Best National Parks Near Denver CO

The best national parks near Denver, CO, offer some of the most breathtaking views and diverse landscapes. In fact, you can reach four of them within a beautiful 6-hour drive.  For instance, Rocky Mountain National Park is less than an hour and a half from the city and is the most popular. 12.5 million people visit the park annually, which ranks third nationally for example.  Personally, I love the very different landscapes and plentiful things to do here. The other three are Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Mesa Verde National Park, and Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve.

hikes at rocky mountain national park

Rocky Mountain National Park

Of all the national parks close to Denver, Rocky Mountain National Park is the closest. In this case, it’s located only 65 miles from Denver. Interestingly, it sits directly on top of the Continental Divide. Another distinct feature is that It’s the location point of origin for the mighty Colorado River. It’s also an alpine zone that starts at 11,000 feet above sea level. A unique benefit of this high elevation is experiencing a tundra biome. You are in for a real treat if you have never been at this elevation. For one thing, It displays a diverse array of wildlife thanks to its wide range of biomes and ecosystems. Additionally, the animal and plant life is unique to this elevation. Every time I’ve driven through the park, I am in awe. The views are spectacular!

Park Description and History

President Woodrow Wilson established it with the Rocky Mountain National Park Act in 1915. Not surprisingly given its beauty, it’s now the third most visited national park in the country. The main biomes of the park include the Alpine, Montane, and tundra biome types. As a result, each biome has distinct features and characteristics. The smell of the lush forests of evergreen trees is refreshing. The harsh rocky mountainsides are steep and majestic.

Notable Sites

There are a total of five visitor centers located within the park. These centers have various educational opportunities and activities designed to help enrich your experience of the natural environment around you. One of the centers, the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center, is a national historic landmark. The entire parking area is surrounded by three separate national forests and a national wilderness area. Another notable feature of this park is the famously scenic Trail Ridge Road. It is a 48-mile highway that stretches through the park, reaching a high point of 12,183 ft.

trail ridge road national parks in Colorado
Trail Ridge Road reaches a staggering height of 12,183 feet

Biome and Ecosystem

At the lowest level of elevation, you will find the montane ecosystem. Specifically, this area has the widest range of wildlife and plant life. There are also rivers that flow through deep canyons. In the summertime, the wildflowers are spectacular! As you increase in elevation, you will enter the subalpine ecosystem. Here you will still encounter some forests of particular high-altitude trees like Spruce and Fir. Even further up the mountain, you will enter the Alpine ecosystem. The Alpine tundra is anywhere above 11,000 feet or above the tree line. This biome makes up one-third of this park’s total area.

National Park Wildlife

wildlife preserve elk
A bull elk trumpeting. NPS/Eric Johnston

Rocky Mountain National Park contains some of the highest levels of biodiversity in the country. For example, there are nearly 400 species of mammals and birds. The reason there is such high biodiversity is that it contains such a wide range of biomes.  Some species you will find are elk, moose, mule deer, pronghorn, mountain goat and bighorn sheep. Also in the park are black bear and five types of cats. Some of the best places to view wildlife are the pullouts in the open areas. Moraine Park and Horseshoe Park are two such areas, especially during the fall season.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park has 48 miles of black canyons along the Gunnison River. A unique feature of this park is it contains some of the steepest cliffs in North America.  It is also home to some amazing wildlife, including the world’s fastest bird, the Peregrine Falcon.

Fall Colors at Tomichi Point view of layers of cliffs at Black Canyon of the Gunnison

Park Description and History

It became a national monument in 1933 and was reclassified as a national park in 1999. It’s also one of the world’s foremost wild canyons. The meaning behind the name of the park is one of its unique features. It’s only in direct sunlight for about 33 minutes a day. This leads to an eerie perception of darkness even at the peak of the daytime. It can seem quite dark when you are at the deepest points of the Canyon. It also has abundant black volcanic rocks found throughout the area.

