Jul 30, 2023 - Things to Do

Road trip guide: Hop in the car to these neighboring destinations from Denver

Tourists pose for a photograph in front of one of four elk antler arches in Jackson, Wyoming. Photo: Robert Alexander/Getty Images

Tourists pose for a photograph in front of one of four elk antler arches in Jackson, Wyoming. Photo: Robert Alexander/Getty Images

Jump in the car — let's take a summer road trip.

What's happening: Denver is a great launch pad for western road trips, whether you head north to our neighbor, Wyoming, or just journey through the Colorado mountains.

Where to go: We put together three favorite road trip itineraries, each a little different distance, so you can explore the West.

Jackson, Wyoming

Just outside Grand Teton National Park — and not far from Yellowstone — Jackson is a premier mountain adventure hub that draws both the rich and famous and dirtbag climbers.

  • Hit the touristy town spots and then head into the parks for hiking in the summer and epic skiing in the winter.

Directions: It's an 8-hour drive, but the stunning scenery and quirky side trips make it worthwhile.

  • Take the southern route into Jackson, and then drive home through the Wind River mountains.

What to do: Hike to Amphitheater and Surprise lakes, a tough but rewarding trek in Grand Teton National Park, and enjoy a beach day at String Lake for a paddleboard and swim.

Where to eat: James Beard semifinalist Persephone Bakery and its cousin Picnic offer decadent all-day breakfast plates and lunch.

  • Even Harrison Ford thinks Picnic is good; John saw him there on Tuesday, wearing bike shorts, nonetheless.

Travel tip: Lodging is pricey, but Modern Mountain and Anvil are both refurbished motels with hip vibes and relatively reasonable prices.

  • John found even cheaper rates on the Hotel Tonight app.
Palace of the Governors, established in 1609, located at the Santa Fe Plaza, a National Historic Landmark in downtown Santa Fe. Photo: Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images

Santa Fe, New Mexico

New Mexico, the Land of Enchantment, lives up to its mystical billing.

  • There is something staggering and daunting about the way the mountains rise from the desert here — and how every direction seems endless, but promising. Santa Fe, the state's capital, is worth your time.

Directions: Take Interstate 25 south for about 6 hours, and you're in Santa Fe, a city older than the country it occupies.

What to do: This is one of America's great art cities, and dotted all over its downtown and walkable corridors are numerous galleries showcasing contemporary and historic work.

  • Esteban recommends starting by walking along the galleries on Canyon Road, a short walk from downtown.
  • Don't miss the Museum of International Folk Art.
  • If you like Western fashion, plan a quick stop at Kowboyz, a secondhand shop where Esteban found a nice pearl-snap shirt for a reasonable $15.

Where to eat: The Pantry is a local spot for New Mexican cuisine (try the smothered green chile breakfast burrito). Plaza Cafe Downtown felt touristy but the food was good (try the red chile pozole) while Mille is a lovely, French-style bakery.

Travel tip: On your way back to Denver, take the scenic route on U.S. 285.

  • It will take a bit longer to return home, but the added time means you get to take in spectacular, picturesque views of the American West.
Fantasy Canyon near Vernal, Utah. Photo: Erin Alberty/Axios

Vernal, Utah

This desert destination is closer than Salt Lake City and located in an area of northeastern Utah known as "Dinosaurland," thanks to its abundance of fossils.

  • Outdoor adventures abound in this small city, from whitewater rafting to stargazing and cliff-jumping.

Directions: The drive west takes a little less than six hours. Hop on Interstate 70 for about 180 miles, before taking Colorado State Highway 13 in Rifle.

What to do: Check out the ​​petroglyphs at McConkie Ranch, which look like an action movie carved in stone. The artistry is phenomenal, Axios Salt Lake City's Erin Alberty writes.

  • Fantasy Canyon is a bizarro-land cluster of ghoulish sandstone formations in the middle of a natural gas drilling field about 40 miles south of Vernal.
  • Dinosaur National Monument is Vernal's main attraction, with its astounding cliff face of 1,500 fossils in the Quarry Exhibit Hall.
  • Whitewater rafting tour operators can guide you through Class III rapids on the Green River through Dinosaur, or Class IV rapids on the Yampa River.

Where to eat: Vernal Brewing Company, Plaza Mexicana and Dinosaur Brew Haus are Erin's favorites.

Be smart: Bringing little ones? The Field House of Natural History downtown has activities for kids and exhibits that thoughtfully illustrate the chronology of nature in eastern Utah over the eons.


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