The perfect road trip requires one part spontaneity and two parts planning, especially in summer when campgrounds can fill with crowds. To that end, we have created this guide that will help you escape the heat and traffic of the Front Range without a whole lot of stress. We created three big itineraries—to Wyoming, Southern Colorado and Utah—and two long-weekend getaways. But don’t forget that spur-of-the-moment mind-set, either: Be ready to follow odd turns of the road, head in a different direction or make friends with the locals and explore spots we have left out of this magazine on purpose.
#1 THE BIG WYOMING LOOP
Wyoming is everything you want it to be—big and empty and still raw. That makes it one of our favorite places to simply drive and wander, but our journeys north have also given us some insight into some spots you will want to make sure you hit.
Curt Gowdy State Park
RIDE: While so many other mountain bikers are rushing off on long drives to seek their singletrack, the little gem of Curt Gowdy—named after the legendary Red Sox broadcaster and host of The American Sportsman—is less than two hours from Denver and does not require getting on I-70 (wyoparks.state.wy.us). The 25-mile trail system was designed by the International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA). That means it’s a ripping ride that tours through three distinct ecosystems built with the wants of bikers in mind.
FISH: Gowdy was a passionate fly angler who grew up in Wyoming so it’s no surprise that the park’s reservoirs, especially Granite, offer up brown trout, rainbow trout and kokanee salmon.
CLIMB: Head just 30 minutes down the road to Vedauwoo, a trad climber’s paradise renowned for its offwidths. Try the 5.9 splitter crack Plumb Line—and who can resist a boulder problem called The Biggest Tits in Country Music (V3)?
Photo by Flash Parker
Sheridan/Cloud Peak Wilderness
HIKE: The Tetons and Wind River Range get most of the attention when it comes to mountains in the cowboy state. That makes the Bighorns the place we head to escape. And though these peaks are not as impressive as their more popular cousins, the serene Cloud Peak Wilderness area tops out at 13,167 feet at the summit of
Cloud Peak. It’s a 23-mile round trip to climb that namesake mountain and the perfect diversion on a long Wyoming escape. Do it as a mission of a day hike or camp overnight at Mistymoon Lake.
BACKPACK: If you really want to get off the grid for a bit, plan on a multi-day backpack trip to Chill Lakes, which lie stretched across an alpine cirque and require a ramble off trail to reach.
RELAX: Head to The Blacktooth Brewing Company (blacktoothbrewingcompany.com) in Sheridan for treats like a seasonal Barrel Aged IPA or the standby Saddle Bronc brown ale.
CLIMB: Over on the west side of the Bighorns and the Cloud Peak Wilderness, Tensleep has become a climber’s pilgrimage thanks to its sublime limestone walls. Be sure to hit Happiness in Slavery (5.12b), the first bolted route established here.
CAMP: Head up and over Bighorn Pass and park your vehicle in one of the many campgrounds up here. We like Prune Creek with its stream running through camp.
HIKE: Yellowstone National Park has many gateways but Cody is the one that feels independent from the park itself. Credit that to the fact that there’s a lot to do if you simply stay right here. Take the five-mile Blackwater Fire Memorial Trail. This national recreation trail tours the spot where 15 firefighters perished in 1937 and tops out with stunning views on Clayton Mountain. The trail is also open to bikes and makes for an excellent ride.
SUP: If you are looking just to dip a paddle in some flatwater with the family (or for some parental downtime) park at Buffalo Bill State Park and hit the waters of the Buffalo Bill Reservoir.
CAMP: Buffalo Bill state park is also the best place to camp close to town, with enough room for big vehicles. If you are looking for something a little more off the grid, head 28 miles out of town to the BLM-managed campsite on the Bobcat-Houlihan Trailhead. It’s free!
RESUPPLY: If you need more gear, head to Sunlight Sports (sunlightsports.com) in downtown Cody. This locally owned outdoor retailer can also give you beta for camping and adventures.
