One week in Colorado: the ultimate itinerary

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We recently came back from a fantastic week in Colorado and I’m excited to share all the details from our trip.

Under normal circumstances, I would’ve never chosen to spend one week in Colorado. Yet, I am glad 2020 forced us down that path. I had seriously underestimated the state, and it proved me wrong. 

We got to visit Denver, Vail, Colorado Springs, Georgetown & the one-and-only, Rocky Mountain National Park during our vacation.

Sheep Lake Rocky Mountain
Rocky Mountains National Park

The best part from our trip, though, was experiencing nearly all 4 seasons during our stay.

The weather went from a nice early fall breeze to a snowstorm and back up to over 85 degrees Fahrenheit (30 C) in just 7 days! Something very unusual for early September. 

Yes, Colorado really outdid itself! And I cannot wait to tell you everything about it!

Where to stay during your one week trip to Colorado

Given the current global health situation, we decided to stay in Denver.

We wanted only one hotel for our entire trip. The idea was to try limiting contact with others, avoiding packing/unpacking and of course sanitizing only one room during our stay. 

Is staying in Denver ideal? It depends! 

Denver is the capital of Colorado, and has a big city feel. However, it also means that you will have to take day trips if you want to explore the countryside. This translates into renting a car and driving back and forth.

All the destinations we visited are just under 2 hours from the city, but keep in mind that Colorado is huge!

Drives were scenic, but the return trips became a hassle since we were tired after all the hiking and sightseeing.

Also, if you are driving to the mountains, make sure you do not drive back at night. Seriously, don’t do it! We did, and it was one of the scariest experiences of my life. 

The alternative will be to spend the night in every town you are visiting. You can make it a loop road trip from Denver for your one week in Colorado.

Denver LoTown Street
Denver LoTown

Where to stay if you decided to base yourself in Denver

If you just rather stay in one place and take day trips from there, then Denver is the place to be. Specifically, Downtown Denver or the LoTown area. Everything we did in the city was within less than 20 minutes from this area.

We stayed at Le Méridien Denver Downtown by Marriots. The location was ideal, the service was great and the hotel gorgeous, but it is not one I would recommend. There are several other well-known hotel chains in the area. 

what to wear in Denver

One week in Colorado: Itinerary Summary

I should start by mentioning that our week in Colorado was a relaxed one.

We allowed time to just sit down and absorb the scenery, rather than running from one destination to the other. We also didn’t wake up super early every day and made sure to take the time to enjoy our meals and just relax. 

You can probably cram a lot more in 7 days. And you can absolutely do all this in just 5 days.

If you have less time, combine Days 2 & 5 and postpone exploring Denver until your last day.

  • Day 1: Arrived in Denver
  • Day 2: Day trip to Vail
  • Day 3: Rocky Mountain National Park
  • Day 4: Explore Denver
  • Day 5: Day Trip to Georgetown
  • Day 6: Day Trip to Colorado Springs
  • Day 7: More of Denver & flight back home

One week in Colorado: Itinerary Details

Rocky Mountain National Park outfit
We had a snowstorm in early September!

Day 1: Arrive in Denver

Our flight arrived in Denver late at night. We really didn’t do much that day, other than picking up our car and driving to our hotel.

The drive from the Denver airport to the downtown area is approximately 30 minutes. If you’re renting a car, you’ll need to take a shuttle from the airport terminals to the counters.

None of the car rental companies are in the terminals. 

This was our first time using Budget to rent a car. Surprisingly, we were upgraded to Jeep Wrangler for the price of a basic economy car. Perks of traveling during low times and asking for upgrades!

Day 2: Day trip to Vail

On our second day the adventure started! We left the hotel at around 10 AM and drove to Vail.

One of the most beautiful towns I’ve seen in the United States. A dreamy mountain village! 

The drive from Denver is around 1 hour and 40 minutes. Vail is a small ski town, at the base of the Vail mountain.

It felt like we had left the States and we were in Switzerland, instead of Colorado.

We were there on Labor Day, and since most of the town activities revolve around winter, there was not much to do. However, it was worth the drive! We walked around, enjoyed lunch and ice cream, took a million photos, and sat down by the creek to take it all in.

Vail Village

Some of the activities you can do in the area during the summer/early autumn include a visit to the Betty Ford Alpine Garden, a Gondola ride up the mountains, biking and of course, hiking.

There is also a ranch 30 minutes away, the 4-Eagle Ranch. There you can do a bunch of other mountain activities, including zip lining, horseback riding, wine tasting and more.

Tip: To make sure you don’t get lost on your way to the village, use the Sonnenalp Hotel address for directions on your GPS. Also, download the area’s Google map and some playlists for offline access. Phone signals are weak in the mountains. And get ready for the overpriced $42 per car parking in the village garage! 

