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American Road Trip for Nature Lovers

American Road Trip for Nature Lovers

Looking for ideas on how to plan an American road trip that covers some amazing nature destinations, but don’t know where to start? This article might be just what you’re looking for. It covers the most beautiful National Parks in Colorado, Utah, and also in Wyoming. Take a look!

We had just two and a half weeks for our family summer road trip in the United States, and it was a big challenge to create a good itinerary. We had a big list of places we wanted to see and we also wanted to have some time to explore, not just tick the boxes and say that we’d been there.

On the other hand, when we travel far, we tend to just visit the landmarks and see the main highlights. Exploring in depth is not always easy to combine with three young kids, limited time, and expensive flight tickets…

The main highlights of this American road trip for us were Yellowstone and Arches National Parks. Therefore we chose to spend a bit more time in these two parks and built the rest of our U.S. road trip itinerary around it.

We ended up covering a pretty big part of Western United States in just 17 days, and it was an amazing trip. Our trip started in Denver, we traveled through Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming, and ended our road trip in Salt Lake City. We visited the Rocky Mountain National Park, Maroon Bells in Aspen, Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park, Grand Teton NP, Yellowstone NP, and a couple of other incredible places.

In this post, I am sharing our American family road trip itinerary for nature and outdoor enthusiasts.

   

TIP: Use this U.S. road trip itinerary as an example, as it gives you a good idea of the highlights you can see in Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming in just 17 days.

There are many other incredible landmarks and beautiful National Parks near these places. So depending on your interests and time, you could easily combine a part of our American road trip itinerary with, for example, Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks, Monument Valley, the Grand Canyon, Sedona, Mesa Verde National Park, Mount Rushmore, Custer State Park, Glacier NP, etc.

PRO TIP: If you are planning to visit several American National Parks during the same trip, make sure to get an annual America the Beautiful Pass. It costs just 80 USD for the whole family traveling in the same vehicle. And it’s valid in all National Parks and 2,000 federal recreation sites across the United States for one year from the month of purchase. If you visit more than two parks, it costs less than buying individual tickets.

American road trip for nature and outdoor enthusiasts. Visit the most beautiful National Parks of Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming with this 2 - 3 week trip itinerary
 

Day 1: Arrival in Denver

It was a long day flying from Europe to Denver, Colorado. We arrived late in the afternoon, picked up the rental car, and headed straight to our hotel outside the city.

I had been to Denver in the past; it is a nice city. However, we don’t often stay in big cities when traveling with kids, so we skipped Denver altogether on this trip. But if you have more time, it’s definitely a place where you could spend an extra day.

  • Accommodation: We stayed in Golden, outside of the city center of Denver. It’s conveniently located in the direction of the Rocky Mountain NP.

Day 2: Denver – Estes Park – Rocky Mountain NP – Grand Lake

We started our drive from Denver to Rocky Mountain NP with a very scenic ride following the Peak to Peak Highway. Recommended stop: Brainard Lake area, where you can make several walks.

Afterwards we continued in the direction of Estes Park. Recommended stops: Lily Lake and Saint Catherine’s Chapel on the Rock. We also stopped at the rocky area just next to the road, where we made a beautiful short walk. Many people were practicing rock climbing here.

We had lunch in Estes Park and headed to the Rocky Mountain National Park. This beautiful park is worth a trip on its own, and in my college years, I spent the whole summer in Estes Park combining a summer job with endless hiking. But on this trip, we didn’t stay here long and headed straight for the main highlight of our day – Trail Ridge Road.

Trail Ridge Road, reaching as high as 12,183 feet (3,700m+), is the highest paved road in any national park in the U.S. It’s a beautiful road, so don’t miss it if you ever find yourself in the area. Trail Ridge Road is only open in summer. Count 2-3 hours for this road, a bit more if you also plan to do some hiking at the viewpoints.

  • Driving distance: 130 miles (210 km).
  • Accommodation: We stayed for 1 night in Grand Lake. It’s a peaceful little town with a real vacation feel, and not as busy as Estes Park. But if you have a day extra, then add 1 night in Estes Park before coming to Grand Lake and do some hiking. Here you can find our suggestions for Estes Park lodging.

TIP: If you have a few days to spare, I recommend you explore Rocky Mountain National Park more in-depth.

READ MORE: Rocky Mountain NP Itinerary from One to Five Days

Brainard Lake on Peak to Peak Highway in Colorado
Brainard Lake
 

Day 3: Grand Lake – Independence Pass – Aspen

A long but very scenic ride today. There are several ways to get from Grand Lake to Aspen. We chose to drive via Hwy 82 over Independence Pass. This road is well worth it!

