Planning the Best California-Colorado Road Trip
Last year, in the course of selling our house in Colorado Springs, we did five California-Colorado road trips (and then back again). I took a different route through Arizona, Nevada and Utah every time, visiting national parks and mountain towns, and seeing the coolest sites along the way. I never went too far out of the way – if the fastest routing between our two houses was 17 hours, our typical road trip was 20-21 hours each way.
Without a house in Colorado we no longer had a reason to road trip, except that we cancelled our May/June European travels since it was just a little too soon to travel (and all of our flights were cancelled) and we had nothing else going on in June. So I got my 13-year-old son to agree to one last blowout road trip before we start flying far away again.
In sketching out the road trip I knew where I wanted to end up – Colorado Springs to see family and finally stay at the Broadmoor. On the way there I wanted to head north in California for the first time in years. We chose Yosemite National Park, since my son had never been, and Hope Valley/Lake Tahoe, since neither of us had been. We then cut through Nevada, spending a night in Ely so that we could visit Great Basin National Park and drove on to Moab for Arches National Park (my favorite park). On the way back we spent several days in Vail – my favorite mountain town in the summer – and then went up to Park City, Utah, which we had never visited. We then stopped in Las Vegas for a night to break up the drive back home.
Our California-Colorado road trip took 18 days and was 3,333 miles total, including all of the extra driving – Yosemite for a day, all around Great Basin National Park, around Lake Tahoe and Park City, and in Colorado Springs. We had mapped the trip at 48 hours total, but that only included the highway driving. With the driving we did on our non-driving days, we were probably in the car 60 hours. We never had more than seven hours of driving in one day.
I LOVED this road trip! It wasn’t perfect – we could have skipped Las Vegas at the end and we had very limited lunch options a few days. But overall it was my favorite road trip ever. From a COVID perspective very few people anywhere were in masks, especially once we left Yosemite, but we’re both vaccinated so we weren’t overly concerned. It was nice to see life getting back to normal.
Here’s a chronological look at the Colorado road trip, along with where we stayed everywhere and what we liked best, to help with your future road trip planning. Or copy our entire trip!
Yosemite National Park
We started with roughly a five-hour drive to Yosemite, stopping at In-N-Out Burger for lunch along the way. We arrived at Tenaya Lodge in the afternoon but couldn’t continue into Yosemite since our reservation didn’t start until the next day (you need reservations this summer to enter the park). We therefore checked in, took two hotel bikes (free) and biked and hiked to a nearby waterfall. I loved getting a little exercise after the drive. We then relaxed by the pool and had dinner at the hotel.
The next morning we had breakfast at the hotel and then drove the two miles to Yosemite’s south gate. In the park we stopped at Tunnel View and continued down into Yosemite Valley where we took every road we found and stopped often. We hiked the Lower Yosemite Falls and El Capitan trails before driving back towards our hotel and detouring onto Glacier Point Road to hike the Taft Point trail. Altogether we walked 17,000 steps and my son got a good feel for the park that’s routinely ranked America’s most beautiful. Lunch was in the Ahwahnee Hotel’s gorgeous dining room. Note: Glacier Point Road will be closed in 2022.
Where to Stay at Yosemite National Park
We stayed at Tenaya Lodge and loved the hotel. In addition to the free bikes there’s archery and a fire pit with s’mores, and the pool’s great. We had two breakfasts and two dinners at the hotel and everything was excellent. We were in a lodge room with two beds, but there are also cottages and cabins with bunk beds that would be perfect for families.
Hope Valley / Lake Tahoe, California
Waze guided us from Yosemite to Hope Valley via Angels Camp in Calaveras County, California, where we stopped for lunch. In fifth grade I remember reading Mark Twain’s The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, and being in Angels Camp with frog jumping plaques everywhere took me straight back to the story. Lunch was at Cascabel – one of our best driving lunches of the trip.
We then continued to Hope Valley and checked into Wylder Hope Valley. I’d wanted to stay here since reading about the hotel the year before. They have cabins, camp sites and yurts, and we of course had to go for a yurt!
