Texas to Colorado Road Trip
A planner for your Rocky Mountain road trip
Christopher D. Davis | 1/22/20
At InvitedHome, more than a quarter (!) of all of our guests come from the great state of Texas, and we’re happy to have y’all. As a native Texan and Colorado transplant myself, I’ve made the Dallas to Denver road trip a time or two (or 10), and wanted to share my favorite distractions, stopping points, restaurants, and sights along the way.
Your vacation starts the moment you leave your house, not when you arrive at one of ours. Make the most of every minute of your vacation with the Texas to Colorado road trip planner. I’ve included ideas and suggestions for families and groups of friends of all age levels and interests.
This post covers:
1. Cadillac Ranch
2. The Capulin Volcano
3. The Welcome to Colorado sign
4. Historic Trinidad
5. The Ludlow Massacre
6. A hidden gem in Aguilar
7. The Manitou Incline
8. Eleven Mile Reservoir
9. Quandary Peak
Whether you’re going Austin to Denver, Houston to Telluride, Dallas to Breckenridge, or anything else, going through Amarillo is almost always going to be the first leg of your trip. I’ll leave it up to you how you get to Amarillo—it’s your state, and it’s not my place to say whether you should stop for kolaches in Llano or at the Chicken Box in Wichita Falls.
I’m here to tell you about what lies beyond Amarillo, and how to make the most of it.
If you’re a Texan and you’ve never seen Cadillac Ranch, you can afford to budget in 30 minutes to see it. Kids will love walking in and under the cars, and for teens it’s an instant Instagram sensation. It’s about 10 minutes past where you’d normally turn north—just take I-40 to exit 62A, go under the interstate, and turn right on the frontage road. The “ranch” will be up on your left.
Bring a jacket unless it’s summer! It can get extremely windy out here. It’s the plains of Texas, afterall.
Total additional time: 30 minutes from the 87 north turnoff to the ranch and back.
If you’re following Google or Apple maps, it might steer you through Amarillo and onto a small bumpy road that eventually connects you with 385 north. Ignore this, and just take 87 north to Dumas, then head west on 87 to Hartley. The road is in poor condition and unsightly.
Important Note: if you’re driving anytime November to April, check the conditions of Raton Pass before you leave Amarillo! This high pass is prone to heavy storms that can close it for 24 hours or longer. Don’t wait until you get the pass to find another route—this will set you back several hours. Instead, check the conditions, and if there’s a chance the pass will close, take the north route through the panhandle of Oklahoma and the plains of eastern Colorado. The terrain isn’t as pretty, but you won’t risk getting stuck in Raton, New Mexico.
As soon as you roll through Texline you’ll see your clock roll back. Celebate, cause your arrival time just backed up by an hour! What should you do with that extra hour? Go to the Capulin Volcano.
Almost exactly an hour from the Texas-New Mexico border you’ll hit the first stop-worthy natural feature: The Capulin Volcano National Monument. You’ll notice it on the horizon to the northwest as early as Des Moines, and as you approach, be on the lookout for volcanic rock strewn throughout the desert and solidified lava flows. As far as geology goes, the Capulin is extremely young. It was only about 58,000 years ago that its eruptions were molding the very landscape you’ll be driving through.
There’s a road that winds its way to a parking lot at the top, affording you excellent views of the plains to the east and the mountains to the west. On a clear day you'll be able to see 5 states: Oklahoma, Texas, Colorado, Kansas, and New Mexico.
Total additional time: 1 hour from the interstate, to the summit, and back to the interstate.
You’ll get your first real taste of the mountains as you approach Raton, New Mexico. Unless you need gas, no need to stop here. There’s a better stop coming.
Reset your mileage, and turn north onto Interstate 25 and start the long climb up to the summit of Raton Pass. Take in the scenery, but also keep an eye on your odometer. As it ticks closer to 9 miles, start slowing down—the famous “Welcome to Colorful Colorado” sign is just around a curve after you go under an overpass. It’s easy to miss.
In truth, there are 41 of these signs, but this is perhaps the most spectacular. Pull over, take your picture with it, and look to the northwest to see all the peaks you’ll soon be traveling through.
You’ll be tempted to speed as you cruise down the backside of the pass. Don’t. And as you start to level off, you’ll soon find yourself in Trinidad, which is absolutely worth a stop if you’re into off-the-beaten path charm.
Photo by Anthony Quintano
With roots that are a strange mix of coal mining, Italian immigrants, and hippie communes, Trinidad is unique to say the least. It has a well-preserved Victorian downtown and an unmistakable Italian-American culture. And while it hasn’t seen the tourism boom of Colorado’s high-country, there are certainly some up-and-coming spots to check out, like the Perkatory Coffee House and the Purple Toad.
