If you are looking for a magical long weekend getaway, there are not many places more spectacular than the connecting states of Colorado and Utah. Filled with a plethora of breathtaking national parks, epic natural scenery and an abundance of outdoor adventure waiting to be explored, visitors to either of these states will have plenty to keep them occupied over a holiday weekend. But we like to take things to the extreme and experience as much as possible during a weekend getaway so why not enjoy the best of both worlds by taking an amazing road trip from Denver to Moab and enjoy everything in between?
For those of you that have never visited either Colorado or Utah, this is going to be epic road trip! You could feasibly spend a long weekend exploring Denver alone or any of the national parks or monuments that we cover throughout this post. However, if you follow a similar philosophy to us and want to truly maximize your time exploring as much as possible, taking note of our recommended itinerary will allow you to experience a little bit of everything along this route.
It’s worth noting that we took two additional days in addition to Memorial Day, so this trip was from Saturday to Wednesday. Let’s take a look at just how much we experienced during our visit to these two awesome states.
Denver to Moab Road Trip Itinerary
Here is a quick overview of what we experienced during our trip and we will take a brief look at each location and why we think you cannot afford to miss any of these spots during your visit to Colorado and Utah.
- Day 1 – Denver
- Day 2 – Estes Park & Rocky Mountain National Park (Overnight in Vail)
- Day 3 – Colorado National Monument & Moab
- Day 4 – Canyonlands National Park
- Day 5 – Arches National Park
Whether you choose to follow this exact route will likely depend on how much time you have and the time of year you choose to visit. The route through Rocky Mountain National Park is ultimately dependent on whether the iconic Trail Ridge Road (highest paved road in the US) is open. Regardless of this, taking a day trip from Estes Park to Rocky Mountain National Park is an unforgettable experience as you can enjoy a plethora of epic panoramic landscapes, myriad of wildlife and much more.
Fly into Denver International Airport and get ready to experience all the fun around the Mile High City. Whether you are intrigued by the thought of visiting the Colorado State Capitol Building during a self-guided walking tour of Denver or perhaps you are raring to attend a Rockies MLB game (or Broncos if you visit during football season), there are plenty of things to keep you occupied during your stay in the city. Denver is home to a number of eclectic, diverse neighborhoods, each offering something unique and helping establish why this is such a vibrant city for visitors to enjoy.
For those looking to enjoy a little retail therapy before experiencing all of the outdoor adventure that awaits, head south of the city center to Outlets of Castle Rock where you will find over 100 leading brands offering discounted items.
If you are looking for something a little more upscale, Park Meadows is one of several malls in the Denver area, not only home to a number of iconic designer brands but also the Amazon 4-star store, second only to the store in New York City. Unlike regular Amazon physical retail stores that primarily sell books, this store is home to the latest, “trending” gadgets that can be found online.
Regardless of how you spend your time while in Denver, the constant reminder that the beauty of Rocky Mountain National Park is just a short drive away will always be in the back of your mind. We enjoyed our first day in Denver but couldn’t wait to wake up early the following morning to head north to Estes Park to start our adventure exploring the great outdoors.
The drive from Denver to Estes Park, also known as “base camp” for Rocky Mountain National Park, will take around 60-90 minutes. Whether you choose to spend time along this route in locations such as Boulder or the smaller towns, is entirely your choice but the moment you arrive in Estes Park, you will realize that this quirky town is a great place to start your Rocky Mountain adventure.
Spend some time relaxing along the banks of Lake Estes, with the picturesque backdrop of the mountains frequently reflecting on the calm surface of the lake. A lone kayaker may well be seen gently floating across the lake but it’s the solitude of this location, despite only being a short distance from the heart of the town, that makes this such a popular spot among visitors.