Yellowstone National Park
CAMP: Yes, Yellowstone is full of gawking crowds, but that does not mean you should avoid it. Just find simple ways to get off the road and you will have to worry more about grizzlies than other people. Start by securing a spot at Slough Creek Campground. Its 23 sites feel cozy compared to some of the mega-camps in the park and the fly fishing on Slough Creek itself is the stuff of legend.
PADDLE: Shoshone Lake, which you cannot reach by car, is the largest backcountry lake in the Lower 48. From Lewis Lake, it’s a three- or four-day excursion that’s ideal for just about anyone, including kids and those interested in more adventurous SUP trips.
Grand Teton National Park
PADDLE: Before we get to the big breast itself (yes, that’s what “Grand Teton” means), let’s focus at your feet. The park’s lakes anchor the place and excursions here can range from using a boat to access Mount Moran on the other side of Jackson Lake to a lazy SUP out of Colter Marina. If a raft trip is your thing, consider a full-day float along the Snake River. It’s mellow enough for the kids to come along and ideal if you are looking to spend some time casting for fat rainbow and brown trout.
CLIMB: OK, now on to the peaks. Climbing the 13,775-foot Grand is a rite of passage, and there are countless ways to get it done. Most novices head up the classic Upper Exum Ridge (5.5, 12 pitches) with (who else) Exum Mountain Guides (exumguides.com) but low-level climbers who want to go it alone can also have fun on the funky 5.4 Owen Spaulding (be careful; it’s not easy). Experienced climbers should head for the lovely, 10-pitch North Ridge (5.8) or even the pure line of the Direct Exum (5.7). Exum will also guide these routes.
GET DOWN: There’s one thing you want after big days in the Tetons—beer! And the Snake River Brewing Company (snakeriverbrewing.com) in Jackson is our top pick for the place to enjoy it (we recommend Pako’s IPA). You may want to be here between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. for the $9 lunch, too.
#2 DIP INTO SOUTHERN COLORADO
Close to the Front Range but different enough to feel like a big trip, southern Colorado is a big getaway close to home (see page 47, for Devon O’Neil’s explanation of why he and his wife head this way every year, rather than explore another state). A great trip in summer, it’s even better in cool fall temps.
GET DOWN: Our plan is to make no stops as soon as we pull out of Denver until we reach Alamosa. There are few better places to stretch your legs than the Alamosa Wildlife Refuge (fws.gov/refuge/alamosa). It’s a unique southwestern wetland. Be sure to bring your binoculars.
RESUPPLY: If you want to stay away from big-box outdoor retailers, wait and make you gear purchases here. Kristi Mountain Sports (slvoutdoor.com) is one of our favorite specialty outdoor retailers in Colorado.
HIKE: At the feet of the San Juans, Pagosa is one fantastic place to take a walk in the woods. For a quick jaunt that gives you a lot of bang for your buck, check out Piedra Falls, which is just outside of town. On the other end of the spectrum, the Continental Divide Trail snakes by here and it offers access into the deeps of the Weminuche Wilderness, our favorite wild lands in the state.
BIKE: The biggest draw is the Turkey Springs area just north of town. This network of trails, which was officially sanctioned and recently renamed, offers a number of ride options—long rides, short rides, rides for the whole family, rides that make you puke. The shorter loops run from 3.5 to 5 miles, longer options rack up to 15 miles, and of course you can keep riding and mixing the loops for new, longer, endless rides.
GET DOWN: The town boasts two outstanding breweries to chose from The Pagosa Brewing Co. and Riff Raff Brewing Co. (riffraffbrewing.com), and we are big fans of the fish tacos at Kip’s Grill (kipsgrill.com).
SOAK: Pagosa stinks. We mean it, but oh how we love that sweet smell of sulphur since it signals one thing—hot springs. The most popular place in town is The Springs Resort and Spa, which we lovingly refer to as the mini-golf of hot springs. Each pool has a different temperature and theme (there’s everything from the scalding, 108-degree Lobster Pot to the off-the-path, 102-degree Clouds in My Coffee to the make-new-friends waters of the 99-degree Sunset Social Club). Looking for a more romantic experience? Head to the rooftop pools of The Overlook, enjoy the sunset and then stargaze the night away in steamy waters.
