Road tripping, hiking and camping on the Colorado Plateau

We got back from our trip in the south west last Thursday, we have many stories to tell, a lot of pictures to share, a video or two to edit… But when I start telling the story of the trip, it really means that it’s over and that the trip went all as planned. Actually, there was not much planned on this trip: we wanted to spend some time in Colorado and Utah, see some national parks, but without any particular agenda. We bought our flights at the end of July, we checked the website Road Trippers that has great resources for road trips in the USA. The only things we wanted to do were:

  • drive in awesome landscapes,
  • hike in awesome landscapes,
  • camp in awesome landscapes.

Tuesday, August 26: Hello Colorado!

road trip sud ouest américain aéroport de Boston

Noon: we land in Denver. Any French person born in the 80’s would sing the song Denver, the last dinosaur the second he/she hears the word Denver. But apparently, it’s just the name of a city here, and not a famous cartoon. We ran some errands in a Walmart, that was a first since we arrived in the USA. Not that exciting, but it felt like an american institution to try at least once.

road trip sud ouest américain weed shop Boulder Colorado

5pm: we get to Ken’s, the brother of one of my best friend here in Boston. We visited Boulder with him, we drank beers and we even went into our first weed shop – since marijuana is legal in Colorado for recreative use. It was raining outside, whatever, we were in vacation, we were happy.

road trip sud ouest américain soirée à Boulder resto mexicain

Weather: chaotic, stormy

Change of the day: we’re on the Mountain Time! 2 hours less than in Boston.

A long ride

2,845 km by plane

50 km by car

3 km by foot in Walmart and Boulder

Wednesday, August 27: First hike in the Rocky Rocky Mountain National Park

road trip sud ouest américain camping Moraine Rocky Mountain National Park Colorado

We left Boulder and drove towards the mountains – quite different from what we’ve got in New England. The road trip was on! First thing first: find a place to sleep. We wanted to walk in the Bear Lake area in the Rocky Mountain National Park, and we found a camp in the Moraine campground. No shower, but an awesome view!

road trip sud ouest américain randonnée près du Bear Lake Rocky Mountain National Park Colorado

We started walking, with layers of clothes, we were ready for rain/storm/sunburn. That’s pretty much all we had got on this day. We walked for 3 hours, and saw 4 lakes. Thank you National Park!

road trip sud ouest américain Rocky Mountain National Park Colorado

We ended up the day by a short walk around Sprague Lake, that was just fine… and then we turned backwards and eventually saw the huge mountain behind us. We just had to look at the sun on the summit: it was so pretty. We got back to the campground, Manu made a fire and grilled some sausages. Life is so easy sometimes, it looks like a commercial on TV. 

Thursday, August 28: The road above the clouds, and then going west

road trip sud ouest américain la route dans les nuages Rocky Mountain National Park Colorado

We drove a lot this day because the weather sucked. Okay, there’s no bad weather, there’s just bad gear. But we couldn’t see anything through the clouds, up high on the Trail Ridge Road. Too bad!

road trip sud ouest américain des cerfs dans la foret colorado

We hesitated to go on a hike or not, but we kept driving. We saw deers and said good bye to the Rockies for now. The highway went through our first cool canyon – Glenwood Canyon.

road trip Elk Loop Colorado sud ouest américain

We started driving on the most beautiful road of our trip: the Elk Loop (west side) in the middle of Colorado. We arrived pretty late to our campground. 

Friday, August 29: Black Canyon of the Gunnison

road trip sud ouest américain Black Canyon of the Gunnison Colorado la vue après la marche matinale

After a very rustic night, we left the campground at 7am, ready to bounce and hike. We were completely lonely, and the landscape were amazing. Walking on top of a hill, on top of a mesa, we had a great overview of this incredible canyon: deep, narrow, and with the steepest cliffs ever. Altitude gave me a short breathe, but I was in awe. 

road trip sud ouest américain Black Canyon of the Gunnison Colorado

After our 10K walk this morning, we took the car and drove along all the vistas. This canyon was a pure beauty, and each point of view offered different angles. A coyote was sitting on the road, we turned the engine off, and looked at it.

road trip sud ouest américain vautour dans son nid Colorado

We left the Black Canyon area, but further north, the same river made other canyons, not as impressive, but still very gorgeous. Along the Elk Loop, we stopped at the Curecanti National Recreational Area, a reservoir on the bottom of a canyon. We looked for a campground to stay at, but ended up in a motel.

