Start: Phoenix, Arizona
Day 1: Flagstaff, Arizona
Plan to spend one full day driving from Phoenix to Grand Canyon National Park, with a midday stop in this northern Arizona town for lunch and window-shopping in the restored (and funky) downtown area.
Days 2-4: Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona
You’ll barely scratch the surface of this national park in three days, but that’s just enough time to check off a few must-do activities: hike or ride a mule to the Colorado River at the bottom of the canyon (with an optional overnight at the historic Phantom Ranch cabins); photograph sunrise and sunset from one of many South Rim viewpoints; learn about the Big Ditch’s geology through ranger talks and a visit to the Yavapai Geology Museum; and visit Ancestral Puebloan ruins at the Tusayan Museum. Head to MyGrandCanyonPark.com for info on the park, lodging, and activities; interactive maps; and a free trip-planning kit.
Days 5-6: Mesa Verde National Park
Don’t rush the drive from the Grand Canyon to Mesa Verde’s outstanding ruins. Along the way, you’ll be passing through the monumental red rock scenery of the Four Corners region and many small towns in the Navajo Nation. Stop along US 160 to shop at trading posts, feast on Indian tacos, and photograph sandstone formations. Head to Mesa Verde early the next day to beat the crowds and get started on your drive to Durango by midday.
Day 7: Durango, Colorado
Many mountain aficianados think the San Juan Range is the most striking in Colorado. Judge for yourself by booking seats on the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, a mining-era train that braves death-defying cliffs on a full-day out-and-back trip along the Animas River. If you’re getting road-weary, consider staying a couple days in town; there’s plenty of shopping, biking, hiking, fishing, rafting, and Western sightseeing.
Days 8-9: Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado
You could easily sail by the Great Sand Dunes National Park and make it to Denver (or even Estes Park) in one long day from Durango, but America’s tallest dunes might be the most exotic natural sight in the region. And hiking the 600-foot-high sand piles is good family fun (bring a saucer so the kids can sled down).
Day 10: Denver corridor to Estes Park
Our advice: Leave the park early so you can tour the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, shop Pearl Street in Boulder, and get to Estes Park in time for a trout dinner.
Day 11 & 12: Rocky Mountain National Park
These web pages are full of ideas of what to do during your two days in the park. Whatever you decide, don’t miss a cruise up Trail Ridge Road, a hike to a lake or mountain summit, and wildlife-watching in the meadows.