For most of my first 10 years as a parent, I had fastidiously avoided the classic American travel trope known as the car trip. It’s not that I don’t enjoy a good long stretch in the front seat, staring out the window at new vistas or belting out ’80s pop lyrics at the top of my lungs with the windows down. I love car trips. I just wasn’t sure if my children would be as enthusiastic. The vision of long hours riding together, handing crackers to my beloved progeny every 15 minutes while I answered the dreaded “Are we there yet?” didn’t inspire me to plan a trip that required us to travel long distances in the car.
That is, not until last spring, when I realized that my children—Hadley and Harrison, who were finishing fourth and first grades, respectively—had a relatively limited view of Colorado. We live in Denver. We hike in the foothills. We ski on the mountains along I-70. So it was no wonder they had no idea about the Centennial State’s other highlights.
“What if,” I said to my husband, Jason, one spring night, “we took the kids on a Colorado road trip this summer?” He was up for it, so we whipped up an itinerary that met two criteria: We could get to each stop in fewer than four hours—with the exception of one unavoidable long day—and we would trek to places our children hadn’t already seen. The goals: Give our kids a sense of the wonder of Colorado, and enjoy our time together.
We booked our trip for the first week in June—only because it worked best for our family’s schedule. But it turned out to be a boon for pricing. Many of the places we stayed offered lower lodging rates than the fees for staying in the height of summer, and we avoided the crowds.
So on the first Sunday in June, we loaded up the car—an assortment of carbohydrates at the ready—and zipped out of town on our first real family road trip. Here’s how it went.
Stop 1: Mount Princeton Hot Springs Resort
Drive time: 2 hours, 15 minutes
125 miles, 2 nights
My mother, a retired elementary-school teacher with spot-on instincts for what delights children, had gotten each of the kids a map of Colorado and highlighted our route. She’d also bought two spiral-bound notebooks and written simple notes to the kids with activities. She listed the little towns along 285 and told the kids to check them off as we passed through these blips on the map. She made a note about Kenosha Pass and its views and asked the kids to tally how many pickup trucks, herds of cattle, and other animals they spied. Hadley and Harrison loved the activities. The notebooks kept the kids so entertained that they didn’t even ask for more screen time.
We rolled into Mount Princeton Hot Springs Resort mid-afternoon and checked in. The resort has several different lodging options that range from full-fledged cabins with up to two bedrooms and a loft to hotel-like rooms in the main lodge. We stayed in a two-bed room in the Creekside Suites, which includes a small kitchenette with a stove top, microwave, and refrigerator. (The suites are a short drive from the main lodge and the pools.)
Staying at the resort entitles guests access to the resorts’ pools and hot springs—though in early June, the Creekside Hot Springs in the Chalk Creek were closed because the substantial snow runoff made the flow too high (and too chilly). No matter: We spent two-and-a-half satisfying days in the Upper Pool, zipping down the rushing water on a 400-foot water slide with views of the Collegiate Peaks. That felt like a solid introduction to the wonders of Colorado beyond the Front Range.
- If you have room in the car, pack breakfast and lunch supplies for this portion of your trip. Also consider bringing extra towels from home. While the pool has towels available (one per person), with all of the hopping in and out of the pool for snack breaks, we could have used a few extra dry towels.
- Grab dinner at the resort’s Mary Murphy Steak House, which serves up—you guessed it—steakhouse fare. Maybe we were all just famished by our days swimming and sliding, but every one of us gobbled up our meals. (Bonus: The kids meals come with fresh vegetables.)
- Zip into Buena Vista’s charming River Park, adjacent to the Arkansas River. The morning we were there, we saw kayakers paddling down the river, and our kids played on the giant climbing rock—an ideal way to get out the wiggles before heading to our next destination.
Stop 2: Telluride
Drive time: 4 hours
212 miles, 2 nights
I confess that my main motivations for visiting Telluride were: one, my deep fondness for its charm, and two, my anticipation at seeing our kids’ faces on the free gondola ride that shuttles people eight miles from the Mountain Village into the town of Telluride, tucked in a box canyon. But because we really did want our kids to expand their understanding of Colorado, we used our visit to Telluride to talk about the state’s mining history and how the arrival of the railroad (which happened in 1890) transformed the town. (You can find good basic history at telluride-co.gov.)
We stayed at The Peaks Resort & Spa in Mountain Village (a lovely, family-friendly hotel with an outdoor pool and—wait for it—an indoor waterslide!) and spent our days exploring the town of Telluride. One morning we hiked the Bear Creek Falls Trail, which is a five-mile round-trip trek to the falls. We didn’t reach the falls because, about three-quarters of the way up, we came across the aftermath of an avalanche: downed aspens and conifers that looked like they’d been snapped at the base by giants. It was a spectacular, sobering, and fascinating sight that our kids have mentioned countless times since. For a lighter bit of fun, we also visited the town’s beloved Wilkinson Public Library and wandered along Colorado Avenue with treats from Telluride Truffle.
- Because early June isn’t yet high season, the restaurants weren’t very busy, but still, arrive early at Brown Dog Pizza, which is a local favorite. Kids can make their own pizzas (the server brings dough, cheese, marinara, and toppings, if you like), and adults will find the Detroit-style square pizzas satisfying.
