The southwestern state of Colorado offers a world of breathtaking scenery and wildly diverse landscapes, making it one of the most captivating states to explore. From vast desert expanses to crystal alpine lakes and awe-inspiring canyons, each of Colorado’s four national parks provides a truly unique and memorable experience.
Climb the country’s tallest sand dunes in Great Sand Dunes National Park, marvel at ancient cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde National Park, see some of North America’s steepest cliffs at Black Canyon of the Gunnison, and hike through the looming mountains of Rocky Mountain National Park. Starting from our Denver location, we’ve put together the ultimate 6-day Colorado National Parks road trip!
Travel Time for a Colorado National Parks Road Trip from Denver
This road trip through Colorado’s national parks begins and ends at the Escape Camper Vans location in Denver, Colorado. This trip covers 992 miles and involves approximately 17 hours and 35 minutes of driving time. We recommend at least six days to complete this national park road trip.
TOTAL MILES: 992 miles
TOTAL TRAVEL TIME: 6 days, driving 17 hours and 35 minutes
Best Time of Year for a Colorado National Parks Camper Van Road Trip
To optimize your time in each of Colorado’s national parks, we recommend taking this trip between late spring and early fall. This is when the weather is optimal for hiking and exploring, and you won’t run into any unexpected road closures or closed campsites, as you would during the winter months.
The winter can be a magical time of year in Colorado if you don’t mind heavy snow and unplanned changes due to weather conditions. Many campsites will be closed for the season, so you’ll need to plan ahead or look into dispersed camping options. Added preparations like snow chains will also be a definite necessity. For more mild winter conditions, think about heading to Death Valley National Park in California instead.
Preparation for a Colorado National Parks Road Trip
Because the four parks on this itinerary all have their own varying terrain and climates, you’ll need to prepare for a range of temperatures and conditions. These are some of the most practical tips to keep in mind when preparing for a camper van road trip to Colorado’s national parks.
Camping: While it’s relatively easy to find a last-minute camping spot in Mesa Verde’s huge campground, this isn’t the case for the rest of the parks on this itinerary. Many fill up quickly in the high season, so it’s advised to book as far in advance as possible if you’re hoping to sleep inside the parks. If you’re traveling during the winter, remember that many campsites will be closed for the season, so it’s worth scoping out any dispersed or free campgrounds nearby.
Food: Because not all of the national parks in Colorado have many food options nearby, it’s a good idea to stock up on groceries before hitting the road. There are several food markets near the Escape Camper Vans’ Denver location to pop by before beginning your journey.
Supplies: Make sure you have everything you need for a smooth adventure by taking advantage of our extra add-ons. Grab a National Parks Pass so that you don’t have to pay four separate entrance fees, and don’t forget to add in a door canopy to shield from the sun when you’re in Great Sand Dunes National Park. Camping chairs are also a good idea for added comfort at your campsite, and snow chains are essential if you’re traveling during cooler months.
Tools for Navigating
Phones: This itinerary requires long stretches of driving time, along with plenty of winding, mountain roads within the parks. You can use your smartphone as a GPS, but make sure you have chargers handy. Likewise, you won’t be able to charge your phone when your camper van is turned off, so pack a few portable chargers for added security.
Paper Maps: Because most of the national parks in Colorado have minimal cell reception, it’s a good idea to grab a free paper map at each park entrance. These will always be helpful when you’re trying to find the next trailhead or campsite!
Choosing the Best Camper Van for a Colorado National Parks Road Trip
Escape Camper Vans offers a range of vehicle models to choose from, based on your specific needs. From our Denver location, you can rent the Del Mar, Mavericks, or Mesa. All three camper vans feature a kitchenette, a comfortable queen size bed, and sleep up to 5 people (with a rooftop sleeper). Take your time looking over each of these well-equipped vans, and choose whichever one best suits your travel needs!
Colorado National Parks Road Trip Itinerary
Day 1- Drive from Denver, Colorado to Great Sand Dunes National Park
Once you’ve settled into your campsite, spend the rest of your time here hiking up the tallest sand dunes in all of North America. There are no trails on the dunes, so enjoy your time roaming freeling through this desert oasis. Once the sun has set, head back to the dunes to experience some of the most mesmerizing stargazing in the country.
Things to do in Great Sand Dunes National Park
Go Sandboarding and Sand Sledding: As long as you’re away from a vegetated area, you can sandboard or sand sled anywhere within the dunefield. Rent a board or sled from several places near the park entrance, and have a blast soaring down some of the country’s highest dunes!
Hike The High Dune: There are countless dunes to explore within Great Sand Dunes, though this one is by far the most popular. Located on the first ridge, this 2.5-mile hike will reward you with sweeping, panoramic views of the entire dunfield.
