I’ve always wanted to do a road trip through Colorado – and this summer, we finally went on a road trip through Colorado in a camper van!
Last year when I did the Utah road trip, I booked a camper van on Outdoorsy and loved the experience so booked a camper van on Outdoorsy for Colorado. Outdoorsy is the world’s biggest RV rental site! We LOVED this 2020 Mercedes Sprinter 4×4 camper van – stove top, oven, fridge, shower, & toilet. It was so convenient to camp overnight in campgrounds, make coffee/breakfast, pack up and hike. The non-stop flight from Austin to Denver for around $100 and picked up our camper van!
SEE ALSO: 11 Best Things To Do In Breckenridge Colorado
I wanted us to experience the ultimate road trip through Colorado so I reached out to Abigail – a local writer in Colorado who does camper van trips throughout the state!
Jane has visited Colorado on a number of occasions, but for this most recent excursion, she consulted a local travel expert. My name is Abigail and in this guide, I’ll walk you through the plans I shared with Jane as she readied for her 5-day summer camper van trip in Colorado.
Before flying into Denver, Jane booked their cozy home-on-wheels through Outdoorsy. With so many options, finding the perfect vehicle was easy. Quickly after they landed, they were off to their first experience. On this itinerary, trip highlights include hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park, soaking at Strawberry Park Hot Springs, and camping in some of Colorado’s best mountain towns.
While this circuit is packed full of activities, you can obviously pick and choose what things suit your interests. And though quite a bit of driving is involved, the incredible scenery is sure to amaze. If you have even more time to explore the area, check out my 10-day Colorado road trip itinerary, too! But first, discover all the can’t-miss attractions in Boulder, Estes Park, Grand Lake, Steamboat Springs, and Frisco.
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- National Park Annual Pass – a day pass at Rocky Mountain National Park cost $30, but an $80 annual pass is well-worth the extra expense if you travel frequently
- Water bottle – staying hydrated is the best way to avoid altitude sickness
- Daypack – bring something smaller than your travel bag to carry outdoor essentials
- Lip balm – you might not expect it, but Colorado has a very dry climate
- Mini first aid kit
- Baby wipes/hand wipes – these come in handy when showers and restrooms aren’t readily accessible
- Hiking boots
- Layers – expect chilly evenings and warm days in the summer months
- Rain jacket – afternoon thunderstorms are also common, especially in July and August
- Throw blanket
- Firewood – purchase at or near each campground to avoid spreading invasive species, and read fire regulations before sparking up your bonfire
- Skyroam – this portable wifi hotspot is a game-changer if you plan to work from the road
- Auxiliary cord and USB charger – be sure to download your music and podcasts before traveling; service is often spotty in the mountains
Below are some personal favorites when camping. Of course, adjust meals and snacks to your liking, but avoid purchasing foods that are easily damaged, like bread and certain fruits. Also, shop for shelf-stable items when possible, as your camper van will likely have only a small refrigerated space, if at all.
In particular, Trader Joe’s and Sprouts have some great options, including:
- Ground coffee or instant coffee
- Half & half
- Eggs – purchase pre-boiled or pack an egg container to keep them from breaking
- Bacon/breakfast sausage
- Instant oatmeal
- Granola bars
- Trail mix
- Almond butter
- Sliced cheese
- Lunch meat
- Frozen packs of quinoa
- Hot dogs
Day one – Boulder
Outdoor recreation abounds in Boulder, a laid back college town located 45 minutes northwest of Denver. There are countless hiking opportunities nearby, but here are a few of locals’ favorite areas:
Just a couple of miles from downtown Boulder lies a massive trail network with endless views of the Flatirons. For a moderate trek, take a 1.2-mile hike along the popular Chautauqua Trail. Often in the summer, giant dandelions line the walkway, and the panoramic views provide plenty of photo opportunities.
For a bit more of a challenge, try the First and Second Flatirons Loop. This 2.7-mile trail gains nearly 1,500 feet in elevation and allows you to see the iconic sandstone slabs up close.
