Our end of summer one-week road trip around Colorado and Utah: Rocky Mountains, hot springs, ancient Native American ruins, canyons and arches.
Our week-long road trip adventure through Colorado and Utah began as a plan to visit some of my family in Fort Collins, Colorado over Labor Day Weekend. Neither of us had ever been to Colorado, so we decided to rent a car and make a road trip out of it the week following.
In addition to Colorado, we decided to incorporate Utah into our road trip as well. When I graduated college back in 2004, one of my best friends and I went on a three-week road trip around Southwest USA. It was an amazing trip, and two of the places that I really wanted to go back to with Paddy were Arches National Park in Utah and Monument Valley in Utah/Arizona.
We arrived in Denver mid-morning on Saturday, an easy two and a half our flight from Seattle. We had reserved a car with Enterprise through Kayak.com, which we were able to pick up and return back to the airport. We chose Enterprise over the slightly less expensive Budget car rental because Enterprise does not charge for an extra driver if the two drivers are married. Budget wanted to charge an additional $20.00 per day if we both wanted to be drivers.
**Note: Always reserve a rental car ahead of time, especially on busy holiday weekends. I saw a gentleman turned away at the counter at Enterprise, as they weren’t accepting walk-ins for the holiday weekend. In addition, you often get a better rate if you reserve far in advance.
My parents joined us for the weekend as well, and the first three days were mostly spent visiting with my family. Paddy and I were staying with my cousin and her fiance in Severance, CO just outside of Fort Collins.
Our biggest adventure on Saturday was eating Rocky Mountain oysters with my cousin at Bruce’s Bar in Severance. Bruce’s is known for its “oysters,” and their sampler platter included buffalo, beef, and lamb oysters, cut in strips, breaded and deep-fried. They are all served with cocktail sauce.
Paddy and I are adventurous eaters, and they didn’t look that intimidating, so we dove right in.
The lamb oysters were our favorite. I didn’t try the beef ones because I don’t like beef, but Paddy said those were his least favorite as they were a bit tough. I liked the lamb ones. They kind of tasted like chicken nuggets.
On Sunday Paddy, my Mom, and I took a drive up to Estes Park in hopes of visiting the Rocky Mountain National Park and the Stanley Hotel. It was a really pretty drive into the Rocky Mountains, and only an hour long road trip to get to Estes Park from Fort Collins.
We were hungry when we arrived in Estes Park, so we had lunch at a mediocre Mexican restaurant off the highway and then headed to the Stanley Hotel.
The Stanley Hotel gets its fame by being the hotel that inspired Stephen King to write The Shining in 1977. He and his wife stayed there for a night in room 217. They were the only guests at the hotel that night, as the hotel was getting ready to close for the season. Contrary to popular belief, The Shining was not actually filmed at The Stanley Hotel. The exterior aerial shots of the Overlook Hotel in the movie are actually of the Timberline Lodge at Mt Hood, Oregon. The hotel interior shots in the film were a set.
However, the Stanley Hotel was a creepy inspiration to Stephen King, and is rumored to be haunted. You can request the Stephen King suite (room 217) or a “haunted room” if you wish, but the haunted rooms book up fast. Tours of the hotel also book up in advance, as we learned when we arrived.
We were able to walk around the lobby and peek into some of the event rooms on the main floor, and there were some more historical exhibits downstairs. There is a gift shop with souvenirs from The Shining if you feel so inclined. We now own a Redrum coffee mug.
It turned out that Labor Day weekend was the wrong weekend to try to go to the Rocky Mountain National Park. Traffic towards the park was bumper to bumper, so we decided to skip it. Before heading back to Fort Collins, we thought we might try to check out the downtown area of Estes Park. This was also a bad idea. There wasn’t one parking space left in town, and traffic was so bad it took us 20 minutes just to get back to the road. It’s a small town. Estes Park looked like a cute town to visit, but I would recommend visiting in the off-season.
Sunday was also Paddy’s birthday, so later that evening my cousin took us to downtown Fort Collins to celebrate.
The first place we went was the oldest bar in Fort Collins, The Town Pump. Built in 1909, The Town Pump is small and cozy with a full bar and a good local beer selection (Fort Collins is all about craft beer). It was a good spot to start the night.
For dinner we headed down the block to The Crown Pub, an English style pub with good food. We shared the Prince Edward Island Mussels to start, and then Paddy had the New York Strip Steak and I had the Relleno Royale chicken burger. Everything was great including the service.
