When we got the opportunity to take a massive road trip through some of the most beautiful parts of the United States, we couldn’t say no. Our trip began and ended in the ever incredible “mile high” city of Denver, Colorado. However, what happened between getting off the plane at Denver International Airport and getting back on the plane, is breath taking.
Day 1: Denver, United States Air Force Academy, Royal Gorge
Our time in Denver was quite short, unfortunately, but while we were able to spend about 2 hours there we couldn’t believe all of the amazing art and museums downtown. Not to mention the river walk! We definitely loved what we saw but, at the same time, our trip was designed around the great outdoors and national parks that awaited us!
The United States Air Force Academy is home to the famed Cadet Chapel and framed by snow capped mountains. I don’t know really what I was expecting with stopping here. I guess I was thinking, “I’ve seen plenty of college campuses, I’m sure this one won’t be that much different”. Safe to say, I was wrong. If you have time and are planning to head through Colorado Springs, stopping here is definitely worth the time! Just remember that you are going into a military facility, so there is extra security that can be a little intimidating.
Once we had a chance to get the full tourist experience at the academy, we jumped back in our car for our next destination – Royal Gorge.
Royal Gorge is a crevice in the earth over 1000 feet deep. The interesting part about this specific spot is that you can actually cross the gorge by going to the Royal Gorge Bridge which is an amusement park equipped with aerial gondolas, ziplines, and a skycoaster. If you enjoy an addrenaline rush the skycoaster is perfect for you. The coaster is on the gorge and you go flying over the edge, with a full unobstructed and terrifying view of the depths below! We don’t typically pay for extras at parks but we had to hand over the cash for the live video of our ride because it is something that we love getting to watch from time to time – mostly because of my sheer panic while Adam is loving his joy ride.
Day 2: Gunnison National Park, Ouray, Million Dollar Highway, Silverton, Pagosa Springs
Stop along Million Dollar Highway between Ouray and Silverton
Okay, just as a preference, you need to know upfront that the Million Dollar Highway is beautiful but deadly. It is not a road to go speeding down like you are driving on a flat and wide mid-western highway. The Million Dollar Highway is tight turns, narrow mountain passes, cliffs, and insane grades. But, if you’re up for it, you will never believe the sites you’ll see.
We started our day hiking through the Black Canyon of The Gunnison. This park has great hiking and views, which is pretty much a constant throughout Colorado. The hiking trails are really well maintained and are suitable for most ages. We spent the whole morning here just hiking and, no joke, gazing in awe.
After hiking our last trail at Black Canyon, we set our path for the Million Dollar Highway. Along the highway, you pass little towns that almost seem unreal. You drive miles and miles in the mountains, go around a bend and up pops beautiful mountain towns such as Ouray and Silverton. We learned that visitors have coined Ouray as the “Switzerland of America” for it’s European like charm and beauty. From the town to the mountains to the hot springs, you don’t want for much in Ouray.
Silverton is just as unexpected. After, again, driving miles through the mountains you see this little town pop up. Picture antique and gift shops, ice cream and coffee, and store fronts from an earlier time. We stopped here as a little break in our trip to Pagosa Springs and enjoyed the coffee and shops that the little town had to offer.
What I really loved about this portion of the trip was the ability to just pull over and enjoy our surroundings. We passed so many little meadows that would just open up around a bend in the mountains.
Day 3: Pagosa Springs
Pagosa Springs has it all: you can lounge in hot springs, jump in the river, walk through shops, or hike to waterfalls.
We stayed at the The Springs Resort & Spa where your room is just a few steps away from the city, mountains, and most importantly hot springs! We had so much fun lounging in the springs with family, taking breaks to eat some delicious food, walk through the shops, and make a some trips to the mountain hiking trails.
Day 4: Mesa Verde
Do you remember studying and learning about whole communities that built their homes in cliff sides? In Mesa Verde National Park, you can not only see but you can go on different tours through those very cliff dwellings. These buildings were crafted so skillfully that they have been able to be preserved for generations and generations and generations. You can almost feel the past community as you walk through the place they called home.
These hiking tours do have a few very steep climbs on cliff side, that honestly, are quite terrifying. We literally had to climb a ladder on a cliff side without anything but your own grip and footing. While the climb isn’t safe for everyone, it definitely gives you some insight into the challenges the dwellers would have faced.
Day 5: Page, Arizona
If you haven’t been to Page, Arizona you have most likely heard of it. If not by name, then by images of the iconic Antelope Canyon, Horseshoe Bend, or Lake Powell. Before making this trip, we had seen so many breath taking images from the Page area that we couldn’t wait to finally get there and experience it all ourselves.
