Channel your inner adventurer on a Wild West road trip. (Photo: Jenny Willden)
Road trip to the West’s best adventure meccas through the diverse landscapes of Utah and Colorado, from red rock deserts to towering forests. The route’s showpiece is the stunningly beautiful section between Telluride and Durango, Colorado, nicknamed “America’s Most Beautiful Drive.”
What to bring: sturdy hiking boots, a swimsuit for the hot springs and your sense of road trip adventure.
Time: 6-9 days
Start: Salt Lake City, Utah
Start your road trip by flying into Salt Lake City, Utah’s International Airport. After picking up your rental car, head downtown to this quaint, but bustling, capital city nestled in a valley below the Wasatch Mountains.
First, see historic sights established by the city’s first settlers, the Latter Day Saints (also known as Mormons) by touring Temple Square, a sprawling complex housing blossoming gardens, religious sculptures, and the Salt Lake Temple, a six-spired granite structure that took the pioneers 40 years to complete.
Next, walk along the revitalized Main Street and window shop at City Creek Center, a luxury open-air shopping area with a retractable roof for inclement weather. Afterward, take in a Broadway show or a concert at Eccles Theater, followed by a nightcap at one of Salt Lake’s nearby cocktail bars.
Before leaving town, tour the Utah State Capitol, an architectural wonder boasting Georgian marble columns and incredible views of downtown. Finally, see or ski the ‘Greatest Snow on Earth’ by taking a scenic 20-minute drive up Little Cottonwood Canyon to two of Utah’s most famous ski resorts: Snowbird and Alta.
Utah’s Adventure Capital: Moab, Utah
233 miles from Salt Lake City, 4-hour drive
Head southeast on Interstate 15 to US-6 East toward Moab, Utah’s adventure capital—nicknamed for the variety of adventures to be had in town. You’ll know you’re close when the rocks along the highway go from drab white to vibrant red sandstone, and you’ll see the Moab Giants Dinosaur Park on the right side of the road.
Stop here to roam the landscape dinosaurs once called home, see fossilized dinosaur tracks and life-size replicas of the prehistoric creatures themselves.
Continue on US-6 East to Arches National Park—on the outskirts of Moab—renowned for its otherworldly red rock formations and the world’s largest concentration of sandstone arches. See geological formations like sandstone fins, rock towers, and balanced rocks on the 36-mile paved scenic drive through the park.
Next, see the park’s most iconic landmark, a 65-foot high freestanding natural arch called Delicate Arch, at a distance from the Lower Delicate Arch Viewpoint.
For a closer look, take on a short but strenuous hike that climbs 479 feet in 1.5 miles one way. The route takes you up and over red rock and offers little shade along the way—making for a hot climb if done in the heat of the day. On the hike, stop at historic Wolfe Ranch Cabin to see how the area’s early settlers lived, and admire a wall of Ute Indian petroglyphs before reaching Delicate Arch.
Colorado’s National Monument and Wine Country: Grand Junction, Colorado
114 miles from Moab, 2.5-hour drive
Take the road less traveled and drive from Moab to Grand Junction on the Upper Colorado Scenic Byway U-128 E along the Colorado River. See stunning views of the fast flowing water juxtaposed with red sandstone cliffs and spires as you drive past Moab’s only winery, through open desert, past the remains of the burned Dewey Bridge to the ghost town of Cisco before meeting up with Interstate 70. From here, Take I-70 54 miles east to Grand Junction.
Nicknamed the Napa of Colorado, Grand Junction is home to Colorado’s Wine Country and its National Monument. Spend an hour driving on the Colorado National Monument’s only paved road, Rim Rock Drive, as it winds past massive sandstone towers, red rock formations and deep canyons with panoramic lookout points along the way.
Drive back into town and sample the local harvest on the Fruit & Wine Byway in neighboring Palisade. Bike or drive this byway showcasing active vineyards and lush orchards with the Grand Mesa, the world’s tallest flattop mountain, towering in the backdrop. Taste the area’s famous juicy peaches at roadside fruit stands, and stop by the vineyards for samples of their locally grown red and white wines.
Grand Junction’s signature summer event, the Thursday evening Downtown Farmer’s Market, showcases locally grown fruits and vegetables, Colorado-made art and live music by local bands.
Victorian Mining Town Nestled in the Rockies: Telluride, Colorado
126 miles from Grand Junction, 2.5-hour drive
Drive southeast through the Uncompahgre National Forest past towering aspens and pines, Rocky Mountain views and countless small towns before taking a short detour to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. Stare down into the deep canyon’s dark expanses at the rushing river and some of the world’s oldest exposed rock before continuing to Telluride.
Drive up into a remote box canyon to this former mining town known for its well-preserved Victorian architecture. Take a stroll on the San Miguel River Trail as it winds through the length of town past tubers floating the river, swimming holes, native plants and seasonal wildflowers.
Visitors come to see world-class musicians and filmmakers perform and screen films surrounded by Telluride’s towering peaks—a view hailed by artists as one of the world’s most beautiful places to perform. Every festival takes place just steps away from Telluride’s bustling main street so you won’t need to drive at all upon reaching town.
For better views of town, hop on Telluride’s one-of-a-kind transportation system, a free gondola in the center of town that links Telluride to the town of ski town of Mountain Village. Take in the sight of the San Juan Mountains jagged peaks from above and Telluride’s charming homes below during the 13-minute ride.
End of the Road: Durango, Colorado
119 miles from Telluride, 3-hour drive
Depart Telluride for Durango on the San Juan Skyway—US Highway 550—one of the USA’s most spectacular scenic drives. The section connecting Silverton and Ouray, nicknamed the Million Dollar Highway, is the route’s highlight. It winds over high mountain passes, past sprawling forests and through these tiny, historic mining towns before ending in Durango.
You won’t have trouble finding somewhere to eat in this town; Durango is home to more restaurants per capita than San Francisco! This former mining outpost has reinvented itself as an adventure mecca and is now home to craft breweries, restaurants and shops housed in preserved turn-of-the-century buildings.
River rafting, mountain biking, hiking and skiing are popular pursuits here, but the main attraction is the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. An authentic remnant of the Wild West, this steam-powered locomotive connected Durango to the mining town of Silverton when gold flowed from the mines.
Today, it takes visitors on the ride of a lifetime through canyons of the San Juan National Forest, high above the free-flowing Animas River. After riding the train, explore Durango’s quaint shops and take a relaxing dip at the local Trimble Hot Springs.
Bonus Side Trip: Mesa Verde National Park
31 miles from Durango, 40-minute drive
Have an extra day? Drive west from Durango to Mesa Verde National Park. You’ll take a winding, climbing road to this national treasure, which features the world’s best collection of preserved Ancestral Pueblonian cliff dwellings and archaeological sites.
After exploring the park, continue west to the only place in the United States you can stand in four states at once at Four Corners National Monument—where Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah meet.
This article was published through a partnership with Visit the USA, inspiring travelers to explore America’s boundless possibilities.