We spent the rest of the day at our yurt and exploring the property before having dinner at Sorenson’s Cafe at the hotel – with the best gnocchi I’ve ever had.
The next day we drove to Lake Tahoe, roughly 30 minutes away, and hiked around Emerald Bay. We had lunch at Base Camp Pizza and then returned to Wylder Hope Valley, where we hiked the Indian Head Trail through aspen groves and wildflowers. Another very fun day in gorgeous surroundings! Dinner was back at Sorenson’s.
Where to Stay in Lake Tahoe
Wylder Hope Valley is wonderful. You can base out of there and explore like we did, or you can treat it as a destination and never leave the property. There’s hiking, fishing and lawn games, and it’s a great place just to sit, read and relax. There was no cell service or wifi at our yurt (Yurt 25) so we spent time in our hammock and played lots of card games and Bananagrams. I loved falling asleep to the sound of the river behind the yurt!
Ely, Nevada and Great Basin National Park
Ely is roughly halfway between Lake Tahoe and Moab so it was a convenient place to stop for a night. It’s also the largest town near Great Basin National Park. We got into our hotel in the afternoon, relaxed, had dinner at the hotel and then left early the next morning. On our way out of Ely we stopped at The Cup Cafe for a bagel sandwich, coffee and coffee cake. Highly recommended!
We arrived at Great Basin National Park roughly an hour later and drove to the end of the main park road where we parked and then hiked the Alpine Lakes Loop Trail (2.7 miles total) to Stella Lake and Teresa Lake. It was an easy hike and it was nice to move our legs in the middle of a six-hour driving day (7.5 hours including Great Basin). Great Basin is one of the least-visited national parks and probably isn’t worth a trip, but if you’re nearby definitely head into the park. Note: we didn’t visit the Lehman Caves, since all reservations were already booked. The caves are supposed to be impressive.
Where to Stay in Ely, Nevada
We stayed at the Prospector Hotel & Gambling Hall based on TripAdvisor reviews and the cheap rate. It was absolutely fine for a one-night stop.
Moab, Utah and Arches National Park
I love Arches National Park – it’s only minutes from Moab, it’s a short detour off I-70, and it’s gorgeous, easy, fun and kid-friendly. We arrived on a Friday which is what you don’t want to do – our itinerary dictated it, but try to avoid weekends if you can. We checked into the Best Western Canyonlands Inn, did laundry and then got dinner nearby.
The next morning we left the hotel a little before 5am, drove into the park and were at the Windows, one of my favorite sections of the park, by 5:30. We watched sunrise from the North Window Arch, hiked all around the Windows, Double Arch and Sand Dune Arch, and were out of the park just a little after 8am. At that point the line of cars trying to get in stretched from the gate almost to the highway, and it wasn’t too much later that they stopped letting people in. Seriously, don’t visit Arches during a weekend, but if you do, go before sunrise or in the late afternoon. There are too many people, and it’s too hot, in the middle of the day – if you can get in at all.
We headed back to the hotel for breakfast and then were lazy in Moab all day. If we hadn’t been tired of driving we would have gone over to Canyonlands National Park and done a short hike. As it was we spent time at the pool, walked around town and got lunch and dinner in town (everything is a very short walk from the Best Western). We didn’t even go back into Arches for sunset. It was nice to have a break from driving for most of a day!
Where to Stay in Moab
The Best Western Canyonlands Inn was perfect for us. It’s right in the middle of town, there’s coffee in the lobby all day and breakfast is included, and it’s the only hotel on our trip that had a laundry room – perfect timing since we had very few clean clothes left at that point. Plus we were able to park near our room and the front desk staff was the friendliest of anywhere we stayed. I’d absolutely stay there again.