Swim in Medano Creek: Considered to be the most unique beach in Colorado, this creek sits at the base of the dunes. In late May, when the snow from the nearby mountains melts, the flow reaches its peak and creates an unexpected body of water in the middle of the desert. There’s no better place to cool off after a scorching hike on the dunes!
Places to Eat near Great Sand Dunes National Park
Oasis Restaurant $$-7800 CO-150, Mosca, CO 81146: Situated just outside of the park entrance, this casual locale serves burgers and sandwiches and is the only food option in direct vicinity to Great Sand Dunes National Park. The property also contains the closest campground outside of the park, along with a small general store for renting sandboards.
Mountain View Diner $– 403 Miranda Ave, Fort Garland, CO 81133: Less than 30 minutes away from Great Sand Dunes National Park, this eatery is a newcomer to the San Luis Valley. Since its opening in 2023, this quaint diner has been met with rave reviews from both locals and tourists. Visitors should keep in mind that they are closed on Saturdays.
Sun & Moon Cafe $$– 3314 Clark St, Alamosa, CO 81101: This local restaurant in Alamosa serves a wide mix of sandwiches, burgers, and wraps in an inviting, laid-back setting. This is a great option if you’re craving something a bit healthier!
Camper Van Friendly Campgrounds near Great Sand Dunes National Park
Piñon Flats Campground–Great Sand Dunes NP&P, 11999 CO-150, Mosca, CO 81146: Located inside Great Sand Dunes National Park, this is the most convenient campground for making the most of your time in the park. The site includes toilets, potable water, and outdoor rinse showers during the summertime. It operates from April through October and reservations can be made up to 6 months in advance.
Oasis Campground– 7800 CO-150, Mosca, CO 81146: Just outside of the park entrance, this site features showers, laundry facilities, full hookups, an on-site restaurant, and a general store. The campground is open from April through October, and advanced reservations can be made through their website.
Zapata Falls Campground– Highway 150, Mosca, CO 81146: This scenic campsite rewards campers with jaw-dropping views of the San Luis Valley and Great Sand Dunes National Park. This year-round campground contains 23 individual campsites, has pit toilets but no potable water, and advanced reservations are encouraged.
Day 2 – Mesa Verde National Park
After an early wake up call and a hearty breakfast at your campsite, it’s time to hop back in your camper van for another morning spent on the road. The drive from Great Sand Dunes National Park to Mesa Verde National Park takes about 3 hours and 42 minutes. This route spans 199 miles, and cuts through the scenic San Juan National Forest.
Once you reach Mesa Verde, you’ll be stunned by its incredibly well-preserved Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings. This park offers a meaningful opportunity to learn about the vibrant cultural heritage of several Pueblos and Tribes, while marveling at the striking architecture built into the cliffs.
Things to do in Mesa Verde National Park
See the Cliff Palace: As the largest cliff dwelling in North America, this historic site is a must-visit. View the ancient dwelling from Cliff Palace Overlook, or get up close via a hike which must be accompanied by a park ranger.
View a Cultural Dance: Several cultural dances, demonstrations, and performances are held in the park by the Pueblos and tribes with connections to Mesa Verde. View the park’s website before your trip to see what’s scheduled during your visit.
Hike Petroglyph Point: This 2.4-mile hike is a challenging one, and contains a number of steep drop offs, slender stone staircases, and rock scrambles. However, it will all be worth it when you reach a massive petroglyph panel, followed by a stunning view of the mesas from the trail peak.
Places to Eat near Mesa Verde National Park
Far View Lounge $$–National Park, Mesa Verde, Mancos, CO 81328: Unlike many of Colorado’s national parks, Mesa Verde contains several eateries. This laid-back lounge is a popular choice, offering stunning terrace views, pub food, and an extensive drinks list.
The Farm Bistro $$– 34 W Main St, Cortez, CO 81321: Award-winning, farm-to-table comfort food is served in a warm atmosphere at this popular establishment in Cortez. In addition to delicious, locally-sourced cuisine, the property also features an adjacent lounge for enjoying locally brewed beers and inventive cocktails.
Thai Cortez $$– 1430 E Main St, Cortez, CO 81321: For the best Thai food or sushi in the area, look no further than this popular eatery. Known for its mouthwatering cuisine and excellent customer service, this restaurant uses fresh, local ingredients to create its delicious dishes.
Camper van Friendly Campgrounds near Mesa Verde National Park
Morefield Campground–Mile Marker 4 U.S. 160, Mesa Verde National Park, CO 81330: Located inside Mesa Verde, this campground operates from May until November, and features showers, a dump station, and laundry facilities. Unlike most of the parks on this itinerary, this campground is very large and rarely full. While reservations can be made in advance, it’s not required and unlikely that you’ll have trouble finding a free spot.