BIKE: Plenty of Colorado towns like to crow about their cycling scenes. Durango does not have to beat its chest. Start with the terminus of the Colorado Trail and some of the best singletrack on the planet on Molas Pass. Or bomb the Hermosa Creek Trail, a 22-mile rocket that begins at Durango Mountain Resort. And don’t forget the road riding either: the trip from Durango up to Silverton is a 47-mile must-do, and you can make it a life-list multi-day adventure if you circle down through Ouray, Telluride and back around to Durango.
PADDLE: If you are looking for a casual or family-oriented float, there’s no reason to leave town. The lower Animas serves up fun-filled Class II and III rapids, ideal for SUP or kids… oh, and just in sight of beer.
GET DOWN: Durango is home to one of the winners of our Perfect Sixer beer poll. You, dear readers, said that Ska Brewing’s Modus Hoperandi was the first Colorado beer you would put in your ideal mix-and-match six pack. So stop by the brewery itself and enjoy one (or a summer seasonal Estival Cream Stout) in the beer garden along with pizza from The Container restaurant.
BIKE: It may be a little tricky to find, but the 27-mile system of trails known as Phil’s World (just east of town to the north of Route 160) offers up a little bit of something for everyone. The Trust and Hippy House loops are ideal for kids and quick cruises, while the Ledges Loop calls to hardcores.
HIKE: Get away from the crowds and interpretation of Mesa Verde and hike Canyon of the Ancients (blm.gov/co/st/en/nm/canm.html) where there’s still silence in the ruins.
GET DOWN: Cortez produces some outstanding wines, chief among them the vintages at Guy Drew Vineyards . Try the excellent Metate. And if you are sick of camping, book a room at the Best Western Turquoise Inn and say hi to the manager Nacho. When it’s time to eat, it’s hard to beat the Mexican at Pepperhead.
#3 UTAH’S RED ROCKS
When fall temps start to cool things down, it’s time to head to the desert. Here’s out favorite itinerary.
BIKE: In case you have not heard, Moab is a big bike town again. There were a few years when singletrack building in other towns seemed poised to knock one of the first MTB epicenters into obscurity but the town has made a concerted effort to move away from double-track and jeep roads and build world-class new singletrack like Captain Ahab (truly the best technical downhill we have ever experienced). Why not combine new singletrack with camping and reserve a spot up at Dead Horse Point State Park where a new, 16.6-mile loop encircles the campground. It’s a good one for beginners and any rider will enjoy the view.
HIKE: Cedar Mesa is full of contrasts. Two hours south of Moab, it’s both off the radar and popular. It’s full of ancient ruins that have been well preserved yet in danger of being destroyed by looters and careless visitors. One thing is for certain, it’s a magical spot. If you just have one day to check it out, the Perfect Kiva hike is mandatory. It’s a tough 10-mile hump to reach the place, but well worth the effort. Just don’t climb on or disturb the ruins and leave any artifacts you may see.
BACKPACK: A Grand Gulch immersion trip is the very best way to connect to this place and the options make it easy to do everything from a one-night quickie to a logistics-heavy multi-day epic ending at Lake Powell with a long boat ride back out. For starters, we suggest you undertake a relaxed 10-mile route from Bullet Canyon to Grand Gulch, camping two nights along the way and exploring ruins and side canyons.
HIKE: Of all Utah’s postcard-perfect national parks, Capitol Reef (nps.gov/care) keeps the lowest profile—and those who love it want to keep it that way. The Waterpocket Fold holds some of the best hiking and canyon scrambling in the state. You can just get out of that camper and stretch your legs on a route (there are no true “trails” here) like the two-mile round trip in Surprise Canyon. If you are looking for a little more intensity, head to Lower Muley Twist Canyon, a fun slot.
CAMP: Near the visitor center, Fruita Campground makes for an easy base and can handle big vehicles, but if you want to escape the constant hum of generators head to the free primitive campgrounds at Cathedral Valley and Cedar Mesa. Both are first-come, first-served.