Saturday, August 30: From mountains to desert

road trip sud ouest américain Crested Butte Colorado

We woke up in the really nice town of  Crested Butte. It was chilly this morning, we walked along main street.

road trip sud ouest américain Aspen Colorado Marroon Bells

We kept going on the Elk Loop, which was just a dirt road after Crested Butte, closed during winter. We saw deers, elks and a lot of campers. We stopped in Aspen (we saw a Whole Foods which indicates a higher cost of living: indeed it’s a place for jet set people – totally like us. Some houses worth more than 4 million dollars…) We walked to see the famous view on the Maroon Bells that costs 7$ to get on a bus. We liked it, but too crowded, and too pricy.

road trip Colorado National Monument

Driving west, we stopped at the Colorado National Monument. We  thought that we would just see “a monument”, but it was actually a scenic road on the rim of a canyon. Of course, America full blast. We saw a proposal, but didn’t ask for a Champagne glass. The sunset over the red rocks made us happy. And then we had 2 more hours to reach Moab, Utah. 

Sunday, August 31: Let’s see what’s in “Arches” – that we renamed the awesome National Park with some arches, but not only

road trip sud ouest américain - Arches National Park Utah O double arche

Moab is a tiny touristic place, the capital for mountain bikers. There are 2 national parks close by. We picked Arches first, cause we drove a lot the day before and needed to move a bit. As soon as we entered the park, I thought it was just incredible. The one and only hike we did that day took us 6 hours, in the sand, by more than 90°F: The Devil’s Garden. Awesome!

road trip sud ouest américain - Arches National Park Utah

The theme of the park is Arches, that’s its name, and there are more than 2,000 arches here – we didn’t see all of them. But actually there’s much more to see: big rocks (dah, it’s Utah), buttes, cliffs, sands. Okay, pictures will talk for me.

road trip Moab Utah Arches National Park

The hike was hard, but crazyyy. We went to have lunch at 5pm (well deserved) with our new friend that we met along the road, Jason. We thought at first that he was a ghost, here to lose us in this maze. But he was actually a super cool guy from Seattle. Who drinks hot coffee when hiking.

Monday, September 1st: Canyons, canyons, canyons. And fear on the Road of the Death

Canyonlands National Park vue sur les deux rivières Moab Utah

We were still in Moab, and  we thought we would have some rest by driving in the other park of the region: Canyonland. It was like Disneyland, but for canyons and crazy views over canyons and rivers.

La route de la mort Canyonlands National Park Moab Utah

We tried to see the river, down the canyon, and took the only non-4 wheel drive possible on the park, according to the map. It was wrong. It was the most traumatizing driving experience I ever had, but couldn’t say shit not to disturb Manu who was trying to make his way down on Mineral Road. We survived though.

Road trip sud ouest américain arches national park moab utah symbole

Still alive, we enjoyed ourselves one more night in Arches, because, that’s the place-to-be in Moab. 

Tuesday Septembre 2: Some Arches, and some Goblins too

Road trip sud ouest américain arches national park moab utah

We shopped at  Village Market in Moab, planning to not see much civilization in the next days, and went back to Arches. The park seemed small, but there was a lot to see. We wanted to go back to Canyonlands, much bigger, but come on, it was not doable with our silly car. We know that we are going back here, someday. This place is unique. 

Goblin parc pres de Capitol Reef

Here we go, time to put the shades on and drive. It was very hot, and I let my Babybels in the trunk. We arrived to the funny Goblins Park, because look, the hoodoos look like globlins, so let’s call this place like this. We did a great hike in a sandy canyon. 

se reveiller au camping a capitol reef

A few more hours of driving and here we come:  Capitol Reef  was our next stop, in the middle of the red canyons, this is a true, but small, green oasis – bugs know it too. We slept like babies in the campground, though I turn my shoes upside down to avoid scorpios.

