Colorado is well known for a few things, including the Rocky Mountains that dominate the skyline across the state. These stunning mountains + the surrounding deserts are the home of four national parks — Rocky Mountain National Park, Gunnison Black Canyon National Park, Great Sand Dunes National Park + Mesa Verde National Park. These parks are spread out across the state so you’ll need to dedicate some serious drive time to you adventure but road tripping is definitely a beautiful option to see them all!
Rocky Mountain National Park
Location: Estes Park, Colorado + Grand Lake, Colorado [GPS Coordinates]
Main Attractions: This national park is all about the mountains. With two entrances you have a few choices when exploring Rocky Mountain National Park. If you’re exploring in the summer you’ll be able to drive through the park on a road that takes you up + over the Continental Divide. During the winter months + even as the seasons are changing this road has seasonal closures making it impassable. However, you’ll still find plenty to do at either entrance.
The Estes Park entrance [east] is definitely more popular + often extremely crowded during the summer months. If you’re visiting during peak times – essentially May thru October – plan to use the shuttle to get access to the more popular places unless you’re arriving earlier than 8am.
From the Grand Lake entrance [west] you will find trails with far fewer people even on the busy days. In the fall you can expect to see herds of migrating elk at dawn + dusk from this entrance. Give yourself some time to park at a pull off to simply watch + listen to the elk as they move along [but please stay in your car — an elk will charge + they are NOT small animals!].
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Location: Gunnison, Colorado [GPS Coordinates]
Main Attractions: This is one of the lesser known national parks in Colorado + you’ll notice this when you pull up…no lines + plenty of parking! It is easy to explore the basic overlooks of this park in a single day. The South Rim Road drive into the park is an out/back that gives you multiple opportunities to pull off + check out the steep, deep canyon in the middle of the Rocky Mountain range. You can also access to North Rim Road, but be aware it is a unpaved road + conditions are very weather dependent.
There are opportunities to further explore this canyon, which are highly recommended as it is a rather amazing place. However, you’ll need to put in a little leg work, literally. Since the canyon is extremely steep + narrow there is no easy peasy way to explore into the canyon. There are no marked trails that take you into the inner canyon [ie: where the river is!] but it is accessible with a wilderness permit [available at the visitor’s center/ranger station] + a lot of route-finding knowledge.
Overall, if you’re in the vicinity of the Black Canyon of the Gunnision National Park it’s definitely worth a visit even if you only get to drive along the paved South Rim Road to check out the overlooks.
Great Sand Dunes National Park + Preserve
Location: Alamosa, Colorado [GPS Coordinates]
Main Attractions: This is another great national park nestled in the Rocky Mountains that doesn’t actually focus on the mountains at all. Instead it is all about the dunes…with stunning mountain views in the distance. At the Sand Dunes National Park you’ll be able to run up sand dunes, surf down sand dunes + splash in a nearby river to cool off.
If you visit in the summer be prepared for VERY HOT sand dunes. It is ideal to visit early in the day or late in the afternoon when the sun isn’t baking the sand. If you do go onto the dunes remember it takes a lot more energy to hike up moving sand + bring lots of water! If you are lucky enough to visit in the winter — with snow-capped mountains in the distance — bring all your puffy layers! The sand dunes that burn your toes in the summer will freeze your nose in the winter!
Beyond the dunes themselves there isn’t much hiking within this national park. There is a campground + you can camp ON the dunes if you get a backcountry permit from the visitor’s center/ranger station. However, if you go beyond the view of the parking lot while exploring the dunes bring a way to navigate…all dunes look the same + the wind will quickly remove your footprints leaving no trail to retrace!
Mesa Verde National Park
Location: Cortez, Colorado [GPS Coordinates]
Main Attractions: As you venture into Southern Colorado you’ll find yourself leaving the mountains + entering sandier terrain. This is where you’ll find Mesa Verde National Park. The park is best known for the cliff dwellings that were the homes of the Pueblo people for over 700 years. The park protects roughly 600 of these dwellings + you can actually enter a few of them by exploring some of the trails at the end of either paved route.
One thing to note is that many of these dwellings that you can tour require a ticket, which you’ll want to purchase at the park visitor’s center early in the day. The tickets must be purchased in person + sell out quickly but can be purchased up to two days in advance. For $5 per person, per tour you can get a guided tour of three of the dwellings.
Even if you don’t have tickets to tour the larger dwellings you can still do a self-guided tour of a few different dwellings, including Step House on the Wetherill Mesa. It is strongly recommended that you take yourself on at least one self-guided tour to get a feel for what Mesa Verde is all about.
We all know Colorado for its stunning mountain views + the adventures we can find along mountainous trails. However, as these National Parks imply, there is a lot more to this state! You’ll find canyons, cliffs + deserts hidden away in the towering mountains!
Side Note: All national park photos were taken when the #YourLead van was visiting Colorado during the summer of 2016. You can read more about those adventures here.