Fall Road Trip to Southern Colorado + two National Parks
Oh Colorado, where do I even begin? It is so easily accessible from Arizona. There are so many areas to explore and it is a great way to get that fall feeling that we miss out on living in the valley.
Late September to early October sees less tourists and the leaves are changing!
This was, per usual, a whirlwind trip. We covered a lot of ground in a short amount of time. This trip could easily be extended for more time at each place.
- Night 1: Drive to Durango after work stay in hotel
- Day 1: Durango to Great Sand Dunes National Park to Crested Butte to camp
- Night 2: Camp in Crested Butte
- Day 2: Crested Butte Hike, town and drive to Silverjack Reservoir
- Night 3: Camp at SilverJack reservoir
- Day 3: Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
- Night 4: SilverJack Reservoir camp again
- Day 4: Telluride and head home
Pretty standard. So I do not have as long of a drive ahead of me the next day I like to take advantage of driving into the evening. We all had to work so we ended up leaving sometime around 4.
Durango is a 7 hour drive from Phoenix. Leaving after work, in my opinion, is totally worth it especially if you have more than one driver you can take shifts. This will make your morning drive much easier. There are a lot of cheap motels along the way in Cortez and Durango to stop off at or if using the van there are a ton of pull offs and BLM / FS roads along the way.
Durango to Great Sand Dunes to Crested Butte
The drive from Durango to the Great Sand Dunes National Park is roughly 3 hours. It will take you through Pagosa Springs and then Wolf Creek Pass. It is a beautiful drive especially in the fall with the leaves changing.
Great Sand Dunes National Park:
Great Sand Dunes while “out of the way” for many people is in my opinion totally worth seeing. The dunes loom in the distance as you drive in. It is such a stark contrast to be amongst the mountains at over 7,000 feet of elevation then suddenly you a vast expanse of desert sand.
The best thing to do in the park is to get out on the dunes. We rented some sand sleds from a local shop. FYI the shops sell out quickly so make sure to try and reserve the boards / sleds ahead of time.
After a few hours we packed up and headed towards our next destination, Crested Butte.
Crested Butte is about a 3 hour drive from the park.
We got into Crested Butte at sunset and had to set up camp in the dark. I highly recommend using the dyrt or iOverland (my personal favorite) to try and scope out some spots.
We ended up in a large field that was filled with other campers, but, in the grand scheme of things this was not a bad spot for the evening even with all of the people. Given it was a Saturday night it was expected that the great campsites would be taken. Regardless the spot was beautiful albiet not very remote.
We had a campfire, ate a delicious dinner and went to bed.
We woke up early with the sunrise and took in the absolutely stunning views at the campsite.
We then headed out to a hike about 30 min outside of town called Beaver Pond. We chose this hike specifically because it is filled with Aspens. We were a tad early in the season and not all of the leaves had started changing on this particular hike but it was beautiful and fun nonetheless. The hike is about a mile each way and leads you up to a lake. This is kid friendly and dog friendly.
The drive to the hike was incredible and it was such a lovely stroll through an aspen forest. The air was crisp and it truly felt like fall which was such a nice change from the 100+ degree temps back in AZ.
After the hike we headed into town. Crested Butte is indeed touristy but it is also AWESOME. We walked around and had a delicious lunch at the local distillery. If you plan to spend more than one day in Crested Butte the camping area we chose is so close to town and I would highly recommend staying there. However, we had more road to cover so after lunch we hopped back into the cars and headed to our next destination, SilverJack Reservoir.
SilverJack is near the towns of Ridway and Montrose. The drive from Crested Butte takes you along the Gunnison river and Curecanti Reservoir. Like with all of the drives in Colorado this one was also incredibly beautiful. The Curecanti Reservoir is a high desert lake and is such a stark contrast to the aspens of Crested Butte.
From Curecanti you wind back up into the pines along an absolutely stunning forest service road. There are a few ranches along the area but the property is marked as private. There is a sign letting you know you have entered into the national forest. From there you pass the reservoir which appeared to be mostly dried up when we were there. We kept on the road. Surprisingly it was not too crowded.
There are ample camping spots along the SilverJack Reservoir road. It meets up with Owl Creek Pass which if you keep following will lead you straight into the town of Ridgway.
We found a great spot along the river to set up camp. There were pit toilets which was an added bonus.
Day 3: Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Again another missed National Park that I think is completely worth seeing. Black Canyon of the Gunnison is one of the least visited National Parks in the United States which is mind blowing to me. I have been here a couple of times and still feel like there is more for me to see and do. Black Canyon of the Gunnison gets its name not from the dark canyon walls but actually because there are certain areas of the canyon that see on average 30 min of light a day. The canyon is so steep and narrow that hardly any light gets to the bottom.
The drive to the Gunnison from our campsite was lovely as the leaves were changing. It was about an hour to get to the park. We arrived and it was essentially empty. The park has a driving loop and you can get out to see various view points of the canyon.
We drove around the park and ended up having a little picnic for Jes’s birthday at one of the overlooks that was about a mile hike to get to. We were the only people there for about an hour. It was a gorgeous sunny day and a perfect place to have a picnic and a glass of wine.
Day 4: Home
We woke up and enjoyed breakfast and coffee amongst the trees. Soaking up that crisp 35 degree weather before heading back to the desert. Sadly, it was our last day in Colorado. We hung out and packed up then headed down from our campsite.
We had a long drive ahead of us. Our only stop for the day prior to heading home was to stop in Telluride for lunch.
We ended up at a cute little brewery and walked around the downtown. If you have not been to Telluride it is absolutely worth the stop. Check out Telluride camping from our trip in July for more info.
That is a wrap on our fast and furious fall road trip. I would not cut anything out of the trip but would recommend adding in a few stops if you have a more open schedule.
Crested Butte and Gunnison deserve more time. There are a ton of breweries and restaurants.
The Great Sand Dunes has some mountainous areas that look potentially worth checking out and there are some cool areas not too far away. Personally I do not think you need more than a day at the dunes themselves. They are fun to see but the elevation is killer especially when walking through the sand.
The town of Pagosa Springs is also a great place to explore. Quite frankly I have never spent more than a few hours there but it does seem to have some cool shops, breweries, restaurants and the hot springs.