Planning a road trip through Colorado? You’ve hit the right link! Here’s a perfect Colorado road trip itinerary that covers some of the epic spots for stargazing in Colorado. Follow our Colorado star trail to take in the stellar views of Milky Way, comets, other galaxies, planets, star clusters, and so much more.
Why Stargaze in Colorado?
Well, Colorado has some of the darkest and clearest skies in all of the United States. It is home to several International Dark Sky communities, two of which are National Parks. These communities are designated towns, cities, or municipalities that are dedicated to preserving the night sky by enforcing various rules on outdoor lighting. These rules help keep the light pollution levels at a minimum and set a good example for other municipalities to follow.
This post will cover a sample Colorado road trip itinerary for visiting some incredible dark sky locations for stargazing in Colorado!
Colorado Road Trip – Stargazing in Colorado
One of the best road trips in the USA, this Colorado road trip covers about 400 miles starting at Great Sand Dunes National Park and ending at Ophir. The duration of the trip depends upon how much time you can dedicate to the trip but, the recommended duration is 4 to 5 days. The time on the road (pure driving time) can be anywhere between 8.5 to 9 hours.
Make sure you take this trip in the summer, as the Milky Way is only visible between late March through late September, and road conditions are less treacherous in the mountains during Summer.
Stop 1: Great Sand Dunes National Park
Start off your Colorado road trip by driving down to Great Sand Dunes National Park, counted among the top places to go stargazing in Colorado.
If you’re driving from Denver, this should take about 4 hours. If you’re short on time and can’t commit to a 4 or 5-day itinerary, Great Sand Dunes makes for one of the best weekend trips from Denver.
This park has the tallest sand dunes in North America. These stunning dunes are accessible year-round by regular cars and are lots of fun for families.
Sand boards are available for rent just outside the entrance to the park, and if you time your visit right (late May to early June), you could also take a dip in the seasonal Medano creek.
If you have the means, camp at a campground inside the park. You’ll need to make reservations ahead of time since they book up quite a few months in advance.
If you’re not set up to camp, there are many incredible Airbnbs in Crestone, just an hour away. The dark sky will still be fairly clear there since the town is so small and so far from any other light pollution, and you can have easy access to the dunes in the morning after a comfortable sleep.
Where to stay near Great Sand Dunes National Park:
Mid-range: Fairfield Inn and Suites by Marriott Alamosa
Mid-range: Best Western Movie Manor Monte Vista
Mid-range: Creston Inn
Stop 2: Aspen
The next stop on this Colorado road trip itinerary is Aspen. This will be a very scenic 3.5-hour drive from Great Sand Dunes National Park. You’ll pass by Twin Lakes, followed by Independence Pass – one of the most scenic byways in Colorado. It is important to note that this pass is closed between October to May, so make sure to time your trip accordingly!
Aspen is home to one of the most photographed mountains in America – the Maroon Bells. No photograph can do this view justice, however! Seeing the Maroon Bells light up in the morning sun is a magnificent sight to see.
Make sure to get here early, just before sunrise, to catch the first rays hitting the Maroon Bell peaks.
Although it’s not a designated Night Sky spot, it is still a great place to stargaze. The Milky Way lines up perfectly above the Maroon Bells at night and offers a great photo op!
Since Aspen is such a hotspot for international tourists year-round, it’s become extremely expensive. Snowmass Village, however, is only 10 minutes away from Aspen and has much more affordable accommodation.
Where to stay in and around Aspen:
High-Range: W Aspen
High-range: Limelight Hotel Aspen
Mid-range: The Crestwood Snowmass Village
Stop 3: Crawford
The drive to Crawford from Aspen is about 2 hours. You’ll pass beautiful farmland and long stretches of mountains.
Crawford is another small town that has beautiful night skies. It is the gateway to the North Rim of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, which is one of the designated Dark Sky Parks.
There are very few Airbnbs and VRBOs sprinkled around this town, so make sure you reserve those early if you decide to book a spot. Otherwise, you could reserve a campsite near the park and cut out 40 minutes of driving time from Crawford, if you’re visiting the North Rim, or Montrose if you’re visiting the South Rim.
There is not a whole lot to do in Crawford, so I would recommend only staying here one night. Spend one day exploring the canyon, and one night observing the stars.
If you’re looking for a slightly larger town with more restaurant and entertainment options, Montrose is a good choice. Montrose is the gateway to the South Rim of Black Canyon National Park and has a lot more accommodation options.
Where to stay in Crawford:
High-range: Stone House Inn
Where to stay in Montrose:
High-range: Double G Guestranch
Mid-range: Super 8 by Wyndham Montrose
Stop 4: Telluride
After visiting Crawford, it’s time to make your way to Telluride; another 2 hour drive South.
Telluride is a fun little town surrounded by mountains on all sides and home to many art and music festivals. Events like En Plein Air feature artists from all over the country who set up their easels outside and let bypassers watch their beautiful art take shape.
You can get a fairly good view of the Milky Way from your balcony if you stay near the outskirts of town.
Vacasa and Airbnb have some great options for accommodations, so make sure to pick one that’s right on the East side of the town, facing Town Park. This will get you further away from the town’s light pollution and closer to the stars! There are also several campgrounds nearby which will offer a much better view of the night sky than any Airbnb.
Where to stay in Telluride:
High-range: Camel’s Garden Hotel
Stop 5: Ophir
Ophir is a very small town just 30 minutes south of Telluride and is the gateway to Ophir Pass. You’ll need a high clearance vehicle to get to the pass, but the town itself is accessible by a standard 2WD.
This town only has a population of about 100 and is a wonderful retreat from the busier towns nearby. It’s quite remote, so the night sky here is unbeatable.
There are only a handful of options for Airbnbs in Ophir so make sure you’ve secured accommodation before committing to this location.
This is the last stop in this sample Colorado road trip itinerary, but there are so many different variations and customizations you can make! West Colorado has a wide selection of mountain towns you can visit, all of which have stunning vistas and clear skies. You really can’t go wrong staying in any of these as they’re all unique and have their own style.
Colorado Road Trip Map
Beginner Night Sky Photography Tips
Here are the three simple tips for the beginners to capture some great star shots:
- Get a lens with a wide aperture. Anything between f1.2 – f.4 should be enough, but the smaller the f-stop, the shorter the exposure time. And exposure time is directly correlated with the sharpness of the stars!
- Get a tripod. Although it’s possible to just prop your camera on a rock on the ground, it’s much easier to adjust the angle when it’s mounted on a tripod.
- Remote shutter. A remote shutter will prevent your camera from jittering when you press the shutter. You could always use a 2-second timer instead as well, but I find remote shutters to be much easier to work with.
Header Image Credits: Dalya Gershtein
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