Great Sand Dunes, Mesa Verde, Arches & Canyonlands - Road Trip Itinerary (2023)

Rocky Mountains · Southwest

ByChris CagleUpdated on

Great Sand Dunes, Mesa Verde, Arches & Canyonlands - Road Trip Itinerary (1)
Parks: 4Miles: 792Days: 7Hours: 13

This trip sees some of the lesser known parks in Colorado, then loops into Utah to see one of Utah’s finest. Arches and Canyonlands are right next to each other, so a stay in Moab, UT provides a perfect jumping off point to see them both.

Itinerary Notes

This trip makes a stop in Arches NP, which if you are visiting between April and October, you’ll need to purchase a timed entry pass. To cut down on congestion inside the park, NPS recently implemented this system that only allows you to enter the park in a vehicle during your allotted hour.

Schedule your rental vehicle ahead of time. Rental cars can be picked up and dropped off at different airports, but you just have to reserve it ahead of time. I usually do it as soon as I book our airfare. Do not wait to land in Denver and casually walk up to a rental kiosk. They might not have any cars available!

ArrivalDays 1-2

Denver, CO

Denver International Airport

Location: Denver, CO (MST)
Size: Large, #5 in North America • Code: DEN • Visit Website


We start this trip off by flying into Denver International Airport. An alternative would be to use Albuquerque International Sunport (ABQ) instead, but it adds about an extra 30-45 minutes to your drive to the Great Sand Dunes.



The next location is 250 miles away (~4 hours).

We suggest you spend the night in Denver before embarking on the trip. The drive to Alamosa takes about 4 hours, and goes directly through the beautiful city of Colorado Springs.

DestinationDays 2-3

Great Sand Dunes National Park

Alamosa, CO

Great Sand Dunes, Mesa Verde, Arches & Canyonlands - Road Trip Itinerary (2)
Great Sand Dunes National Park

Best Months: September, October, May & June
Hours: Open all year, 24 hours a day
Entrance Fee: $25 per vehicle, valid for 7 days

Located in southern Colorado, theGreat Sand Dunes National Park is flanked to the east by the Sangre De Cristo Mountains. At the heart of the park is the remarkable dune field that features sand mounds over 700 feet high. The sands are constantly changing and shifting, with daily winds, water, and even gravity. This park is an otherworldly place with miles of sweeping sand dunes from another era.


The best town to stay in when visiting the Great Sand Dunes in Alamosa, CO. There are a good bit of vacation rentals in the town, but your best option will probably be to shack up in a hotel for the night. We only stay one night here, so there is no need to get a place as big as what most Airbnbs are. There are no places to stay within the park itself, but there are a handful of ones directly outside of its boundary. Great Sand Dunes Lodge is located just south of the park’s main entrance. There are also rustic camping cabins nearby that have no running water or showers, if that is your type of thing.


Just beyond the entrance to the park, on Highway 150, lies the main Visitors Center. From here, you’ll quickly reach a couple of hiking trails, including theDunes Overlook(moderate, 2.3 miles round trip) and the much easier half-mileMontville Loop.

We highly recommend you experience the dunes at night with nighttime dune walks and stargazing, many led by park rangers. This is the reason we schedule a night in Alamosa. This park absolutely needs to be experienced at night!

Did you know that you can go sand-sledding at the park? Rent boards and sleds at theOasis Restaurant and Store(outside the park) and crossMedano Creek to find the best “slopes” to begin your sledding adventure.



The next location is 150 miles away (~3 hours).

Halfway through this drive, stop at historic Pagosa Springs to stretch the legs and grab a bite to eat.

DestinationDays 3-4

Mesa Verde National Park

Durango, CO

Great Sand Dunes, Mesa Verde, Arches & Canyonlands - Road Trip Itinerary (3)
Mesa Verde National Park

Best Months: May, June, August & July
Hours: Open year round
Entrance Fee: $20 per vehicle, valid for 7 days

The main draw of the Mesa Verde National Park is its over 600 multi-story cliff dwellings created by the Pueblo Indians some 600 years ago.


Pickup a hotel or vacation rental in Durango, CO. This historic town is a wonderful place to spend the night and experience the small-town charm of. Durango is about 40 minutes from Mesa Verde’s main entrance.

Alternatively, the town of Cortez, CO is much closer to the park’s entrance and also has a number of places to stay. If you’d like to stay within the park, Far View Lodge is your only option.