Target Tree Campground– Hesperus, CO 81326: Sitting at an elevation of 7,643 feet, this stunning campground offers incredibly scenic views and is only 16 minutes from Mesa Verde National Park. The site is open from May through September and contains toilets and potable water, and advanced reservations can be made online.
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Day 3 – Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
After leaving the sacred sites of Mesa Verde, it’s time to make your way to your third national park of the trip. Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park may be the most underrated national park in Colorado, but we guarantee it’s worth the 3 hour drive from Mesa Verde.
Spend your day here admiring the dramatic landscapes that flank the powerful Gunnison River. Some of North America’s steepest cliffs can be found in this park, as well as jaw-dropping geological formations. The canyon itself is known for being astoundingly vertical, creating some of the most extreme mountain descents in the country. There are several scenic drives and unforgettable hikes to help you discover all the natural wonders within Black Canyon of the Gunnison.
Places to Visit in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
The South Rim Drive: This scenic drive is 7 miles long, and will lead you to 12 jaw-dropping overlooks. It’s a wonderful way to get acquainted with the park’s dramatic landscapes, but keep in mind that part of this road is closed during the winter.
Hike The Gunnison Route:This South Rim trail is one of the most popular in the park, leading hikers through the inner canyon and down to the river. This wilderness route does not contain any marked trails, and is considered to be quite a grueling experience, meant only for experienced hikers.
Painted Wall Overlook: For a much less strenuous hike, walk 200 yards on an unpaved trail to marvel at the tallest cliff in all of Colorado. Standing at 2,250 feet tall, the Painted Wall is an awe-inspiring sight.
Where to Eat near Black Canyon of Gunnison National Park
Camp Robber $$– 1515 Ogden Rd, Montrose, CO 81401: Delicious, Southwestern cuisine is served in an inviting atmosphere at this popular eatery, which also features an array of gluten-free options. Don’t leave without trying their famous green chile pistachio pork medallions and chicken potato soup!
Blue Corn Cafe & Mercantile $$–1842 S Townsend Ave, Montrose, CO 81401:Stop by this cozy cafe for a delicious breakfast or lunch, while watching candle-making in their adjoining factory! Cocktails, live music, and craft workshops take place in the evenings, making this a fun spot to pop into after a day of hiking and sightseeing.
Colorado Boy Pizzeria & Brewery $$– 320 E Main St, Montrose, CO 81401: Perfect for a casual night of delicious pizza and locally made beer, this family-run locale is a favorite among both locals and tourists.
Camper Van Friendly Campsites near Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
East Portal Campground– E Portal Rd, Montrose, CO 8140: While this campground is located outside of the park, it is only accessible from Black Canyon of the Gunnison. Situated along the Gunnison River at the bottom of the canyon, this site features tons of shade, seasonal vault toilets and potable water. The campground is usually open from May through mid-September, and is first come, first served.
South Rim Campground– S Rim Rd, Montrose, CO 8140: Located inside the park, this site is open year round and does not offer any showers, hookups, or dump stations. Reservations can be made in advance from May to October, but the campground becomes first come, first served the rest of the year.
Cimarron Campground– Cimarron, CO 81220: Only 20 minutes from the park entrance, this first come, first served campground rarely fills up, making it a perfect option if you’re unable to find a spot inside the park. The site operates from May through September, and features potable water, flush toilets, and a dump station.
Days 4-5: Rocky Mountain National Park
Wake up with the sun and pile into your camper van to explore one more national park! The drive up to Rocky Mountain National Park is a long one, spanning 218 miles and taking about 4 hours and 42 minutes to reach. However, the drive will be absolutely breathtaking, passing by impressive mountain ranges along the way.
Spanning the continental divide, Rocky Mountain is Colorado’s most visited national park, and it’s not hard to see why. An impressive variety of landscapes are found within the park, including mountains, forests, and tundra. Immerse yourself in nature as you embark on unforgettable hikes, spot abundant majestic wildlife, and relax by jaw-droppingly beautiful lakes.
Note: Because Rocky Mountain National Park contains so many spectacular hikes and activities, we’ve added an extra day here. However, you could easily extend your stay at any one of Colorado’s national parks.
Things to do in Rocky Mountain National Park
Hike to Dream Lake: This popular hike is 2.2 miles roundtrip and begins at the Bear Lake Trailhead. Climb through Aspen groves before arriving at the stunning lake, where you’ll also have the option to continue hiking further to Lake Haiyaha or Emerald Lake.