We ended the evening at the Trail Head Tavern on W Mountain Ave. My cousin told me it used to be a movie theater a long time ago, where our grandparents would go to the movies together. There is the remnants of an old theater box office to the left of the front door.
The Trail Head had cheap drinks, a college-y vibe (Fort Collins is a college town), and a casual atmosphere.
On Monday morning we had breakfast out at The Egg and I in Windsor near my cousin’s house. For a chain restaurant, the food was surprisingly good and had a lot of healthy options available in addition to classic favorites. I had the Hiker’s Benedict which was delicious.
We spent the rest of the day with my family.
On Tuesday morning, we hit the road at 7:00 AM to begin our road trip. Our first destination was Pagosa Springs, in the southern part of Colorado, which was about a 6 hour drive away.
It was a long day of driving, but it was a beautiful drive. As soon as we passed Denver, we began an ascent into the Rocky Mountains, heading south.
After four hours, we were ready for a lunch stop. We stopped in the tiny town of Saguache at the Saguache 4th Street Diner and Bakery.
The 4th Street Diner and Bakery was a great place to stop for lunch. Tiny and eclectic, with mis-matched tables and chairs and a wood stove for cold winter days, it was homey and welcoming. Paddy had a burger with organic beef and I had a chicken quesadilla. There were a lot of tempting pies in the case at the counter, but we decided to pass and get back on the road.
We made a final stop at Wolf Creek Pass to get a photo at the view point there. The elevation was 10,856 ft, and it made me so light-headed that I stumbled a bit getting out of the car. It was a gorgeous view.
We made it to Pagosa Springs around 3:00 PM and checked into the Healing Waters Resort and Spa. It wasn’t really a resort, more of a budget hotel with a hot springs pool, steam room and sauna. It was clean and comfortable, and while I’m sure their pool was nice we were actually staying there because it was an affordable option next to the main hot springs.
The small town of Pagosa Springs is centered around the developed hot springs resort on the river, with several hot springs pools at various temperatures. They are open until 11:00 PM daily, so we planned on spending the evening soaking our troubles away.
We walked through the town and poked about in a few shops. We eventually made it up the main street to Riff Raff Brewing, and decided to relax and sample the local beer.
The beer at Riff Raff was tasty and diverse. I did a sampler with the English Pale, the El Duende Green Chili Ale, the Stepchild American Red, and the Plebian Porter. The El Duende was tasty but I expected a bit more green chili flavor. The Skallywag English Pale and the Plebian Porter were my two favorites. The Stepchild Red was a bit too hoppy for me, I’m not a huge fan of hoppy beers.
Pagosa Springs is at a fairly high elevation (just over 7,000 ft), (pretty high-especially for us sea-level dwellers). Alcohol effects everyone a bit more at high elevations, and after the beer sampler I was quite buzzed. We stayed for dinner, and the food was excellent. Paddy tried the yak burger, which he really enjoyed. Riff Raff makes their own pickles, which were delicious.
After dinner, we were ready for the hot springs. It was $30 per person for admittance, which was a little expensive but included a towel and a locker. They have an adults-only terrace with drink service which was very tempting but would have been $23 extra dollars each just to be able to use it. We couldn’t justify that kind of price. I tried to bargain with the guy at the counter, it being a Tuesday evening and all, but no dice.
The hot springs had a large pool (mostly used by children and families), and a series of small pools at a range of different temperatures from 92 to 111 degrees Fahrenheit. We found that we were most comfortable between 90 to 100 degrees. I tried to go in the Paradise pool at 109 degrees, but it was so painfully hot that I didn’t get past ankle deep.
Our favorite pools were Boulder, Aspen, and Serendipity. Serendipity had a waterfall and a good overlook for the river and the rest of the resort. The waterfall was a good shoulder massage. The adults only terrace didn’t seem like such a big deal, as all the kids seemed to be in the big pool and not the regular hot spring tubs. We were glad we hadn’t shelled out an extra $46.00.
There was a Canteen in the center of the pool complex where you could buy drinks and snacks, including beer and wine. We only got one drink each, we figured that high elevation and hot springs and alcohol probably weren’t a great combo. Drinks weren’t too overpriced.
We stayed and soaked our sore muscles until the stars came out.
Aside from hot springs, we picked Pagosa Springs as a first night stop on our road trip because it was close to Mesa Verde National Park. Mesa Verde National Park is located in the southwest corner of Colorado, and contains over 5,000 archeological sites and 600 ancient cliff dwellings. Only a few are open to the public. A couple cliff dwellings can be toured with a ranger guide.