Our hotel for the two days in Page was The Best Western. We actually chose our hotel based off of price alone and were super shocked that we lucked into a recently remodeled hotel with what was probably the best view of Lake Powell without actually staying on Lake Powell.
First up on our agenda for Page, Arizona was tours through the slot canyons. We lucked out again and selected the most amazing tour group and lucked in to an incredible tour guide, Roman. The slot canyons are on the Navajo Reservation so all of the tour companies are operated by reservation residents which makes it, we really enjoyed because of their rich knowledge and deep respect for the land. While we didn’t test out the other tour groups, our experience with Adventurous Antelope Canyon Tours was definitely 5-star worthy!
We chose tour 13 which was a bit pricier but you got to tour through 4 canyons instead of just Antelope Canyon. Another reason for choosing Adventurous Antelope Canyon Tours is that they are the only group that tours the 3 other canyons! (This could have changed since our visit) You should definitely take a water bottle, wear layers, and don’t forget closed towed shoes!
Horseshoe Bend is a must. You just have to drive a few miles from the Best Western to get to the parking area. It is important to note that this is not an official park, so that means the trail is a fully desert path and hike uphill to the horseshoe bend view.
We went at sunset so that we could get the full experience of the sun sinking down over the desert. But, if we did it again, we would recommend sunrise simply because Horseshoe Bend is packed at sunset and that means there are a lot of people crowding near a very steep cliff. We also had our head lamps for the walk back because, again, it is an unlit. desert path. Since we went at sunset, we stayed for an hour or so after the sun went down to enjoy a sky packed with stars that you just don’t get in the Midwest with so much light pollution.
Day 6: Page, Arizona
Lake Powell was created by damming the Colorado River to provide power and water to the desert region. While we could get in to the environmental impacts of this decision, we’re going to focus on the innate beauty that Lake Powell is to the bare eye.
This massive lake has sky blue water that laps against the desert rock, looking almost Mediterranean. The waters are extremely deep, yet clear. We were able to jump in without many concerns of hitting a rock. The water was so refreshing in the warm, dry Arizona summer heat!
If you get a chance to visit Page, definitely take a day or at least a chunk of time to just relax and enjoy the beauty and serenity that is Lake Powell. There are multiple places in the city that you can rent paddle boards, kayaks, boats, and more to enjoy the lake!
Rainbow Arch is a natural land formation phenomenon. The expansive arch can only be reached via boat or a 20+ day hiking trip. We opted for a boat ride.
Even on the boat, it took 2.5 hours to navigate through Lake Powell to reach the docks that would lead to the 1 mile path to Rainbow Arch. We booked the tour through the Lake Powell Resort but, to be honest, while it was stunning, we would have preferred to spend the full day just in the waters of Lake Powell. If we could do it again, we would rent a boat and navigate ourselves to Rainbow Arch or just stay in town and maybe get kayaks to enjoy the lake.
We loved this area so much that we could probably go back for a full week every year! Everything about it is unbelievably breath taking and relaxing.
Day 7: Moab, Utah
Leading up to Moab, we had stayed in hotels throughout the full trip. We really wanted the opportunity to “camp” but didn’t want to worry about packing any camping necessities. Then we stumbled upon Moab Under Canvas. Moab Under Canvas is a “glamping” hotel chain. This is the coolest thing and i highly recommend doing this at least once! Essentially, when glamping, you get to stay in a tent under the stars but have all of the amenities of a hotel. The location of the campsite is great, too. We were just moments from Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park.
If it wasn’t for our pets back in Columbus, IN, I don’t know if we would have left Moab. We completely fell in love with the desert, the little town, and the raw beauty of the world around us.
Arches National Park
Delicate Arch; one of the many arches within the park but this is a special view and requires a pretty lengthy and slightly strenuous hike. The desert heat is no joke!
Canyonlands National Park
Canyonlands National Park is massive. We didn’t spend too much time at the park because we added it on to the trip towards the last minute. We knew we didn’t have too much time at the park so we asked the park rangers where we should go. Honestly, you could spend a whole week just exploring this park! We spent about 3 hours and barely scratched the surface – and we saw so many breath taking views!
Day 8: Boulder & Home
Between leaving Moab and returning to Denver we had a few hours before we needed to turn in the rental car and prepare for our flights so we took the 20-ish minute drive over to Boulder, Colorado.
Boulder is a city that you hear so much about and we just wanted to see if the hype was true or not. Long story short, we started pulling up Zillow to find a new home in Boulder within 30 minutes of exploring the town.
We tried our best to simply become one of the locals while in town. We stopped by the library, walked through the shopping district, and just strolled the streets before having to head back to Denver.
Our Southwest Road Trip was by far one of our favorite vacations we have ever been on. We found new favorite spots, were inspired by the raw beauty of mother earth, and had the hardest time returning home.