Note: Independence Pass is only open in summer and vehicles over 35 feet (11 m) length are not allowed on this road.

Suggested stops: Leadville town, Twin Lakes and Grottos – Ice Caves picnic area where you can also make a short walk.

In the afternoon you have plenty of time to explore Aspen downtown and/or take the Aspen Gondola to the top of the mountain.

  • Driving distance: 170miles (270 km)
  • Accommodation: 2 nights in Aspen. Make sure you book your Aspen accommodation well in advance. Aspen is very popular all year round and affordable quality accommodation options are limited.
Independence Pass Colorado
Independence Pass
 

Day 4: Aspen, Maroon Bells & Ashcroft Ghost Town

A visit to Maroon Bells, the most photographed mountains in the U.S., is without any doubt one of the highlights of this American road trip. For the very best views and no crowds go early in the morning. Make sure you arrive well before 8 AM as parking is limited. Also, the road is closed for private vehicles during the day (8 AM-5 PM), and you have to take a shuttle bus instead.

You don’t need to walk far in order to see the lake. If you have just an hour, walk the Maroon Lake Scenic Trail. But if you have at least 3 hours to spare, you should really hike the Crater Lake Trail. Spectacular views are absolutely worth the 3,6miles (+-6km) round trip. This hike is not very easy but can be done with kids.

READ MORE: Maroon Bells and Hiking the Crater Lake Trail

Ashcroft Ghost Town is another nice place that is nice to visit in this area. Located just 13miles (21km) South of Aspen.

Other recommendations in Aspen: The John Denver Sanctuary, ACES (Aspen Center for Environmental Studies), also the Silver Queen Gondola if you haven’t done it the day before.

READ ALSO: Best Things to Do in Aspen

Maroon Bells Colorado USA
Maroon Bells
Crater Lake Trail near Maroon Bells, Aspen Colorado
Crater Lake
 

Day 5: Aspen to Moab (Arches NP) via Scenic Hwy 128

Another long day driving today. But then again – the roads are really scenic, so take your time and enjoy the ride. Suggested road to Arches National Park: scenic Hwy 128, Utah (take I70, then exit at Cisco).

This road is probably one of the best-kept secrets in the area, and you will not meet many other tourists here. Which is hard to believe as it’s one of the most scenic roads we have ever driven. I find that it’s even better than Monument Valley. Don’t miss!

Temperatures in Moab area are often over 100°F (38°C) in the summer months. Coming from the mountains in Aspen, the shock could not have been bigger. We reached Moab at around 2 PM and spent the hottest hours of the afternoon in the swimming pool of our hotel.

In the evening the temperatures were a bit more bearable and we made our first hike in Arches National Park. If you do just one hike in Arches, make it the Delicate Arch Trail.

  • Driving distance: 230 miles (370km)
  • Accommodation: 3 nights in Moab. Moab is the perfect base for exploring Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. Our hotel – Aarchway Inn – has huge family rooms and is very conveniently located close to the entrance of Arches NP. Here you can find more suggestions for the best Moab hotels.

READ MORE: Best Things to Do in Moab & Moab Itinerary Suggestions

Delicate Arch in Arches National Park in Utah USA
Delicate Arch is not to be missed!
 

Day 6: Arches National Park

Full day exploring Arches National Park. In spring or in autumn you could probably see the whole park and do at least 3-4 hikes in just one day. But visiting Arches NP in summer is a whole other story! Furthermore, we visited Arches with kids!

We started our day early and hiked till 11 AM. By then it was impossible to even get out of the car and we spent some time driving around Arches Scenic Drive and making short stops at the viewpoints.

In the afternoon we went back to the swimming pool in our hotel. We returned to the park towards the evening to do some more hiking.

READ MORE: Best Things to Do in Arches National Park

Landscape Arch in Arches National Park
Landscape Arch – Arches National Park
 

Day 7: Rafting on Colorado River (Moab) and Canyonlands NP

With temperatures of 106°F (41°C) and higher we couldn’t imagine dragging the kids for yet another day hiking, so we booked a half-day rafting trip on the Colorado River instead. Great experience and we could jump into the river to cool off once in a while. Kids loved it!

READ MORE: Moab Rafting Tour

We spent the hottest hours of the day by the pool again and in the late afternoon, we drove to Canyonlands National Park.