We stopped by the ranger station when we arrived, and considered signing up for a ranger-guided tour of the Cliff Palace, but since we only had the morning to tour the park we opted to just do a drive and view tour at our own pace.
The road into the park ascends dramatically, offering beautiful views of the surrounding landscape. There were several viewpoint areas to pull over at.
*Note: The drive down to the cliff dwellings and pit house sites is 45 minutes from the park entrance one way, so allow at least half a day to see the park.
We stopped at the remains of some early Anasazi pit houses along the Mesa View Loop road, a few dating back to 600 AD. The houses were dug into the ground, and then walls and a roof built up from the dugout with sticks and mud.
At the end of the park are several cliff dwellings to view. Cliff Palace was the most spectacular one that we saw, and you can get a really great view of Cliff Palace from above on the Cliff Palace Loop Road.
Note that if you decide to tour Cliff Palace, Balcony House, or other open dwellings in the park, they do involve climbing stairs, steep trails, and ladders. Cliff Palace sounded like it was the least strenuous, but all of them are at high elevation. Higher elevations make exercise and hiking a lot more strenuous, so if you have a heart condition or any type of physical disability, you may want to skip the tours.
It is amazing to imagine these dwellings alive and full of the daily activity of the Anasazi people. Tiny cities tucked into the steep cliffs in the canyon. I wonder if there were more cliff trails along the canyon between the dwellings back in 1300 AD, it doesn’t look easy to access them currently. I’m sure there has been some significant erosion since they were populated.
After checking out the Cliff Dwellings, it was 1:00 PM and we were starving. Mesa Verde has two cafeteria-style restaurants, one at Far View Terrace closer to the entrance, and one at Spruce Tree Terrace closer to the cliff dwellings. Prices were reasonable, with many Southwest-style options. Paddy ordered the Navajo Taco, which was huge. It was a dinner-plate sized Navajo fry bread with chili and all your standard American taco fixings. He said it was really good, but didn’t quite make it through the whole thing. I had the black bean burger and fries which was also good.
The high elevation (and the big lunch) made us pretty tired, and we still had a couple hours to drive to our next destination, Monument Valley.
On the way to Monument Valley as we crossed from Colorado into Arizona, and we passed the Four Corners monument. We figured we should stop and do the obligatory photo op of us standing in four states at one time (Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico).
The Four Corners Monument is part of the Navajo Nation, and requires an entrance fee of $5 per person. Unfortunately, it is out in the middle of nowhere and requires cash payment, no credit or debit cards. We only had $8 cash, so we moved on. If you want to see the four corners, be sure to have cash on hand to cover your group. If you need an ATM, there is one at the Teec Nos Pos trading post store and gas station is about a 10 minute drive away. They also have restrooms.
An hour and a half later, we finally approached Monument Valley. The first time I visited Monument Valley was on my road trip with my friend in March 2004, and I had been so excited to see it. We just did a drive through and unfortunately, there was a dust storm that day. The iconic wild-west views of red buttes were something I had always wanted to go back and experience again, in better weather and with more time.
We had a reservation at The View Hotel in Monument Valley tribal park, which ended up being worth every penny of the high $250/night price tag. It was our one big hotel splurge of the trip.
*Note: The View Hotel is inside the Navajo Tribal park and requires a $20 entrance fee per vehicle for up to two days. This isn’t included in the price of the room.
The View Hotel is aptly named, as every room has a balcony and a panoramic view of the iconic “Mittens,” The two buttes in the valley that look like right and left hand mittens. It was a stunning view, and my number one plan was to drink some wine on the balcony ad watch the sunset all evening.
*Note about wine/alcohol: The Navajo Nation does not permit the sale of alcohol, so no alcohol can be bought anywhere near or at the hotel. There isn’t a rule against bringing your own and drinking it in your room, however. If you plan on having adult beverages and enjoying the sunset like we did, be sure to stock up beforehand and bring your own. Each room is equipped with a fridge.
The View Hotel has a restaurant, with halfway decent prices and solidly mediocre food. The food isn’t bad, but it’s on par with good cafeteria food. That being said, it is convenient and the view from the restaurant is stunning. If you want to come here just for dinner and are staying elsewhere, be aware that the restaurant only serves hotel guests after 7:00 PM.
We decided to share the Navajo Sampler platter and the fried chicken dinner. The Navajo Sampler platter actually has enough food for two people, and we ended up with leftovers (good thing our room had a fridge). The sampler consisted of Green Chili Stew (be warned, it’s spicy), Red Chili Posole, Sheep Camp Mutton Stew, a mini Navajo fry bread taco, and Navajo fry bread with honey.