Trail Ridge Road Scenic Drive: This incredibly scenic byway is the highest continually paved road in the United States, reaching past 12,000 feet in elevation at times. Drivers are rewarded with some of the most astounding views in all of Rocky Mountain National Park.
The Bear Lake Road Corridor: Scenic Bear Lake is one of the most frequented areas of the park, thanks to its picturesque setting and proximity to countless trails. Venture along Bear Lake Road to discover amazing wildlife sightings and scenic vistas.
Places to Eat near Rocky Mountain National Park
The Rock Inn Mountain Tavern $$– 1675 CO-66, Estes Park, CO 80517: Situated at the park’s entrance, this popular restaurant and live music locale was originally opened as a sandwich shop in 1937. Today, the lively establishment offers hand-crafted comfort food, nightly live music, and scenic views from its outdoor patio.
Trailhead Restaurant $$– 3450 Fall River Rd, Estes Park, CO 80517: Enjoy a juicy burger or steak while admiring gorgeous mountain views from an outdoor patio at this charmingly rustic eatery. Located just outside of the park entrance, this is an extremely convenient spot to unwind after a long day of exploring!
Claire’s Restaurant and Bar $$– 225 Park Ln, Estes Park, CO 80517: Since 1992, this laid-back, family run eatery has been a favorite in the area. Only fresh and locally sourced ingredients are used to bring their delicious dishes to life, and a lot of their produce comes directly from the Estes Valley farmers market.
Camper van Friendly Campsites near Rocky Mountain National Park
Aspenglen Campground–US-34 & Old Fall River Rd, Estes Park, CO 80517: This year round campground inside the park is first come, first served during the winter, though reservations must be made in the summer. The site is quite basic, offering seasonal portable toilets, but no showers or drinking water.
Olive Ridge Campground– CO-7 Scenic, Allenspark, CO 80510: Found in the Roosevelt National Forest at an elevation of 8,350 feet, this scenic campground offers expansive views of the surrounding landscape. The site operates from May through September, and some sites can be booked 6 months in advance, while others are first come, first served.
Day 6 – Drive Back to Denver, Colorado
Sadly, your tour of Colorado’s national parks ends today. After packing up your camper van one last time and fueling up with breakfast at your campsite, it’s time to hit the road once more. Thankfully, it’s a short drive back to Denver from Rocky Mountain and only 63 miles to our Escape Camper Vans location. The drive should take about 1 hour and 18 minutes to complete; just remember to keep your designated drop-off time in mind.
Why Rent a Camper Van for a Colorado National Parks Road Trip?
An Escape Camper van is the perfect companion for a road trip through Colorado’s national parks and offers many advantages compared to a traditional RV. Here are just a few of the reasons why renting a camper van is the way to go when visiting Colorado’s national parks:
Mobility and Compactness:In comparison to traditional RV’s, Escape Camper Vans are much smaller and, therefore easier to navigate through narrow streets, tight parking spaces, and winding mountain roads. Being so much easier to maneuver will not only help you to get off the beaten path during your national parks tour, but finding a suitable campsite will also be seamless.
Easy to Drive: Traditional RV’s require a large learning curve if you haven’t driven such a big vehicle before. In contrast, our camper vans are similar in size to a large family SUV, making them far less intimidating for the average driver. With so much time spent traveling between national parks, we want to make sure you feel safe and comfortable behind the wheel.
No Need for Hookups: Many of the campgrounds that you’ll encounter on this Colorado road trip have basic amenities and do not offer sewer or electric hookups. While traditional RVs may require these, our self-contained camper vans do not. Take out the stress of finding a suitable RV campground and enjoy the freedom to camp wherever you’d like, including finding dispersed camping options.
Convenient and Versatile: Our extra add-ons allow you to customize your camper van rental so that you have everything you need for your adventure. Plus, with our kitchenettes and comfortable beds already set up, you won’t have to waste time with those preparations when you arrive at your campsite. This means you’ll have more time to explore Colorado’s magnificent parks without the stress of dealing with a more intricate RV system.
Renting a camper van ensures that you maximize your time in each park, rather than wasting precious time maneuvering an RV or trying to find an electric hook up. An Escape Campervan allows you to have everything you need at your fingertips, so you can fully enjoy the beauty of each national park.
Reserve with Escape Camper Vans for Your Colorado National Parks Road Trip
Now that you’ve discovered all the natural beauty that’s waiting for you in Colorado, all that’s left is to book your camper van and pack your bags! Soar down the country’s highest sand dunes, hike up jaw-dropping mountains, admire breathtaking canyons and get up close to ancient cliff dwellings. Click the link below to reserve your Escape Campervan and get ready to embark on the ultimate Colorado National Parks road trip!