Mountain lake in Colorado

Through Colorado From Phoenix: The Perfect 5-Day Summer Road Trip

In the hot Sumer months one of the best road trips you can take is driving through Colorado from Phoenix. This trip will take you through gorgeous desert and mountain scenery you can hardly find anywhere else, especially close enough to each other to see it all on a road trip.

Living in Phoenix, we try to get away from the city as much as we can, especially during the hottest months. Considering the sizzling temperatures that make the city feel like an oven, the ideal scenario would be to leave for at least three months. But that is not always possible.

As an alternative, a summer road trip through Colorado provides and opportunity to get away for varying lengths of time.

That’s what we’ve been doing for years, in between longer trips to Europe, or the Pacific Northwest.

Our weekend summer trips often include a road trip to Durango. For slightly longer trips, we drive the San Juan Highway, and stop at all the gorgeous mountain towns.

But when we have at least five days, we often drive farther. This was the case with our latest road trip from Phoenix to Buena Vista, Colorado.

From Phoenix Through Colorado

The following is a road trip from Phoenix through some of the highest mountains of Colorado, perfect for the hot summer days. Depending on how much time you have, you can do this trip in five days, or two weeks.

The Kachina Trail in Flagstaff makes a great stop on a longer summer road trip from Phoenix.
View from the meadow on the Kachina Trail Flagstaff


On a hot day, you want to do the drive from Phoenix to Flagstaff with no stops, since most are still too hot to enjoy. Flagstaff always offers some respite from the desert heat, however, it’s often still too sunny to fully enjoy. Still, it is a perfect stop on a longer trip towards the higher mountains of Colorado.

Depending on the time of the day you get there, and your preference, Flagstaff offers opportunities for a meal, a hike or two (if you want to drive up to SnowBowl).

Although, if you want to do this trip in five days, you might not have time to linger in town.

Instead, Sunset Crater offers a great stop for a picnic lunch or a short walk along a lava flow. And it is on the way towards Colorado. You don’t need to get out of your way or take a detour to stop there.

Sunset Crater, a unique Arizona destination
Sunset Crater from the trail

Sunset Crater

Everyone has different preferences. For our family, for example, Sunset Crater is one of those magical places we always return to and stop whenever possible. So, naturally, it was our choice for the first stop on our summer road trip.

Instead of passing it by continuing on AZ-89, we drove several miles on the Sunset Crater and Wupatki Scenic Road. And since we were arrived in the area at lunchtime, we had a picnic lunch in the lava flow near the crater. We couldn’t continue without a walk along the main lava trail, stopping at the entrance of the lava cave to enjoy the cold air rushing out of there.

Durango offers nature walks along the Animas River.
Durango. Trail along the Animas River.

Drive to Durango

The drive from Flagstaff to Durango takes you through the land of the Diné, or Navajo, featuring colorful and unique rock formations through long stretches of nothingness. Still, it is a beautiful ride. However, you won’t find many trees or shade along the road. But even with the heat, for beauty, and a look at an ancient site, take a brief side trip to Navajo National Monument, just ten miles off the main road.

Besides that, your next stop is Cortez, a gateway to Mesa Verde National Monument. If you’ve never been there, a stop at the famous cliff dwellings is a must.

However, if you only have a few days, and your main reason is to get away from the heat, keep in mind that this area is still hot in the summer.

Durango marks the beginning of cooler temperatures along this route. Surrounded by forests, with a river flowing through it, the town offers the perfect place to stop overnight. You’ll find plenty of restaurants and hotels for every price range in town.

Past Durango…

Depending on your time and mood, you have several options for a road trip through Colorado from Durango. They all offer cooler temperatures, gorgeous vistas among high peaks, aspens and pine-forests.

While we often drive the scenic San Juan Skyway, this time we went another route through the San Juan National Forest.

View of Chimney Rock in Colorado
Chimney Rock.

Chimney Rock and Pagosa Springs

The winding road took us by Chimney Rock, the ancient observatory. The site makes a great stop, if you have time. Although you’ll find no shade, it is high enough to feel comfortable. And, the site offers a great learning opportunity about the ancient people of the Four Corners.

A Chacoan outlier, the site at Chimney Rock is an ancient village worth exploring, while also offering an opportunity to learn about the moon’s phases, as it passes through Chimney Rock.

The town of Pagosa Springs is a popular destination, and it gets crowded in the summer months. However, it still warrants a stop, if for no other reason, just for a lunch or snack and a short walk.

Wolf Creek Pass, a scenic stop on a summer road trip through Colorado
Wolf Creek Pass in Colorado

Wolf Creek Pass

One of the most beautiful stretches of this road comes up past Pagosa Springs, though, as the road traverses the San Juans through Wolf Creek Pass. Naturally, we stop along this stretch several times, but at the very least, we spend time on top, enjoying the views below.

Wolf Creek Pass is not only a beautiful spot, but it also marks the Continental Divide.

The Continental Divide separates the watershed, or rivers, of the continent that drain into the Pacific from those that drain into the Atlantic (and the Arctic) Oceans. The divide runs north and south along a line of high peaks in the Rocky Mountains and the Andes, and a large section runs through Colorado.

Though nothing really obvious shows you that you pass the Divide (except a symbolic line in a parking lot, it is an interesting fact to think about as you look around from some of the highest peaks of the San Juan Mountains.

On a river walk in Buena Vista, Colorado
Along a river walk in Buena Vista, Colorado

Buena Vista

On the way to Buena Vista, the road passes through some flat farmlands, though the mountains are never too far in the distance.

