweet Colorado mountain town of Ouray, dubbed “Little Switzerland,” was a personal favorite and we’ll be headed back soon.

Have you been to Southwest Colorado? What’s your favorite thing to do here?



Best National Parks to Visit with Kids and Teens