Road trip loop: A unique Denver / Las Vegas itinerary

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The road trip from Denver to Las Vegas is a classic road trip for Coloradans – a rite of passage, even. But a straight shot to Vegas isn’t the only way to do it. Find joy in the journey, when you turn the popular Mile High-to-Sin City drive into an adventurous loop.

On the way to Vegas, make a few fun stops at Breckenridge, Grand Junction and Cedar City. Then, after leaving the neon lights of Las Vegas, loop south so you can hit Lake Havasu, Flagstaff, the Grand Canyon, Telluride, Crested Butte and the Buena Vista hot springs, before returning back to Denver.

This road trip will cover just under 2,000 miles, give or take, based on optional attractions along the way. It’s broken into 13 different days, although you will likely want to take more than two full weeks to do it right. An extra day in Cortez will allow more time in Mesa Verde. An extra day in Lake Havasu will mean more time on the water. Stretch it out based on your own interests and schedule.

Drive time tops out above 33 hours on the road, but it won’t feel like it, because we’ve broken up the trip so you can drive a short distance every morning and have the full afternoon and evening to explore your destination. Of course, since this is a loop, you can hop on at any point on the map, but we’re starting and stopping in Denver.

Day 1: Denver to Breckenridge

2 hours, 80 miles on I-70

Start the trip with a drive up the mountain to visit a ski resort. Breckenridge, Colorado, is a favorite contender, although you can’t fail with any of the beautiful ski towns along the way: Keystone, Frisco, Copper Mountain, Vail, Beaver Creek.

Breck stands out for its high altitude (9,600 feet); it’s the highest-altitude ski town in the United States. In winter, this means a lot of snow (on average, more than 350 inches a year) and longer ski seasons. You can ski here over spring break.

Beyond skiing, Breckenridge is known for being more laid-back than other ski towns, for its colorful, historic downtown and for hosting many fun festivals.

Make sure you visit the Breckenridge Distillery, the world’s highest distillery. Stay in the middle of the action at Grand Lodge on Peak 7.

Note: Although it’s only about 80 miles to Breckenridge, the drive time can vary between an hour and a half to more than two, depending on traffic and weather. The best time to drive on Interstate 70 is Monday through Thursday before or after rush hour.

Day 2: Breckenridge to Grand Junction

3 hours, 180 miles via I-70

The drive from Breck to Grand Junction, Colorado is gorgeous, spanning unique rock formations, former mines, canyons and mountain views. Grand Junction is an outdoor-lover’s heaven, in the heart of Colorado’s wine country – and apple orchards in the fall.

Do a cruiser bike wine tour of the more than 20 wineries in Grand Valley; go canyoneering in the Colorado National Monument; and go off-roading in Bangs Canyon. Nearly 75 percent of the land in this area is public, which means 1.8 million acres of endless exploration.

Grab food at the Devil’s Kitchen, a rooftop restaurant and bar with views as delicious as the charcuterie board. The best place to stay in town is the modern Hotel Maverick, located on the campus of the Colorado Mesa University. Request a garden patio room on the first floor, with your own large, private patio looking out onto the lawn.

Day 3: Grand Junction to Richfield

3 hours and 30 minutes, 225 miles on I-70

Follow the red rocks to Richfield, Utah, the largest city in this area. It’s a great hub to visit the Fishlake National Forest, a short drive away via the state highway 119. Fish Lake (the namesake of the forest) is the largest natural mountain lake in Utah, and it’s home to elk, deer, moose and more. It’s also a top place to go fishing, hiking, off-roading and bird-watching.

Stay at the Fish Lake Resorts, featuring a historic lodge built out of native spruce logs. Rent a fully equipped cabin and snuggle up next to the wood-burning stove after a day of fishing and exploring. The Fish Lake Lodge Restaurant is conveniently located on site.

Day 4: Richfield to to Cedar City

2 hours, 115 miles on I-70 and I-15

If you don’t mind a longer drive (just over four hours) and want to spend more time wandering the Strip, you could drive straight from Richfield to Vegas. It’s a simple and mostly direct drive down Interstate 15.

But if you time your trip right and stop in Cedar City, Utah, you might be able to catch the world-famous Utah Shakespeare Festival, taking place from June to October. You can even find charming, Shakespeare-inspired B&Bs, like the Bard’s Inn and Amid Summer’s Inn B&B.

