mesa verde national park cliff dwellings
Lifestyle, Outdoor Adventures, Travel

Quick Guide to Colorado National Parks

The Centennial State is so much more than mountains and trees. Colorado’s National Parks showcase some of the world’s most diverse landscapes, from golden dunes to deep river gorges and ancient villages.

Colorado truly has something for every National Park fan. Whether you’re road-tripping through or crossing off all the national parks from your bucket list, you won’t want to miss exploring these pristine landscapes.

Rocky Mountain National Park

With its massive meadows, multiple glacier lakes, and towering peaks, Rocky Mountain National Park is a destination spot for so many. From hiking to camping to day trips to weddings, this park has something for everyone. Located between Estes Park and Grand Lake, this national park has over 350 miles of trails, waterfalls, lakes, and summits. Ranging from short walks to long strenuous climbs, Rocky Mountain National Park offers incredible views for all hiking levels.

Cost: $25 per vehicle, valid for seven days.

Best Hiking Trails: Sprague Lake, Emerald Lake, Chasm Lake, Ouzel Falls, Sky Pond, Alberta Falls

Looking for a more challenging experience, hike Twin Sisters Peak. This strenuous hike features forested trails and steep switchbacks that lead you to a breathtaking view. The final point to the peak requires rock scrambling and makes the final push just a bit more exciting! Once at the top, on a clear day, hikers can enjoy views of Longs Peak, Mount Meeker, Estes Cone, and the Continental Divide. This trail is a great hike to warm up for more extensive and longer hikes or for visitors to say they summited a mountain while in Colorado. (The peak is roughly 12,000 feet in elevation, so while you can’t claim you hiked a 14er, it’s still impressive!)

Where to Stay Nearby: With so much to see in Rocky Mountain National Park, extend your stay by either camping in the park itself or checking out the many cabins, hotels, and Airbnbs nearby. Learn about backpacking and camping permits here.

Other: Timed entry reservations are required to enter the park between May 27 and October 10. If you’re planning a visit to Rocky Mountain National Park, make sure to snag your timed entry reservation from their website!

Rocky Mountain national park on a sunny day

Great Sand Dunes National Park

Nowhere else in the United States do mountains of sand stand taller than at the Great Sand Dunes National Park. While the dunes are the park’s centerpiece, it features a diverse landscape of grasslands, wetlands, forests, alpine lakes, and tundra. The tallest dune towers 750 feet high, and the entire dune field encompasses 30 square miles. While the Great Sand Dunes are relatively remote, it’s certainly worth a trip. The best way to experience the park is to shred your way down the dunes on a sandboard by day and spend the night at camp within the park and experience the wonder of this International Dark Sky Park’s starry skies that light up the night.

Cost: $25 per vehicle, valid for seven days.

Best Hiking Trails: High DuneZapata FallsStar DuneMosca Pass Trail

There are plenty of activities within this national park to keep you entertained. Besides hiking, you can also sandboard, sand sled, splash in Medano Creek, backpack into the dunes, or 4WD up Medano Pass Road.

Where to Stay Nearby: There are no lodging options within the national park or preserve, but there are opportunities for camping. Great Sand Dunes National Park offers two different backpacking experiences – seven designated sites along the Sand Ramp Trail and 20 non-designated sites in the Dunes Backcountry. Individual or group campsites are available at Piñon Flats Campground, located just one mile north of the visitor center.

You can reserve camping permits online

great sand dunes national park at sunset

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park has much to offer for all skills levels. From those who want to see the views from their car to those exploring going into the canyon itself, this park has something for everyone and will not disappoint. Explore the canyon by backpacking, hiking to short overlooks, fishing the river, or white water rafting. Black Canyon of the Gunnison was created from volcanism and erosive forces of water to create some of the steepest cliffs in Colorado. Some areas tower more than 2,000 feet tall!