Colorado Springs, Colorado
I grew up in Colorado Springs and still have family there. This trip was about seeing them, but it was also about finally checking into the Broadmoor. I grew up near the hotel and for decades virtually every major (and minor) event was celebrated there, but I had never been a guest before. We drove the 6.5 hours from Moab (always take Highway 128 out of Moab – it’s far prettier than Highway 191), left the car with the valet and checked in. And then for three days we never saw our car again! Family met us at the hotel for meals, and otherwise we just played and explored. I’ll have two upcoming blog posts on our stay but, long story short, we LOVED the hotel, and I can now officially say it’s our favorite resort in the US. Everything is perfect, from the pool and kid activities to the service to the location to the restaurants. It’s truly a destination resort and is worthy of a week of your vacation.
We spent two nights at the main hotel, in a Lakeside Suite, and then headed to the top of Cheyenne Mountain and stayed at the Broadmoor’s Cloud Camp for a night. For the record we didn’t feel that either stay was long enough – we should have spent at least four nights at the hotel and two at Cloud Camp. A good excuse to return! My son loved the paddle boating and the water slides especially. We also had a great falconry experience.
Our final day in Colorado Springs we spent more time with family and visited some of our favorite places – and didn’t document any of it! It felt just as good to put my camera down as it did to not be on the highway for a few days.
Where to Stay in Colorado Springs
Stay at the Broadmoor of course! I can’t say enough good things about the resort and our stay.
Vail is my favorite Colorado mountain town. I loved visiting last summer with my daughter, so my son and I booked a three-night stay this year. We arrived from Colorado Springs – a little under three hours of driving in the summer – and explored Lionshead and Vail Village into the evening. Dinner was at El Segundo.
The next morning we woke up early, had breakfast at our condo and then drove 40 minutes or so to Piney Valley Ranch near Eagle, where we met up with Adam, our fly fishing guide for the morning. We jumped onto an ATV and rode through the private ranch to several absolutely perfect fishing spots. Adam showed my son the basics, and we had a great time for three hours or so, catching and releasing many rainbow trout. A perfect fishing experience in a perfect setting! You can book the same trip through Sage Outdoor Adventures.
Back in Lionshead we took showers (we were dirty from the ATV rides!), had lunch at The Little Diner, spent time at the pool, walking around Vail Village and had dinner at one of my favorite restaurants, Swiss Chalet.
Our final day in Vail we had breakfast at The Little Diner and then rode the Lionshead Gondola to the top of Vail Mountain. We hiked around a little at the top, but mainly we played at the Epic Discovery adventure park. We went tubing, did the mountain coaster, and hit the rock wall. Then we came back down to Vail for mini-golf (also included in the Epic Discovery day pass), a BBQ lunch at the base of the other gondola, and a lot of fun in Vail – primarily at Solaris, a development in the middle of town with a large lawn filled with games. We met up with friends at Solaris in the evening, bringing pizza over from Pazzo’s Pizza for dinner. A seriously perfect evening with so many kids running around and being kids!
Where to Stay in Vail (on your Colorado Road Trip)
We stayed in a condo at the Antlers at Vail. At first I was hesitant to book in Lionshead, given that it’s a 12-minute walk from Vail Village and we love Vail Village, but it worked out perfectly. Our condo on Gore Creek was huge, parking was easy and it was only a two-minute walk to The Little Diner, which has the best breakfast in Vail. It was also near the Lionshead Gondola, which we took up to Epic Discovery, and there’s shopping, gelato and mini-golf nearby. Plus there’s free coffee, hot chocolate and chai in the lobby all day! I’d book again in heartbeat.
Park City, Utah
Vail to Park City was somewhere around seven hours – our longest stretch of the trip. We stopped in Dinosaur, Colorado for gas (because of the name) and then at Abby’s Cafe in Naples, Utah for lunch, and got in around 4pm. We checked into Stein Eriksen Residences, jumped into the hot tub on our patio (which felt amazing after a long drive) and then had an excellent dinner at the hotel – at 7880 Club. After dinner we spent hours playing corn hole at the lodge as well as pool and air hockey in the game room. So fun!
Our first full day in Park City we took a hotel shuttle to Stein Eriksen Lodge, just a few minutes away, and met up with Melissa from Deer Valley Resort. She took us up the Sterling Express lift to the top of the mountain and then led us down the Ontario Trail back to Stein Lodge. The trail alternated between gorgeous views and towering aspen groves and couldn’t have been more perfect, and kid-friendly. It was my favorite hike of the trip. Note: we had a guide because Deer Valley provided us with one, but it’s not necessary – it would have been easy to head up the lift and hike down on our own. We had lunch at the base of the Sterling Express lift.