Canyonlands is divided into several sections; the easiest to visit – Island in the Sky – is just 45 minutes drive from Moab. We drove the whole scenic drive of Island in the Sky and stopped at all the viewpoints. If you want to do one hike here, Mesa Arch is really worth it. It’s a short, but very scenic walk. Highly recommended!

In the evening we drove to the nearby Dead Horse State Park for sunset.

  • Driving distance: 100 miles (160km)

READ MORE: Canyonlands and Arches One Day Itinerary & Best Things to Do in Canyonlands NP

Rafting on the Colorado River from Moab in Utah
Colorado River near Moab, Utah
Sunset at Dead Horse Point State Park Utah USA
Dead Horse Point State Park
 

Day 8: Moab – Dinosaur National Monument – Vernal

There are several roads you can choose to get from Moab to Vernal. We drove via I-70, CO-139, CO-64, and US-40.

Suggested stop: Dinosaur National Monument. The visitor center with a very impressive dinosaur quarry is well worth a visit, but make sure to also explore the area by car. The scenery is just beautiful and you can find some ancient rock art as well. You can get a small map at the visitor center.

  • Driving distance: 220 miles (355 km)
  • Accommodation: 1 night in Vernal. Vernal is not a very exciting place to stay, but there are many hotels and restaurants in town and it makes it a convenient stop on the long stretch between Arches National Park and Yellowstone.
Rock art at the Dinosaur National Monument in Utah
Rock art at the Dinosaur National Monument in Utah
 

Day 9: Vernal – Flaming Gorge – Jackson Hole

A long drive again today, but with another incredible hidden gem along the way. Don’t miss the Red Canyon and Flaming Gorge Recreational Area! Incredible views, scenic roads, and practically no people at all.

An absolute must is a view from the Red Canyon Visitors Centre. From there you have to choose which way to continue North, as there are two roads around the Flaming Gorge.

The road US-191 on the East side of the gorge passes the Flaming Gorge Dam. The road WY-530 on the west side gives you an opportunity to drive the scenic Sheep Creek Loop and visit the Dowd Mountain Overlook.

We asked for advice at the visitor center. They gave us a map of the area and told us to go West. It was definitely a good choice and we truly enjoyed the scenic Sheep Creek Loop. But if you cannot choose and have another hour or two to spare, drive to the Flaming Gorge Dam first, then return the same way you came, and continue in the direction of Manila.

In the late afternoon, we reached Jackson Hole. Jackson is a very charming town with many hotels, restaurants, and shops. It’s a good place to stay for exploring the area, but don’t use it as a base for visiting Yellowstone.

The road from Jackson to Yellowstone goes through Grand Teton National Park and is very busy in summer. Jackson is really too far for day trips to Yellowstone.

  • Driving distance: 300 miles (480 km)
  • Accommodation: Jackson has many accommodation options. However, just as Aspen, Jackson is extremely popular and not a budget-friendly place to stay, so book in advance. You can find the best deals for Jackson accommodation here.

READ ALSO: Best Things to Do in Jackson Hole

Red Canyon Flaming Gorge Recreational Area
Red Canyon – Flaming Gorge
 

Day 10: Jackson to Yellowstone National Park

The drive from Jackson to Yellowstone goes through the beautiful Grand Teton National Park. We would be staying here at the end of the trip, so we didn’t stop at Grand Teton on the way to Yellowstone.

We entered Yellowstone National Park at the South Entrance. It was quite busy here and the signs were warning travelers that all Yellowstone accommodation and camping facilities were fully booked. So make sure to book well in advance!

On our first day in Yellowstone, we explored the area around Yellowstone Lake, did some hiking, then got stuck in a major bison jam in the Hayden Valley. We were glad to reach our hotel at the Canyon Village in time for dinner.

  • Driving distance: 115 miles (185 km)
  • Accommodation: The best alternative to expensive and extremely popular Yellowstone accommodation is the town of West Yellowstone, just outside the park.

TIP: Planning a trip to Yellowstone? Read this guide about the best places to stay in and near Yellowstone National Park.

Bison crossing the road in Yellowstone National Park
Bison in Yellowstone
 

Days 11-13: Yellowstone National Park

We spent the following three days in Yellowstone National Park and visited all the main highlights and a few less known areas.

Don’t miss the Old Faithful and the whole Upper Geyser Basin! Grand Prismatic Spring is also a must, just as the Yellowstone Canyon.

Here you can read about the best things to do in Yellowstone. Make sure you don’t miss the Boiling River – a hidden gem in the park!

