A road trip from Denver to Santa Fe would make for a beautiful experience, as the so-called “City Different” is home to some of America's most unique architecture, art, and cuisine.
There is a carrier that goes directly from Denver to Santa Fe, so you might be considering going by plane. Instead, you can take one of the most scenic routes in the American Southwest and see some beautiful things on the way there.
The road trip from Denver to Santa Fe along our proposed route can be done within a day but is best enjoyed broken up into at least 2 days of travel. The drive itself takes about 6 hours and 30 minutes without all the detours you'll be taking to explore along the way.
It can be hard to plan out a trip when there are so many places to see, so continue reading to get an idea of what you can expect.
How far is Santa Fe from Denver and how long will the road trip take?
Following our route, the road trip from Denver to Santa Fe is roughly 360 miles and takes about 6 hours and 30 minutes of uninterrupted driving.
|Fastest Route |
(via I-25 S)
|392 miles||5 hours 59 minutes|
|Scenic Route |
(via US Highway 285)
|360 miles||6 hours 30 minutes|
Taking the quickest route out of Denver towards Santa Fe (mileage-wise), you can expect a fair bit of traffic since it passes through Colorado Springs. That's why I propose an alternate route which, on top of being more scenic, should help you avoid traffic and leave the urban area relatively quickly (provided that you're not traveling over the weekend).
If you take off early and take a few breaks for lunch and refreshments along the way, you can make it from Denver to Santa Fe by the end of the day – you can stop for about 2 hours and still get there in time for dinner.
This would be a bad call, however, since there are quite a few things to see and do in both Colorado and New Mexico. When taking a road trip, the name of the game is “stop often and take your time,” and this is definitely no exception.
To ensure you've really seen and done everything there is to see and do, give yourself a few days on the way to Santa Fe and during the return trip.
There's plenty of incentive to make detours along this beautiful route, and devoting at least 1 day to each location or landmark is the best policy for nature trips. On top of that, there are plenty of places to stay overnight, so there's no need to power through this trip in a single day.
Best road trip route from Denver to Santa Fe
Although taking the I-25 south through Colorado Springs is theoretically the quickest route, it may take a while longer to leave Denver, and you won't get to see quite as many beautiful sights.
Instead, I would suggest a drive through the mountains along a route nestled between countless forests and ranges. That way, you'll have something to explore whichever way you turn.
Road trip route from Denver to Santa Fe
Take the US 6 west through Lakewood and go left into Highway 470, along William F Hayden Green Mountain Park. Follow this highway south past Forsberg Park and Red Rocks Park, and head right into Highway 285 just past Mt Glennon Park. You'll be staying on this highway for most of the trip from here on out.
Past Mt Falcon, you'll start getting a lot of mountains on all sides. You'll be driving through Tiny Town & Railroad and Ranch Park, then past James Q Newton Park. Further on, you'll see the massive Staunton State Park to your right, as well as a number of scenic ranges on either side.
Past Pike and San Isabel National forests, you can either make a temporary switch to SH 17 and drive past the Great Sand Dunes National Park, or stay on Highway 285 and go through Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge. Either way, the roads connect further south, and you'll soon cross over into New Mexico.
Not long after that, you'll find yourself between Carson National Forest to the west and Taos a bit further east. After passing Ojo Caliente Hot Springs and crossing the Rio Chama, it won't be long before you reach Santa Fe.
Best places to stop between Denver and Santa Fe
You'll want to split the trip from Denver to Santa Fe into several days, and there are several good spots to spend the night. These are some of the best ones in terms of location and comfort:
Recharge your batteries at Alamosa
Driving through mountainous terrain can be quite tiring, especially if you stop to do some hiking along the way. Fortunately, the city of Alamosa is right in the middle of the route just past the mountain expanse, making it great for an overnight stay.
There are a number of great picks for hotels in town, but the best would have to be Fairfield Inn and Suites. Located near the Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge and a number of other places of interest, this is a perfect resting point and a great hub for further exploration.
The spacious rooms come with extremely comfortable bedding, huge bathrooms with a walk-in shower, and even a working desk area to keep the vacation productive.
Also, you can round off your long, tiring day of exploration by taking a dip in the swimming pool or the hot tub with the great window view. Or, if you're the type that just can't stop moving, get a few more miles in by running on the treadmills in the fitness area. Rested and refreshed, you can enjoy a hot breakfast and prepare for the next adventure.