The haze and those weird orange tones you see in the photos are due to the Cameron Peaks & Williams Fork wildfires that were going on in the nearby mountains. The air felt dense and it was hard to breath, but it was nonetheless gorgeous.

I am planning to go back one year during Christmas just to stay in Vail. It must be beautiful around that time of the year. 

Day 3: Day trip to Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park was the highlight of our trip. It felt like we were part of a National Geographic documentary.

The park is huge! But with a lot of research and planning you can get to see a lot in even a half day. 

I am planning to write a very detailed post about how to spend one day in Rocky Mountains National park. For now I’d like to mention that the Trail Ridge Road and the hike to Emerald Lake are great options if you only have a few hours. A quick stop for breakfast in Estes Park is also a must do!

Emerald Lake Colorado Rocky Mountain National Park
Emerald Lake…worth every step of the hike!

During COVID-19 times, you’ll need a timed-entry reservation to enter RMNP. Book well in advance because tickets tend to sell out. They usually release additional tickets early in the morning two days prior to the date. Those are all gone by 9 AM, but you can cancel your reservation and get a full refund up to 24 hours before your visit.

My number one tip: monitor the weather and make as many reservations as you need. Then make sure to cancel the ones you won’t use. That way you don’t lose the money and others can enjoy your spot.

We went twice to the park, but what we did can be done in just one day. Let me explain! 

Bear Lake RMNP Covered in Snow

Our trip was 8 days instead of 7, but for the purpose of this post, I’m providing a 7 days itinerary.

During our first visit it snowed! And I mean, snowed! 18 freaking inches of snow on September 8th; a 50 degrees Fahrenheit overnight temperature drop. A record-breaking snowstorm! Coming from Miami it was both magical and terrifying

Wild Animals in Rocky Mountain National Park
My favorite photo from this trip!

To begin, our car slid off the icy road early that day! Really dangerous driving up there!

Thankfully, we were not close to a ravine and there were no cars coming either way. I instantly cancelled all activities and decided we were not doing much that day. I also got a panic attack because I didn’t feel my toes (frostbite is real!). Needless to say, we went back to the hotel early. In fact we only spent like 3 hours in the park that day!

Then we went back just 4 days later, and temperatures were back up in the high 70 F! Much more comfortable!

This is the reason why you see pictures from two — very different — days in this post. Was it worth it? Absolutely! 

Day 4: Explore Denver

On Day 4 we needed a break and decided to stay in the city.

Everything we did is within walking distance of the downtown area and was a nice change from the prior days of mountain exploring.

Our day started late, with breakfast at the 16th Street Mall, a mile-long pedestrian promenade lined up with shops, outdoor cafes, and office buildings.

From there we went to Civic Center Park, where you can find the Colorado State Capitol and the city hall building. The gold dome of the capitol building is unique and fun to photograph.

There is also a marker in one of the steps leading to the building that indicates exactly one mile above sea level. In case you didn’t know, Denver is known as the Mile high city, but you need to stand on those steps to actually be at that exact height.

Other than what I just mentioned,  I’ll be honest, the area was deserted and dirty.

There were lots and lots of homeless people around too, but it could just be a sign of how COVID took its toll in the city. If you have the time, pass by, that way you get a feel of the city’s architecture and history…Don’t plan to spend too much time there, especially if you have less than one week in Colorado.

Also, remember to never judge a city for its downtown area! 

Civic Center Park Denver
Can’t believe these flowers were still standing after the snowstorm!
Downtown Denver

Most people will tell you to take one of the very popular brewery tours and drink some local beer while in the city, but my next recommendation is a little out of the ordinary.

This next stop was the highlight of our day in Denver: afternoon tea at the Brown Palace Hotel.

I realize this is not for everyone. BUT! If you can splurge and like sipping tea, drinking Veuve Clicquot and stuffing your face with cute-looking and carb-loaded finger food, all while listening to some soothing piano music, then by all means you’ll love it.

Ever since we went to London we fell in love with the afternoon tea concept, and now we try to have a similar experience every time we can.

It takes place at The Brown Palace hotel lobby, a beautiful historic atrium with a very elegant atmosphere.

Food was good, the service was excellent and the location lovely! Also, the area outside of the hotel is a clean and pretty area of downtown, which gives a different perspective of the city. 

After so much food, we decided to skip dinner. Our night venture, however, was a lot more exciting than seating at a restaurant.

We went axe throwing for the first time at Axe Whooping in Denver, an activity that seems to be popular in the city!

We called several venues, and this was the only one that could accommodate a last minute reservation. The place turned out to be great and more affordable than competitors, but make sure to reserve in advance.

It takes some practice to be able to hit the target, but you’ll end up scoring even some trick shots. A great date night! 