Cost: $2.50/hour for parking on weekends and summer holidays
Baseline Rd & 9th St, Boulder, CO 80302
Just north of the Chautauqua area you’ll find the Mt. Sanitas and Sanitas Valley Loop Trail. Though short at just 3.2 miles, this is a strenuous hike that quickly ascends up a steep mountainside. The steps are big and in some places, the rock is loose. But the sights in all directions are stunning. Spot the Flatirons to the south, Boulder to the east, and near the summit, enjoy western views of the Continental Divide.
Sunshine Canyon Dr, Boulder, CO 80304
Eldorado Canyon State Park
This popular Colorado State Park is 20 minutes south of downtown Boulder, but is well-worth the quick detour. Note that if visiting in the summer months, you’ll need to book a timed vehicle entry in advance.
I highly recommend the 2.9-mile Crags Hotel Ruins and Continental Divide Overlook trail. The 6.6-mile Eldorado Canyon Trail is another popular choice, as is Rattlesnake Gulch, a 3.6-mile loop. Whichever route you choose, you’re guaranteed breathtaking canyon views.
Cost: $10 park entrance fee
9 Kneale Rd, Eldorado Springs, CO 80025, https://cpw.state.co.us/placestogo/parks/EldoradoCanyon
If hiking isn’t your thing, no worries — a drive up Flagstaff Mountain allows anyone to enjoy spectacular scenery. Pull off to take photos at various stopping points, including the Sunrise Amphitheater and Lost Gulch Overlook. If time allows, hang a hammock or enjoy a picnic under the ponderosa pines.
Pearl Street Mall
On Pearl Street Mall in downtown Boulder, you’ll discover opportunities to shop, dine, and watch talented street performers. Favorite stops include Liberty Puzzle, Boulder Book Store, and Paradise Found Records & Music. You can also peruse a myriad of outdoor retailers including The North Face, Black Diamond, and Patagonia.
If you’re feeling hungry, visit one of the food-hall style eateries in the area. Avanti Food & Beverage offers an informal environment alongside delicious plates. Here, you’ll find American comfort food, Venezuelan arepas, Taiwanese noodles, and more. Down the road within Rosetta Hall’s more upscale atmosphere, several cuisines are served including Peruvian, Middle Eastern, Italian, and Chinese.
If you need a pick-me-up after your delicious meal, visit one of Boulder’s celebrated tea shops. Ku Cha House of Tea and The Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse both serve a variety of loose leaf in lovely settings.
Overnight in Estes Park Campground at Mary’s Lake
After exploring Boulder, jump in your camper van and head up to Estes Park. Following an hour-long drive, you’ll arrive to Estes Park Campground at Mary’s Lake. Here, 128 campsites serve everyone from tent campers to those in big-rig RVs.
With so many nearby amenities, you’ll find it easy to fill an evening’s itinerary. Plus, you’ll be situated in the perfect spot to explore Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park the following morning.
- Drinking water
- Flush toilets
- Hot showers
- Laundry facilities
- General store with firewood and ice
- Heated swimming pool
- Children’s playground
Cost: $45 per tent site
Marys Lake Rd, Estes Park, CO 80517, evrpd.colorado.gov/marys-lake-campground
Other campgrounds in Estes Park:
- Moraine Park Campground
- Aspen Glen Campground
Day Two – Estes Park
The Stanley Hotel
Famed as being the inspiration of The Shining, The Stanley Hotel is a historic attraction in downtown Estes Park. Even without an overnight stay, visitors can wander the gardens and marvel at the Victorian architecture within the lobby.
There are also several displays that picture movie memorabilia, alongside others that detail the hotel’s storied past. Several dining options are available as well, including Brunch & Co. and the Cascades Restaurant & Lounge.
Cost: $10 parking fee (waived if dining)
333 E Wonderview Ave, Estes Park, CO 80517, stanleyhotel.com
As you drove into town the previous evening, it’s impossible to have missed Lake Estes. To enjoy these picturesque waters, visit the Lake Estes Marina and rent a kayak or paddle board. Or simply enjoy walking the easy Lake Estes Trail, a 4-mile loop that follows the shoreline. Especially in the quiet morning hours, keep an eye out for the local elk herd and other wildlife.