Wednesday, September 3: Capitol Reef, so far away

Spoiler Alert: this was the best day of our trip. We visited first the most popular part of the park, drove on a scenic drive, walked a bit. Then we took the Route 12, which is supposed to be the most beautiful drive in the USA. Come on, it’s great, but it’s not the best. We found in the middle of nowhere an awesome restaurant. As you can see, we don’t have picture of all of this, cause the memory card just went coockoo this day. Too bad.
Headquarter canyon Capitol Reef

We entered Capitol Reef from the Burr Trail, on the Southern part. We hiked on a slot canyon, we were alone, except from one guy.  

Biggest mistake of our trip: at the end of the day, we found the best campground ever (free, in the middle of nowhere, small, and with friendly other campers), BUT we decided that we could drive a little bit more. Eventually, we drove for 5 hours in great landscapes that we couldn’t see (it was dark = night), we had to go down another dangerous dirt road to the bottom of  a canyon, we killed a bird on the road, and got to a motel at midnight. We are still thinking of the Capital Reef campground that we let go. 

Thursday, September 4: From the mythical Monument Valley to the less know Bisti Badlands

monument valley utah

After the best day of the trip, this was probably the worst. Now that I’m back in Boston, it doesn’t seem that bad anymore, but that day, we were moody.  Monument Valley is a nice postcard from the West, but we saw nicest place, less crowded, less pricy, and you still need a SUV to go down the road. The museum dedicated to the Navajos who own the land is sad and depressing – though interesting. We even ate at Mac Donald’s, which is fun, but gross. Bad day.

bisti badland nouveau mexique

We drove on the north of Arizona and it was… how to say… not that interesting. There was a sand storm, then it rained, then we got lost. We were in Bisti Badlands by the end of the day, an original park, but it was complicated to walk there, since there was no real trail.

arc en ciel a farmington nouveau mexique

We saw some animals – cows, rabbits, okay, not as exciting as bisons or elks, but still, there were cute. We saw a double rainbow. It was time to go back to Colorado. At 9 pm, we were at the Mesa Verde campground.

Friday, September 5: Back to the past in Mesa Verde

Mesa Verde Palace Cliff

Camping made us waking up naturally very early. At 8am , we were at the visitor center booking 2 guided tours to discover the Mesa Verde National Park. This day was meant to be all about history and civilization.

Mesa Verde Palace Cliff

Mesa Verde, are dwellings within cliffs, built by Anasazis between 600 and 1400 AD. Truly amazing.

Mesa Verde la vue par la petite fenetre

We visited several of them, admired the view from the other side of the cliffs, from where we could see many of the dwellings. There was also a museum. We met French students on a break from medical school: they were travelling in the USA for 7 weeks!

Saturday, September 6: Ouray, the Switzerland of America

ouray colorado la suisse de l'amerique

We followed the recommandations of a ranger in Gunnison and our host in Moab, and stopped in Ouray, which was supposed to be a cool place to hike. The town has the label “Switzerland of America”. The mountains are great, and look like the Alps, but the town has definitely a Far West ambiance. No yodeling down here. 

chemin de randonnee a ouray

Ouray is also famous for its hot springs, but we were here to walk! We listened to the advice of a guide in the visitor center and went for a 6 mile hike. We thought it would be easy, but it was very steep, and since it was high in altitude, we were short of breathe all the time. But how wonderful was the view on the top! Totally worth it.

vers telluride colorado

We spent the evening in Telluride, the drive to get there was, again, incredible. I drank just one beer, but was drunk – side effect of the altitude! On the way back to our AirBnb, Manu drove, I sang, and we slept in our log-house, with lamas in the yard. 

Sunday, September 7: Million Dollar Highway

million dollar highway colorado

We left our AirBnb in Ridgway, and planned to get to the Great Sand Dunes – it was only a 4 hour drive. This was a silly plan: there’s never “only 4 hour drive” in a road trip.

vieille mine abandonnee colorado

The road was scenic, as we thought it would be with its Million Dollar Highway name: we saw montagnes (main theme in Colorado), old mines, cascades and rivers. A storm was coming, we barely walked. We took a hitchhiker in our car: Seth, from Texas, who became our hero. He just walked 80 miles in 4 days, along the Colorado Trail. He gave us many advice to become a real hiker and camper in the wilderness. Like how to clean socks in a river, that kind of deal. 

train a vapeur durango silverton colorado

The drive was longer than expected. Surprise, surprise. And we arrived in the Great Sand Dunes campground pretty late. It was totally silent, and with a sky full of stars.

