Thinking about Colorado for vacation? If you love national parks, this is definitely a top state to visit. With a total of 12 NPS units, Colorado has plenty of adventures to discover. Most of the attention is rightfully focused on the state’s flagship, Rocky Mountain National Park, with its dramatic alpine views, pristine lakes, and world-class hiking.
While the other three parks are lesser-known, they’re definitely worth a visit. Mesa Verde National Park contains some of the most impressive Ancestral Puebloan ruins in the country. Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve includes the tallest sand dunes in North America, resting at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Range. Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is a dramatic sheer-walled gorge that you have to see to believe. Among the eight remaining NPS units, two of the largest national monuments—Dinosaur NM and Colorado NM—have many park-like qualities, including hiking trails, scenic drives, and more. Add it all up, and Colorado makes a perfect destination on a national parks road trip.
Rocky Mountain National Park
Located less than two hours from Denver, Rocky Mountain NP should be included in any Colorado road trip. Most visitors focus on scenic drives, wildlife viewing, and hiking on over 350 miles of trails running throughout the park’s 415 square miles. Other popular activities include camping, climbing, fishing, and more.
The park is regularly one of the top-five most popular national parks in the country, averaging about 4.5 million annual visitors in recent years. To reduce over-crowding, the park service has instituted a timed-entry reservation system from late-May through mid-October. During these months, you must have either a timed-entry reservation or a service reservation for camping, guided trips, or commercial tours to enter the park (plus entrance fee or parks pass).
Most visitors come to Colorado in the summer for the warmer weather, but fall colors trips are also popular, and quieter times can be found during late fall, winter, and early spring. If you’re looking for the top things to do in the Rocky Mountain National Park, make sure to check out our detailed blog post!
Mesa Verde National Park
Located about an hour west of Durango, Mesa Verde is the second-most visited national park in Colorado. However, with an average of only about 550,000 visitors per year, its much quieter than Rocky Mountain NP. The focus here is on Ancestral Puebloan ruins, and there’s lots of them. Within the park’s 82 square miles there are over 5,000 known archeological sites.
Perhaps the most impressive are the hundreds of cliff dwellings, some of which are entire stone villages built inside alcoves that visitors can explore. To visit most Mesa Verde cliff dwelling complexes you’ll need an advance reservation for a guided walking tour, while a few can be visited on self-guided tours.
In addition to cliff dwellings, there are mesa-top ruins, several scenic drives, and about 30 miles of hiking trails, including a paved walking/cycling path. There’s also a campground and archeological museum. To learn more about this park, check out our Mesa Verde blog post that covers history, guided tours, and where to stay.
Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
Located about 2.5 hours southwest of Colorado Springs, Great Sand Dunes is the third most popular national park in Colorado with about 500,000 annual visitors. The highlight here is hiking through the tallest dunes in North America. Challenging off-trail routes lead up to sandy summits like High Dune and Star Dune, which reach heights around 700 to 750 feet.
In recent years, sand sledding and sand boarding has become increasingly popular. Other visitors cool off in the shallow waters of Medano Creek or follow trails leading into the Sangre de Christo Range rising above the dunes. The park also has a classic Colorado campground and a rugged 4WD road to tackle. To learn more about why this park will blow you away, including the fascinating story about how the dunes formed, check out our blog post about Great Sand Dunes!
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Located about 1.5 hours southeast of Grand Junction, Black Canyon of the Gunnison is the least visited national park in Colorado. But don’t let this surprising stat—recently averaging a little over 300,000 visitors per year—fool you into thinking this park isn’t worth it. While the park is small, only 48 square miles, it offers some big views.
In fact, the parks’ 12-mile section of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison is perhaps one of the most arresting sights to see in the entire state. The sheer chasm is over 2000 feet deep, and it’s so narrow that sunlight only reaches certain lower portions for a half hour each day. When combined with the canyon’s dark metamorphic cliffs, painted by light-colored streaks of intrusive granite, the canyon often appears to be black.
Most visitors focus on driving the scenic park road to overlooks, though there are also some short hikes and several campgrounds. When combined with a longer Colorado road trip, Black Canyon of the Gunnison is definitely worth a stop. Learn more about this park—and why fall, in particular, is such a great time to visit—in our Black Canyon in Colorado blog post!
Dinosaur NM and Colorado NM
Partly in Colorado and partly in Utah, Dinosaur National Monument is about 2.5 hours northwest of Grand Junction. The Colorado (northern) half of the park is very remote and primarily the launching point for whitewater rafting trips through the famous Gates of Lodore—which can also be seen via a short hike. Meanwhile, the Utah (southern) half of the park is where most of the roughly 300,000 annual visitors go due to several excellent highlights. One is the Quarry Exhibit Hall, which encloses a cliff face with about 1,500 protruding dinosaur bones preserved as they were found. There’s also a scenic drive that leads to the bizarre Split Mountain, where the Green River emerges from an improbably folded mountain range. Other highlights include camping, hiking trails, and a historic homestead.
Located just outside Grand Junction, Colorado National Monument is a small unit, about 32 square miles, that’s celebrated for its canyon country landscape. Most of the roughly 450,000 visitors each year focus on the 23-mile Rim Rock Drive, which offers stunning views and several hiking options.
Want a complete list and recap of all our US National Parks as well as free downloadable maps and other great resources? Check out our US National Parks List and Map guide!
Lead photo: Adobe/Dancestrokes