Shoulder Season Round Trip: Wilderness + Wine

This Four-Night Road Trip Takes in Two National Parks and Culminates With a Relaxing Stopover in Wine Country

We all know Vail locals love to hop on a plane and head for warmer climes come shoulder season, but theres plenty of opportunity for adventure to be found in our own backyard. If youre seeking a short but satisfying Colorado getaway, look no further than this circular road trip that showcases two national parks, lots of scenic driving and culminates with a relaxing stop-over in wine country. Our itinerary takes place over four nights, but you can extend this trip any way you want to enjoy more special sights. 

From Vail, hop on 91 South, soaking in the majestic views of the Sawatch range on your way to Buena Vista, where you can stop for lunch and stretch your legs in this laid-back mountain town. Then, its onwards to Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, which is just over three hours from Vail but offers a whole different type of mountain from the ones were used to.

Colorado getaway


This national park is often overlooked because it sounds, well, like a giant sandbox. In reality, here youll find virtual mountains made of sand, some up to 750 feet high, making up the tallest sand dunes in North America over an area of about 30 square miles. The otherworldly dunes were formed by sediment from the surrounding mountain ranges after lakes receded from the San Luis Valley and are a must-see in Colorado.

The best time to see the sand dunes is at dusk, so book your spot at Piñon Flats Campground ahead of time and plan to arrive in the late afternoon to set up camp. Around 5 p.m., once its cooled off a little, grab your headlamp and start your hike. Pick any path, just head upwards, and expect a real calf-burner as you sink, barefoot, into soft, deep sand on the ascent. Watch the sun set and transform the dunes into a mesmerizing interplay of rose gold hues and deep shadows as you wiggle your toes into the cooling sand. Its an experience like no other.

In the morning, its worth another sunrise jaunt up the dunes if youre up early; then, its time to pack up and hit the road. This time, youre heading north and west, hooking up with 50 West towards Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park — about three and a half hours away. Stop for lunch in Gunnison, another slightly underrated Colorado destination that tends to be overshadowed by nearby Crested Butte, but is well worth a glance. This well-preserved mining town is right out of a Wild West movie set with a backdrop of beautiful high mesas.

Photos courtesy of Julia Clarke.

After lunch, head to Black Canyon, described by the National Parks Service as big enough to be overwhelming, still intimate enough to feel the pulse of time.” This canyon is in many ways like the Grand Canyon on a smaller scale, but dont let that description make you underestimate it. Here youll find dramatic canyon walls, deep gorges and steep spires showcasing millions of years of geological history.

There are several campgrounds in the park that require advance booking. Our pick is the East Portal Campground, located in the bottom of the canyon where you can camp by the river and enjoy the shade of the box elder trees. Relax here at camp in the afternoon and in the morning tackle the North Vista Trail, which treats you to stunning panoramas of the area from the canyons north rim. This can be a three-mile trip to Exclamation Point or a more strenuous seven-miler to take in Green Mountain. Spend another night at your riverside camp spot and pack up in the morning; then, head to the beautiful town of Montrose for a well-cooked breakfast.

From Montrose, its only an hour and a half drive north and west to Palisade, otherwise known as Colorados wine country. There should be time to hike the Mount Garfield Trail, a short but steep climb offering the best of alpine desert landscape. After a few nights sleeping on rough ground, you might just want to check into one of Palisades hotels and treat yourself to a long, hot shower and a siesta before heading out to tour some of the towns 20-plus local wineries on foot. Though it may not carry the prestige of Napa and Sonoma, Palisades cool nights and low humidity make for a robust wine-making territory. Pick a few wineries and sample varietal wines, ports and meads. Then, consider enjoying the five-course winemakers dinner at DeBeque Canyon Winery.

Sleep tight, and in the morning, you can be home to Vail in two hours with plenty of time to air out your camping gear and pack it away until the next road trip.