Here you can also find our detailed day-to-day itinerary and Yellowstone itinerary suggestions for 1 to 5 days.

READ MORE: How to Plan Your Yellowstone Trip

Grand Prismatic Yellowstone
Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone
 

Day 14: Yellowstone NP – Grand Teton NP

We did some more sightseeing in Yellowstone and in the afternoon we headed to Grand Teton National Park. We made several short stops, including a really nice area at Grand Lake, and a scenic drive to Signal Mount Summit (not really worth it in my opinion).

  • Accommodation: 2 nights in Moran area (Grand Teton National Park). Grand Teton is also extremely popular in summer, so book your hotel well in advance. The best places to stay location/quality – wise are Jackson Lake Lodge and Jenny Lake Lodge.
  • Driving distance: 70 miles (110 km)
American road trip - driving in Grand Teton National Park
Driving in Grand Teton National Park
 

Day 15: Grand Teton National Park

The highlights of our visit to Grand Teton were a boat ride on Jenny Lake and the hike to Inspiration Point and Cascade Canyon.

READ MORE: What to See and Do in Grand Teton National Park in One Day

Family U.S. road trip - hiking in Grand Teton National Park
Hiking in Grand Teton National Park
 

TIP: If you have more time, in addition to visiting Yellowstone and Grand Teton, you may want to add Glacier NP or Mount Rushmore and the Black Hills to your itinerary. In that case, I’d suggest visiting Grand Teton NP before you go to Yellowstone and then continue to either Glacier NP or Mount Rushmore area.

Here you can find some suggestions for the best things to do in Glacier NP and here you can find a very detailed Glacier National Park itinerary.

We also have a very comprehensive guide to visiting Mount Rushmore and suggested 1-3 day itineraries for the Black Hills.

Day 16: Grand Teton National Park to Salt Lake City

We left Grand Teton in the morning after a short stop at the scenic String Lake. We chose the more scenic road to Salt Lake City, the US-89 past the Bear Lake.

In the afternoon we visited the Salt Lake City Temple Square, the headquarters of LDS church, the Mormon religion. Wow! What an impressive place, definitely a must if you find yourself in Salt Lake City. All the people we met there were incredibly friendly and eager to show us around and tell more about each building we visited. I don’t think I have ever visited such a warm place, they made us feel truly welcome.

  • Driving distance: 300 miles (480 km)
  • Accommodation: 1 night in Salt Lake City
Town of Afton in Wyoming, USA
Afton town in Wyoming, on the way to Salt Lake City
 

Day 17: Salt Lake City and departure

Salt Lake City was our last stop during this beautiful American road trip that brought us to some of the most scenic nature destinations in the U.S.

Temple Square in Salt Lake City
Temple Square is a must in Salt Lake City
 

Practical information for planning a summer road trip in the U.S.

  • Prepare your trip well and check if the roads you want to drive are open in the period when you travel. This is a summer-only trip itinerary, as some of the roads are not accessible in winter. We traveled end of July – beginning of August.
  • If you are coming from far, book your flights in advance. Transatlantic flight tickets in summer are extremely expensive.
  • Book your rental car in advance. Consider alternative pick-up and drop-off locations for the best car rental deals. If you are traveling with kids, consider renting a van. If there is one country where you should rent a big car, it’s the U.S. It doesn’t cost that much more than a regular car and your family road trip will be so much more comfortable.
  • Book your hotels for Yellowstone, Jackson, Aspen, Arches, Estes Park, Salt Lake City, and other popular destinations as soon as you can. We booked our Yellowstone accommodation more than a year in advance before we even had our flight tickets. We used Booking.com to book our accommodation for this trip.

So, this is our itinerary that you could use to plan your Colorado Utah road trip, Utah Wyoming trip, Colorado Wyoming trip, or Colorado Utah and Wyoming road trip, just as we did. Possibilities are endless, but this gives you a good idea of how we planned our time and what’s possible.

Planning a road trip in this part in the USA and have questions? Or maybe you want to share your experience? Leave a reply below!

More tips and places to see in the USA:

If you found this post useful, don’t forget to bookmark it and share it with your friends. Are you on Pinterest? Pin these images!

US road trip itinerary. See Yellowstone, Arches, Canyonlands, Rocky Mountains National Parks and much more. Get inspired!
American road trip for nature lovers. Featuring Yellowstone, Arches, Rocky Mountains National Parks, and more... Get inspired!
 

