Road Trip: Denver to Glenwood Springs
For many around the country who have been dealing with months of freezing temperatures, tough driving conditions, and/or days with fewer overall hours of sunshine – summer cannot come soon enough.
Officially, the first day of summer will arrive with the solstice on Tuesday, June 21. However, in Colorado, the snow is already succumbing to reveal green grasses with colorful fields of wildflowers expected in the coming weeks. The trees are in various stages of bloom, and the rivers and lakes are starting to fill up with the clear cold water, currently making their way down from sources high in the Rocky Mountains.
With the temperatures continuing to warm up after a beautiful but long winter, the time for summer – and all of the potential to explore new roads and possibilities – is now. That means different things to different people, but for those looking for the ultimate in freedom and adventure, it means one thing – ‘ROAD TRIP’!
When planning a road trip, or at least thinking about where to go this summer, the road to the perfect escape can seem long. But a Denver road trip through the heart of the Rockies to Glenwood Springs in Western Colorado can be the ideal way for casual travelers and the more adventurous to get the most out of their time and money. Travelers can expect pristine views that include roadside waterfalls, rugged peaks, diverse landscapes, and endless possibilities of things to see and do along the way.
The Ultimate Denver Road Trip: Denver to Glenwood Springs
For the trip west from Denver to Glenwood Springs (or beyond), the journey is rather straightforward. From the airport, you travel along the I-70 for about 180 miles, which will take around 3 hours if driving straight through. However, the trip can be as direct or as indirect as you want, depending on how much time you have, the season, and your interests/planned activities.
If you have never been to Denver and have just flown in, you may think that the Rocky Mountains should be ‘rockier’… The good news is that they will be after a short-ish (depending on traffic) 35-mile drive on I-70 from Denver International Airport to the city of Golden, where you will begin your ascent into the mountains. The voyage from the airport on the interstate passes along the northern downtown Denver area, which can be congested at normal rush hour times, but it is the most direct way to get into the mountains.
Must-see Stops Along the Road Trip From Denver to Glenwood Springs
Red Rocks Park and Amphitheater
Because of its proximity to Denver, not including Red Rocks Amphitheater on a road trip itinerary from Denver to Glenwood Springs is a little like saying that you’re going to get away for the weekend to go on an incredible camping trip and then setting up a tent in the neighbor’s backyard… An epic road trip needs to include epic music, and Red Rocks is about as good as it gets when it comes to live music venues.
Red Rocks is in the town of Morrison, located 15-20 miles west of downtown Denver, and is a short distance off the interstate right before you begin your ascent into the mountains. As you begin your Denver road trip, it’s worth checking their event calendar before getting completely out of town. If there is not an event, it is still worth a visit. The monolithic walls tower 300’ above the stage and stand as evidence of ancient seas that rose and fell over millions of years. Nearby there is further proof of the amphitheater’s early history where dinosaur tracks and fossils have been found – including remnants of the sea-faring plesiosaurus. This is a magical place where giants from the past once roamed, and the musical giants of today have blended together to help create the mystique and legacy that Red Rocks is famous for.
Pro Tip: The park is open one hour before sunrise and one hour after sunset on non-event days. Taking a hike up the 193 steps inside the amphitheater is a good way to take in some impressive early road trip views, as well as getting some movement in before the rest of your drive – gotta get those steps in!
If you’re the type to stop and smell the flowers, or at least drive slowly by them with your windows rolled down, another great opportunity for a worthwhile side trip is in the city of Golden. This is the home of the historic Coors Brewery where tours of the brewery and cold beer brewed with pure Rocky Mountain spring water are offered. Or, if you’re into cool, wild west history and spectacular views conveniently located in the same place, a trip up nearby Lookout Mountain is a worthwhile detour, and it’s not too far off the path.
To get there from I-70, take exit 256, a short distance west of the town of Golden. From there, you travel about 3 miles up South Lookout Mountain Road to the top. Once you arrive at the top of the mountain, you will find the Buffalo Bill Museum AND stunning views of the greater Denver area. Buffalo Bill was an iconic figure in the American West. Before his passing in 1917, he had requested that he be buried on top of Lookout Mountain, overlooking the Denver area and surrounding plains. The museum was built around his gravesite, and the views of the area from the overlook at 7,375’ are unmatched.
If time – and time of the year are not factors, a trip up the Mt. Evans Scenic Byway to the top of the 14,264’ peak should be on your list of ‘must-dos’ on your journey west. The drive up this ‘fourteener’ has the distinction of being the highest paved road in North America. As such, if your road trip has an adventurous itinerary, it also has the distinction of hosting the highest road race in North America, typically held in late June. Be advised that due to snowpack on the road and other factors, the scenic byway is not typically open until the first part of June.
