Rocky Mountain road trip 2011
This is a 3
week trip along the American Rockies, Starting in Denver
and then North up to Yellowstone, down to New Mexico, and back. About 3850 miles, on
average 160 miles/day. Longest distance on one day was 350 miles. We did this
trip in July – August (due to school holiday restrictions), but a bit later in
the season would have been even better. You can find the map of our trip here.
After a long, tiring flight we arrived at Denver airport, and got our rental car (a Tahoe SUV). Our first hotel was just a short drive north of the airport in Brighton “Holiday Inn Express Hotel & Suites Denver Northeast”. Due to our jetlag, we went to sleep early, to have an early start the next morning.Day 2: To Estes Park
We got a nice ‘free’ breakfast in the motel, and headed west to Boulder (I36) , stopping at a Safeway’s to get an ice chest and some food. On the 119 we stopped at 'Boulder Fall' on the way to ‘Nederland’ (being Dutch, we just had to visit).
After a delicious lunch at a small bakery, we took the Peak to Peak Highway (72) to Estes Park. At our hotel (the Trail Ridge Inn), the family room was ready, so we dropped our baggage and drove into the Rocky Mountain National Park. Sadly, dark clouds were gathering, and as we pulled into the parking at Bear Lake, it started to rain.
We wanted to attend a Ranger talk in the evening, so we headed back to Estes Park for an early Dinner at “Smokin' Dave's BBQ & Tap House”. Even at 17:00 we had to wait some time for a table, but it is worth the wait, and we enjoyed some good steaks and burgers. After dinner we went back to the Visitor Center for a very interesting talk.Day 3: Rocky Mountain NP
Today would be the literal highlight of our trip: the trip on the trail ridge road! First stop at Safeway’s for some breakfast items, then up to the hidden valley picnic area for our breakfast.
The sun was warm, but not too hot in mountains. We made lots of stops at the beautiful viewpoints along the road, and a short stroll through the alpine flowers at the Rock Cut trailhead.
At the Alpine Visitor Center we enjoyed the exhibition and the view. We descended to the east side of the pass, down to lake Irene picnic area, where we had our lunch, and went for a nice short walk through the snow to lake Irene. Farview curve a bit down the road was our turn-around point. We drove back to Horseshoe park, where we visited the Alluvial Fan.
Back in Estes Park we had a look at some shops downtown, and eat some pizzas at “Chicago's Best”. Really good pizza’s for a reasonable price.Day 4: Estes Park to Lander
Heading out of Estes Park, to Loveland and Fort Collins where we had a very good breakfast at “The Silver Grill”.
Along the 287 to Laramie, the I80 to Rawlins, and the 287 again up to Lander. We checked in at the “Best Western Inn at Lander”, then stretched our legs by walking downtown. There’s really not much to see or do in Lander, but we found a very nice place to eat: “Gannet Grill”. The local Wheat beer is very good, and a good companion to some burgers.Day 5: Lander to Yellowstone
Continuing at the 287, we made a stop in cute Dubois, with lots of typical wood houses.
Then on to possibly the most impressive viewpoint of the trip: the Togwotee overlook. Still 30 miles from the Teton range, you have a beautiful view of the Tetons and Jackson hole.
This time we only made a short lunch stop at Oxbow Bend and travel on to Yellowstone (but we will be back). In Yellowstone, we visited West thumb geyser basin, the Lake Hotel, and the Mud Volcano, before reaching our stay for the next days: Canyon lodge. Our cabin was spacious and clean, but you have to take your shower early to get warm water.
After a simple dinner in the classic ‘Soda Fountain’ in the General Store, we attended a ranger ‘campfire’ talk about the flora and fauna of the park. A good presentation, and the atmosphere after sunset was great.Day 6: Yellowstone pt.1
Today we explored the northern part of the Grand Loop, driving clockwise. First to the Norris Geyser Basin, with the famous steamboat geyser. Then north to the Sheepeater Cliff and on to Mammoth. The springs at the Upper Terraces are really impressive, just as the cascading limestone layers at the Lower Terraces.
We took the old (one-way) dirt road to the Roosevelt Arch and Gardiner (for some shopping). Back in the park, we drove east to Undine Falls, and Roosevelt Lodge for our dinner (the best in Yellowstone).
After dinner we drove to Lamar Valley for some wildlife watching. Lots of bison, pronghorn, elk, but no wolfs. On the way back we met one bear, but it was too dark for a good picture. After sunset, we headed back to Canyon, over the Dunraven pass.Day 7: Yellowstone pt.2
We started today at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, the Upper and Lower falls, visiting several viewpoints along the north and south rim.
Then we drove counterclockwise the southern part of the Grand Loop, along the Firehole canyon drive, the Firehole lake drive, to the Midway Geyser Basin, with the famous Grand Prismatic Spring. It’s a nice view, but the aerial view is much more impressive. At the Biscuit Basin the Sapphire Pool is beautiful with its clear blue water.