Estes Park is the perfect place to grab a bite to eat or visit the local Safeway supermarket to pack groceries for your adventure inside Rocky Mountain National Park. If you have a little more time to spend in Estes Park, consider heading to the top of Prospect Mountain for awe-inspiring panoramic views of the town, the Rocky Mountains and surrounding area. Hop onboard the aerial tramway for a leisurely ride to the summit before venturing out on the hiking trail for the ultimate viewpoints.
But if you are like us, you will be raring to visit Colorado’s pièce de résistance – Rocky Mountain National Park! There are several entrances to the park in close proximity to Estes Park but Beaver Meadows is the closest, most convenient and will give you various options on exploring the park.
Rocky Mountain National Park
It goes without saying that a long holiday weekend to Colorado could easily be spent in Rocky Mountain National Park alone…there is so much to see, so much to experience and so many hiking trails waiting for you to enjoy.
However, it was our task to experience as much as possible in only one day and we feel pretty satisfied with our accomplishment after enjoying epic views of the mountains along the part of Trail Ridge Road which was open before heading towards Bear Lake to enjoy the beauty in the heart of the national park.
Visitors to Rocky Mountain National Park should pay close attention to the availability of Trail Ridge Road because this scenic route is frequently closed. Regardless of whether it’s open, the beauty of the Rocky Mountains awaits and there is no doubt that the best way to explore the inherent beauty is by getting out and hiking the trails.
Wildlife sightings are a frequent occurrence while exploring the Rocky Mountains. Elk, deer, moose and bighorn sheep, among many others can be found roaming their natural habitat inside the park. If you are visiting prior to Trail Ridge Road opening, you will have to leave the park the same way that you visited heading back towards Estes Park before making the decision as to whether you should drive the scenic route towards I-70 or take the interstate in the direction of Boulder and Denver.
Colorado National Monument
61 areas are designated as national parks across the United States but there are many other places that could easily fall into the same category given the abundance of natural beauty to be found there. Colorado National Monument is one of these areas, located in the western half of Colorado near the town of Grand Junction.
After spending the night in the alpine town of Vail (yes, on the drive over from Rocky Mountain National Park across I-70, we hit several patches of snow and temperatures falling below zero, even at the end of May!), we woke up early and hit the road for what was a 2-hour drive to Grand Junction. We initially intended on driving straight through to Moab to explore Eastern Utah’s national parks but after doing some research, we decided to check out Colorado National Monument.
Don’t you just love those spontaneous experiences that turn out to be EPIC? That’s exactly what we encountered during this visit! We had little to no expectations at all and yet left feeling like this was one of the most breathtaking experiences we had, not only on this trip but anywhere in the world! It truly is that spectacular.
When you arrive in Moab, you could be forgiven for thinking that everything in this town is focused on the nearby national parks of Canyonlands and Arches. To an extent, you would be correct. Both are magical landscapes that you cannot afford to miss (more on these later) but that should take nothing away from the town of Moab.
Whether you are a foodie looking to sample local cuisine at a fine selection of restaurants or simply want to enjoy a delicious latte while walking along Moab’s historic downtown, there is plenty to keep you occupied during a visit to this town. Moab is the perfect place to stay a few nights and use this as a base to explore two of Utah’s iconic Mighty 5 national parks.
Head to Moab Coffee Roasters to enjoy a decadent variety of espresso options or perhaps you are more intrigued by the Rocky Mountain chocolate collection. Coffee is always a winner and so I was sold by the butterscotch latte but I have to admit, the chocolate and ice cream selection was almost too good to resist.
If you are looking for a couple of restaurant recommendations, try authentic Mexican at Fiesta Mexicana or head to The Spoke on Center for a diverse menu ranging from pizza to fish and chips and much more. Alternatively, you could always go for the quirky named restaurants such as Eddie McStiff’s.
Canyonlands National Park
The real reason why you will want to visit Moab and experience a near 900 mile round trip journey from Denver is to experience two of Utah’s iconic national parks. Having visited Arches during our first visit to Utah, we decided to start out by heading to Canyonlands to experience a new national park as we continue our quest to visit all US national parks.
