The American West has an abundance of natural attractions, from gushing geysers to otherworldly geological formations. While many aren’t exactly driving distance from Denver — like the Grand Canyon — there are plenty nearby that can be connected together to form an itinerary that’s chock-full of sights. These three road trip routes are a sampling of the variety of options you have if you go south, north and westward — but without getting further than a day’s drive outside of Denver at any time.
1. Sand Dunes, Santa Fe and Tent Rocks (5-7 days)
Total mileage: 848 miles, excluding additional stops
This itinerary takes you south from Denver to Santa Fe (and back) for a mix of scenery and culture in Colorado and New Mexico.
Denver to Sand Dunes road trip: 223 miles (3.5 to 4 hours)
Your first stop heading south will be Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, where you’ll have surreal views of towering golden dunes with a backdrop of snow-capped mountains. Trek up Star Dune from the base to its crest at 750 feet and you’ll be standing on top of North America’s tallest sand dune. Going down is a lot more fun than walking up: either by sandboarding or sand sledding (just don’t forget to bring a board with you!). Then spend the night under the stars in this certified International Dark Sky Park.
Sand Dunes to Santa Fe road trip: 170 miles (3 hours, 15 minutes)
Your next stop will be Santa Fe, which is known for its history, architecture and arts scene. Spanish settlers in the 16th century were inspired by the way the region’s Native Americans built their homes, which the Spaniards called pueblos, meaning villages. Their use of sun-dried mud bricks give the buildings a distinctive earthy color, which is common throughout the city. Keep an eye out for centuries-old structures like this, as well as those in the Pueblo Revival Style, which began in the early 20th century with the intent of bringing back and embracing this older style but using modern materials.
Don’t miss these top attractions in Santa Fe: Palace of the Governors, dating back to 1610; Georgia O’Keeffe Museum; Frank Lloyd Wright’s Pottery House; and the Gothic Revival-style St. Francis Cathedral.
Santa Fe to Tent Rocks road trip: 36 miles (40 minutes)
The last destination on this itinerary before you drive back through Santa Fe to Denver is nearby Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument. If you’ve never heard of this 6.4-square-mile landscape, you’re in for a real treat. Tent rocks are conical formations that were created millions of years ago as a product of volcanic eruptions and, subsequently, weathering and erosion. Some of this area’s tent rocks are as tall as 90 feet! Take advantage of several trails that go through the area so you can see some of the spectacular sights up close.
Tent Rocks to Denver road trip: 419 miles (6 hours, 15 minutes)
At the end of your trip, head straight back to Denver and enjoy the beautiful scenery along the way.
2. Mount Rushmore and Badlands (5-7 days)
Total mileage: 832 miles, excluding additional stops
This road trip from Denver to Mount Rushmore in South Dakota takes you to one of the nation’s most iconic sculptures and then into a breathtaking landscape of layered rock formations.
Denver to Mount Rushmore road trip: 376 miles (6 hours)
South Dakota’s Black Hills are home to one of the nation’s most-visited attractions: Mount Rushmore National Memorial. This site bears the faces of Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln, each 60 feet tall and carved into granite. Four hundred men and women worked on this colossal project, which began in 1927 and took 12 years to complete. If you’re able to go between late May and the end of September, there are nightly ranger-led programs that explain some of the history and end with the lighting of the memorial. The grounds are open year-round, and although there is no entrance fee, you will have to pay to park.
Mount Rushmore to Badlands road trip: 84 miles (1.5 hours)
A short drive east takes you to Badlands National Park, where you’ll encounter colorful layered rock formations, fossils of extinct species and a plethora of roaming wildlife, including bison, pronghorn, bighorn sheep, prairie dogs and black-footed ferrets. There are a number of official park trails that allow you to explore this beautiful rugged landscape on foot. To cover more ground, go on a scenic drive of the South Unit or take the Badlands Loop Road. Don’t miss the views from Sheep Mountain Table Overlook, the highest area in the park, and Pinnacles Overlook, which is a favorite gathering spot for Bighorn sheep.