HIKE: The “other” Boulder, here in Utah is not full of college students and Silicon Valley rejects. It’s a quiet community with a strong sense of itself and some of the most spectacular scenery on the planet. It’s also home to one of the best day hikes you will ever do. The Calf Creek Falls trail rambles 5.5 miles into a sandstone canyon before reaching an ideal picnic spot at the 125-foot-high Lower Calf Creek Falls.
Canyoneer: There are few better places to get squeezed and scare yourself a little than Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. For some play time with the family (or even grown ups) shimmy through the mile-long Spooky in Coyote Gulch. If you want a difficult, technical classic, Choprock Canyon is calling your name.
GET DOWN: Boulder has one heavenly restaurant… Hell’s Backbone Grill, which features produce from its local organic farm.
Camp: Want the perfect campground for the kids? Goblin Valley State Park is one freaky place to check out with its odd natural formations (don’t be an orc and climb on them though) and the campground includes two rental yurts (very good places to be when the wind picks up and blows red dust through the park).
Photo by Adam Barker
COLORADO FRONT RANGE LONG WEEKENDERS
Don’t have the time for a full-on road trip away from the job? Try these short-but-well-worth-it Colorado tours.
BIKE: Begin your getaway with a fat-tire spin on Devil’s Backbone . For some reason, this rollicking eight-mile ride of desert-style singletrack right on the Front Range doesn’t see the crowds you would expect for such a classic. Want a longer loop? Hook this ride into another 30-miles of trail in adjoining Horsetooth Mountain Park .
PADDLE: The free-flowing Cache la Poudre is the perfect river for that seemingly lost art of kayaking. Ideal for beginners and even better for experienced boaters, the river offers easy access and big water. Get out with the folks at Rocky Mountain Adventures to learn and up your game (shoprma.com).
CAMP: Keep heading up Highway 14 on your way to Steamboat and stay a night at the yurts at Never Summer Nordic .
SUP: Now that you have perfected your kayak skills, it’s time to learn how to downriver SUP with the folks at Steamboat Paddleboard Adventures.
BIKE: Steamboat bills itself as Bike Town U.S.A. for good reason. After you get off the river, ride the 10.7-mile Spring Creek Trail right out of town.
STAY: How about a night in a caboose and a hot springs soak? Check yourself into Strawberry Park Hot Springs .
BIKE: One last stop on your way back to Denver. Leave it all on the table with a massive ride on the Colorado Trail out of Breckenridge. It will make the traffic easier to bear.
BIKE: Salida has undertaken a concerted effort to make itselfa mountain bike destination And oh the variety you will find here. Kids will love the rolling butter singletrack of Methodist Mountain and the Little Rainbow Trail. Parents can take turns riding S-Mountain while young kids splash in the Arkansas right outside of the headquarters of Absolute Bikes . And of course the Monarch Crest always beckons for a big day (try the shorter Fooses Creek cut-off we featured in the June 2015 issue of EO).
GET DOWN: You have two outstanding pizza options here: Amica’s, which offers its own craft beer, or Moonlight Pizza , the place to be on Mondays when 10 percent of profits go to a different local community organization (check the events page). Also, you will certainly want to be in Salida on August 21 and 22 when Mumford and Sons Gentlemen of the Road Tour comes to town, a music extravaganza featuring the British folkers as well as The Flaming Lips, Jenny Lewis, Dawes, Tune-Yards and many more acts.
Great Sand Dunes National Park
CAMP: Colorado’s dunes certainly feel like a fantasy land, with a Sahara of sand under your feet and rows of snow-capped peaks in the sky, and the Piñon Flats Campground gives you access to a day of wandering rambles on the dunes straight out of your tent.
STOPOVER: How can a road trip be complete without a roadside attraction like the built-by-hand Bishop’s Castle? It’s free and the public is allowed to (respectfully) climb around and explore.
Finish off this short southern epic with sport climbing at Shelf Road (blm.gov). Tick off a classic that everyone can enjoy like Blackman’s Burden (5.10c).