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Rocky Mountain Road Trippin' in Winter & Spring

The Rockies and road trips—name a more iconic duo. Even in late winter or early spring, when some of Colorado’s mountain passes are closed for the season, there’s still eons of options for multi-town, multi-sport adventure. In this road trip guide, we’ll take you on a spherical tour of the state, from Denver back to Denver, with some good old Rocky Mountain rowdiness and adventure in between. By the numbers, it’ll be 5 days, 4 nights, and about 16 hours of total drive time spread across 900 miles. Along the way, there will be snow sports and dirt trails, burgers and brews. What’re you waiting for? Let’s get drivin’. 

 

Day 1 - Denver to Summit County

A person skiing down a snowy mountain, with another person watching from the mountaintop(Opens in a new window) Bombing down Breck. - Ethan Walsweer.

Drive Time: 1.5 hours

Distance: 75 miles

From Denver, the first leg along your journey takes you up iconic I-70 into the airy townships of Summit County. The drive is about an hour and a half (if traffic is light!), and once you get up into the mountains, you’ve got plenty of options on where to stay. The towns surrounding Dillon Reservoir—Frisco, Silverthorne, Dillon—have plenty of chain hotels and right-off-the-highway ease of execution. But if you’re craving something with a bit more historic mining-town charm, you can’t pass up Breck. At 9,602 feet, Breckenridge is the county seat of Summit County and one of the highest towns in the country. It’s also perfectly poised at the base of some of Colorado’s best skiing and snowboarding—which is hands down what any winter or early spring trip to the area should be about. We’re talking 5 peaks, 2,908 skiable acres, 187 trails, and over 300 inches of snow per year. Once you’ve shredded to your IT bands’ delight, head into town for some burgers, brews, and whiskey at Breckenridge Taphouse(Opens in a new window)

Bonus adventure: If you’re feeling frisky, Summit County is also home to one of the safest and easiest to summit in winter 14ers in Colorado: Quandary Peak(Opens in a new window). A typical winter hike of Quandary takes between 5-7 hours, depending on hiking level/experience. The round trip mileage is 6.7 miles, though the descent can be an awful lot quicker by skiing down (queue the cool guy sunglasses emoji).

 

Day 2 - Summit County to Grand Junction

A person riding a mountain bike down a dirt trail(Opens in a new window) Taking on the 18 Road and Kokopelli Loop Trails near Grand Junction & Fruita. - Bureau of Land Management

Drive Time: 3 hours

Distance: 175 miles

Swap snow for dirt when you make the 3-hour drive from Summit County to the Western Slope. Grand Junction, with its 4,500-foot elevation in the high desert of Western Colorado, enjoys mild winters and only the occasional dusting of snow. Translation: you can hike and mountain bike and trail run year-round. If you’re road tripping with your bike, Grand Junction and nearby Fruita offer some of the best singletrack in the country. Lunch Loops(Opens in a new window) is probably the most famous trail system in the area, offering about 40 miles of intermediate to expert trails. But when you’re really feeling ready to tackle the local test piece, it’s time to hit The Ribbon. This 1,500-foot descent bombs down sandy washes and slabs of slick rock at dizzying speeds. It’s fast, technical, and super gorgeous.

For hikers, the nearby Colorado National Monument(Opens in a new window) is the ticket. Within this labyrinth of red rock desert ecology is a delectable smorgasbord of canyons, monoliths, sheer-walled cliffs, and crazy rock formations. Don’t miss the grottos and sandstone cathedrals of Devil’s Kitchen. When you’re done, don’t miss locally-sourced tacos in town at Taco Party(Opens in a new window) and brews at Rockslide Brewery(Opens in a new window) a block away.

 

Day 3 - Grand Junction to Durango

A dirt road leading towards a snow-covered mountain range(Opens in a new window) Snow-covered mountains along Colorado’s Million Dollar Highway. - Alan Stark

Drive Time: 3.5 hours

Distance: 165 miles

Let your Western Colorado tour continue with an incredibly scenic 3.5-hour drive through the San Juan Mountains to Durango. They don’t call this stretch of road from Ouray to Durango the “Million Dollar Highway” for nothing. And while they were probably referring to the gold-mining history of the area, there are also near-constant million-dollar views to match. Be sure to stop in the old outlaw town of Silverton along the way—few towns in America display such a well-preserved look back at the gun-slinging, gold-chasing lawlessness of the Old West. Have a bison burger at an old-timey saloon, then cruise on down into Durango. But wait—if you didn’t get your ski fix back in Breck, be sure to pop into Purgatory Resort about 25 miles north of Durango for a ‘no-frills, steep hills’ kind of ski vibe. 

Once in Durango, you’ve got some options: About 40-minutes west, you can bag a little history with your adventure at the fascinating ancient cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde National Park(Opens in a new window). Or, in town, though the trails at beloved Animas City Mountain are unfortunately closed from December 1-April 15, you can still enjoy some great hiking and fat biking at the Overend Mountain Park Trail System. For post-adventure grub, head to Steamworks Brewing(Opens in a new window) for a Sultan of Stoke IPA and a Southwestern Burger doused in green chile. 

 

Day 4 - Durango to Buena Vista

A landscape view of snow covered hills and mountains(Opens in a new window) Late winter snow on Star Dune and Crestone Peaks. - Bureau of Land Management

Drive Time: 5 hours

Distance: 270 miles

Your longest drive day will be your most memorable. Why? Because the major activity du jour will take place en route—at the world-famous, totally mesmerizing Great Sand Dunes National Park(Opens in a new window). Wake up early, because it takes three hours to get from Durango to the dunes. Once there, you’ll experience a whole new meaning to the term “sledding.” During warmer months, people sandboard down the famous dunes. In winter, it’s not uncommon for these miniature sand mountains—which rise 750 feet at their highest point—to be covered in a layer of snow. In other words, double the sled trouble. Not to mention, they’re pretty darn beautiful with their snowy gloss and the towering San Juan spires rising like colossal guardians in the background. 

For the rest of your drive, you’ll travel north along US Route 285 for two hours until you reach Buena Vista. Nestled in the belly of the Collegiate Peaks, Buena Vista is a world-class whitewater town in summer and a snow-sports basecamp in winter. Forty miles to the south, Monarch Mountain is a great little resort without lift lines. In the Collegiates themselves, Mt. Yale makes for another doable winter 14er. There are also tons of options for backcountry skiing, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing in the area. Whatever you choose, be sure to end the day with a trip to one of Buena Vista’s natural hot springs: Mount Princeton(Opens in a new window) or Cottonwood Hot Springs(Opens in a new window).

 

Day 5 - Buena Vista to Denver

A landscape view of snow covered mountains(Opens in a new window) One final day of fresh tracks at Copper Mountain. - Alexa Gaul

Drive Time: 2-2.5 hours

Distance: 125-135 miles

On your final day, you’ve got options: You can either head straight back to Denver via US Route 285. Or, if you want to tack on one final adventure, you can drive up through Leadville and back down through Summit County via I-70. Our recommendation? Opt for the final adventure. Grab a coffee and a breakfast burrito in Leadville—another of those lawless, brawny old mining boomtowns—then hit Copper Mountain or A-Basin for some mid-morning tracks. 

Once you’re back in Denver, revel in the shred-tacular memories of five days well spent. And before you know it, summer rocky mountain road trippin’ season will be on you in a flash.

 

 

Written by Ry Glover for Matcha in partnership with Osprey Packs.

Featured image provided by Ethan Rush(Opens in a new window)

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