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The majesty of Colorado is breathtaking at any time of year. From hiking the peaks of the Rockies to free camping in the desert lands, there’s an adventure around every corner. We’ve found some photos that should convince anyone who questions the beauty of Colorado national parks.
Today, we’re looking at why you might want to consider Colorado for your next epic national park adventure. Let’s get started!
How Many National Parks Are in Colorado?
Most people know that Colorado is home to Rocky Mountain National Park, but many don’t realize it isn’t Colorado’s only national park. In total, Colorado has four of the 63 national parks.
While we will be focusing on these four parks, Colorado has much more to offer. The state has 12 total units managed by the National Park Service, making it a great state to do a national park tour.
What Is the Most Visited Park in Colorado?
The national park with the most visitors in Colorado is Rocky Mountain National Park. Rocky Mountain National Park has more visitors (4.3 million) than Mesa Verde (548,000), Great Sand Dunes (602,000), and Black Canyon of the Gunnison (308,000) combined.
Its proximity to Denver makes it an ideal spot for those visiting or residing in the metro Denver area. There’s so much to see and do in the park that it’s great for a single day or a week-long adventure.
Guide to the National Parks in Colorado
Colorado National Parks are beautiful and full of things to do. To make the best use of your time, have a plan and know what to expect. Let’s look at a few of the main attractions for the four national parks you need to add to your bucket list.
Mesa Verde National Park
Mesa Verde National Park is in southwestern Colorado. You can reach the park from Durango in around 40 minutes, while a drive from Denver will be just over 6.5 hours. Most people choose to stay in Cortez, only 15 minutes from the park. Cortez is home to various lodging options and shopping.
Mesa Verde National Park is one of the parks you may remember learning about in school. Those intriguing pictures you saw of ancient Pueblo cliff dwellings in your social studies books are real, and they are just as exciting to see in person.
The cliff dwellings in this remote desert park are around 700 years old. Visitors have the chance to tour them alongside a park ranger and learn about the ancestral Pueblo people. Be sure to stop in at the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum to learn more about the Pueblo people.
In addition to spending time at the cliff dwellings, many enjoy exploring the park via the trail system. There are many great hikes to transverse while visiting, giving visitors great views of the area. Driving Mesa Top Loop Road will give you an opportunity to see dwellings as well as views of the surrounding canyon.
Mesa Verde National Park provides hikes of varying difficulties, allowing a hike for everyone. Some will enjoy walks as short as a mile, while others can push through an almost eight-mile strenuous hike.
There are a few hikes that even pass areas where you can still find petroglyphs on the canyon walls. If you find yourself in southern Colorado, you can’t miss this park.
Great Sand Dunes National Park
Great Sand Dunes National Park is in south-central Colorado and has the tallest sand dunes in North America. Visitors can reach the park in around 2.5 hours from Colorado Springs and Denver in under 4 hours.
The park hasn’t seen much development, making it a remote getaway. Visitors must plan accordingly. While a few lodging options are outside the park, many choose to stay in Alamosa, 38 miles away. You will find lodging, groceries, and shopping there.
Those visiting Great Sand Dunes National Park should come ready to experience a landscape like no other. Visitors can play in Medano Creek while gazing at a backdrop of massive dunes and snow-capped mountains. The contrasting view is mesmerizing.
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The park has excellent views, but there are many recreational opportunities. There are options for everyone, from those that want to relax by the water to those who want to break a sweat. Visitors can play in the creek or hike and sled on the expansive dunes.
The dunes are like a 30-square-mile sandbox for children and adults. There are no designated trails throughout the dunes, but visitors can transverse them in any way they’d like. Be sure to have a GPS device and plenty of water as you explore this stunning wonder.
Rocky Mountain National Park
Locals and visitors worldwide love Rocky Mountain National Park. This park is in the north-central portion of the state, only an hour and a half from Denver and minutes from Estes Park. Those who decide against staying in the national park often choose one of the many lodging options in Estes Park.
You can enjoy this popular national park very differently depending on the season you visit. Those visiting in the summer months will experience warmth, sunshine, and hikes through rocky mountains filled with flowers and greenery.
Brave winter visitors will find themselves immersed in a winter wonderland. Winter in Rocky Mountain National Park allows visitors to engage in an abundance of snowy outdoor recreation.
The park has 355 miles of hiking available to visitors, ensuring great hiking waiting for you regardless of your timetable and abilities. You can stroll along flat alpine lakes or scramble up challenging mountain peaks. These are both great options in the summer months. You will be sure to see plenty of wildlife throughout this park as well!
In winter, there is excellent downhill skiing, sledding, and even snow-filled snowshoe hiking or cross country skiing. Be mindful that Rocky Mountain National Park is at a high elevation and many park visitors experience altitude sickness. It may be best to give yourself a few days to adjust before diving into physically demanding activities.
If scenic drives are your cup of tea, you must drive Trail Ridge Road. This is a 48-mile road that is the park’s main attraction. Trail Ridge Road is technically part of U.S. Highway 34 and is a great way to see the continental divide.
Trail Ridge Road travels through Rocky Mountain National Park connecting Estes Park, Colorado in the east to Grand Lake, Colorado in the west.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is in west-central Colorado. It is an hour and a half from Grand Junction and under five hours from Denver. There is no lodging within the park, but nearby towns provide many places to stay.
Those hoping to stay along the south rim tend to find themselves in the city of Montrose. On the north rim side, many visitors choose to stay in the town of Crawford.
Those visiting Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park will experience a deep and narrow canyon with the Gunnison River flowing through it. The park boasts a reputation for being “deep, steep, and narrow.” It is 2,722 feet deep at its most significant drop-off and 40 feet wide at its most narrow point.
Lastly, this national park is an International Dark Sky Park. You can experience the beauty of the night with no light pollution. This an experience we recommend every have at least once in their lifetime!
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Whether you want to do some hiking, fishing, wildlife viewing, or take a scenic drive, Black Canyon of the Gunnison has you covered. Most trails along the rim are under five miles in length, making them a great place to hike for those short on time. There are hikes on the north and south rim. In addition to the rim hikes, there are opportunities to participate in a more rugged experience.
Other National Park Service Designations
The four national parks are not the only national park units in the state; there are twelve. Some of those include the Dinosaur National Monument, Garden of the Gods, Curecanti National Recreation Area, and Colorado National Monument.
Located moments outside Grand Junction, Colorado National Monument provides seemingly endless recreation opportunities. It has over 40 miles of hiking trails, great camping options, and rugged rock climbing. Those who prefer to let their vehicle do the work can explore the park via the 23-mile Rim Rock Drive.
Add These Parks to Your Bucket List
The potential is practically endless when visiting any of Colorado’s national parks. Even if you’ve seen the national parks before, the landscapes and views change depending on when you arrive.
However, due to the extreme winters, some national parks in Colorado may be too dangerous to visit, and the parks will close or restrict traffic in some areas. So make sure you plan accordingly to have a fabulous bucket list trip! Have you been to any of these most visited national parks?