Your Guide to Colorado's Four National Parks
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When you think of Colorado, you may think of skiing and mountains, but the state has not just those, but sand dunes, canyons, and so much more! It also has four of the US’ 63 National Parks: Rocky Mountain National Park, Mesa Verde National Park, Great Sand Dunes National Park, and Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. We’re going to go into a bit more depth below about what’s special about each of these parks, and why you’ll want to add them to your bucket list.
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
One of the most famous National Parks, Rocky Mountain National Park lies in its namesake to the north of Denver. With 415 square miles protecting the mountains here, as well as over 300 miles of hiking trails, there’s tons to explore! Here you’ll find subalpine and alpine landscapes, wildflowers, wildlife, star-filled nights, stunning lakes, and so much more. Go hiking, enjoy long scenic drives through the park, go wildlife watching, horseback riding, fishing, or climbing as you adventure around the park.
Some of Colorado’s best hiking trails are located here. If you’re exploring the area, you should check out Bear Lake and Emerald Lake (these can both be done in the same day), The Loch, Alberta Falls, Timberline Falls, and Flattop Mountain. They’re some of the must-hike trails in this part of the state, and if you’ve got the time and the stamina, you can combine a few of these into one day!
And keep an eye out for elk and bighorn sheep as you explore. They’re amazing to get to see in their natural habitat—just be sure to give them lots of space.
Note: Watch out for road and park closures. Roads can be closed for any number of reasons here, wildfires, construction, snow, heavy traffic, etc., and these closures can impact where you can explore.
Mesa Verde National Park
You’ve probably seen pictures of Mesa Verde National Park. The Ancestral Pueblo people built communities in this area, and now the park protects the cultural heritage of 26 tribes. Visit this unique park and get to take a tour of the cliff dwellings, hike the area, and explore the landscape.
All but one cliff dwelling needs a ranger accompanying you on a tour to enter. You can get your tickets 14 days in advance at recreation.gov. There’s one cliff dwelling, Step House on Wetherill Mesa, that can be visited without a tour. Since tour demands are high, try to get your tickets as soon as they become available!
This park is home to more than 1,000 species, some that are unique to this area alone. Hike and maybe see some, or go out on one of the great trails in the area. Petroglyph Point Trail, Long House Loop, Point Lookout Trail, and Prater Ridge Trail are all great hikes to check out while you’re there!
Great Sand Dunes National Park
There’s more to do in Great Sand Dunes National Park than just sledding down sand dunes! (Which you should definitely do.) Splash in the creek, go hiking, watch the stars, and even hike in forests and to alpine lakes when you visit.
The most unique thing to check out here is the sand dunes. Get a sandboard or sled and have fun on the hills. There are smaller hills for kids, and medium and taller ones for teens and adults, so no matter your age, there’ll be a fun dune for you to slide down!
Note: The National Park doesn’t rent sandsleds or sandboards; but you can rent or buy these in the San Luis Valley which is 45 minutes away so you should rent before you get to the park. Sandboards and sleds are specifically made for sand. The ones you use in the snow only work on very wet sand right after it rains or snows. Cardboard and soft plastic sleds will drag and don’t slide on sand well.
This National Park is also an International Dark Sky Park (certified by the International Dark Sky Association) which means it’s an excellent sky viewing location. Explore the dunes under a bright moon, head out on a moonless night to see thousands of stars, and get to experience the night sky in a way you likely haven’t been able to before! If you want to stretch your legs more, there are lots of hiking trails. Hike to Star Dune (the tallest sand dune in North America at 750 feet tall), Montville Nature Trail for beautiful views, or even to an alpine lake like Medano Lake. With so much to see and explore, you’ll have a blast when you visit Great Sand Dunes National Park!
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Last on our list is Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. With old rock, steep cliffs, craggy spires, and two million years of wear, this park will give you great views. Go for a hike, fish in the river, or go for a scenic drive through the park to better explore this area.
Hike along the rim, or inside of the canyon. The best hikes along the rim are Rim Rock Nature Trail, North Vista Trail, and Deadhorse Trail. If you go inside the canyon, you’ll need a free wilderness use permit and to know what regulations there are. There aren’t any marked or maintained trails into the canyon, but instead there are unmarked scrambles so people who go into the canyon should be in peak physical fitness. (Heading into the canyon also isn’t ideal for kids.)
Finally, Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park was also certified by the International Dark Sky Association and is an International Dark Sky Park giving visitors astounding night sky views. So when you’re done hiking, lay under the stars to see thousands of them before you!
Note: There are lots of road closures and alerts here, so be sure to check before you go.
And there you have it! An overview of Colorado’s four National Parks. Visit one, or all four; you can even make it a goal to see all 63! It’s an amazing state to explore, with tons to offer, so no matter which one you choose, it’ll astound you!