Finally we came to Old Faithfull. The old lodge building, constructed entirely of logs, is really worth visiting. After a short wait, we watched the eruption of the Old Faithfull. An impressive show, not diminished by the large crowd. We took our dinner in the Lower Hamilton Store: reasonable food for a reasonable price. Then we continued our tour along the loop road to the Kepler Cascades, Isa lake (the lake that drains into 2 oceans!), and on to Hayden Valley at Sunset.Day 8: Grand Teton
On our way south to Grand Teton we made quick stop at Lewis Falls, and much too soon we had to leave Yellowstone. The sights in Grand Teton are different, but just as impressive. We drove along Jackson lake, visiting Colter Bay and the luxurious Jackson Lake lodge. Continuing along the park road, we visited Jenny lake, and the Moose village visitor center, with lots of stops along the way.
I couldn’t resist to make a short visit to Mormon Row, to take a picture of the ‘most photographed barn in the world’: the old Mormon barn with the Teton Range in the background. After visiting the Blacktail Ponds and Schwabacher’s Landing we headed back to our cabin at Signal Mountain Lodge. A very basic cabin, but clean and a really great view just a few steps from the porch. After a delicious dinner at the ‘Peaks’ restaurant, we just enjoy the sunset from the lakeshore.
9: Grand Teton to Vernal
The next day the weather improved, and we had a beautiful morning view of the Tetons from the Snake river overlook. As we considered the distance to Moab too much for one day of travel, we planned an overnight stop in Vernal. That gave us some time for shopping in Jackson, and visiting the Red Canyon overlook at the southern part of the Flaming Gorge. The Motel (Best Western Antlers) was quite all right, the ‘Dinosaur Brew Haus’ where we had dinner was very simple, but the food was OK.
The trip from Vernal over Rangely to the I70 was not very exciting. But when we left the interstate, and got to the Ut 128, following the Colorado river, the scenery got more interesting. We arrived in Moab, checked in to Holiday Inn Express, and headed to Arches N.P. This afternoon we just explored the visitor center, and the Windows section. Beautiful sandstone arches in the afternoon sun. Originally we had planned to do the Delicate Arch tour at sunset, but the heat was too intense for our taste, so we opted for a good beer and steaks at the Moab Brewery, and a hot tub in the hotel afterwards.
We had to rise early this day, because we booked the Fiery Furnace tour at 9:00. Our ranger / guide showed us around the great landscape of the rock fins. We had to climb through a narrow passage at one place, but it was perfectly doable for people in healthy condition. It was a very impressive tour, kind of ‘behind the scenes’ of Arches. In the afternoon we went to Landscape Arch. The walk was not very long, but in the heat it was quite exhausting. It’s nice that Moab is just a short drive out of Arches, so we went back for a swim in the pool, some rest, and another excellent dinner at the Moab Brewery. In the evening we went back to Arches for some sunset pictures at de Delicate Arch Viewpoint.
day we drive into Canyonlands N.P. (Island in the sky section). Beautiful views
of (for us) inaccessible canyons and cliffs. After a short hike to Grandview
Point, you really have a grand view over the canyons below. Especially the view
of Monument Basin is impressive. On the way back, we stopped at the Green River
overlook, and made the short walk to Mesa Arch. We decided to skip Upheaval
Dome, and headed back to Moab to get some rest, do some shopping and have a
nice family style cooking dinner in the Moab Diner.
Day 13: Colorado NM and Black Canyon of the Gunnison
From Moab we retraced our steps (tracks) along the Colorado river to the I70, but left the I70 again at Fruita, to make the detour through Colorado National Monument. Lots of interesting rock formations. At ‘Cold shivers point’, our thermometer told us 86 degrees F. ;-). We returned to the 50, and drove to Montrose, and on to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison N.P. The Painted Wall and the steep walls are very impressive. Back in Montrose, we check in to our hotel: Best Western Red Arrow. For our dinner, we decide to try ‘Camp Robber’, a very long wait, but the food was excellent.
The next two days we drove the San Juan Skyway. On the way from Montrose to Durango, we visited Ouray, the Red Mountain pass, and Silverton. The old mountain towns are really nice, and worth exploring. The box canyon just south of Ouray was a nice spot to cool down a bit. Over the Molas pass we got to Durango, our destination for that day, where we checked in to the Durango Best Western. After a short stroll downtown, we settled down at the Carver Brewing Co. for some nice beers and a very good dinner.
15: San Juan Skyway, Telluride
On day 2 of the San Juan Skyway tour we drove from Durango back over Silverton and Ouray to Ridgway, then over the Dallas divide. What a beautiful scenery. Later dark clouds were gathering above us, and while we were strolling through Telluride (lots of very expensive shops), it started pouring. We rushed back to our car, quite wet. On our way to Cortez the rain stopped, and we arrived in time to get tickets for the Cliff Palace tour at Mesa Verde for the next day. We checked in to our Motel at Best Western Turquoise Inn, and after a good dinner at Jack and Janelle's Country Kitchen, we called it a day.