Cost: $18 per hour for a paddleboard or one-person kayak
1770 Big Thompson Ave, Estes Park, CO 80517, hevrpd.colorado.gov/lake-estes-marina
Rocky Mountain National Park
Famed for its dramatic peaks, alpine lakes, and a wide variety of flora and fauna, Rocky Mountain National Park is a nature-lover’s paradise. From hiking and horseback riding to camping and stargazing, there are so many ways to enjoy outdoor recreation in this vast wilderness.
With hundreds of miles of trails in Rocky Mountain National Park, it can be difficult to know where to start. If it’s your first time visiting, there’s no trail I’d recommend more than Emerald Lake. This moderate, 3.2-mile trek passes three alpine lakes, each more stunning than the next.
The 1.6-mile trail to Alberta Falls is another popular choice, as is the 0.8-mile loop around Sprague Lake. The latter is especially great for the whole family, as the paved trail allows for wheelchair and stroller access.
To enjoy these trails and others within the park, make sure to book your timed entry in advance. Slots fill up quickly, especially on summer weekends. But note that timed entry is not required after 6:00pm, so if you miss the booking window, consider an evening hike!
Cost: $30 for day-use vehicle entry pass
1000 US-36, Estes Park, CO 80517, nps.gov/romo/index.htm
If timed entries are no longer available during your visit, horseback riding in Rocky Mountain National Park is another great alternative. Upon arrival, your outfitter will pair you with a horse and give a brief talk on handling and safety. Then, you and your group will ride through old-growth aspen forests and into scenic valleys with mountain views. Tours range from 1-5 hours, and several do not require prior experience.
Cost: varies by tour, starting at $70
9500 2515 Tunnel Rd, Estes Park, CO 80511, jacksonstables.com
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Overnight in Winding River Resort
Come late afternoon, begin your scenic journey along Trail Ridge Road, also known as “The Highway to the Sky.” This byway is the highest paved road in the country and is open seasonally from May through October. Admire panoramic views the entire length of the drive, and stop at overlooks including Rainbow Curve and the Continental Divide. Also, pick up your souvenirs from the Alpine Visitor Center, the highest of all visitor centers in the National Park System.
After the 90-minute drive, you’ll find yourself at Winding River Resort in Grand Lake. There are a variety of lodging options here, including RV and tent camping, cabins, and even covered wagons. The horse ranch on the property provides opportunities for horseback riding, and children can enjoy pony rides and the on-site animal farm. Spacious campsites and the beautiful landscape add even more to this perfect outdoorsy getaway.
- Drinking water
- Flush toilets
- Hot showers
- Laundry facilities
- General store with camping and fishing supplies
- Horse ranch with trail and pony rides
- Animal farm
- Disc golf
- Children’s playground
Cost: $65 per tent site
1447 Co Rd 491, Grand Lake, CO 80447, windingriverresort.com
Other campgrounds in Grand Lake:
- Green Ridge Campground
- Sunset Point Campground
- Arapahoe Bay
Day Three – Grand Lake
Boating & paddle sports
Grand Lake is the largest natural body of water in Colorado, and next door lies the third-largest, Lake Granby. This area is highly popular for its boating opportunities, and plenty of nearby marinas rent pontoons by the hour.
Grand Lake Marina and Trail Ridge Marina are the two closest to Winding River Resort, where you camped the night before. If their boats are booked, check out Beacon Landing, Indian Peaks, and Highland Marina found along the shores of Lake Granby.
If you’ve never rented a pontoon boat, know that it’s no more difficult, if not easier, than driving a car. But if you’d prefer to power your own vessel, opt for a kayak, canoe, or paddle board instead. Most of these marinas rent these items, too.
Cost: varies by rental, pontoons start at $130
1132 Lake Ave, Grand Lake, CO 80447, glmarina.com/motor-boats.html
Rocky Mountain National Park spans more than 265,000 acres, and Grand Lake is situated on the park’s west side. Here, you’ll find an abundance of hiking trails, many of which are less crowded than those to the east.
