Colorado, USA: The American road trip more beautiful than New Zealand

Sightseeing around Colorado, USA, on the road trip even more beautiful than New Zealand.
A road trip in Colorado is like no other. Photo credit: Newshub.

At 268,021 km sq, Colorado has almost exactly the same land mass as New Zealand - and that's not the only similarity.

Like Aotearoa, the US state's main drawcard for tourists is that it's home to keen adventurers and some of the world's most diverse, beautiful scenery.

Having seen many of New Zealand's most picturesque spots, I have long believed nothing could possibly compete with our natural landscapes.

But Colorado shares many of our best assets - snow-capped alps, crystal-clear water and lush forests, for instance - and many others we don't, too. Its multitude of natural reserves has made it one of the most beloved road trip destinations in the US.

It's well worth seeing for yourself - all you'll need is a car, warm clothing and some camping gear. Here's how to do it.

Pack some warm clothing and camping gear into a car with mates and explore the beauty of Colorado.
Photo credit: Newshub.

Setting out

First thing's first: you'll need to buy an America the Beautiful Pass. Yes, that's a corny name, but the US$80 pass will get you and the occupants of your car into any national park in the US for an entire year.

Next, hire a 4WD and set off for Colorado National Monument, about five hours' drive from Denver.

As you pass through Aspen, you'll be rewarded almost instantly with the sight of mountains blanketed in snow rising up intimidatingly on either side of the highway.

Photo credit: Newshub.

While beautiful, it serves as a reminder that Colorado - thanks to its elevation above sea level - can be bitingly cold even close to summer.

With this in mind, make sure you take good-quality sleeping and outdoor gear with you.

Colorado National Monument.
Photo credit: Newshub.

Colorado National Monument

Once at Colorado National Monument, find a camping site at the acclaimed Saddlehorn Campground, which costs US$11 per site with your America the Beautiful Pass.

Rated one of the best campsite locations in Colorado, the national monument is as historically important as it is scenic.

There are a number of trails close to the campsite, ranging in length and difficulty.

Each of them show off the area's jagged red rocks and incredible canyons, which are carpeted in cacti and other shrubs resistant to the arid climate.

Arches National Park, Utah, United States of America.
Photo credit: Newshub.

Arches National Park

Next, venture further out west, to Arches. While this park is actually in Utah, it's only just over the state line, so it makes sense to include in the road trip.

Arches shares many of its qualities with Colorado National Monument - in particular, lots of scorched orange sandstone - but is far, far more impressive.

Some of these monoliths are natural arches - hence the park's title - which draw hundreds of thousands of visitors a year. By far the most popular of these is Delicate Arch, which is at its most majestic come sunset. 

Delicate Arch at Arches National Park, Utah.
Photo credit: Newshub.

Mesa Verde National Park

Head two hours south-east, and you're back in Colorado.

Mesa Verde is by far the most historically rich national park in the state - and not just in regard to recent history, either, but spanning as far back as 9500BC.

The national park, which is now a UNESCO World Heritage site, is the largest archaeological preserve in the entire United States.

Mesa Verde was first populated by Paleo-Indians many millennia ago, and their descendants, the Ancestral Puebloans, built hundreds of cliff dwellings in the 11th Century - many of which have been restored and can be viewed there today.

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado, USA.
Photo credit: Newshub.

But while it's a point of interest for history and geology buffs, it's also a visually stunning park. Compared to Arches it feels leafy and green - although tragically more than half the park's trees have been destroyed in wildfires in the last 25 years.

Once you're done, you can find a place to camp in the nearby San Juan National Forest, which is free.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

It's certainly a theatrical name, but even that won't prepare you for quite how dramatic the terrain here is.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison is comprised of a sudden plunging, rocky gorge with a gushing, white-water river flowing through it. The cliffs are so sheer and narrow that at its deepest, the canyon only gets about half an hour of sunlight a day.

The park just feels dangerous and scary - looking down gives you vertigo, and you can imagine it being the residence of some sort of Disney villain.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.
Photo credit: Newshub.

While far less crowded with tourists than other national parks, it really is spectacular - perhaps even more so than Arches - and short hikes to look at the Painted Wall and Blue Mesa are well worth the time.

After you're done, find a camping spot in the campground next to Gunnison Airfield - it's incredible in its own right, situated on a hill surrounded by snowy mountains and overlooking the nearby Gunnison town.

Gunnison KOA campground in Colorado.
Photo credit: Newshub.

Finishing up

The great thing about this road trip is that it can easily be lengthened if time allows.

If you head further west after visiting Arches, you can also drop into other hugely popular national parks like the Canyonlands, Zion and the Grand Canyon across Utah and Arizona.

Even in Colorado, Great Sand Dunes National Park is peppered with lakes, dunes and forests that make it an excellent addition to any road trip in this part of the US.