Notable Sites and Activities

The primary attraction at this park is a beautiful drive along scenic Highway 50 and Colorado Highway 92. The geological features are extraordinary! Specifically, you will see some of the steepest cliffs in all of North America. At either end of these highways, there are some recreation areas including the Blue Mesa Reservoir. Therefore, this is a great place for camping. It’s also the largest body of water in the state, which allows boating. It also has a beautiful shoreline for hanging out on the beach and swimming. Another fun activity here is hiking but it is not for the novice hiker. The hikes are quite challenging in the canyon.

black canyon national park_river gorge
River gorge of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

Biome and Ecosystem

This national park contains both terrestrial (land) and fresh water biomes. Its ecosystem is mostly coniferous and deciduous forests. The Aspen and Mahogany are common. It actually stays fairly cool throughout the year with the highest temperatures only reaching the low 60°. This temperate climate and vegetational ecosystem allows for abundant and varied wildlife.

National Park Wildlife

Peregrine Falcon

The pronghorn and muskrat are two of the most common wildlife in the park.  Other species common in the park are black bears, bobcat, eagles, coyotes, elk and mule deer. Make sure to also look for the fastest bird in the world, the Peregrine Falcon.  You may even see it hunting for prey!  There are a number of smaller predators, including some felines that are well-known throughout the Colorado region. These include bobcats and mountain lions.

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve

Made a national park in 2004, this park looks like something on another planet. Sand dunes can tower up to 750 feet high. It is located in between San Luis Valley and the Sangre de Cristo range.  It covers over 230 square miles worth of territory in the south-central portion of Colorado.  There are also a variety of activities to enjoy in this unique landscape.  For instance, you can explore some parts of the sand dunes in your four-wheel-drive.

Park Description and History

great sand dunes national park co
Great Sand Dunes National Park, CO

Pres. Herbert Hoover established it as a national monument in the spring of 1932. The initial area was only 55 ½ square miles but there was a boundary change in 2000.  Additional legislation in 2004 established its modern boundaries and national park status. This unique landscape has the tallest sand dunes in North America. Interestingly, the National Park Service declared it the quietest NP in the contiguous US.

Notable Sites and Activities

Prepare for some fun!  Two popular activities here are sandboarding and sledding. You can actually rent the equipment on-site.  It literally feels like you’re sledding down a snow-covered mountain even though it’s sand. Tip: wear some good shoes as the sand surface can reach 150° in the summer. There are a number of recreational activities here, including hunting. Certain areas of the park permit hunting as long as you have the proper registrations and permits.

Biome and Ecosystem

Interestingly, the highest elevation levels found within this national park are alpine tundra ecosystems. There are a few species of plants that can survive here but there are no trees. From the higher elevations, you descend through sub-Alpine and riparian (along river margins) ecosystems.  At the lowest elevation are areas of grasslands and shrub plants. Fortunately, some animals are able to adapt and survive by switching between biomes. Particularly, when there are drastic environmental changes, such as fires.

National Park Wildlife

Concerning wildlife, you will find the greatest diversity at the lower elevations. Here you will find anything from bighorn sheep to black bears. There are also several hundred bison that live within the park.  Do you love birds?  You can find over 200 species known to be native to the park grounds.

baby bison
Baby bison

Mesa Verde National Park

Not only is Mesa Verde a national park but it’s also a UNESCO world heritage site. Established in 1906, it contains some of the world’s most well-preserved archaeological sites. Carved into the side of a gigantic cliff face are numerous ancient dwellings. It is located in the southwest corner of Colorado covering over 50,000 square acres. For history buffs, it contains nearly 5,000 archeological sites.

Park Description and History

Native American people lived here over 700 years ago before it become part of the United States. Established by Theodore Roosevelt in 1906, it was the first park of its kind. At the time of its creation, there were over 600 cliff dwellings that you can still see to this day. Many believe it to be the largest dwelling ever built into the side of a cliff.

