R is for Road Trip: Itinerary for Denver to Cortez, Colorado

When we reach the other side of this pandemic, and we will, what will we do? I think people are going to want to move around, but they won’t be lining up at the airport. I predict this will be the summer of the road trip, and this is something I know a lot about.

R is for Road Trip. Collegiate Range, Arkansas Valley. HeidiTown.com
Collegiate Range, Arkansas Valley

Road trips harken back to my childhood when we buzzed around the West Coast, hitting national parks and beaches in our unairconditioned car. Even though my dad worked a lot, we always took a two-week family vacation in June and it was always by car.

I have taken my love of the road trip with me into adulthood. Not only because it is more affordable, but it offers an opportunity to see the country. My husband and I have driven the twists and turns of roads in the Colorado mountains, stopping at diners, cafes, and overlooks.

R is for Road Trip. San Luis Valley, Sangre Cristo Range. HeidiTown.com
San Luis Valley, Sangre de Cristo Mountains

We’ve been to nearly every corner of Colorado and over that last couple of years, we have ventured beyond. One of my favorite highways in Colorado is Hwy 285 to Hwy 112 to HWY 160 over Wolf Creek Pass to Pagosa Springs, through Durango, and on to Cortez. This route from Denver takes about 7 hours and provides some of the most beautiful views in the country.

First, driving over Kenosha Pass and into Park County is breathtaking. My family owns a cabin here and it is true desolation. The county is at the geographical center of Colorado and this high valley ranges from 7,000 to 14,000 feet above sea level. The valley is larger than the state of Delaware.

RELATED: Salida, Colorado is for the Dogs: Dog-friendly Spots Around Town 

Fairplay to Buena Vista provides one of the most awe-inspiring views in Colorado. As the Collegiate Peaks come into view they seem to soar into the heavens. Be sure to stop at the Collegiate Peaks Overlook on the west part of Trout Creek Pass just off of HWY 285 on County Road 304. 

R is for Road Trip. R is for road trip. Collegiate Range, Overlook near Buena Vista. HeidiTown.com
Collegiate Range Overlook

From this point, Hwy 285 runs through the Arkansas Valley and past Colorado’s newest National Monument, Brown’s Canyon. Salida is about two and a half hours from Denver and a good place to stretch your legs on the short trail around Sands Lake birding trail.

R is for Road Trip. At Sands Lake in Salida, Colorado, HeidiTown.com
Sands Lake, Salida, Colorado
RELATED: Living History of the San Luis Valley of Colorado, Part One

From Salida, Hwy 285 rolls over Poncha Pass and into the San Luis Valley. I have a lot of love for this magical place where the ghost towns and wildlife are plentiful. So are the views of the Sangre de Cristo Range that seems to stretch out for a thousand miles.

R is for Road Trip. Sangre Cristos in the San Luis Valley. HeidiTown.com
Sangre de Cristo Mountains

Stop in the tiny town of Saguache for lunch at the 4th Street Diner & Bakery. This is one of my favorite stops in Colorado. It’s quite possible to overhear a discussion about life on the ranch.

Road Trip Travel How to Find Great Food Along the Way. 4th Street Diner, Sagauche. HeidiTown.com
4th Street Diner & Bakery

From here, it’s south to Hwy 112 and then west towards Del Norte, and the Hwy 160 to Wolf Creek Pass. This is a quick, steep pass with a stunning overlook that can’t be missed. (Currently, the overlook is closed for work by the Colorado Department of Transportation, but will reopen in the future).

R is for Road Trip. Wolf Creek Pass Overlook. Looking towards Pagosa Springs. HeidiTown.com
Wolf Creek Pass Overlook. Looking towards Pagosa Springs, Colorado

Pagosa Springs is just 30 minutes down the mountain and with its multiple hot springs, it makes the perfect road trip stopover along this route. It is approximately 5 hours from Denver.

RELATED: 5 Things to do in Pagosa Springs this Summer

The Springs offers multiple pools including the Relaxation Terrace perfect at dusk or dawn. In addition to a hot springs destination, The Springs offers lodging. Also, don’t miss dining at Kip’s Grill. If it’s the summer there will be live music on the patio.

R is for Road Trip. The Springs at Pagosa Springs. HeidiTown.com
The Relaxation Terrace at The Springs in Pagosa Springs.

The drive from Pagosa Springs to Durango is about an hour and what’s not to love about this town? It’s where cowboys and college students can unite around great beer and amazing pozole.

RELATED: Dining in Durango: Pho to Pozole, it Never Gets Boring

From Durango continue on Hwy 160 towards Cortez. Montezuma County is under-visited and absolutely shouldn’t be. This is a region that is not only filled with ancient history and Mesa Verde National Park, but there are also charming little towns including Mancos and Dolores. 

Boggy Draw near Dolores, Colorado. The Heidi Guide
Boggy Draw, Dolores, Colorado

Just under two hours from Pagosa Springs, Cortez is a work-a-day-place with good food and genuinely friendly people. I had the most delicious Mexican breakfast at La Casita de Cortez. The WildEdge Brewing Collective is also a can’t miss.

RELATED: Cortez, Colorado: Blending the Past & Present

End your road trip at Canyon of the Ancients Guest Ranch about 30 minutes west of Cortez. It is simply bewitching. We were greeted by a flock of sheep as we made our way up the lane to the Cowboy Log Cabin. If you love history, luxury and farm life, this is the place where all three congregate on a daily basis. 

Canyon of the Ancients Guest Ranch, Cowboy Cabin by Heidi Kerr-Schlaefer.
Canyon of the Ancients Guest Ranch, Cowboy Cabin.


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