Tip: They do not sell food or drinks at Axe Whooping, but we saw other people who brought their own pizza, and it seemed like very good idea.

Review of Axe Whooping Denver

Last stop for the day was the rooftop of our hotel for some late night snacks and cocktails.

54thirty is the highest open air rooftop bar in Colorado and gets incredibly busy every night. Great view, food and the atmosphere, but it is on the pricy side.

Day 5: Day Trip to Georgetown

Georgetown is a small mining mountain town, located just 45 minutes from Denver. A great stop for your one week in Colorado.

The little village looks like taken out of a mid-west movie, with small shops and restaurants, surrounded by the front range of the Rocky Mountains, which are very scenic. 

The star of the show is the Georgetown Loop Railroad, which will take you through the mountains on a narrow-gauge trip to the nearby Silver Plume and back.

You also have the option to take a tour at the Lebanon Silver Mine before returning to the town.

The roundtrip train ride is just over an hour.

We happened to be in one of the carts with no roof, during a beautiful sunny but cool day. Although I was having difficulties grasping oxygen at pretty much all altitudes in Colorado, it felt good to take in the fresh mountain air. 

Georgetown Railroad review

We bought the tickets online, on the morning of, but keep in mind that we were traveling during exceptional circumstances. I’d recommend buying them ahead of time just to be safe.

Our train ride was in the afternoon, so we started our day trip at the Red Rocks Amphitheatre.

It’s located only 15-20 minutes outside of Denver, on the way to Georgetown. The park and amphitheater are a historic concert venue and a must-see spot in Denver.

I have a photo blog with tons of other photos from our visit to Red Rocks Amphitheatre, make sure to check it out if you’re planning to visit!

Exploring Red Rocks Amphitheatre Denver

If you’re interested in wildlife, there is a great overlook right on the highway, on your way to Georgetown.

It’s labeled Buffalo Herd Overlook.

Just pay attention to the signs and you won’t miss it, it’s on exit 254 of I-70, in the Golden area. I later learned that the buffalo are direct descendants of the last wild buffalo herd left in America. Pretty cool and excellent photo opportunities!

There is also a bighorn viewing area near Georgetown, next to the Georgetown Lake, Exit 228 of I-70.

We didn’t make it there, but I’ve read seeing the sheep is a matter of pure luck. They are not like the buffalos, which are always there.

Buffalo Herd Overlook Colorado
How cute is the calf?

If you’re done with the railroad loop early enough and still have energy, you can end your day trip hiking to the St. Mary Glacier.

It’s near the Idaho Springs, just 30 minutes from Georgetown, and 1 hour from Denver. It was part of my original plan, but we ended up waking up pretty late that day (can barely function on cold weather!).

If you are interested, check out the TripAdvisor reviews for photos and some great tips and inspiration. 

Day 6: Day Trip to Colorado Springs 

Last but not least, we took one last road trip to Colorado Springs on Day 6! 

Colorado Springs is a city ~1 hour from Denver, best known for its pretty cool red rock formations and unique geological features, like Pikes Peak and the Garden of the Gods Park, the Broadmoor Seven Falls, and Cave of the Winds Mountain Park.

Garden of the Gods outfit what to wear
Hola, you can call me Dora! – I even had a map 🙂

That morning we did wake up early (for once!) and started our day at Garden of the Gods.

The park is famous for its massive red rocks sticking straight out of the ground. It is a great area to witness the lava formations, wander the trails, and increase your chances of spotting some wildlife during your week in Colorado.

Entrance is free, but come in early to avoid the crowds. If you want to see the park from different angles, I’d say plan to stay for at least 2-3 hours.

Also, don’t skip the Visitor Center, which is a must to learn about the area. Feeling adventurous? Segway and hot air balloon tours are popular in the area. Below are some great options.

Garden of the Gods What to Do

By the time you’re done walking and hiking around the park, I guarantee you’ll be hungry!

We decided to have lunch at Old Colorado City, a small town just under 10 minutes away from Garden of the Gods.

The town was the first capital of Colorado and its historic district is full of small local shops and restaurants.

We chose to eat on the outdoor second floor terrace of Jake & Telly’s Greek Cuisine – food was decent but on the pricey side. You can use their location to make sure you get to the right area. 

Old Colorado City Downtown

If you’re looking for a tasty dessert and like supporting small local businesses, check out the Colorado City Creamery.

They are open since 1979 and have some very innovative and delicious flavors, including pumpkin ice cream. It was my first time seeing that flavor in an ice cream shop and had to try it!

After our little break in Old Colorado City, we were ready for the last adventure of day 6. Driving the Pikes Peak Road.

America’s Mountain, one of the many Colorado’s 14er! If you’re like me, and have no idea what a fourteener is, let me brag about what I learned.