North of Grand Lake, Green Mountain Trail is a popular pick. This moderate out-and-back hike gains 700 ft. in elevation across 3.5 miles. Starting in mid-June, wildflowers sprawl across the landscape, and the area is known for frequent moose sightings.
If you prefer something closer to the town of Grand Lake, head to Adams Falls. Starting from the East Inlet Trailhead, this quick, easy hike is just 0.8-miles in length. It leads to an impressive waterfall, and if you continue on the main East Inlet Trail, you’ll come across several creek crossings and scenic alpine lakes.
Just like with all hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park, timed entry is required from May through October. Plan ahead so you don’t miss these incredible trails!
Cost: $30 for day-use vehicle entry pass
16018 US-34, Grand Lake, CO 80447, nps.gov/romo/index.htm
SEE ALSO: 14 Best Hiking Trails in Austin, TX
Overnight in Eagle Soaring RV Park
After exploring the lands and waters of Grand Lake, and maybe grabbing a bite at Grand Pizza or Sagebrush BBQ, it’s time to hit the road. The drive to Steamboat Springs is about two hours in length, and just west of town, you’ll find Eagle Soaring RV Park.
This small campground is home to just 25 sites, each separated by aspens for greater privacy. Quiet, spacious, and conveniently located just 15 minutes from town, it’s a lovely spot to spend the night and rest up for the next day’s activities.
- Clean restrooms
- Hot showers
- Laundry facilities
- Free wifi
- Picnic and barbecue areas
- Cost: $50 per night
25250 US-40, Steamboat Springs, CO 80487, eaglesoaringrvpark.com/index.html
Other campgrounds in Steamboat Springs:
- Dry Lake Campground
- Buffalo Pass
Day four – Steamboat Springs
Downtown Steamboat Springs
Start your day at one of my personal favorite spots in downtown Steamboat Springs: Smell That Bread Bakery. Enjoy hot coffee, sweet pastries, and savory avocado toast on their creekside patio. Then, continue exploring this mountain town’s quaint boutiques, galleries, and other restaurants.
F.M. Light & Sons is one of Steamboat’s most visited shops, and you may have noticed several signs promoting the retailer on yesterday’s drive into town. This Western apparel store has been around since 1905. Here, both ranchers and tourists congregate to try on leather boots and Stetson cowboy hats.
Another popular circuit is the Steamboat Brew Trail, a 2.7-mile walk or bike ride that passes three breweries and a local distillery. Enjoy tasty pours at Mahogany Ridge, lounge on the spacious patio at Mountain Tap, sample spirits at Steamboat Whiskey Co., and lastly, enjoy beers and board games at Storm Peak.
If you’re feeling hungry after your day of exploring downtown, take a look at the menus at Aurum Food & Wine and Mazzola’s Italian Restaurant. Or if you prefer something a little more laid back, hang out at Back Door Grill, a spot known for creative burgers and hand-cut fries.
Steamboat Howler Alpine Slide
Across the Yampa River and away from downtown’s crowds, you’ll find the Steamboat Howler Alpine Slide. This attraction not only provides a thrilling ride, but allows you to see beautiful aerial views of Steamboat Springs, too.
You’ll take in the surrounding scenery as you ride up a chairlift. At the top of Howelsen Hill, you’ll be given a sled, then begin your twisty descent down a 2,400-foot track. The exhilarating experience is fun for all ages!
Cost: $20 per person for the alpine slide, or $12 per person for only the scenic chairlift ride
645 Howelsen Pkwy, Steamboat Springs, CO 80487, steamboatalpineslide.com
With 283 feet of rushing water, Fish Creek Falls is the second-tallest waterfall in Colorado. It’s one of the most popular attractions in Steamboat Springs, as views can be enjoyed by all visitors, regardless of hiking abilities.
For just a quick glance and photo opportunity, take the 0.7-mile walk to the Fish Creek Falls Overlook. Or to experience more of the area, hike the difficult 4.7-mile trail up and over the falls. This trek will lead you to an additional waterfall and offers stunning panoramic views.