To get there on I-70 from Denver, travel west to exit 240 in the town of Idaho Springs (yes, you’re still in Colorado), which is only about 33 miles and should take around 40 minutes. Idaho Springs is a pretty cool town in its own right. You can see a lot of neat history from the height of the gold rush on both sides of the highway and throughout the town. You can also find some good places to eat and drink, including Tommy Knockers Brewery and Smokin’ Yard’s BBQ. You can choose to have a bite and/or a drink in town or take some food to go. There will be some great places to have a picnic along the way.
As the journey up the mountain continues, you will take an approximately 27-mile trip up the CO-5 South to almost the top. The road goes up to a parking lot situated around 14,160’ in elevation. But to get to the actual top of Mt. Evans to earn the bragging rights of bagging a 14’er, you will need to hike the 0.6-mile summit trail, gaining around 104 more vertical feet. Need more convincing it is worth the time and effort? Here is a ‘sneak-peak’ of the view from the top.
However, while the destination is something to behold, a mindful approach on your way up may reveal some hidden and not-so-hidden gems. Along the way, you will encounter several opportunities to take a break and take in the views that include the stunning Echo Lake, which sits around 10,600’. This is a great place for lunch or to stretch your legs. Continuing about 3 miles on the road above the lake, there is an alpine garden where you can see 1,700-year-old Bristlecone Pines, the oldest living things on earth. If you want to break up the drive, you can take a hike on the Mount Goliath Trail, which takes you across the open tundra and where you will be among fields of vibrant wildflowers. The road up is windy, and you should keep your eyes on it, but additionally, you should keep your eyes peeled for frequently seen bighorn sheep, ermines, pika, and Rocky Mountain goats.
Pro Tip: You will need to make reservations to do this scenic byway, so if you plan to incorporate this into your trip, plan accordingly.
East of the Divide…
As you continue traveling west along the interstate towards Western Colorado, you will eventually pass through the Eisenhower Memorial Tunnel, which spans the Continental Divide. When it was opened in the 1970s, the tunnel was once the highest vehicular tunnel in the world. There have since been higher that have been built in other parts of the world, but it still maintains its title as the highest vehicular tunnel in North America. The historically profound tunnel is about 60 miles from Denver and is just under 2 miles long. So, if you’re traveling 60mph, plan on holding your breath through the tunnel for roughly 2 minutes. If you’re not quite there, Google “Wimhoff” for some breathing techniques to help you out for your return trip through the eastbound tunnel.
Once you travel through the tunnel in the western direction, you will begin descending toward the town of Silverthorne. The (almost exact) halfway point between Denver and Glenwood Springs is a few more miles west at Copper Mountain. But Silverthorne offers one of the best chances along the way for food and gas and also has some great hiking trails and a large reservoir called Dillon Reservoir. The town also has a large outlet store complex where you can pick up anything you need or have forgotten.
Dillon Reservoir is a large 3,233-acre body of water with 26.8 miles of shoreline. The reservoir is a great place to fish, swim, boat, or sail and has a marina in nearby Dillon, where you can rent a pontoon boat, sailboat, or other watercraft. There are also great opportunities in the area for biking, hiking, or walking around, including a stretch of the reservoir’s trail system with a little over 7 miles of pavement for road bikers. If you need to stretch your legs, one popular trail easily accessible is the Old Dillon Reservoir Trail, located near Heaton Bay Campground. This short, laidback trail offers amazing views of the Tenmile Range and the Continental Divide. If you’re not in a hurry or left Denver a little late, the reservoir also has several campgrounds. Heaton Bay Campground is the closest to town and the interstate, but it is very busy during the summer, and you should try to reserve a spot if you are thinking about stopping.
Glenwood Springs Destination Activities
Upon your arrival to Glenwood Springs, you have likely passed by or stopped at some pretty unique or exciting attractions. However, there is much more to your journey now that you have reached your destination. Listed below are some of the things in the area that the locals do, as well as those in the know.
Defiance Rafting (Raft at Defiance and Stay at Glenwood Canyon Resort)
By driving to Glenwood Springs along I-70, you have passed up a few places to go whitewater rafting near Denver. This may or may not have been deliberate. Still, either way, the choice to go rafting on the Colorado River in Glenwood Canyon is an experience many people consider to be the highlight of their trip. The views in Glenwood Canyon are awe-inspiring, and whitewater rafting with Defiance Rafting on the Colorado River through the canyon is one of the best ways to take in the incredible scenery and/or get the adrenaline pumping.