Colorado has 58 peaks exceeding 14,000 feet, the most of any state (~4,267 meters for some of my metric friends out there).

The cool thing about Pikes Peak though, is that you can drive all the way up, instead of having to hike it. Trust me, I wanted to hike a 14er too, until I tested how difficult it is to breath in Colorado when you’re coming from sea level altitude.

Guide to Pikes Peak Road Drive

Have you heard about mount Fuji? Well, Pikes Peak beats this Japanese favorite by almost 2000 ft!

The highway’s entrance starts at 7,400 feet and you’ll reach 14,115 feet at the summit of the mountain. It’s only a 19 miles drive, but it takes approximately 1 hour to get to the top due to the speed limit.

Also, keep in mind that you’ll need at least ½ tank of gas for the round trip. There are several overlooks and photo opportunities on the way up.

The park is open year-round, weather permitting, but get there well before the summit closes to allow enough time for the drive and to enjoy.

You can check out their hours of operations, they vary according to the season.  You can also take a cog railway to the top instead of driving, but that was closed during our visit due to COVID-19.

Driving to a Colorado 14er
I can guarantee you that my photos DO NOT give you and idea of how scary this drive becomes as you get closer to the summit

My opinion? The drive is dangerous, exhilarating, fun, nerve racking and breathtaking. Definitely NOT for the fainthearted or acrophobic driver.

Is Driving Pikes Peak Road Safe?
Roadway to heaven?

I must also publicly accept that we didn’t make it to the top! 15 minutes before reaching the summit Robert decided it was too dangerous to continue, and I didn’t complain.

Okay, I complained a little, but I was silently happy to go back (??‍♀️).

The thing is that there are almost no rail guards along the road, and it felt like we could flip over at any time, especially after the scary experience we had driving in the snow a few days earlier.

Still, I don’t regret our decision, at the moment we were satisfied. Although, if I am 100% honest, one day I’d like to see the “America the beautiful” monument placed atop.

How to travel Colorado

After our experience, I did a quick Google search, and brakes do tend to wear down fast, but apparently it is a pretty safe drive.

No casualties have been reported.

They even have professional car races on this same highway! There are surely some adrenaline-loving humans out there!

Day 7: More of Denver & flight back home

By day 7, I was so tired that I didn’t even bother carrying my camera around.

We started with a delicious and affordable late-morning brunch at Syrup Downtown. Huge portions and interesting menu items. If you have a sweet-tooth and like crunchy, try their crack beacon and waffle sliders topped with fried chicken and “sweet n’ spicy Thai chili sauce”.

Since we were looking for a relaxed, indoor experience, we opted for the Denver Museum of Art.

There’s a little bit of everything and something for everyone at the DAM.

The exhibit halls are grouped by theme and the museum’s architecture is very unique and interesting. There are also some distinctive sculptures around the building, which is located in the Golden Triangle Area.

This area is known for the city’s best art galleries, museums and plenty of restaurant options.

Inside Denver Museum of Art
One of the walls at the Denver Museum of Art

Day 7 was a Sunday, and parking is free in downtown Denver on Sundays.

We took advantage of this perk and took a much-needed car nap after our ~ 2 hours visit to the museum. Not sure if mentioning this adds any value, but know that that’s always an option once you’ve checked out of your hotel!

If you’re in Denver, you also have to see the famous Union Station, a historic train station in the Downtown area.

It’s a cool building with several shops and places to eat inside, a great use of space, with a mixture of old and modern architecture. There is a nice waiting area where you can sit to enjoy a treat from Milkbox Ice Creamery and pretend you’re taking one of the trains. 

Our last stop before heading back to the airport was Larimer Square, where we had dinner and walked around to enjoy the live music and late afternoon festive atmosphere.

It’s pretty much a pedestrian walkway with banners and lights spanning the road, lots of plants and places to sit, eat and grab a drink. I read that this is Denver’s most historic block, and the coolest in my opinion. If you’re down to try some bison meat, check out Ted’s Montana Grill. Their bison meatloaf was pretty good, and so were the nachos and margaritas.

Larimer Square Denver Review

This concludes my one week in Colorado itinerary re-cap! Hope it can help you plan and serve as an inspiration for your fantastic week in Colorado!

Alternative day trips

If you have more than one week in Colorado, below are the links to some other places I researched, relatively close to Denver and which I believe are also great day/overnight trip alternatives.

1 – The Paint Mines Interpretive Park (unique & colorful rock formations)

2 – Mt Evans (apparently a great place to spot mountain goats!)

3 – Breckenridge (ski town, known for its year-round alpine activities)

4 – Great Sand Dunes National Park (desert-like large sand dunes up to 750 feet (229 m) tall, 4 hours one way from Denver)

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