We highly recommend getting the Navajo tea, it was delicious. They also sell it in the gift shop.
After dinner, it was sunset and wine time. It was everything I’d hoped it would be. The View Hotel faces east, so while you can’t see the sun going down over the buttes, the sunlight from the setting sun in the west illuminates the buttes in a gorgeous red-orange light. The photos I took can’t do it justice.
Once it was dark, the hotel showed an outdoor John Wayne movie outside the restaurant, projected onto the wall of the building.
We didn’t stay up late enough to watch the stars come out, but I did wake up in the middle of the night and went outside and looked at them. It was a surreal glitter display over the dark shadows of the buttes.
We did set our alarms for the sunrise, however. Trust me, it’s worth it.
Sunrise over Monument Valley, seen from the balcony in our room:
Monument Valley was the highlight of our entire road trip. We were sad to leave and wished we’d had another day to go on the slow dirt-road drive through the valley or go on a guided tour with a Navajo guide. I think we’ll be back though. It is a truly magical place.
We had breakfast a 10 minute drive away at Goulding’s Stagecoach. The breakfast there was outstanding, we both had their signature dish of Navajo fry bread huevos rancheros with green chili. We recommend skipping the View Hotel breakfast and coming here. Had we stayed a second night, we would have come back to Goulding’s for dinner as well.
After breakfast we drove around for a little bit to get some photos, and stopped at a Navajo handicraft stand to buy some souvenirs. We wanted to buy directly from the local Navajo people instead of the hotel gift shop.
The best roadside photos of the Valley are taken on the Utah side facing south. There are many pull-outs along the highway 163 to top and take a picture from.
Our next destination was Moab, where we planned on staying for two nights. The drive was only 2.5 hours and fairly scenic. On the way into town we passed Church Rock and Wilson Arch.
We checked into the Inca Inn, a budget hotel that prides itself on “budget done right.” I’d have to say that we agree. The rooms are small but very clean, beds comfy, the towels weren’t sandpaper, there was a minimal complimentary continental breakfast and Starbucks coffee provided, and a small swimming pool. In addition, they care about the environment. The roof was lined with solar panels and there were prominent recycling bins in the parking lot. Rooms also include fridges and microwaves.
The bonus we discovered in our room the following morning: Disco shower.
We checked into the hotel and then walked around town a bit. Moab was HOT. It was in the 90’s, and although it was a dry heat the sun beat down on us.
Moab is a liberal, youthful outdoor adventure town. It is situated on the Colorado River and in very close proximity to Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. The area is very popular with rock climbers and river rafters, and is very busy in the summer. Be sure to make your hotel reservations in advance for the summer season.
Around 4:30 we took an air-conditioned drive through Arches National Park. Arches was my favorite National Park that my friend and I visited on our road trip in 2004, and I’d always wanted to go back. There are some pretty cool day hikes in the park, but if you want to hike in the summer I would recommend going at dawn when it is not so hot and the crowds are less. Take lots of water with you.
The rock formations in Arches National Park are like no other I’ve seen anywhere else. The natural sandstone formations are created from wind and rain soil erosion. The park is home to the largest amount of natural rock arches in the world. Read more about how they are formed here.
Evening is a good time to drive through the park, as the low sun sets the red sandstone ablaze with orange light, creating some dramatic photo opportunities.
The most famous arch in the park is the Delicate Arch. You can see it from walking a very short trail from the parking lot, but it is pretty far away. To reach the arch, you have to hike a three mile round trip trail up the sandstone rock ledge, which can be a fairly strenuous hike–especially in high heat. We opted to just get a photo from the view point with a zoom lens and call it good.
If you just want to drive through the park and check out the viewpoints, allow about two hours or so. Allow a half day if you want to get out and do some short hikes. Take lots of water with you and wear sunscreen.
When we arrived back at our hotel, we were starving. The hotel front desk guy had recommended La Hacienda Mexican restaurant right next door, so we checked it out. It was very good. Great atmosphere, nice booths, and an extensive margarita menu. The sweet barbacoa pork is highly recommended.
Friday was our only day with no driving to a different location, so we took it easy. We started the day with some sight seeing in Canyonlands National Park. Canyonlands has two main entrances, Island in the Sky and Needles. Island in the Sky is about 30 minutes north of Moab, and Needles is about an hour south of Moab and then another 45 minutes northwest. We opted to just go to the Island in the Sky portion of the park.
