Day 1: Denver to Salida
Breakfast from Crema Coffee House (cremacoffeehouse.net) fuels the 2-hour-15-minute launch out of Denver’s orbit and into the mountains toward Buena Vista (“BYOO-nuh Vista” if you want to blend in). Along the Arkansas River, the town is a jumping-in point for kayakers, white-water rafters and stand-up paddleboarders (which is why you see so many signs asking you “SUP?”). If the rapids look too rapid, stroll instead along the banks in South Main, a meticulous neighborhood of gabled homes and shops that feels slightly staged but nonetheless stylish. Pop into the bar at the Surf Hotel, which anchors the area, for a refreshment on the wraparound balcony that overlooks the river (surfhotel.com).
Day 2: Salida to Paonia
Show no restraint when selecting your breakfast items at Salida’s Little Red Hen Bakery (littleredhensalida.com). The drive west over Monarch Pass offers a panorama of the Sawatch mountain range as you cross the Continental Divide, the boundary that decides whether a river flows east or west. Continue on to Crested Butte, carved with plenty of hiking and biking paths. During the Crested Butte Wildflower Festival, July 9-18, local guides lead walks to the lushest spots, including the Rustler Gulch and Beckwith Pass trails (crestedbuttewildflowerfestival.org). Back in town, brightly painted buildings along Elk Avenue host convivial places such as Secret Stash (secretstash.com), which serves cheeky pizzas like the Booty Call (a heap of meat).
Day 3: Paonia to Grand Junction
Before leaving Paonia, stock the car with tamales, honey and cider from Big B’s store and cafe, which sits steps away from their apple orchard (bigbs.com). Then drive over to Western Culture Farmstead & Creamery for some fresh feta and chevre and to coo over the adorable baby goats (westernculturefarmstead.com). It’s 2½ hours south to Telluride, sitting in a box canyon of 13ers and 14ers in a landscape that could be Switzerland’s stunt double. The emerald peaks crowd around this former mining town, now an upscale enclave of art galleries, cafes and shops. Get a lay of the land aboard the town’s free gondola, which lifts riders 1,750 feet above the valley floor. By late afternoon, the final leg of this tour sends you north 2.5 hours to Palisade, where in summer, orchards all over burst with the town’s prized peaches. Then, with space left on your camera-phone for one more astonishing landmass, take the scenic Rim Rock Drive through Colorado National Monument, 32 square miles of sandstone plateaus and rock formations with plenty of roadside overlooks along the route.