Thee of the largest houses: Balcony House, Cliff Palace and Long House are structures that can only be viewed with a ranger-guided tour. Tour season runs from May to September, and can be purchased on

Hiking is most commonly done on either the Petroglyph Point Trail, or the Spruce Canyon Trail, both about 2.5 miles round trip, and located in the southern part of the park.

The curvy North Rim Road is an 11-mile one way scenic drive through the park, and passes numerous canyon overlooks. You’ll drive most of this road accessing the points we listed above as well.

Outside the park, Canyons of the Ancients National Monument is located about 10 miles (ca. 16 km) north of Cortez. This monument contains the highest known archaeological site density in the United States, with rich, well-preserved evidence of native architecture and culture.



The next location is 158 miles away (~2.75 hours).

Along the drive from Mesa Verde to Moab, consider stopping at the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument. Similar to Mesa Verde, this archeological site sits on 176,000 acres with villages & shrines of Native American cultures and includes a museum.

DestinationDays 4-6

Arches National Park

Moab, UT

Great Sand Dunes, Mesa Verde, Arches & Canyonlands - Road Trip Itinerary (4)
Arches National Park

Best Months: May, June, November & August
Hours: Open year-round, 24 hours a day
Entrance Fee: $30 per vehicle, valid for 7 days

Arches National Park has over 2,000 natural stone arches and hundreds of soaring pinnacles, massive rock fins, and giant balanced rocks. The park is very busy between March and October. To avoid traffic, we recommend entering the park before 8 am or after 3 pm.

Timed Entry Pass Needed!

In 2022, Arches decided to implement a timed entry pass system. For a $2 fee, you receive access for one private vehicle to access the main Scenic Drive within Arches for only the hour you’ve reserved. You can stay as long as you want, but you must enter during your allotted hour.

Schedule Your Entry to Arches


There are no accommodations or food inside the park. However, there is one campground near Devil’s Garden. Lucky for us, the town of Moab, UThas everything you’ll need and more. We just used Airbnb to find a place to stay, but there are plenty of other hotels and campsites there as well.


Anytime you see a picture of Arches National Park (including on this page), chances are you are looking at theDelicate Arch. This iconic geologic feature is reached via a strenuous trail beginning atWolfe Ranch. The trail takes about 2 hours and is 3 miles round trip. You can see the Delicate Arch from other vantage points (including sunsets) in the park without the difficult hiking. Park Avenuehas a great view of the arch after a short walk off the road.

Other must-see features in the park includeBalanced Rock, accessible via a short and easy trail just off Park Avenue and theNorthandSouth Windows. These can be seen up close via the trail at the Windows area. Also, a full tour ofDevil’s Garden(7.2 miles round trip, moderate) leads to eight incredible arches.

Must See

Canyonlands National Park

Great Sand Dunes, Mesa Verde, Arches & Canyonlands - Road Trip Itinerary (5)
Canyonlands National Park

Best Months: May, June, April & October
Hours: Open year-round, 24 hours a day
Entrance Fee: $30 per vehicle, valid for 7 days

One of the days at Arches NP – or on your way to the next destination – take a ride down toCanyonlands National Park. It is only about 35 minutes or 30 miles (48 km) away if you’re staying in Moab.

A one-day stop at Canyonlands needs to include visiting theMesa Arch, which is only 1/2 mile round trip or 30-minute hike from the parking area. The parking area for the arch is located on theGrand View Point Road. This scenic road is a 12-mile long route that overlooks rock features such asCandlestick Tower,Buck CanyonandOrange Cliffs.

If you still haven’t run out of time yet, take a look at the pictographs in Horseshoe Canyon. These prehistoric drawings are at the end of the 6.4 mile round tripHorseshoe Canyon Trail. It is a bit of a strenuous hike, so only attempt it if you’re able.



The next location is 240 miles away (~3.75 hours).

After your couple days in Moab, it’s time to begin the trek back home. We are going to fly home from Salt Lake City, which is a little less than 4 hours from Moab.

DepartureDays 6-7

Salt Lake City, UT

Salt Lake City International Airport

Location: Salt Lake City, UT (MST)
Size: Large, #25 in North America • Code: SLC • Visit Website

After a long trip, you can now head back home. We finish off this trip by flying home out of Salt Lake City‘s airport.

Looping back to Denver is also an option, but it would add about 2 extra hours to this final leg of your trip. The only benefit of that would be that you could then visit Rocky Mountain National Park if you extend your trip an extra day.


How many days do you need for Arches and Canyonlands? ›

Two days in Arches is ideal though and would give you enough time to explore the Fiery Furnace on the ranger-led hike and do a few more of the longer hikes. One day is really all you need at the Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands National Park if you're sticking to the overlooks and shorter trails.