- At 9,078 feet, Telluride’s airport is reportedly the highest-elevation commercial airport in America. Keep your eyes peeled for planes taking off and landing. (We spotted a few from the gondola ride!)
Stop 3: Mesa Verde National Park and Cortez
Drive time: 2 hours
96 miles, 2 nights
One of the truths of travel that I hope our children learn is the Hobbit-esque fact that you just never know what you’ll find once you leave home. In late May, an 8.5 million-pound boulder slid from the ridge above Highway 145 between Telluride and Cortez and landed on the road, so we set out from Telluride toward our final destination with some trepidation (me) and thrilled anticipation (them) about spotting this giant obstacle, which was indeed an impressive site.
We arrived safely in Cortez in time for an early dinner at The Farm Bistro and a grocery stop to gather supplies before the 30-minute drive to our cabin at the Canyon of the Ancients Guest Ranch. The working ranch’s half-dozen cabins are sprinkled across a couple thousand acres of property, and when we pulled up to ours, a small herd of cattle were grazing just outside it. (“Are those ours?” our son whispered.) We watched the sunset from our porch and then meandered into the cabin’s gorgeously appointed interiors for much-needed sleep.
We spent the next day at Mesa Verde National Park, which preserves the archaeological history and cliff dwellings of the Ancestral Pueblo people who lived in this area from 600 to 1300 AD. I figured the kids would be mildly interested, but I was wrong: They were captivated. We started at the visitors’ center, where exhibits (most of them easy enough for our six-year-old to read) gave us all a helpful introduction to the Ancestral Puebloan culture and story. The kids also got their Junior Ranger booklet. They spent the day recording information they learned before showing it to a ranger and taking a solemn oath to protect America’s national parks and green space. From there, we drove up the 21-mile road to the actual sites.
The park materials provide great guidance on how to view all of the cliff dwellings and learn about the native peoples’ history, which we followed. The highlight of the day was a guided tour of a cliff dwelling called Balcony House, which includes climbing a 32-foot ladder, squeezing through a narrow 12-foot tunnel on your hands and knees, and scaling some steep stone steps. (Our children declared it “totally awesome!”) Also in the “don’t miss” category: the Mesa Top Loop, which distills 700 years of Mesa Verde history, and the Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum’s film about the people and the geography of this area.
We left the park around 5 p.m., weary and delighted. We grilled burgers on the cabin’s back porch (for which our son insisted we apologize to the cows) and chatted casually about the various theories of why the Ancient Puebloans left the cliff dwellings. All in all, it was a near-perfect day.
- Fourth-graders in the United States get free national park passes. (Get your child’s at everykidinapark.gov.) Our daughter loved that she “paid the way” for her family’s day at Mesa Verde.
- Take lunch! There aren’t a lot of dining options in the park, but there are ample spots for great picnicking.
- Do a tour of the cliff dwellings. Sign up early at the visitors’ center or online because they fill up fast, especially in the height of summer travel.
Stop 3.5: Four Corners Monument
Drive time: 55 minutes
On our drive, I might have whispered to Jason that we were encountering the Western version of “Deliverance.” The road is what you might call “less traveled”; the landscape, barren. But Harrison couldn’t stop talking about the sheer thrill of putting his hands and feet in four different states. “Just wait til I tell my class that I was in Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Arizona all at the same time!” he kept saying. What’s a mom to do with that kind of enthusiasm but oblige?
The monument is owned by the Navajo Nation and circled by stalls where artisans sell native artwork and crafts. The area has a desolate kind of beauty, which we took in while waiting for our turn to take a photo on the circle that indicates the spot the states touch. There’s not much to do after securing the proof that we were, indeed, there, and admiring the goods for sale, so we shuffled back to the car and started our drive home.
- The entry fee is $10 per person from March 1 to September 30 (children six and under are free), which made this a pricier-than-I-had-anticipated one-hour stop.
- Definitely buy Navajo fry bread from the cart adjacent to the stalls. Go for the powdered sugar on top, too.
Stop 4: Home
Drive time: an eternity, also known as about 9 hours
What can I say? We had driven to the far southwestern corner of Colorado, so we had a long trek home. (We chose the path up through the eastern edge of Utah so we could take in the red rock formations and avoid backtracking to vistas we’d already seen.)
The four of us did our best with games (which deteriorated into the achingly dull game of “guess the number I’m thinking of between 1 and 50”) until it seemed prudent for us all if the kids watched a movie…and then another. We ate a lot of snacks, admired the moonscape of eastern Utah, and cheered when we finally got on I-70 heading east toward Denver.
And even in those last anguished miles when we all just wanted to be out of the car, I knew we’d had the kind of magical trip I’d hoped for. I thought about the times Hadley or Harrison would cry out, “Is this still Colorado?” as we passed through the San Juans or watched the sheep from our cabin porch, or the in-depth chat they had about whether they’d ever want to live in a cliff dwelling and for how long. We pulled into the garage, tired but satisfied, and Hadley piped up: “That was awesome. Next year, Moab?”