Badlands to Denver road trip: 372 miles (6 hours)
When you’re done exploring, head west back to Denver to wrap up your trip. It’ll take about 6 hours, so queue up your favorite road trip playlist and sing along.
3. Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Salt Lake City and Moab (10-14 days)
Total mileage: 1,639 miles, excluding additional stops
This loop of a road trip takes you to some of the nation’s most-celebrated national parks, with a stop in Salt Lake City to rest your feet and enjoy cultural activities.
Denver to Yellowstone National Park road trip: 639 miles (10.5 hours)
Yellowstone National Park is massive. Although most of this 3,500-square-foot wilderness is located in Wyoming, it also spreads into Idaho and Montana. This bucket-list park is best known as the home of Old Faithful, which is arguably the most famous geyser in the world. An underground volcanic system powers the park’s hydrothermal features, such as its geysers, hot springs, mudpots (an acidic hot spring) and fumaroles, which release hot steam. Since you’re driving all the way from Denver to Yellowstone, don’t miss Old Faithful (of course!), Grand Prismatic Spring, Mammoth Hot Springs and Norris Geyser Basin.
Although these are some of the top attractions, the majestic beauty of Yellowstone’s wilderness is worth lacing up your hiking shoes to explore. This includes the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, which you can appreciate from multiple overlooks as well, and Hayden and Lamar Valleys to see wildlife, like bison, elk, moose, bighorn sheep and red foxes. Be aware that predators like bears, wolves and mountain lions also roam the park. Carry bear spray on hikes to protect yourself in case of a bear encounter.
Yellowstone to Grand Teton National Park road trip: 133 miles (2 hours, 45 minutes)
The mighty mountains of the Grand Teton range contain eight peaks that rise above 12,000 feet, with the highest, Grand Teton, standing at an elevation of 13,775 feet. The rugged beauty of this towering landscape is humbling and inspiring. Hiking trails will bring you through canyons, around lakes, inside aspen groves and, of course, up steep slopes. Or go boating or paddling to experience the park from a completely different vantage point. Keep an eye out for local resident wildlife, including bison, moose, elk, pronghorn antelope and grizzly and black bears. Like in Yellowstone, carry bear spray to stay safe.
Grand Teton to Salt Lake City road trip: 279 miles (4 hours, 45 minutes)
After so many outdoor adventures, you’ll likely be ready for a brief change of scenery. Allow your taste buds to indulge in the Salt Lake City bean-to-bar craft chocolate scene, or take your pick of more than 20 local breweries and kick back with a hoppy pint. Then feast your eyes on Salt Lake City’s vibrant art scene, displayed as murals downtown and within dozens of galleries that feature local and emerging artists. For something a little different, stop in at the Salt Lake City Public Library. This architectural beauty is flooded with natural light and has a rooftop terrace that overlooks the valley.
Salt Lake City to Moab road trip: 234 miles (3 hours, 45 minutes)
This road trip started with natural beauty and will end with it too. Your next stop on this Denver road trip is Moab, the gateway to the stunning Arches National Park. This protected area boasts over 2,000 natural sandstone arches — more than anywhere else in the world. Hiking, biking, rock climbing, canyoneering and horseback riding are all possible. There’s also an incredible 18-mile scenic drive that’s not to be missed. At night, stargazers lay back and get comfy or set up their tripods to capture the Milky Way at this certified International Dark Sky Park.
Moab to Denver road trip: 354 miles (5.5 hours)
Plan some road trip entertainment to pass the time on the long drive back to Denver.
Get there with Avail
No matter your destination, you need a reliable way to get there. Avail car sharing has a variety of vehicles to choose from and numerous locations across Denver neighborhoods. Each location is self-service, too, making it convenient to pick up a rental car and start your adventure faster — all without waiting in a single line. Bookings include 200 miles per day, which is plenty for any of these three epic road trips from Denver. That means if you’re renting for 7 days, you have 1,400 miles available to drive! Every road trip needs support, which is why Avail bookings are protected by Allstate insurance and 24/7 roadside assistance, and you can include a second driver on your reservation without an added fee.