16: Mesa Verde
The day started with a 2 hour drive from Cortez to the parking at Cliff Palace in Mesa Verde. There we met our ranger / guide, who showed us through the very interesting cliff building, telling us lots of background on the way native Americans lived here. We made some short walks to Balcony house overlook, Spruce Tree house, and the Far View sites. As we finally reached Wetherill Mesa, it started raining again. This gave us a perfect excuse to take some rest, and return to Cortez. For a change we tried an Italian style restaurant Lotsa Pasta, but the food was a real disappointment (much to spicy for Italian food).
Day 17: Muley Point, Valley of the Gods, Monument Valley
The next day we had a very busy program. First we drove from Cortez to Bluff, and on the 163 and 261 to the Moki Dugway. From the top of the cliff, you have a great view over the Valley of the Gods. A bit further we drove to Muley Point, one of the most awesome viewpoints over the canyons of Utah and Arizona. Back down the Moki Dugway, we turned left into the Valley of the Gods, a beautiful stretch of 16 miles of dirt road through a landscape not unlike Monument Valley, but without the crowds. Then on to Goosenecks State Park, where the meandering San Juan river has carved an impressive canyon.
Hat we checked in to the San Juan Inn, and enjoyed an early dinner in local restaurant in order to visit Monument valley
at sunset. We drove half an hour to the valley, and did the self-drive tour of
the Tribal Park. The monumental rocks where very impressive in the red
sunlight. Just as we came out of the valley, the sun set.
18: Canyon de Chelly
We drove back to Bluff, and then turned south to Chinle, for a visit to the Canyon de Chelly. Spider Rock overlook, Sliding House overlook, and several other viewpoints gave us a nice picture of this historic place. Further south, we visited another historic site: the Hubble Trading Post in Ganado. Beautiful Indian rugs, but impossible to take with us in our airplane suitcases. From here we drove east into New Mexico, to reach Gallup. Here we stayed at the (western) Hampton Inn, and took our meal in a very cute 50’s diner: Aurelia’s Diner.
That day we reached the southernmost point of our trip, as we visited the Lava Flows in El Malpais National Monument. Fascinating how you can still see lava-falls other interesting flow patterns in this barren landscape. Then we went on to Albuquerque, where we did some shopping in the Coronado Mall. The destination for today was Santa Fe, where we checked in to a cute motel with nicely landscaped gardens: El Rey Inn. After some relaxing, we went downtown for dinner at the Cowgirl BBQ: lively atmosphere, good food, and tasty beers.Day 20: Santa Fe
We hadn’t planned to visit the Spanish Market in Santa Fe, but it just happened to be the day we were here. The downtown atmosphere was nice, but a lot of Market stalls blocked to view of the historic buildings. The area around the plaza is really nice. But after half a day, our feet where quite exhausted, and went back to the hotel for a swim in the pool. We decided to try something different for dinner, and went to Jinja restaurant: Asian recipes, with a modern twist. Really good.Day 21: Taos
We took the ‘high road’ to Taos, visiting Chimayo, Truchas, Chamisal, and finally the famous adobe church in Rancho de Taos. In Taos Pueblo we got a tour from a nice native guide, who told us a lot about the history and the pueblo culture. Inside, we visited several artist shops, showing really beautiful native American artwork. After checking in to the El Pueblo Lodge, we strolled to the Plaza. To us, Taos was much more intimate, not so touristy / crowded as Santa Fe. We finally settled down in Byzantium restaurant. The owner is the only staff (at that moment), and he enjoys cooking good meals. A very special experience, really the best dinner we had on the whole trip.Day 22: Taos to Dillon
We were nearing the end of our journey. From Taos the road took us 260 miles nearly straight north to Dillon. On the way we visited the Rio Grande gorge, the ‘Earthships’ just west of the Rio Grande, the historic railroad station in Antonito, and back in the mountains: Breckenridge. A nice mountain setting, but to upscale for our taste. Along the Dillon reservoir we drove on to the town Dillon, where we found our motel the Ptarmigan Lodge. After a really good dinner at the Dillon Dam Brewery, we tried to get some rest, but due to the heat, and no AC in the room, we didn’t sleep much that night.Day 23: Back to Denver
Dillon has quite a large outlet-mall, so we started our last day with lots of shopping. While we drove from the Rockies down to Denver, the clouds started crying, diminishing the scenery. In Denver we continued our shopping tour at the Park Meadows shopping mall. Really HUGE. The Borders Bookstore was just having his final sale… Our maximum baggage allowance in mind, we had to restrain ourselves buying more books. In the afternoon we checked into our hotel (Gateway Inn), to have some extra time to repack our suitcases. For the flight home all our stuff had to fit in 4 suitcases and some small cabin bags. We took our last dinner in Rosie’s Diner, a cute 50’s décor diner, with good burgers and steaks.Day 24: Home
That day we
really had to leave. After some final shopping, we brought our car back to the
Alamo rental station, and head for our plane to Europe. Bye bye Denver, we
surely will return.
- In 24 days we slept in 16 hotels,
- Drove a total of almost 6200 kilometers / 3850 miles, and
- Took about 11,450 pictures (4 people, 4 cameras).