The Ultimate Colorado Road Trip: Explore the Best of the Southwest Driving from Denver to Albuquerque

Teeming with views, hues, and sunshine for days, the Southwest was made for road trips. Desertscapes beckon as cactuses and towering rock formations make you feel small and slightly insignificant. Open roads tempt with possibilities and the need for speed. It’s the place to explore with loose itineraries and plenty of time for open-ended side trips that promise you’ll get woefully lost in the right direction. You could spend anywhere from a few days to a few weeks exploring this Colorado road trip route, which in totality is only about eight hours of driving (6.5 if you go directly from Denver to Albuquerque).

Grab your best co-pilot, pack the snacks, roll down the windows, crank up the tunes, and get pump the breaks for adventure.

Denver

Denver has this weird stigma that people think it’s a great place to live for the work-life balance, but as a vacation destination, it’s a bit of overlooked. There’s this assumption that people just breeze through for easy access to the mountains, but if you have a few days to explore, there’s plenty to do, see and eat in the Mile High. A real neighborhoody kind of city, peruse the street art (murals and sculptures), toss back a pint, rent a bike, and post up on one of the many rooftops. Denver’s celebrated for it’s access to the outdoors, craft beer scene, indie music, and of course, being the first state to embrace legal weed (which is more normalized than you may think). Must-see spots include Red Rocks, the most acoustically perfect amphitheater in the world and the revamped Union Station (eat at Tavernetta or Mercantile). For specific summer must-dos, check out my recommendations here.

Colorado Springs (Denver to Colorado Springs – 1 hour)

Colorado’s second-largest city, Colorado Springs is a southern stop with epic views of Pike’s Peak. Garden of the Gods has been called a biological melting pot and claims the spot as TripAdvisor’s top-rated park in the US. With more than 15-miles of trails, the National Natural Landmark is totally free and a great place to stretch your legs. If you’re looking to test your stamina a little more, the Manitou Incline is no joke. With 2,000 feet of elevation gain in under a mile, it’s a famously challenging trail popular with elite athletes and those with a high level of fitness. When you’re ready to cool off, neighboring Manitou Springs is a laid-back, bohemian town full of boutiques, cafes and art galleries. Don’t miss the Manitou Cliff Dwelling Museum as your first real taste of Native American architecture.

Pueblo (Colorado Springs – Pueblo – 45 minutes)

One of the last big cities in Southern Colorado, Pueblo is a jumping off point to hit Great Sand Dunes National Park (a two-hour detour near Alamosa). You can catch a movie at the Mesa Drive-in and you don’t miss a quirky detour to the bizarre roadside attraction, Bishop Castle.

Taos (Pueblo – Taos – 3 hours)

Mostly known as a ski resort town, Taos has plenty to offer in the warmer months, as well. The Taos Pueblo is a 1,000+-year-old adobe community and the only living Native American community that’s designated both a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a National Historic Landmark. You’ll also want to pay a visit to the Ghost Ranch, home to the epic landscapes that inspired Georgia O’Keefe. The area is rich with natural hot springs if you need to soak it out. For a retro photo op, pop by the Embudo Classic Gas Museum on your way out of town.

Santa Fe (Taos – Santa Fe – 1.5 hours)

A vibrant city that embodies everything you love about the southwest, Santa Fe feels like the place you want to snowbird and retire – no matter what age you are. The downtown is centered around Santa Fe Plaza, a hustling and bustling gathering spot for over 400 years where outdoor markets and festivals are regularly held here. There are guided tram tours or free walking tours of downtown that’ll give you an introduction to Native American art and culture. Don’t miss El Santuario Chimayo, a holy site that’s as beautiful as it is photogenic, and Meow Wolf, a truly unique attraction that’s best described as immersive art meets murder mystery meets escape room.
Albuquerque (Santa Fe – Albuquerque – 1 hour)

The drive from Santa Fe to Albuquerque is part of the iconic Route 66 so take it in and marinate on how many people have followed this historic route before you. Get lost in the alleys and side streets of Old Town Albuquerque wandering the adobo buildings and colorful strands of flowers and chilies (central downtown is as modern as it gets). Music permeates the air and the sights, sounds, and smells are sensory overloads in all the right ways. Outdoorsy detours include the towering Kashu-Katuwe Tent Rocks or make it a lake day at Shady Lakes and Waterlily Gardens. If you can, plan your trip around the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, the most photographed event in the world. If you’re looking to head even further afield, Ruidoso is another great Southern New Mexico gem with stops at White Sands National Monument and Bosque del Apache Nature Reserve along the way.

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