How many days do I need for the Great Sand Dunes? ›

FAQ: Great Sand Dunes National Park

Two to three days in the park is plenty to take in most of what the park has to offer. A day sledding on the dunes and a day or two for hiking and seeing the Zapata Falls. If you are able to be there at night, be sure to check out one of the free ranger-led night programs!

How far apart are Arches and Canyonlands? ›

The distance from Canyonlands to Arches is only 27 miles, around 30 minutes of a drive. That is why it is so easy to combine both national parks in one day.

Is one day enough for Great Sand Dunes National Park? ›

Its sand dunes sit at the base of snow-capped mountains, making it incredibly scenic. Although you could spend a few days exploring the national park, you can see the must-see attractions in one day! You can spend your day hiking the dunes, cooling down in Medano Creek, and sandboarding or sand sledding.

Do you need more time in Canyonlands or Arches? ›

Yes, you can visit both parks in one day, but you should have a realistic expectation that you might not see all of the popular sights or visit all the popular hikes. If you have one day to visit and want to see both, we recommend spending a little more time in Arches than in Canyonlands.

Which is better to see Canyonlands or Arches? ›

Scenery. Despite being incredibly close to each other, Canyonlands and Arches offer up very different views. Canyonlands has overlooks of sweeping vistas with steep drop-offs, while Arches contains over 2,000 stand stone arches to visit.

How many days do you need in Mesa Verde National Park? ›

Most visitors want at least an overnight and one full day to sightsee and hike. Two days with an overnight in the park is recommended to see both Wetherill and Chapin Mesa sites and enjoy one of Mesa Verde's spectacular hiking trails. Are guided tours of Mesa Verde National Park available? Yes.

Is Great Sand Dunes worth it? ›

Yes! With one day in Great Sand Dunes National Park you can climb the sand dunes, and sled or board down some of the sand dunes. While we recommend two or more days to fully explore the park and the surrounding area, you can do a lot in one day, and your visit will be worth it.

Can you drive your car on the Great Sand Dunes? ›

Mechanized or motorized vehicles are not permitted on the dunefield, and ATVs are not permitted in the park and preserve. The dunefield and most of the adjacent Sangre de Cristo Mountains are federally designated wilderness: the dunes were made a wilderness by Congress in 1976, and the Sangre de Cristos in 1993.

How long does it take to drive the scenic drive in Arches National Park? ›

The scenic drive in Arches is about 22 miles one way, so about 45 miles in total. You should count at least 4-5 hours to drive the entire road and make short stops (5-30min each) at all the scenic viewpoints. If you are planning to hike in Arches, you'll need more time.

How long does it take to drive around Canyonlands? ›

Driving Canyonlands National Park in One Day

The 34-mile round-trip scenic drive features awe-inspiring overlooks, from a 1,000 feet above, of the valleys below and the other districts of the park. You could spend as little as an hour in the park, but we bet you're going to need at least double that to take it all in.

Can you see Arches and Canyonlands in the same day? ›

Canyonlands and Arches are two national parks that sit side-by-side near Moab, Utah. Since these parks are neighbors, it is possible to visit both of them in one very busy day.

What is the best time of day to go to the sand dunes? ›

Always plan your dunes time for early morning or evening to avoid burning sand, high winds, or thunderstorms with lightning.

What is the closest town to the Great Sand Dunes National Park? ›

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is situated in Saguache County and Alamosa County. The closest town to the park and its mailing address is Mosca, Colorado.

What is the closest city to the Great Sand Dunes National Park? ›


How many days should you spend at Arches National Park? ›

How long to spend in Arches National Park. One full day in Arches will allow visitors time to experience a nice variety of the Arches trails while two days will allow time to explore all the big trails.

How many days do you need in Canyonlands? ›

Ideally, you need at least two days in Canyonlands National Park. With two days, you can visit both Island in the Sky and The Needles. Each additional day you add gives you more time for some epic adventures, such as the White Rim Road, white water rafting, backpacking in The Needles, or exploring The Maze.

How long should I spend at Arches? ›

With one busy day you can see the highlights of Arches National Park. But if you want to take your time and explore a few hidden gems and off the beaten path places, plan on spending two days in Arches National Park.

Can Arches and Canyonlands be done in one day? ›

Canyonlands and Arches are two national parks that sit side-by-side near Moab, Utah. Since these parks are neighbors, it is possible to visit both of them in one very busy day.

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