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Beth

Tuesday 6th of July 2021

You really covered some of the best! I live in Boulder, Colorado and these are some of our best sites to visit. Can't wait to explore more of your site to plan more European trips!

Jurga

Wednesday 21st of July 2021

Thank you, Beth. When we travel so far, we always try to focus on the 'best' places first, so our itineraries are usually quite thoroughly researched and thought-off. I wish we'd have more time to explore deeper and visit even more amazing places that I'm sure we passed along the way, but it's all about making the best of the time we have... Anyway, hope you find some inspiration for your future trips on our website. If there's just one tip I can give you for visiting Europe, don't try to see 'everything' in one trip. Pick one or two countries and spend more time there rather than rushing from one major city to another. Europe is so much more than London, Paris, or Amsterdam! Happy travels!

Gail Young

Wednesday 7th of April 2021

Hi Jurga, I am going to use your American Road Trip for Nature Lovers and I would like to print your itinerary from my computer, but I’m having trouble doing so. Is this option disabled? Thanks for your help. Gail

Jurga

Thursday 8th of April 2021

Hi Gail, if you are using Google Chrome, you should be able to ‘print to pdf’ and then just save it on your computer. Press Ctrl+P and then change the destination printer to “save as pdf. Hit the “print” button and it will download as a PDF document. You can then print out the pages you need. Good luck with the planning and have a great trip!

Lauren

Sunday 22nd of September 2019

Hi Jurga, hope you're well - love your blog post!

Inspired by your experiences of a nature lover's roadtrip, my boyfriend and I are booking a visit out from UK in mid-October .... we'll have approx. 10 days to travel around Colorado, Wyoming and Idaho. We'd like to follow your trip and definitely want to see Yellowstone & Grand Teton.

We'd like to end up in Salt Lake City so we can get a domestic flight via San Francisco on our way home. Similar to you, we're up for lots of hiking and exploring, as want to see as much as possible. I'd also love to fit in a dude ranch stay somewhere en route too, any recommendations welcome!

Aside from some visitor centres in the NPs being shut as it is fall, are there any other seasonal closures we should be aware of? Any other "must sees" for this time of year?

Look forward to any tips or gems you can share to help with planning our roadtrip.

Thanks and safe travels, Lauren & Chris

Jurga

Monday 23rd of September 2019

Hi Lauren, it sounds like an amazing trip, but I really have no time to help you with the planning. We have lots of articles describing parts of this trip on the blog - check USA section under Destinations. Also, you should know that October is already winter in Yellowstone and some roads start to close already. You can find more info in the official site of Yellowstone. I think that hiking in many other places around there might be limited that time of the year. I suppose it depends on how early the winter will come this year... So you need to do more research and come up with a plan suitable for this time of the year. Good luck and enjoy the trip!

Frank

Monday 4th of March 2019

Thank you so much for this wonderful thought out itinerary. I think we will follow the first part of your journey, but save Yellowstone and Grand Tetons for another vacation. I think we plan to travel from Moab back East to Colorado Springs and end up back in Denver. We truly appreciate your posting! It will be so helpful.

Jurga

Sunday 10th of March 2019

Glad to hear this, Frank. Enjoy your tip and if you have some time extra, I really recommend to spend a few days in the Rocky Mountain NP. Here you can find some Rocky Mountain NP itinerary suggestions and here is our guide on where to stay for visiting RMNP. And also in Moab I think we could have easily spent a day or two longer... More info here: best things to do in Moab and also Moab hotels. Enjoy your trip!

Chris

Wednesday 22nd of August 2018

This article saved my life. I have been looking for weeks to find the right itinerary and your article was spot on for our 2019 trip. Thank you so much!

Jurga

Friday 24th of August 2018

Glad you found this helpful, Chris. It's indeed a bit out of the ordinary routes, as most people either visit Utah and the West Coast, or Yellowstone and Grand Tetons, or the Rocky Mountains... I was also struggling to make an itinerary that covers all these places in one trip, but it was such a beautiful trip and we truly enjoyed it. If you have more time, you can always add Bryce Canyon or Zion to it, also Mesa Verde NP is a nice place to see; you could also easily spend a few days in the Rockies and do more hiking... It's always about the choices and how much time you have and how much driving you want to do. What I liked about this trip that it left us plenty of time to see the Arches and Yellowstone, which were the main focus points for us. Enjoy it and if you are going to Yellowstone, make sure to book your accommodation asap! Here you can find more information about Yellowstone accommodation.

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