The rest of the day we played at Stein Eriksen Lodge (the game room is amazing, and totally free for guests) and then returned to our hotel for down time before taking a shuttle to Main Street in Park City. We’re not shoppers but it was fun to walk around for hour and get ice cream. We had dinner, one of the best of the trip, at Riverhorse on Main.
Our second day in Park City we drove over to Utah Olympic Park to play. We went extreme zip-lining and took the alpine slide down the mountain, and we watched aerials (freestyle ski jumping into a pool) for at least an hour. There were beginners and what looked to be Olympians and everyone in-between and it was fun to watch!
We then had lunch and spent a lot more time in the Stein Lodge game room, and enjoyed the pool at Stein Residences. Dinner was at Sushi Blue back over near Utah Olympic Park. It was excellent.
Where to Stay in Park City
Stein Eriksen Residences is perfect for families. Our suite (residence?) was far larger than the two of us needed but would be great for larger families. I was in the master bedroom and my son took the kids room, which had a king-size bed and a double-long bunk bed. The kitchen was as big as you would find in a house, there were large living and dining areas, and we used the hot tub on the patio often.
Stein Eriksen Residences has a great game room, but Stein Eriksen Lodge has an even better one, so it was nice being able to go between the properties (there’s a free shuttle available anytime you want it).
Las Vegas, Nevada
My son had never been to Las Vegas and it’s midway between Park City and home so I figured it would make for a good stop. By road stop standards though it was a hassle. It was a long walk from the parking garage at the Venetian to the front desk to check in and then up to the room, and then back from the room to the car the next day – at least 10x longer than anywhere else on the road trip. We ate very well at Matteo’s, and my son thought the fake sky throughout the Venetian’s Canal Shoppes was cool, but otherwise he was unimpressed. And the $45 resort fee didn’t cover anything that we needed, so that was a rip-off. If you like Las Vegas definitely stop, but I wish we had stayed in St. George, Utah instead – it’s easier and cheaper, and there’s great hiking nearby – which is healthier than walking around a casino.
In the morning we left at 5:30am (our bodies were still on mountain time) and drove over to Seven Magic Mountains, roughly 20 minutes away. We missed sunrise, but the light was still beautiful, and we had the art exhibit to ourselves most of the 20 minutes we were there. We arrived home less than five hours later.
Where to Stay in Las Vegas
Honestly, I don’t know! This trip we stayed at the Venetian. Last summer we stayed at the Cosmopolitan. In the past I’ve been at the Mirage, Bellagio and several other properties. The Venetian was reasonably kid-friendly, but it annoys me that virtually every Las Vegas hotel has an exorbitant resort fee that really doesn’t cover anything, and even with the resort fee there’s never coffee in the rooms. This was made worse at the Venetian since Coffee Bean didn’t open until 6am, so we couldn’t even get coffee before we headed out. Like I said, I’d skip Vegas next time. If you want to go, check TripAdvisor and go for the best, cheapest hotel.
Per my introduction, I loved virtually everything about this California-Colorado road trip. I put a lot of research into picking hotels and was happy everywhere. If I could only return to one hotel, it would be the Broadmoor. If I could return to any stop next year, it would be Vail. But I would totally do the entire trip again – we had at least one major trip highlight at every destination.
Our cheapest hotel was the Prospector Hotel at $101. Our most expensive was Cloud Camp at $1,100. The others were along the entire cost spectrum and varied greatly depending on whether we were at a property during a peak time. If you go to book one and see that it’s $450/night, it could just as easily be $129/night over different dates.
We obviously drove our own car for this road trip, which worked out well given the rental car shortage going on right now. If you want to rent an RV, I’ve heard good things about RV Share.
Have you done a similar trip, or even a California-Colorado road trip? What did we miss that you loved? Where did you stay that was amazing?