There are a few things that set Defiance Rafting apart from some of the other rafting companies in the area. For starters, Defiance is the only rafting company located in beautiful Glenwood Canyon at Glenwood Canyon Resort which offers tent and RV camping, cabins, glamping tents, and cottages that can be rented. This convenient location is just a few short minutes from downtown Glenwood Springs and is right next to the Colorado River; the resort offers the ideal setting to stay connected to nature while still having access to all of the amenities that the downtown area has to offer. Staying at the resort provides easy access to the river and to raft trips, as well as to stand-up paddleboard, tube, and inflatable kayak rentals from Defiance River Outfitters.
If you and/or your kids want to swim or soak in the eddy at the boat launch located at the resort, swing by Defiance Rafting for a free life jacket rental. If you have any questions about water levels and other safety concerns before getting into the water, please check in at Defiance; they are more than willing to offer any advice and help.
Whether you are just getting off the slopes, off the river, or looking for the ultimate way to unwind, nothing relaxes and rejuvenates the body like taking a soak in mineral hot springs. Glenwood Springs just so happens to have two different mineral hot spring experiences.
The first is the Glenwood Hot Springs Resort which is closest to downtown Glenwood. This resort has the bragging rights of being home to the world’s largest mineral hot springs pool. This behemoth-sized pool is the main attraction and is perfect for calming your nerves after a long drive with the kids or any other strenuous activity. The resort offers several options to relax and/or to play, including a splashy and wild tube ride called the Shoshone Chutes and a children’s play zone called the Sopris Splash Zone, which features mini water slides and waterfalls.
The second hot spring experience is at Iron Mountain Hot Springs, which offers more of a spa experience. Iron Mountain has 16 different temperature hot springs pools that range from 98°-108° so that you can find the perfect temperature to allow any of your aches and pains to melt away. Iron Mountain is located just minutes from downtown Glenwood Springs and right on the Colorado River. A few hot springs pools are just a short distance from the cool river water, where Defiance rafts can be seen floating by.
Defiance River Outfitters (DRO)
When it comes to planning a rafting trip, especially a multi-day trip, there are a lot of things to consider. First and foremost is determining the type and amount of gear that you need for the trip that you would like to take. There are a few places in Glenwood that offer daily rentals, but Defiance River Outfitters is the one-stop shop for single or multi-day boat rentals, NRS dry bags and Canyon Coolers, cooking kits and sleeping pads, local transportation, and years of experience and expertise that is happily shared. If your gear needs repair or inspection, DRO is set up to fix your equipment or to hook you up with any replacement gear so that you have the peace of mind that you are good to go before you go.
Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park
There is a place in Glenwood Springs where you can take a tram up to 7,160’ above sea level and be put into a seat that will swing you 1,300’ above the Colorado River and the canyon floor. If that doesn’t sound like a good time, maybe you would prefer something called the Cliffhanger Roller Coaster, which is the highest-elevation, full-sized roller coaster in North America. These rides, and others like them, can be found at the Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park. However, the adventure park is not just for thrill seekers. It also offers stunning views, a gift shop, and mountain-top dining, as well as tours of an extensive cave system within the mountain itself.
Sunlight Mountain Resort
Glenwood Springs has a ski resort, and that may be news to many of those outside of the local community. However, Sunlight Mountain Resort is one of the ‘not-so-secretive’ best-kept secrets in the area. To get to Sunlight, you would need to pass a plethora of other ski resorts along I-70, including Copper Mountain, Vail, Loveland, etc. Sunlight also shares the same valley as the Aspen resorts, so it often gets overshadowed by those, as well as many of the other bigger ski resorts. However, this modest ski resort holds its own when it comes to great skiing and snowboarding terrain for all levels – at a fraction of the cost. Where Sunlight really shines is in the guest experience. Many who have found this small and unpretentious mountain tend to find locals and others willing to share knowledge of secret pow stashes, as well as a drink at the end of the day.
Although Sunlight is primarily known as a winter resort, there are plenty of activities to do in the summer as well. Sunlight has some great hiking trails and more than 16 miles of marked mountain biking trails through meadows of wildflowers, aspen groves and next to streams and ponds. They also offer one of the largest and most diverse disc golf courses in the state. Sunlight also hosts various summer events, including the ‘Total Archery Challenge,’ music, and is a great wedding venue. There is also nearby access up 4-Mile Road to some backcountry dispersed camping, great hiking, and more fields of wildflowers.
See You in Glenwood Springs Soon!
One of the reasons Glenwood Springs is the ideal destination for your summer road trip is in part due to the number and diversity of things that you can do. When considering a vacation, especially a road trip, it makes a lot of sense to go somewhere that has as many things as possible to do in one place or offers some of the best opportunities to simply relax. Glenwood Springs is both of those things. For those who are into rafting, hiking, biking, roller coasters, incredible views and sunsets, hot springs, paragliding, fishing, or just relaxing in the clean mountain air, Glenwood Springs offers a little bit of everything for anyone willing to get out and make the trip.