The grandness of Black Canyon of the Gunnison compared to other canyons and buildings worldwide:

  • Steepest Cliff in the Black Canyon – 2,722 feet
  • Grand Canyon in Arizona – 6,000 feet
  • Washington Monument, Washington DC – 555 feet
  • Empire State Building, New York – 1,250 feet
  • Burj Khalifa, Dubai – 2,717 feet

Cost: $30 per vehicle, valid for seven days.

Best Hiking Trails: North Vista Trail, Rim Rock Natural Trail, Oak Flat Loop Trail

Beyond absorbing the views from the rims of this magnificent park, experienced and advanced hikers can venture into the inner canyon. This hike requires a permit and the confidence to self-guide and self-rescue if necessary. Hikers can adventure the inner canyon with rock climbing, scaling the North and South Rims, camping, white water rafting, and more! Learn more about all that you can experience from the National Park Services website.

Where to Stay Nearby: Not able to fit everything you want in one day at Black Canyon of the Gunnison? There are several camping grounds outside of the park. If your adventure includes camping in the canyon, ensure you have your Wilderness Use Permit. If camping in nature is not your thing, there is no lodging in the National Park, but hotels are available in Montrose or Gunnison. For more lodging and camping information, visit the National Park Services site.

black canyon of the gunnison national park

Mesa Verde National Park

For over 700 years, the ancient Pueblo people built their communities on the top of mesas and in the cliffs of Mesa Verde. Today, Mesa Verde National Park protects the cultural heritage of 26 tribes and preserves more than 5,000 archaeological sites, including 600 cliff dwellings. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and also an International Dark Sky Park. Mesa Verde National Park consists of sloping mesas, expansive vistas, and rugged canyons and offers visitors a view into the past. Short hikes, scenic drives, and viewpoints are a must-do, but the best way to experience the park is to get up close by going on one of the cliff dwellings tours.

Cost: Between January 2 to April 30 & November 1 to December 31, the park entrance fee is $20 per vehicle. From May 1 to October 31, the park entrance fee is $30 per vehicle. The park entrance fee is valid for seven days after purchase.

Best Hiking Trails: Spruce Tree House Overlook, Cliff Palace, Petroglyph Point Trail, Mesa Top Loop, Park Point Fire Lookout, Long House Loop

For those looking to experience the more adventurous side of Mesa Verde, check out a guided tour of Balcony House. In the 1-hour ranger-guided tour, you’ll climb a 32-foot tall ladder to reach a beautiful village left behind by the Ancestral Puebloan People. Balcony House features 38 rooms, two kivas, and panoramic cliffside views. Once you’re done exploring the village, you’ll crawl through a 12-foot tunnel and ascend the open cliff face and more ladders to exit. A visit to Balcony House will challenge your fear of ladders, heights, and small spaces, but it’s also one of the most unique cliffside dwelling experiences! For tickets or to view other guided tours, visit the Cliff Dwelling Tour Tickets page here.

Where to Stay Nearby: Mesa Verde National Park has two lodging options available inside the park. The Far View Lodge is located at the park’s center and is open from spring to fall. They have a dining room, gift shop, bar, and are pet-friendly! If you’re looking for something more rustic, check out the Morefield Campground, a beautiful canyon setting just four miles from the park entrance.

mesa verde national park ancient cliff dwellings

If you plan to visit all four Colorado National Parks, it is worth it to purchase the America the Beautiful Pass. This annual national parks pass costs $80 and is valid for one year. Not only will it save you money on visiting Colorado National Parks, but it will get you free admission to any other national park or federal recreation sites including National Monuments! Learn more or buy your pass here.

Colorado is a nature lover’s paradise. Not only are there 4 national parks, but Colorado has 42 diverse state parks which offer everything from mountain biking to water skiing to spending the night in a secluded yurt. Check out our recent blog post highlighting our favorite state parks: Discover 7 Incredible Colorado State Parks.

Adventure on!

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