Alternatively, for a moderate hike, head to Spring Creek Trail, a favorite among locals. Starting from the lower trailhead closest to town, this 10.1-mile trail ascends up to Buffalo Pass. But really, you don’t need to complete the entirety of this hike to experience much of its beauty. In the summer, this shady trek features wildflowers, massive ferns, and plenty of wildlife.
Cost: $5 for parking at Fish Creek Falls (free with an annual National Parks Pass)
Like many mountain towns in Colorado, Steamboat Springs was named after the area’s several natural hot springs. In downtown, you’ll find Old Town Hot Springs, a built-up recreation center that features eight hot spring pools, along with a lap pool, waterslides, fitness classes, and more.
Old Town Hot Springs is best suited for families, whereas across the street, you’ll find a different crowd. Hippie Hot Springs is a local’s secret, and here, multiple warm pools lie along the banks of the Yampa River. Even better, it’s completely free to visit!
If you’re seeking more of a relaxing, spa-like experience, head to Strawberry Park Hot Springs. Many would agree that these are some of the best hot springs in Colorado. Surrounded by aspens and pines, these steamy pools are quiet and peaceful. Come nightfall, the hot springs are accessible to adults only, as clothing is optional. Massage treatments as well as lodging are also available on-site.
Cost: $27 per person at Old Town Hot Springs; $20 per person at Strawberry Park Hot Springs (cash only)
136 S Lincoln Ave, Steamboat Springs, CO 80487, oldtownhotsprings.org
44200 Co Rd 36, Steamboat Springs, CO 80487, strawberryhotsprings.com
Overnight in Prospector Campground
After an adventure-filled day in Steamboat Springs, head to Dillon Reservoir for your last night on this Colorado trip. Prospector Campground is roughly two hours from Steamboat, or two and a half if taking the (extra) scenic route through Vail.
Upon arrival, you’ll find 105 tent and RV sites, all located near the water. Though not as shady, their setting at 9,000 feet above sea level ensures cool and comfortable evenings. From the campground, a trail leads to Windy Point where you’ll find a small beach and breathtaking mountain views.
- Vault toilets
- Drinking water
- Firewood sales from camp host
- Picnic tables and fire rings
Cost: $32 per night
White River National Forest, Dillon, CO 80435, fs.usda.gov/recarea/whiteriver/recreation
Other campgrounds in Dillon:
- Peak One Campground
- Heaton Bay Campground
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Day five – Frisco
Dillon Reservoir is surrounded by several communities, including Dillon to the south, Silverthorne to the north, and Frisco to the west. From quiet campgrounds to bustling outlet malls, each area has its perks. But for mountain town charm, I’d recommend spending your last day in Frisco.
For breakfast, sit down at Bread+Salt or Butterhorn Bakery and Cafe. Then, explore the dozens of downtown shops. Personal favorites include Next Page bookstore and tea shop, Colisco Wearables, an outdoor clothing retailer, and the eclectic Frisco Emporium.
Dillon Reservoir Loop
Also in downtown Frisco, you’ll find Rebel Sports, a ski and bike shop that provides rental services. Pick up a path bike or e-bike, then head down the road and merge onto the Dillon Reservoir Loop.
This 18.4-mile route circles the entirety of Dillon Reservoir. Overall, it’s a moderate, paved path with spectacular scenery — but be prepared for a big 500-foot climb on the south side of the lake. From town, peddle north and clockwise around the reservoir if you’d rather avoid that ascent. Of course, there’s no need to ride the entirety of the trail, either. Even a 2-hour rental allows for a fun, memorable experience.
Cost: $25 for a two-hour bike rental
220 Main St, Frisco, CO 80443, rebelsportsrentals.com
To enjoy one of Colorado’s best mountain beaches, head to Marina Park. Lounge on the sandy beach lined with colorful blankets and umbrellas. However, note that swimming is not allowed at Marina Park, or anywhere on Dillon Reservoir. This may surprise those who live at sea level, but trust me, you don’t want to get into this icy alpine lake!
Rather, the waters are best experienced by paddling or boating. For rentals, visit the Frisco Bay Marina for kayaks, canoes, and paddle boards. Pontoon boats are also available at hourly rates. Dillon Marina offers the same, along with sailboat rentals for knowledgable skippers.
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