This hotel feels tailor-made for people traveling from Denver to Santa Fe along this route. On top of everything else, the prices are very reasonable for the services you'll be getting, so you can stick around for a few nights if you'd like to do some off-road exploring in the area.
Get a Taste of History in Taos
Although Taos is quite close to Santa Fe, the town's rich history and unique aesthetic make it one of the best stops to make on this trip. If you're looking for something different from the conventional hotel stay, you should definitely consider booking the Adobe and Pines Inn Bed and Breakfast in Taos.
This hacienda is unlike any rental you've probably ever seen. As the name suggests, the house is predominantly made of clay and wood, and it's extremely well-furnished while still feeling like a beautiful relic of the past. Every aspect of the interior design is gorgeous – the warm colors of the walls and furniture create a vibrant, homely atmosphere, and the entire house is meaningfully and tastefully decorated.
Spend an evening huddled around the fire pit, pop a movie into the DVD, relax in the outdoor hot tub, or chat and mingle in the communal dining area with breakfast prepared on-site – once you settle into this rental, you'll have a hard time getting back to exploring.
Things to see on a road trip from Denver to Santa Fe
A quick glance at a map is enough to tell you just how much there is to see while driving from Denver to Santa Fe – making a list of the route's gorgeous mountains alone is next to impossible, given how many there are. Here are some of the places that'll take your trip to the next level:
- Red Rocks Park and Amphitheater – a very popular entertainment venue, this spot is beautiful and worth visiting regardless of whether there's an event happening there
- Matthews/Winters Park – top-of-the-line hiking spot with great high-altitude views
- William F Hayden Green Mountain Park – plenty of open space and greenery, has a great view of the surrounding mountains and overlooks Denver
- Staunton State Park – boasting granite cliffs, huge meadows, and plenty of wildlife, this park is not to be missed
- Mt Falcon Park – home to many beautiful hiking trails and John Brisben Walker's castle, which was famously struck by lightning
- Tiny Town & Railroad – an amusement park with a small-town theme (literally!) and a miniature railway you can ride
- Pike & San Isabel National Forests/Cimarron & Comanche National Grasslands – this expansive area is a sea of green, and it has some of the state's highest peaks, including Mount Elbert, the tallest in Colorado
- Great Sand Dunes National Park – this park was home to many now-receded lakes and is a vast expanse of dunes, most notably the lofty Star Dune
- Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge – plenty of elk and cranes (including a few of the endangered whooping cranes) call this unique landscape home
- Taos Pueblo – one of the country's oldest permanently inhabited areas, this place is a cornerstone of American history
- Ojo Caliente – home of the incredible Ojo Caliente Hot Springs, with waters very rich in minerals
- Bandelier National Monument – a breathtaking monument containing countless dwellings and cavities, once inhabited by the Ancestral Puebloans
- Santa Fe National Forest – a must-see spot for visitors of Santa Fe, this expansive and elevated forest has beautiful views as far as the eye can see
- Pecos National Historical Park – aside from being a great hiking spot, this park is home to the historic Pecos Pueblo community
All these beautiful places deserve as much of your time as you can spare. Take it easy, and don't forget to ask the New Mexico locals for directions and historical information on some of these places.
Best time to go on a road trip from Denver to Santa Fe
Considering the terrain of the route and the City Different's climate, certain seasons are definitely better suited than others for a road trip from Denver to Santa Fe.
Santa Fe is sunny for most of the year, but there's a very clear delineation between the seasons – the summers are fittingly warm while winters are cold and snowy.
In addition, the nights tend to be quite cold because of the high desert climate, often leading to drastic temperature swings in the summer. With that said, extreme heat and cold are very rarely recorded out of season.
The city itself attracts visitors all year round since there are heaps of events and festivals in the area.
To strike the perfect balance between good weather and fun things to do, I'd recommend visiting in the fall – the daytime temperatures are quite pleasant, and notable events include the Burning of Zozobra, the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival, and a bit further south, the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.
Winter, on the other hand, might not be the best time to visit Santa Fe, at least not via this route. Not only is the city cold (with the occasional snow in March!), but you'll need to be careful while driving through the largely mountainous trail in the first half of the route.
This is especially true if there's lots of snow – because of the terrain, it's harder to keep Hwy 285 consistently clean in the winter. If you do decide to go for it, keep a close eye on the forecast and pack extra blankets and warm clothes!