7 Day Colorado Rocky Mountains & Great Sand Dunes Road Trip
By the VanCraft Team | Nov 5, 2021
Autumn is an excellent time of year to visit Colorado. Temperatures are cooler, summer crowds have disappeared, and, the best part, the changing season provides a beautiful backdrop for outdoor exploration. With the trees changing colors through vibrant yellows, reds, and oranges, and snowfall blanketing the Rockies, you’ll have beautiful landscapes around every turn of this road trip.
Day 1 – Red Rocks Park and Amphitheater
We initially planned our Colorado trip around a concert at Red Rocks so that was our first destination after stocking up on groceries at Trader Joe’s. The Red Rocks ampitheater is a bucketlist stop for any fan of live music. They host world renowned artists and always have a packed crowd so check for tickets in advance: Red Rocks Calendar
You can’t camp at Red Rocks Park, but you can camp at the Bear Creek Lake Campground, just a 15 minute drive away, where you can also make use of their showers and trails. If you’re coming from a show at Red Rocks, make sure to take the after-hours entrance at the South end of the park by taking highway CO-470. We used the apps iOverlander and Maps.me to find campgrounds and their amenities throughout the trip as well as having our route downloaded in advance so we can still navigate when we’re without service inside the national parks. VanCraft has a great guide on how to find free camping and use these apps here: VanLife 101
Day 2 – Garden of the Gods and Great Sand Dunes National Park
We had our alarms set to wake up just before sunrise. We rolled out of bed after a warm and comfortable slumber to heat up some tea, slide open the van’s side door, and watch the sunrise change the colors in the sky as the morning glow set over the Red Rock landscape. We then hit the road towards Garden of the Gods.
About 3 hours later, we made it to the sand dunes with enough time to throw our sandals on and hike up the challenging dunes to take in a phenomenal sunset. This park is a special place, surrounded by the Sangre De Cristo Mountain range, these are the tallest and most scenic sand dunes in the continent.
Plan to spend at least 1-3 hours to hike and enjoy the sand dunes. The soft, deep sand will have your feet sinking down 1-2 feet at times so definitely do not wear shoes/boots because they will just fill with sand and weigh you down. Strap on sandals, like Tevas, are best to protect your feet and let the sand move through your feet easily, especially if you are hiking in mid afternoon when the sun heats up the and can quickly become too hot to walk barefoot. Once you get back to the parking lot make use of the outdoor hot water shower at your campervan to rinse all the sand off. The magic continues after dark when the sky above the dunes fills up with stars.
Day 3 – Drive to Rocky Mountain National Park
From there, we filled up on diesel and headed into the Rocky Mountain National Park. Our permits for the first two days in the park were for the Southern Bear Lake Corridor where some of the best hiking can be experienced. Make sure to check the Rocky Mountain National Park website in advance to see if permits are required for entry into the park: RMNP Entrance Permit
In September, Moraine Park was the only campground open, but is easily the best one in the whole park as it is located in front of a large meadow where elk frequently roam and can be viewed off the side of the road. Reservations for sell out in advance, so if you can plan ahead and book your campsite at Moraine Park, it will be well worth it to camp in the park and enjoy watching the elk roam as the sun sets over the meadow.
Day 4 – Hiking, Wildlife, and Incredible Views!
Waking up for sunrise is crucial as the elk are even closer at dawn, crossing the road that separates the meadow from the campground and sometimes walking right up to your campground. Please don’t approach any elk as they can quickly be agitated and will not hesitate to charge at irresponsible humans invading their personal space for the perfect photo.
After breakfast, we headed over to Bear Lake to start a full day of hiking up to Sky Pond; an amazing 10-mile out and back hike up the mountains through waterfalls and multiple lakes.
You can park and start hiking at Bear Lake, heading up to Alberta Falls. Begin before noon so you can make it back before nightfall. The entire hike is gratifying as you’re surrounded by colorful trees, especially in the fall, and critters running around. Once you’re about 3 miles in, you’ll reach The Loch – a lake where you can take a break for lunch.
Before reaching the Lake of Glass and Sky Pond you must scale Timberline Falls. It’s not as challenging as it may sound, unless you have difficulties walking or don’t have slip resistant footwear. It’s only about a 60 feet vertical climb up a trickling waterfall, but once you overcome this last challenge you are greeted by two beautiful lakes surrounded by the Sharktooth mountain peaks and glaciers.
Make sure to start heading back after the sun falls behind The Sharktooth so you can make it back before it gets dark or too cold. If you couldn’t secure a campsite at Moraine Park, make sure to try these campgrounds around Estes Park as well: Estes Park Campground at Mary’s Lake (picture below), Spruce Lake RV Park, Meadow Run Lodge, or KOA. There is also plenty of FREE CAMPING that can be found in the nearby national forests and on the iOverlander app.
Day 5 – Drive Trail Ridge Road
Note that Trail Ridge Road closes for the winter season starting in October thru May. Check the website for road status. When the road is open you’ll be able to drive up one of the most scenic routes in the country. This 40+ mile long highway climbs up to over 12,000 feet in the alpine tundra, above the treeline.
It can be 20 to 30 degrees cooler up in the alpine tundra so break out the extra layers. At the Alpine Visitors Center you can get a hot meal from a surprisingly full menu, hike up the Alpine Ridge Trail, and take in a panoramic view of the Rocky Mountain National Park surrounding you. As you head down to the Southwest entrance of the park, you can stop at the Medicine Bow Curve and Milner Pass to view the Continental Divide where the waters enter either the Atlantic or Pacific drainages.
Once you exit the park, you’ll arrive at Grand Lake Village, where you can get dinner at One Love Rum Caribbean Kitchen, grab some ice cream at Miyauchi’s Snack Bar, and enjoy the sunset over Grand Lake. From here you can camp at Stillwater Campground (pictured below) – another great option nearby would be Sunset Point Campground.
Day 6 – Back to Denver to drop off the van and enjoy a day in the city
Upon waking in Stillwater Campground for another marvelous sunrise, we hit the road back to Denver to drop off the van at the VanCraft depot – which was as quick, smooth, and easy as just dropping off the keys at the door.
After a hot shower, using the wifi, cooking our leftover groceries in the community kitchen, and socializing at the bar for happy hour, we hit the town for a night out with some friends we made.
Day 7 – Taking the train at Union Station to Denver International Airport
Blog and photos by Javier Ortiz find him on Instgram: @zitrovision