Definitely lots of time in the car, but that's what road trips are all about! And you won't be disappointed with the scenery on this loop. Its fabulous. A little bit of all the best of the west.
I'll recommend that you concentrate your out-of-car time at Zion, Bryce and Arches (sounds like this is already your plan) and treat the rest as a regular road trip. Just soak up the views and stop to see whatever looks most interesting as you go by.
Leaving Denver, if the roads and weather are good you could consider the alternate route to the San Luis valley going west from Colorado Springs, past Garden of the Gods (don't stop - you don't have time this trip) and up to Lake George where there is some mighty fine orienteering terrain. If there's no snow on the ground consider a very short jog around the Lake George map right off the highway. 20 mins tops. Park at the rodeo arena
. The Florissant Fossil beds just before Lake George are worth a quick stop (also an O map!). Continue west across the South Park (yes, its *that* South Park!) to Buena Vista, then go south on 285 over the pass into the valley. You can cut the corner east over to Great Sand Dunes. Maybe stop at the UFO observation tower in Hooper before making the turn. The high mtn scenery on this route will knock you out. There is something to be said for the high plains along the front on I-25 to Walsenburg, but you'll get a good taste of that from Denver to CS. If the weather is bad up high stick to the I-25 route. Google says the mtn route is 45 mins longer than the high plains route. Well worth it if the weather is good (roads snow free).
Great Sand Dunes is one of my favorites. I've been there a couple of times. I like the high mtns around the dunes. All you'll have time for here is a hike up the highest dune and a run back down - not running because you are rushed, but because running down the dune is good fun! Thats basically all there is anyways, but its beautiful. The hike to Zapata falls across the road is also cool (narrow gorge requires walking in the stream itself on approach), but my feet got numb doing it in July! So plan for just an hour or two at the dunes, and if your overnight is nearby (Alamosa) stay on the dune for sunset like Suzanne suggested. If you need to get over Wolf Creek pass the first day, do it in daylight for the scenery. Watch the weather. If its bad, go south and around through Chama, New Mexico. Don't mess about with the San Juans - its still winter there. They will keep the highway open because of the ski area at the pass, but it could get ugly in a storm. If you find yourself in a real bind and can get south, you can spend a day in the Taos, Santa Fe (I have a panorama of Santa Fe hanging in my living room), Los Alamos, Abiquiu area. Visit the Rio Grand gorge, and Bandelier Nat Mon. In that case, skip Mesa Verde and just find a way west and back north into Monument Valley. Bandelier is as good as Mesa Verde in my opinion (there's an O map there too!)
As an aside, here are some photos of Biggins
reaching Wolf Creek pass from the west very frickin' early in the morning in 2006 after having climbed much of it in the dark. You can see the highway is nice and wide up and over the pass. Pics at the bottom of the page and on page 10 are Rt 160
coming up from Walsenburg into the San Luis, in case you come that way. You might recognize several orienteers in those photos. And on pages 6-8
you'll see the guys riding through Monument Valley the day before.
I've been to Mesa Verde and just hiked on my own without the guided tours, but that was in summer. Looks like all the cliff houses are closed in winter, but there are some nice short walks with good views. Worth a stop on the drive-by, but don't feel bad if you miss it. Come back another time and go to Chaco, Canyon de Chelly, Bandelier or Gila for even better cliff dwellings. Sooo, so many cool things to do in the San Juans in the summer, but that's another trip. Get your butts over to Zion. You'll pass very close to Four Corners on your way. Make the short side trip. Its the epitome of road trip stops! An "X" painted on the ground. "You are here" :)
At Mexican Hat just before entering Monument Valley, stop at Goosenecks S.P. and see the sharp bends in the San Juan river.
On the route to Zion via Mexican Hat and Monument Valley, at Page, AZ I'll suggest you take the southern route and cross the river at Navajo Bridge rather than at the Glen Canyon damn (sic). That is, 89A through Jacob Lake rather than 89. In addition to the Navajo Bridge, this will take you below the Vermillion Cliffs so you can actually see them. I think you can still get to The Wave from the south route should you win the lottery. The south route is 45 mins longer, but I think it'll be prettier. The bridge is effectively at the tip-top of the Grand Canyon. Its tempting to go to the North Rim from there...a place I've always wanted to visit.
