Exploring Southern Colorado: Day Trips


Southern Colorado offers a wealth of sights and activities for visitors seeking adventure, culture, natural wonders, or just a change of scenery from Denver, Fort Collins, or Colorado Springs. This guide covers the must-see destinations and hidden gems that make great day trips from the Front Range urban centers.


  • Day trips in Southern Colorado offer a huge variety of attractions, from mountain towns like Durango to Mesa Verde's ancient cliff dwellings.
  • The varied terrain shelters archaeological sites, historic mining towns, hot springs, and millions of acres of wilderness.
  • From Estes Park and Pikes Peak to the towering dunes of Great Sand Dunes National Park, adventure awaits with minimal driving times.

Local Experiences and Culture

Southern Colorado’s small towns each have their own unique charms and traditions. In Durango, ride the historic narrow gauge railroad before browsing the boutiques and galleries of downtown’s walkable districts. Soak in the renowned hot springs in the Southwest Colorado town of Pagosa Springs. Or time your visit to Cripple Creek for the annual Donkey Derby Days with its wacky racing and small-town fun.

From San Luis Valley’s Hispanic heritage to the Ute tribal history of the Mesa Verde National Park cliff dwellings, Southern Colorado’s living culture springs from its past. Celebrate at festivals and fairs, explore archaeological sites, or simply chat with locals to fully immerse yourself.

Outdoor Adventures

Boasting millions of acres of unspoiled wilderness, Southern Colorado serves up boundless opportunities for outdoor recreation. Great Sand Dunes National Park’s towering dunes challenge hikers and sandboarders while its wetlands and forests shelter elk, deer, bison, and more. Hit the trails of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park to glimpse its steep gorge walls and thundering whitewater.

In winter, take a road trip to shred the slopes of Telluride and Crested Butte, or try your hand at ice-climbing frozen waterfalls near Ouray. When summer comes, raft the Animas River through Durango or bike the alpine terrain surrounding Crested Butte. For a family-friendly adventure, explore Royal Gorge Bridge and Park in Cañon City.

Wildlife and Scenic Drives

Spotting elk, bighorn sheep, black bears, and countless bird species comes easy along Southern Colorado’s scenic byways. For stunning mountain vistas, drive the 63-mile Silver Thread Scenic Byway from South Fork to Blue Mesa Reservoir, with opportunities to fish, hike, and sightsee along the way.

Wind through canyons and glimpse wildlife along the West Elk Loop while the Trail of the Ancients takes you past archaeological sites and striking sandstone formations. With so many roads to choose from, you could take a different route every time.

National Parks and Monuments

From the monumental Great Sand Dunes to the centuries-old cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde, Southern Colorado shelters some of the Southwest’s most famed parks and monuments. At the Great Sand Dunes, hike to the tallest dunes in North America and then cool off at the adjacent Medano Creek. Or stand in awe before the intricate stonework of the Mesa Verde dwellings, some dating back to 600 A.D.

At the lesser-visited Yucca House National Monument, wander the remains of 40 cliff dwellings left behind by the ancestral Puebloan people. With ruins, petroglyphs, and stunning geology, Southern Colorado’s parks and monuments offer glimpses into the past. For a stunning trip that’s close to Denver and Colorado Springs, take in the colorful rock formations at the Paint Mines Interpretive Park.

Hidden Gems and Lesser-Known Spots

Venture down quiet backroads to uncover some of Southern Colorado’s buried treasures. Watch clouds boil up over the Great Sand Dunes from little-visited Zapata Falls, an oasis lush with greenery and thunderous cascades just south of the park. Also near the dunes, glimpse bison and antelope roaming the shortgrass prairie of Baca National Wildlife Refuge.

See the Sangre de Cristo Mountains from an idyllic valley hiking trail, or view the remnants of volcanoes and an ancient sea at the Florissant Fossil Beds. For peaceful solitude and unexpected surprises, seek out Southern Colorado’s quieter corners.

Planning Your Day Trip

With so many potential routes and activities, planning helps maximize your limited time on a Southern Colorado road trip. Plot your course using a map app like Google Maps, estimating drive times between stops. Cluster attractions by region, like hitting Mesa Verde and Yucca House in one trip. For parks and monuments, arrive early before crowds amass.

Pack sun protection, layers, and sturdy shoes to be ready for changing mountain weather and trail conditions. Prepare your own snacks and lunch to picnic anywhere from Great Sand Dunes’ scenic Medano Pass to roadside pullouts with jaw-dropping vistas. Build in leisurely stops for photographing scenery, grabbing ice cream in a small town, or simply relaxing with the sight of mountains on the horizon.

Seasonal Highlights

While summer sees peak visitation, Southern Colorado entices travelers year-round with changing scenery and activities. Autumn’s golden aspens and mild weather beckon hikers to high country trails before winter snows close mountain passes. Spring reveals wildflowers and raging rivers as snowmelt feeds waterfalls and whitewater rafting thrill-seekers.

For winter sports, downhill and cross-country skiing await at resorts like Telluride, Crested Butte, Monarch Mountain, and Wolf Creek. No matter when you visit, Southern Colorado serves up enchanting landscapes, small-town hospitality, and big adventures.


How long does it take to drive from Denver to Southern Colorado attractions?

Driving times vary, but most major destinations fall between 1.5-4 hours from downtown Denver. The Paint Mines Interpretive Park is about 1.5 hours from Denver, Great Sand Dunes National Park takes just over 3 hours, Telluride is about 4.5 hours away, and Durango is around 5 hours distant. A road trip from other cities like Colorado Springs or Fort Collins will have different driving times.

What is the best way to visit Mesa Verde’s cliff dwellings?

Arrive early to beat crowds and heat, wear good walking shoes, and take a ranger-guided tour for the most informative experience. Tours should be reserved up to a month in advance.

Where can I see colorful fall foliage on an autumn trip?

Some top spots for fall colors include the Dallas Divide along CO-62, the Guanella Pass Scenic Byway near Georgetown, and the San Juan Skyway passing through Silverton, Ouray, and Telluride.


About the author

Ransom Patterson

My expertise in Colorado life extends beyond just residing here; it’s also about living actively within the community. I spend my time cycling through Denver’s trails, experimenting with local cuisines, and immersing myself in the local music scene. These activities give me a unique perspective on the cultural and outdoor offerings of Colorado. This hands-on approach allows me to provide insider tips and personal recommendations that resonate with both locals and visitors alike.