Monday, September 8: Dunes in the middle of mountains

dans la tente a great sand dunes colorado

We woke up early, thanks to our neighbor who was talking to himself. He also had an axe, and gave us the creeps. We left our camp, and enjoyed the scenery: DUNES and MOUNTAINS. How crazy does that sound? 

great sand dunes colorado marcher dans le sable

Best workout ever: climbing a dune. A guy asked us to take a picture of him, and he happened to be French! A baker from Texas, Jean-Christophe has been living in Texas for the past 20 miles. We chatted, and then hit the trail. Well, there was no trail in the dunes. Just sand. And a lot of sands in my boots.

great sand dunes colorado les fleurs

The afternoon, we went to see a cascade, and then had a lazy time at the camp, writing postcards to friends and family. We walked at night in the dunes, the full moon was bright, but I was scared of mountain lions because a lot of people told me stories about this wild animal, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. We just saw deers. But deers are preys of mountain lions…

Tuesday, September 9: What else can we see?

Florissant National Monument vieille maison

Time to pack up, we didn’t plan to camp again, and really needed to take a shower. We drove, the scenery had nothing so crazy to talk about. As the old anonymous proverb says: Sometimes, you just have to drive and shut up. 

Florissant National Monument arbre petrifie

We got to a park where you can see fossiles and petrified forrests, in Florissant. It’s not a National Park, but a National Monument: which means that there’s just one big attraction. So we were in love with fossiles for the whole afternoon, went to the museum, walked and relaxed. This tree was a redwood (now it’s a stone), and it’s million of years old. R.E.S.P.E.C.T.

road trip-21 voyager rend audacieux

This was the beginning of our come back to cities: we spent the night in Colorado Springs. Colorado is the state with the largest number of breweries, so that’s what we did: beers, and real food. That was a change from our camping Mac’n’cheese.

Wednesday, September 10: Back to Denver

nenuphar au jardin botanique de denver

That’s our last day! The weather in the mountains was cloudy, so we went to Denver. What is there to see in the capitale of Colorado? We checked on our phones, and picked the botanical gardens. Good luck for us: we loved them!  

LoDo Denver

We also walked in the historical neighborhood, LoDo, which stands for Lower Downtown. Large avenues, big buildings and happy hours. We don’t have that in Boston, so we enjoyed them!

Super glace a Denver

Ice cream in this funny place, and then we saw the capitole.  Finally, on the way to the airport. We couldn’t believe that it was over! A pick-up truck bumped into our car one mile before arriving at the rental car place. No, it wasn’t over yet.

Our drive

We planned this map on Road Trippers, and finally we drove 3,115 miles (5,013 km), and spent more than 83 hours driving.

Our last summer road trips:

carte des road trips aux Etats-Unis

Money, money : $3582,24 for 2 people, for 15 days


Flights: $612 Boston-Denver with JetBlue

Taxi: $62,06.

Rental Car: $650, + $225 for the liability insurance, and $25 of car damage

Gas: 13 stops at the gas station and we paid $380,23, + $2 for the tire pressure, and $2 for parking.

LODGING: $399,08

Camping and firewood: $126,92$ for 6 nights – the best way to enjoy the west, and the cheapest, by far

AirBnb: $30. Thanks to you, my dear readers, this part of the trip didn’t cost much: keep using the coupon to subscribe to AirBnb via the blog, without this, we would have paid 640$ for the 6 nights.

Motel: $242,16 for 2 nights.

FOOD: $1051,87

Restaurants: $702,87 – even though we thought we had been reasonable…

Groceries:  $349

VISITS : $177

Including the annual national pass for the national park ($80), valid for a year, but not okay for the State Parks.

How to conclude?

It was great, can’t wait for the next!

See ya,

Mathilde & Manu

arches utah road trip sud ouest americain colorado utah-2


Rédactrice, grande organisatrice et réseau socialite du Blog de Mathilde. Quand je ne suis pas devant un écran, j'organise des visites guidées de Boston, là où j'ai fondé ma petite entreprise Boston le nez en l'air. Je suis aussi auteure de nombreux guides de voyages, de livres de yoga et de jeux chez des éditeurs français. Suivez-moi sur Instagram, Facebook ou Pinterest.

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