There are many overlooks from the “Island,” as well as several hiking trails. We did the extremely short and extremely popular half mile round-trip hike to Mesa Arch. It is an easy hike with stunning views. You’ll have to take your turn for photos at the arch, unless you want to get there really early.
We checked out some more overlooks, and then headed back to Moab. Overall including the short Mesa Arch hike we spent about three hours there. If you have more time, you can also check out Dead Horse Point State Park on the way in or out of Island in the Sky. We opted to skip it on this trip, but I went with my friend in 2004 and it does have nice views.
Back in Moab, we ate lunch at the Moab Brewery on the south side of the main drag through town. Their beers were a little hoppy for my taste, but the salads and chicken wings were excellent. We also tried a cup each of their beer and cheese soup, but it was a lot more like cheese fondue than soup. Skip the beer cheese soup.
We spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing back at the hotel and enjoying our day of not driving. The pool didn’t have umbrellas, but at around 3:30 there was enough shade in the corner of the pool area for me to sit and enjoy myself without feeling like I was in an oven. The water was refreshing.
That evening we went for dinner at the Sunset Grill. The main reason to eat at the Sunset Grill is the view. Perched high on the cliff overlooking the north part of town, The Sunset Grill is the former home of Charlie Steen, who came to Moab in the 1950’s in search of uranium and struck it rich.
The food was decent, and the service was great. It was a bit of a splurge dinner as entrees run around $25-$32 each, but they come with a choice of soup or salad and fresh baked bread or cornbread muffins. We just had an entree each and it was more than enough food. I wouldn’t come back here just for the food, but the view and good service made the experience one we would definitely recommend.
Saturday was the last day of our road trip and we had a long 6 hour drive back to Denver. We got an early morning start at 7:00 AM, and took a detour to Woody Creek for lunch.
Woody Creek is a small town near Aspen, Colorado and the home of of the late writer Hunter S Thompson. Paddy is a huge Thompson fan, and so we had to go check it out.
Hunter S Thompson had a large property called Owl Farm in Woody Creek, but we didn’t know exactly where it was. Google Maps led us down Owl Creek Road in Aspen but all we found was some nice farm scenery.
After touring the Aspen countryside, we went for lunch at Hunter’s favorite watering hole, the Woody Creek Tavern. We got there pretty soon after it opened and Hunter’s favorite corner table was available. Paddy was stoked.
The food was good and the people were friendly. It seemed to be a popular lunch spot for bicycle tourists in the area.
After lunch, we drove the last three and a half hours to Denver, where we were staying our last night with our friends Sean and Lillian at their apartment.
We didn’t have a whole lot of time in Denver, just enough time to get some dinner and go out for a few drinks. Sean and Lillian took us to Ace Eat Serve, an Asian fusion restaurant with house-made sodas and a room full of ping pong tables.
We shared the shumai and the kimchi fritters to start, which were delicious. I had the Shoyu Ramen and Paddy had the Bulgogi (Korean dish with marinated ribeye steak and kimchi). Everything was fantastic and flavorful and pretty reasonably priced. The cocktails were expensive, but that’s to be expected. They make all their own kimchi and pickles in house, and they were outstanding. I couldn’t stop picking the radish kimchi off of Paddy’s plate.
After dinner we walked over to Colfax Avenue, a main drag in Denver with ample nightlife. Lillian and Sean took us to the Nob Hill Inn bar for more drinks. Nob Hill has been a Denver institution since 1954, and the furniture and decor don’t look like it has changed much since then. Drinks were cheap. I think if we lived in Denver it would be a favorite spot of ours.
We ended our (not so late) evening at Charlies, a gay cowboy bar with line dancing lessons. We figured we should give line dancing a shot. It was a $5.00 cover, and the evening was young so it was not very crowded yet. A very nice and very patient line dancing instructor invited newbies in to learn the basic “Freeze,” which he said is similar to the Electric Slide disco dance of the 70’s. It kind of reminded me of basic aerobics to country music. We weren’t the most coordinated people in the group, but it was fun. Afterward the dance instructor came over to our table and gave us free drink coupons. Bonus!
They did some more advanced dances afterward and we were impressed with the quick-stepping talent on the floor. It looked like a lot of fun. I’d try it again.
Our road trip around Colorado and Utah was quick and pretty fast-paced, but it was fun. I wished we’d had more time at each place we visited. I really want to go back to Monument Valley again and spend some more time there exploring the Valley. Colorado and Utah are very different and very beautiful states, each with a lot of different things to offer. We’d love to spend more time in Denver as well.