Cedar City offers tons of outdoor excitement year-round, too. It’s considered the “gateway to Utah’s national parks” and makes an ideal home base to visit Zion National Park (one hour away), Bryce Canyon National Park (an hour and a half away), the Brian Head ski resort (40 minutes away) and the Cedar Breaks National Monument (45 minutes).

If you don’t want to make a day trip and are sick of driving, the Dixie National Forest, Utah’s biggest national forest, is just 15 minutes past town.

Day 5: Cedar City to Las Vegas

2 hours and 30 minutes, 171 miles on I-15

The last stretch to Vegas will fly by (although it’s less scenic than the Utah stretch), and before you know it, the open fields transform into flashing lights and a neon glow. While “Sin City” has a reputation for debauchery and gluttony, many people don’t realize Vegas also does health and wellness just as big.

Stay at the MGM Resorts in a Stay Well room, with features like air purification, vitamin C-infused showers, white room lighting, a dawn simulator alarm clock and in-room aromatherapy.

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For a healthy Vegas vacay, do yoga at the LINQ on the world’s tallest observation wheel and then visit a spa. The Strip alone has 45 different spas, including some of the highest rated in the world. Try a warm salt stone ritual at the Four Seasons Spa to refresh after five days of driving, before you begin the loop back to Denver.

Skip the casinos and booze and see real costumes and props from the movies at the Marvel’s Avengers Station. Then enjoy a fresh dinner (as in, the herbs are literally growing on your table) at Harvest by Roy Ellamar at the Bellagio Hotel and Casino.

Day 6: Las Vegas to Lake Havasu

2 hours and 30 minutes, 153 miles on US 95

You’re leaving Las Vegas, but the fun has just begun. Instead of taking the same route home, loop south to Lake Havasu, “Arizona’s playground.” With 300 days of sun a year and 400 miles of coastline, this lake is hoppin’, with water sports and beaches with mountain views.

There’s so much to do here – hiking, biking, golfing, off-roading, fishing – so stay an extra few days and party if your schedule allows.

A popular way to immerse yourself in all of Havasu’s outdoor glory is to pop up a tent near the water and camp. You’ll find many campgrounds, but one right on the white sand shores is the Lake Havasu State Park. Dining is casual here, but there are more than 140 options in the city, including the ever-popular Juicy’s. Don’t miss the famed country sausage gravy with breakfast.

Before you leave, check off a bucket-list item and see the London Bridge. Yes, the bridge from the song was relocated to Havasu City.

Day 7: Lake Havasu to Flagstaff

3 hours and 30 minutes, 200 miles on I-40

On your way from Havasu to Flagstaff, Arizona, make a lunch stop in the tiny town of Seligman, Arizona, which claims to be a “birthplace” of historic Route 66. Grab a bite to eat at the 1950’s-style Delgadillo’s Snow Cap diner.

Take a day to explore Flagstaff, home to the state’s tallest mountain. Flagstaff is called the City of Seven Wonders for its impressive location in the heart of (you guessed it) seven natural wonders: Grand Canyon, Oak Creek Canyon, Walnut Canyon, Wupatki National Monument, Sunset Crater National Monument, the San Francisco Peaks and the Coconino National Forest.

Get off the highway and into the forest, the most fitting way to experience Flagstaff; it has the largest contiguous forest of Ponderosa pines in the world. Keep with that forest feel and book a stay at the Little America Hotel, built in 1952 in a 500-acre private forest.

Day 8: Flagstaff to the Grand Canyon National Park

1 hour and 30 minutes, 75 miles via US 180 and Arizona Highway 64

The drive from Flagstaff to the Grand Canyon is short, so you have plenty of time to explore the jaw-dropping, 10-mile wide canyon. Hike it, raft through it or even rent a mule to ride it. Refuel at the Grand Canyon Lodge Dining Room, which serves fresh and regionally inspired food, like a bison burger, a “Cowboy Ribeye” with red wine demi glaze, or “Canyon Duck” (smoked and grilled, topped with prickly pear cactus drizzle).

Head to the South Rim to stay the night at the stunning, European-inspired El Tovar Hotel. Rooms come equipped with views of the canyon.