I'm embarrassed to admit that I've never been to Zion, Bryce or Capitol Reef :( I'm a total failure as a southwest aficionado! You'll have to give me advice when you get back. I've been to St George - *oh so close!* Note that I-70 ends there in UT. The other end is here in Baltimore, and there's a road sign as you turn west from the beltway that says "Cove Fort (UT) 2200 (miles)."
Leaving Bryce, it looks like its only 15 mins longer to take rt 24 through Capitol Reef and Hanksville back to I-70 towards Moab than just going straight north. Almost certainly worth it for a short stop at the reef. Also you'll get a good look at the Henry Mountains, the last mountain range added to the map of the contiguous US (by John Wesley Powell). Its quite remote and on my backpacking bucket list. Send me some recon.
In Moab, Arches and Canyonlands of course. Canyonlands is big. Grandview Point or Dead Horse Point. As other's have suggested, just hit Dead Horse Point and then concentrate on Arches. See the main arches and then pick a nice long hike somewhere in the park and get out of the car for a whole day. Take a long walk in the Devil's Garden area at the north end of the park. Enjoy the views over the red rocks to the snow covered La Sal mtns (also on my list).
For the trip back to Denver you'll just need to go straight on I-70. If you had time I'd recommend a side trip to Colorado National Monument at Grand Junction, but you won't have time. I-70 through Glenwood canyon is lovely - getting closer and closer to the source of the Colorado all the time! If you can spare an hour or two have a soak in the historic springs at Glenwood. There is a legend that the "Teddy" Bear originated in Glenwood, but apparently it isn't true. Dinner at Vail! Its a shame to drive past all these fine ski areas in March without stopping to ski. Vail and Copper Mtn are exits right on the highway. One final suggestion would be to go ice skating somewhere along here. I think there's a small outdoor rink in Vail, but it would be awesome to stop at Keystone and skate on the lake
there - even at night! Pretty
and super romantic for your last night on the road. Its only open until mid March though so might be too late. Webcam here
. If you do side-trip to Keystone and the roads are in good shape you can continue on Rt 6 over Loveland Pass without having to go back to I-70 at Dillion and through the tunnel. Check on road conditions before you go though. It can be treacherous if icy. Its pretty though. At 12000' it would be the highest point on your trip. Georgetown on the way down the hill has some interesting old buildings if you're looking for a short stop. They may still be ice fishing on the lake. Send George a postcard. In summer you could check out the cool Shay locomotives there (I would anyways :)
Make sure you watch the weather in the days before you head east to Denver. I-70 is your only option other than a BIG detour, and March is definitely still winter up there. I think Sharon Crawford still lives in Frisco, CO (near Keystone) if you get in a real bind and need help. But there are plenty of lodging options all along the way in case you need to stop. Just don't do anything crazy to catch a flight - its not worth it. There will be another one the next day, and hey - snowed in = extra vacation day!
In Denver, the Tattered Cover bookstore is worth a visit...at least it used to be. I think I went to the one in Cherry Creek. The Denverites can suggest the one to visit. I have a couple of book suggestions for your trip. Find them at home before you leave or I can send you my copies to carry. Tattered Cover ought to have these, but I dunno. Denver also has a great model railroad store
if you're into such things. If you know any railroad fans back home in the UK this would be a super place to pick up a unique gift.
The first book is a must for where you are going: Desert Solitaire
, by Edward Abbey. Probably my favorite book. Its non-fiction, about a season the author spent as a ranger at the newly formed Arches National Monument. My copy sits right here in the living room. Its never been to Arches though...maybe you could take it and smear a little red dirt in the endpages for me?
The other is Beyond the Hundredth Meridian
, by the great Wallace Stegner. This is a history of Powell's exploration of the Colorado River, down the Green to the junction in Canyonlands, through the Grand Canyon (first known float through) and all the way to the Gulf of California (back when it used to actually get there).
Yale library should have these.
Sorry for the crazy long post. I'm just jealous.