Best hole in the wall spot: Nana & Nano Monteleone’s Deli and Pasta House. This is where Trinidad’s Italian roots really shine. Order in or take it out, this has in my opinion some of the best, most authentic Italian dishes anywhere in the country—and I lived in Boston's North End for 4 years.
Total additional time: 30 minutes-1 hour, depending how long you stay in town. (Photo by HeidiTown)
About 15 minutes north of Trinidad there’s a small granite memorial honoring the victims of an event you probably never learned about in history: The Ludlow Massacre. I’ll leave it up to you to read the full history, but it involves a colony of coal miners, John D. Rockeller, a strike, and a mounted machine gun. Take exit 27 from I-25 and head west on 44 to learn more about this horrific event and keep the memory of its victims alive.
Total additional time: 10 minutes
The very next exit will take you into the almost-ghost town of Aguilar, where legends of La Llorona still abound and rattlesnakes are a part of everyday life. The main reason to stop into Aguilar? Ringo’s Food Market. Even more unassuming than Nana & Nano’s, this little Italian market is a throwback to the soda shops and markets of yesteryear in the best way.
Head to the deli and stock up on rich olives, cow and goat cheeses, spicy salami, focaccia, and anything else that hasn’t yet sold out for the day, and you’ll have some perfect road trip snacks for the remainder of your journey. I can’t remember specifically, but this is probably cash-only, so be prepared.
Total additional time: 15-20 minutes
Here’s where your journey splits off. We’ll provide a separate guide for that, coming soon.
If you’re heading to the Summit or Eagle county resorts of Keystone, Breckenridge, Vail, Beaver Creek, Copper, or Winter Park, continue!
Zoom north on 25 through Pueblo and into the southern edge of Colorado Springs, and here you’ll have a choice: If you’re heading to Denver, you’re close. Colorado Springs to Denver is about 2 hours with traffic, much less without. If you’re going from Texas to Breckenridge, Keystone, Vail, Or Beaver Creek, it’s best to turn into the mountains here.
Exit I-25 to go north on 24, and scan the mountains in front of you for a vertical scar going straight up one of the mountains in front of Pike’s Peak. This is the Manitou Incline, and it’s all yours to climb. 2,000 feet of vertical ascent in under 1 mile averaging 45 degrees, with some parts as steep as 68 degrees. What was once a noisy, smelly cog railway is now a set of staircases that lead to a mid-way summit with incredible views of Red Rock Canyon, Garden of the Gods, and the eastern plains. It’s not for the faint of heart or those who may be out of shape, but it’s certainly rewarding! (Photo Credit to Denver Post)
If you’re Manitou inclined, check out the funky historical town of Manitou Springs afterward.
Total extra time: 15 minutes to get there, 2 hours to get up and down, 15 minutes back to the highway. Allow 3 hours, plus more if you’re going to eat/drink in Manitou Springs. Also allow an extra 15 minutes for finding parking if it's busy.
Now we get into mountain territory. After nearly an hour you’ll get to Lake George, and if you’re up for a slight detour, I’d recommend heading to the high-elevation (8,600 feet) alpine lake within Eleven Mile State Park. Rarely crowded and always serene, Eleven Mile Reservoir is pure, unspoilt Colorado.
Total extra time: 30 minutes to an hour, depending how long you stay at the lake.
Now you’re really getting close. More zooming will take you through Fairplay (the inspiration for the show South Park), and then you’re only about 30-45 minutes from Breckenridge! But there’s one more suggested stop before you get into Colorado’s high country proper: a true Colorado 14er.
There are 53 peaks in Colorado higher than 14,000 feet, and if you want to tell your flatlander friends back home you climbed one of them, Quandary Peak is one of the safest and easiest, and it’s right on your way.
About 13 miles north of Fairplay, exit Highway 9 onto blue lakes road, then turn right on McCullough Gulch Rd. The trailhead is just up the road. This is a 6.7 mile, extremely popular, out-and-back hike that should be doable for most physically fit or active people, although you should still allow 4-6 hours, start as early as possible, and monitor conditions before starting your hike. Since you’ll need to start early in the morning, this is best suited for anyone doing the drive from Texas to Colorado over the course of 2 days or longer. Learn more about hiking 14ers here.
And now, once you get to Breckenridge, you’ve officially arrived. Vail and Beaver Creek are about an hour further, Copper is just around the corner about 30 minutes away, as is Keystone. Winter park is about 1.5 hours further north.
What secret spots and must-see attractions did I miss? Let me know, and we’ll be sure to include them!
Happy road tripping, and we’ll see you in the mountains.
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