Day 9: Grand Canyon to Cortez

4 hours, 250 miles on US 160

It’s time to venture back to Colorado, but not without stopping at the Four Corners Monument first. This is the only place in the country where you can be in six places at one time: four different states and two tribal parks (it is owned by both the Navajo Nation and the Ute Mountain Ute).

When you get to Mesa County, station at the Canyon of the Ancients Guest Ranch in a private cabin in Cortez, Colorado. If you have time to extend your stay, request a tour by the on-site “rockologist” of the nearby Canyon of the Ancients National Monument. Then, visit the better-known Mesa Verde National Park – both contain artifacts and history of the region’s ancient Native Americans.

Great food is limited in this area, but the best place to eat in Cortez is the Loungin’ Lizard, with hip, comfort food options like smoked pork nachos, Frito pie, country fried chicken and French onion soup.

Day 10: Cortez to Telluride

1 hour and 30 minutes, 76 miles on Colorado Highway 145

Cortez to Telluride, Colorado, is a short but scenic mountain drive through the San Juan National Forest, and you’ll be glad to have the extra time to relax in one of Colorado’s most stunning towns. Telluride is a former mining community turned into a relaxed ski town. You can learn all about it at the Telluride Historical Museum, housed in a turn-of-the-century former miner’s hospital.

The Telluride Ski Resort is the claim to fame in the winter, and the Telluride Bluegrass Festival is a highlight in the summer. In fact, the town is an artsy paradise, with a popular film festival, as well as opera house and semiprofessional theater.

If you can splurge, Lumiere is a luxurious ski lodge that’s hard to beat, with top-notch service, spacious bathrooms, hydrotherapy pools and a European breakfast.

Allred’s is the place to dine in Telluride. This amazing restaurant, perched atop the mountain in a stone dining room, can only be accessed via the gondola.

Day 11: Telluride to Crested Butte

3 hours, 160 miles on US 50

It’s worth the winding, mountain roads from Telluride through Montrose and the Uncompahgre National Forest to get to Crested Butte, Colorado. This mountain town is beloved for its skiing in the winter, mountain biking in warmer weather and golden aspen leaves in the fall.

What you may not know about Crested Butte is it is also the “Wildflower Capital of Colorado” for its brilliant wildflowers that you’ll see while hiking these hills. Kebler Pass is a favorite location and photographer’s dream.

For an unmatched experience, stay at the Columbine resort, built on the mountain higher than any other condo complex in Crested Butte with views that seem to go on for eternity. Locals love to dine at relaxed Secret Stash Pizza for the town’s tastiest pizza and wings.

Day 12: Crested Butte to Buena Vista

2 hours, 115 miles on US 50

The best way to wrap up a long, multi-state road trip is with a long soak in natural mineral waters. That’s why the last stop on this loop is Buena Vista, Colorado. Mount Princeton Hot Springs Resort is the region’s best option (technically located in Nathrop, just minutes outside of Buena Vista). This hot springs dates way back to 1860, originally used by Native Americans. The hotel was built in 1879.

You can still stay at the hot springs today. The resort spans 70 acres and offers modern, creekside suites; cozy log cabins; cliffside rooms with panoramic views; hillside rooms near the pool; and the lodge. There’s not much around Nathrop, but luckily there’s a steakhouse on site.

Tip: It’s worth it to book VIP access to the spa and club.

Day 13: Buena Vista to Denver

2 hours and 30 minutes, 125 miles on US 285

Wrap up the trip with some more mountain driving that will eventually pass Morrison and bring you to Denver. Colorado’s capital is packed with lodging options, but one that rises to the top is the artsy and eclectic Maven Hotel. Even if you’ve spent time in Denver before, this part of the city provides a fresh take; the Maven’s located in the Dairy Block, a “micro-district” in downtown.

The coolest thing about the Maven (okay, other than the hanging chairs you can swing in while you wait for an elevator and the oversized wooden hand pointing at the entrance) is the fact that the Maven’s lobby opens up to The Alley, a block-long gathering place packed with local shops, cocktail crafters, chefs and artisans.

Dine at the Denver Milk Market, the nearby food hall. If you’re lucky, maybe you’ll be in town for drag queen bingo brunch.

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