Before visiting Canyonlands, we strongly recommend doing some research to figure out which attractions and landmarks you want to see because this is a pretty big national park. There are a couple of different entrances but they are spread a fair distance apart. If you are interested in visiting the iconic Needles section of Canyonlands, you will need to venture south of Moab on US 191 for around 40 miles before exploring this part of the national park.
Our visit saw us venture just a few miles north of Moab and enter Canyonlands from the Island in the Sky entrance. After a short visit to the Visitor’s Center, we started to explore the beauty of this national park. First stop, Mesa Arch.
A short and easy 10-15 minute hike saw us arrive at a spectacular sight with the arch overlooking a breathtaking landscape. Don’t get too close to the edge in search of that perfect selfie because it’s a pretty steep drop over the edge. There are a number of spots to find different angles of Mesa Arch but this was definitely a great introduction to the iconic landmarks scattered around Canyonlands.
We continued towards Grand View Point Overlook with a few stops in between. In terms of spectacular vistas, Canyonlands is certainly up there with the Grand Canyon and some other national parks with awe-inspiring natural beauty.
Another hike at Grand View Point saw us capture a number of different views but yet again, this is certainly not for the faint-hearted with seriously high drop-offs and no protection. However, the trail is ample wide enough for folks to walk in both directions and as long as you are careful, it’s definitely an experience you won’t want to miss.
The Grand View Point Overlook is the final point on the road but as we ventured back, before heading out of the park, we drove towards Upheaval Dome and Whale Rock. This short road ends with another couple of hiking trails. This was probably the most challenging of the three hikes we encountered, not necessarily because of the distance but because of the tricky terrain.
The hike to Upheaval Dome was pretty steep and uneven and to make matters worse, we were caught out in a pretty severe downpour which made the rocks slick and difficult to navigate. But again, the view at the top of the climb was well worth the effort.
Arches National Park
If you have never been to Arches National Park, what are you waiting for? It’s always nice when you save the very best until last and I have to admit, both times we have visited Arches, it has been our final stop on our trip before heading back home.
Having visited Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado National Monument and Canyonlands National Park, it was some pretty tough competition for Arches but unsurprisingly, our visit to this spectacular landscape didn’t disappoint.
Having already visited Arches a few years ago and experienced many of the iconic attractions such as the Windows, Balanced Rock and Park Avenue, we decided to venture outside of our comfort zone by hiking one of the iconic trails inside Arches National Park – Delicate Arch. It has been a bucket list item for quite some time to hike to the summit and appreciate the beauty of this natural landmark but we have read a bunch of reviews indicating it is a pretty tough hike with a steep ledge to overcome towards the very top of the trail.
Heather was very pessimistic about this hike but I convinced her that we could do this and just over a hour and half later, we arrived at the summit and WOW…this was definitely worth the effort! There are a few challenging parts to this hike and in the heat of summer, you certainly need to take plenty of water for the uphill climb but the views once you are at the summit are beyond incredible.
There are many magical drives across the United States but I would argue that the drive from Denver to Moab is one of the very best, not only because of the incredible scenery as you pass through the Rocky Mountains across I-70 but also because of the myriad of attractions waiting to be explored.
Trying to accomplish all of the above in a long holiday weekend may seem a daunting prospect but we can 100% attest that this is well worth the effort. If you have more time, you can easily spend a couple of days in each of these locations to fully maximize the experience.
When it comes to spontaneous travel, our visit to Colorado National Monument was perhaps the highlight attraction, simply because we had no plans to visit and we were left amazed at the beauty throughout the self-guided drive. This is a location that definitely deserves to have national park recognition but regardless, it’s a place you won’t want to miss during your visit to Colorado and Utah.
Of course, the hike to Delicate Arch in Arches National Park was a memorable experience but it just adds another layer to an already incredible natural landscape.