The small mountain town of Buena Vista is often our primary destination on this road trip. The town offers plenty of outdoor activities, from hiking, biking, to river rafting, while the historic center features plenty of quaint cafes and restaurants. You can stay in town, or in nearby Salida, for at least one night, and experience the mountain town and all it offers.

Cottonwood Pass in the Rocky Mountains, in Colorado, on a July 4th weekend...
On top of Cottonwood Pass on the July 4th weekend…

Cottonwood Pass

After spending time in Buena Vista, we drove back into the high mountains and continued through Cottonwood Pass.

You’ll always find snow on the top of Cottonwood Pass, even during the hottest days of the summer. Depending on how much time we have, we often hike the trail leading to the top from the parking lot. But regardless if we are on the trail, or just a few steps away from the parking lot, the views from the top of this pass are worth stopping for.

At an elevation of 12,126 feet, the pass is also on the Continental Divide.

Along a trail near Crested Butte, Colorado
Lake along a trail near Crested Butte

Crested Butte

One of Colorado’s ski resort towns, Crested Butte is popular without being overrun by tourists – at least in the summer.

The historic town in centered on its Main Street, lined with boutique shops and several restaurants. In the summer, instead of skiing, the town’s surroundings offer plenty of hikes, along with biking and horseback riding possibilities.

And you can find some quiet trails where you can be alone in the forest in the surrounding mountains. Which is why we chose it for an overnight stay.


A tiny town along the San Juan Scenic Skyway, Ridgway, is a perfect opportunity for a stop.

Although a picturesque town in itself, it might have a special significance for fans of the classic Western True Grit. Filmed in the 1960s, the movie used several locations in Ridgway, of which the old courthouse facade and the saloon still stand.

Across the street, the Ridgway Railroad Museum, with its historic train depot, caters to the railroad enthusiasts.

As for us, we usually just stop for the quaint atmosphere of the city and the opportunity for a short walk.

The town also marks a crossroads along the way back to Phoenix.

You can go either towards Ouray or towards Telluride. Both options are as scenic, though very different. Driving through Ouray and Silverton might be a better choice for a summer road trip though, since it keeps you in the mountains longer.

View from the "Million Dollar Highway"
View from the “Million Dollar Highway”

1. Ouray, Million Dollar Highway, Silverton, Durango, Phoenix

Taking the road towards Ouray, you end up on the Million Dollar Highway, famous not only because it may have cost a million dollars to build a 25-mile stretch of the road, but as one of the most picturesque mountain roads in the US.

Before getting on this famous road, Ouray is a must-stop destination. In fact, it may be a destination in itself if you have time to stay longer.

Past Ouray, you’ll be driving 25 miles through a forest-filled, but extremely steep pass, on the side of sheer cliffs, but also along crystal-clear lakes and aspen colonies.

Picturesque Silverton is also worth a longer stop, although you can walk through town from one side to the other in less than an hour. Walk through Main Street lined with historic buildings, and stay long enough to dine in town. Or, if you have time, stay overnight at the Grand Imperial hotel to immerse yourself in history. And watch the steam train leave for Durango in the early afternoon. (You could take the train, but in that case you’d need to return the next day for your car.)

Between Silverton and Durango, you’ll pass through more gorgeous mountain scenery, with several opportunities to stop along the way.

From Durango, take the same road back to Phoenix.

Mountain View near Telluride
Mountain View near Telluride

2. Telluride, Dolores, Cortez, Kayenta, Flagstaff, Phoenix

Since we’ve driven the road through Ouray and Silverton more often, this time, we chose the road through Telluride, Dolores, and Cortez.

On this side, Telluride is worth a stop, though it is a short detour. We don’t always drive into town, but stop in the surrounding mountains for short hikes. Past the pine-covered mountains, the drive follows the scenic Dolores River Valley. Along this road is one of my favorite hiking trails, one of many along dense aspen and pine forests and rushing mountain streams.

We like to stop in Dolores at the Canyons of the Ancients, visit the Museum and walk up the hill to Escalante Pueblo. Besides the ruins, the walk offers some gorgeous scenery, a view of Ute Mountain in the distance and the Dolores River below. If you have time, and it’s not too hot and sunny, a short side trip to Lowry Pueblo is worth the time.

Stop in Cortez for lunch, or, like us, for the last overnight stay.

From Cortez, the drive goes through some of the most spectacular scenery of the Southwest, through the Navajo Nation. Though some of our favorite spots of Four Corners are along this route, we drive through in the summer, since you’ll find no shade, and the summer sun is intense in this area.

Our next longer stop on a summer road trip is Flagstaff once again, before heading back into the heat of the desert.

Why Is This A 5-Day Road Trip?

This itinerary is a great fit for a lengthy 5-day weekend, although it can also take several weeks to complete.

Those of us living in Phoenix take every opportunity to leave town in the summer. Even after weeks of being away. Since the destinations are close enough, we drive this itinerary besides longer vacations we take in the summers.

This time, we drove it during the Fourth of July weekend, after returning from a three-week trip from Europe, where we spent most of our time in Brasov.

Returning to the heat of over 110 degrees daily, we had to leave the city. So, when we had an opportunity, we drove to the highest mountains we could reach by driving: the San Juan Mountains in Colorado.

Though we only had five days, this summer road trip offered a mini-vacation in an environment as different from the desert as night and day.

Resources for the trip

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If you are driving this road trip after landing in Phoenix, you might need to rent a car. You can use Discover Cars, a car rental comparison website to find the best deal.

Cheap Car Rental 320x50

Unless you are camping, you need to rent a place to stay overnight. Use Trivago to compare deals on hotels and alternative accommodations. Or, book a place through or VRBO.

Of course, you can also use TripAdvisor to find the best places to stay, and best things to do. You can even book hotels through the site.

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