AAA Travel Tips / AAA's Favorite Southern Rocky Mountain Road Trips

AAA's Favorite Southern Rocky Mountain Road Trips

RobertWaltman/iStockphoto.com
By AAA Travel Editors
June 17, 2020
The Southern Rockies have been blessed with some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world ranging from alpine meadows beneath snow-capped peaks to red rock canyons to remarkable sandstone formations you won’t see anywhere else. It’s a region that is nothing short of inspirational. After all, Katharine Lee Bates wrote “American the Beautiful” after her visit. Imagine what feelings these “purple mountain majesties” might inspire in you.
Rocky Mountain National Park DTX 519900
Estes Park Convention & Visitors Bureau

Which States are in the Southern Rocky Mountains?

Although technically the Southern Rockies stretch from northern New Mexico into southern Wyoming, this portion of the immense Rocky Mountain system falls mainly within two states:
• Colorado
• Utah
AAA’s Southern Rocky Mountain Road Trips focuses on these states. For road trips in other parts of the Rocky Mountains, see Northern Rockies Road Trips.
San Juan Skyway in Colorado
flickr / CC BY /daveynin

Try Out These Excellent Scenic Road Trips from Denver

The Mile High City is literally a mile above sea level, yet despite its lofty elevation, Denver isn’t actually in the mountains. Drivers heading west from the city, however, quickly find themselves in the foothills of the Front Range and ascending ever higher into the breathtaking Southern Rockies.
Covering nearly 900 miles, this lengthy but amazing road trip ties together some of Colorado’s most spectacular mountain scenery including the popular 232-mile high-altitude loop known as the San Juan Skyway. Beginning in Denver, the route follows surprisingly scenic I-70 to Grand Junction by way of the Eisenhower Memorial Tunnel, which is more than 11,000 feet above sea level.
Once you reach the San Juan Skyway at Ridgway, this road trip really reaches for the stars, with many of the surrounding peaks exceeding 13,000 feet. As you drive, you’re treated to breathtaking vistas that include ponderosa pine forests, picturesque rock formations and jagged ridgelines reflected in deep blue lakes.
Beyond the San Juan Skyway, the route takes you to Colorado Springs by way of US 50, and into Curecanti National Recreation Area. Here you can take a break for photos along the shores of Blue Mesa Reservoir, one of the largest lakes in Colorado.
Beginning in cosmopolitan Denver with all its urban diversions and fun things to do, this road trip follows scenic US 36 through Boulder to Estes Park, gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park. Another trip you might be interested in is AAA’s Trail Ridge Scenic Road, the national park’s main road. Winding 62 miles along mountainsides and crossing the Continental Divide, the incredibly scenic byway is lined with pullouts for your picture-taking pleasure.
From Estes Park to Nederland, the route includes the Peak to Peak Highway, one of the state’s oldest scenic byways and one of the best places to enjoy autumn colors thanks to the glorious aspen trees that line the way. (For another fantastic trip that covers a portion of this same route, read Peak to Peak Scenic Byway: Lyons to Estes Park.)
The road trip ends in Boulder, where Pearl Street offers a pedestrian-friendly place to shop in quirky stores and fashionable boutiques as well as sample a wide variety of cuisines. Visible from Pearl Street, the nearby Flatirons are a series of slanted sandstone formations accessible via hiking trails that offer yet another way to experience the Centennial State’s rugged beauty.
Both of these road trips depart from Denver and head west into the mountains, visiting some of the state’s most famous ski resorts. Aspen, Breckenridge, Steamboat Springs, Vail, Winter Park are all cold weather playgrounds you’re likely to have heard of, whether you’re a skier or a snowboarder or just someone who loves curling up by a fire in comfy lodges or soaking in hot tubs or mineral springs on a snowy day. Of course it goes without saying that the drives themselves serve up some amazing mountain scenery that includes former mining towns, swift-flowing rivers popular for white-water rafting and snow-capped mountain crags.
If you’re looking for thrilling high-elevation driving, then this is the route for you. This trip departs Denver heading southwest along the Rocky Mountain Front Range into areas that are both rugged and sometimes desolate. You’ll see lush meadows, dry plateaus and soaring peaks as you navigate this forbidding but awesome territory. Among the highlights are Royal Gorge Bridge and Park near Cañon City where you can stroll along a suspension bridge spanning 1,200-foot-deep Royal Gorge, and if you’re really adventurous you can even zipline across the chasm.
rocky mountain national park
beklaus/iStockphoto.com

Experience These Outstanding National Park Road Trips in Colorado

Colorado’s national parks and monuments preserve some of America’s most unforgettable scenery, and while many of AAA’s road trips take you high up into the Rockies, some show off a different side of the Centennial State’s natural beauty: the dry canyons and plateaus that bring to mind romantic images from old cowboy films.
Winding inside Mesa Verde National Park atop a semiarid plateau, this scenic byway ends in two loop roads with overlooks that let you peer over the canyon edge to see amazing cliff dwellings. Tucked under natural overhangs, these villages made of stone, mortar and plaster were built hundreds of years ago by the Ancestral Pueblo People.
The rugged beauty of the American West is on magnificent display along this scenic byway in Colorado National Monument that leads travelers through a landscape of weather-sculpted rock formations and red-walled canyons. As the road passes through tunnels and loops by overlooks, it reveals breathtaking views that include such landmarks as Independence Monument, a sandstone monolith rising 450 feet into the air.
Happy family hiking together in the beautiful rock formations of Arches National Park
iStockphoto.com/Yobro10

Road Trips That Explore Utah’s Scenic National Parks

Utah has more national parks than nearly any other state, and once you’ve visited, you’ll know why. The Beehive State’s protected places are filled with stunning scenery that includes natural rock arches, narrow red rock canyons and cliff faces that have been sculpted by wind and rain into otherworldly shapes.
If you’re serious about getting to know Utah’s diverse landscapes, this road trip is just what the doctor ordered, although you’ll need several days to complete the more than 1,000-mile journey. Leaving behind Salt Lake City and climbing out of the Great Basin into the high desert country of the Colorado Plateau, this route leads you to the front gates of no fewer than seven national parks and monuments: Arches National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, Canyonlands National Park, Capitol Reef National Park, Cedar Breaks National Monument, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and Zion National Park.
This park road climbs to the top of a mesa where you’ll find a wonderland of eroded sandstone formations—fins, spires and balanced rocks in addition to the thousands of arches that the park is justly famous for. You can get an idea what sights you’ll see just by reading the names: Double Arch, Delicate Arch, Turret Arch and the North Window.
Although this byway runs 57 miles from I-10 to US 89 with every mile treating visitors to pretty desert scenery, the highlight is without a question the segment leading into Zion National Park and then up through the mile-long Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel into a surreal landscape of colorful slickrock. It’s here you’ll encounter Checkerboard Mesa, an unusual sandstone outcropping crisscrossed with fissures.
Domestic Travel Boiler Plate Graphic
AAA

Start Your Next Vacation with AAA

AAA Travel provides peace of mind for travelers—from the first mile of the journey to the last. Get inspiration for your next road trip with AAA’s TripTik Travel Planner, or browse pre-planned itineraries on AAA.com/RoadTrips. Estimating fuel costs for your trip is easy with the AAA Gas Cost Calculator, and if your car needs a quick tune-up before the trip, find a AAA Approved auto repair facility near you at AAA.com/AutoRepair. For printed maps, AAA TourBook guides and trip planning advice, visit your local AAA office.
X