Notable Sites and Activities

The most notable site is the 600 cave dwellings. Most of them are off-limits, however, there are a few that are open to the public. Guides present archaeological features and historical significance. This park protects cultural and historical sites instead of natural features, unlike all others. It’s like traveling back in time to see unique qualities of the Native American Pueblo people. Activities include touring the cliff dwellings, hiking and camping. The nearby city of Durango also offers numerous activities.

mesa verde national park cliff dwellings
Mesa Verde National Park Cliff Dwellings

Biome, Ecosystem, and Wildlife

It has a Chaparrel biome, containing dense shrubs and coniferous trees. Its ecosystem is in the transition zone between the arid scrublands and forested areas. Wildlife includes coyote, elk, deer, bobcat, and mule deer. However, there are over 1000 species of insects and other invertebrates as well as 74 species of mammals.

Final Thoughts

There’s nothing like visiting the best national parks near Denver Co. What’s fun about a journey through Colorado’s national parks is the diversity. For example, each park has such unique geological features and crosses various biomes and ecosystems. To locate or learn more about any of Colorado’s national parks, check out nps.gov.  Tip: if you love US travel, check out a fun activity that can help you track your travels with this scratch off map of the United States. Included are 85 famous landmarks and 15 fun adventures. We frequent national parks and my daughters, Grace, Anna and Rachel love scratching off where they’ve been.  Finally, if you’re looking for some places to stay on a budget, check out these special travel offers.

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!

national parks map and list - printable checklist
Visit our complete National Parks Guide for FREE Downloadable National Parks List & Map (multiple versions)

FAQs

What is the closest national park to Denver?

The closest national park to Denver is Rocky Mountain National Park.

How far is Denver Colorado from national parks?

Here are the driving distances from Denver to each of the four national parks in Colorado:

  1. Rocky Mountain National Park is 70 miles northwest of Denver, which is about 1.5 to 2 hours.
  2. Great Sand Dunes National Park is 240 miles southwest of Denver, or about 4 to 4.5 hours.
  3. Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is 250 miles southwest of Denver, or about 4.5 to 5 hours.
  4. Mesa Verde National Park is 370 miles southwest of Denver, which is about a 6.5 to 7 hour drive.

Is Rocky Mountain National Park only in Colorado?

Rocky Mountain National Park is primarily located in Colorado, but it also extends into Wyoming.

Are there national parks to visit in Colorado?

Yes. Colorado has four national parks: Rocky Mountain, Great Sand Dunes, Black Canyon of the Gunnison, and Mesa Verde.

How many national parks are in Colorado?

Yes. As noted above, there are four: Rocky Mountain, Great Sand Dunes, Black Canyon of the Gunnison, and Mesa Verde.

How many days should I spend in Rocky Mountain National Park?

In order to fully experience the park, I would recommend spending at least 2 to 3 days there. This allows you to enjoy the scenic drives, hike some of the trails, and appreciate the natural beauty of the park. Additionally, if you are interested in wildlife watching or photography, more time may be beneficial.

What is the most visited park in Colorado?

The most visited park in Colorado is Rocky Mountain National Park.

What is the difference between Rocky Mountain National Park and Great Sand Dunes National Park?

Rocky Mountain National Park and Great Sand Dunes National Park are different in terms of their landscapes and geographical features. Rocky Mountain National Park is known for its towering mountains and alpine scenery, while Great Sand Dunes National Park features massive sand dunes and unique desert-like landscapes.

Is there a map of the national parks in Colorado?

Yes. You can find a good one to explore at the nps.gov site.

About Me

My husband and I have three precious daughters and live in the Kansas City, KS area. One of our favorite things to do is travel across the country visiting our extraordinary US National Parks!

Let us know what you think about our content and if you have any questions, suggestions, or have any favorite memories or tips you would like to share. We would love to hear from you!

Happy Travels! Sandy

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