National Parks in Colorado

Overcast late sunset at Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado.

The state of Colorado holds four national parks within its borders—Great Sand Dunes, Rocky Mountain, Mesa Verde, and Black Canyon of the Gunnison.

Together, they form a diverse playground that continually attracts visitors to The Centennial State.

 

Person in the distance walking along sand dunes at the Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado.

Great Sand Dunes National Park

Nearest City: Alamosa, Colorado

True to its name, Great Sand Dunes National Park preserves a number of sand dunes—the largest in the United States, in fact.

The park is located on the eastern edge of the San Luis Valley, and is a unique natural and cultural area.

Throughout Great Sand Dunes National Park, you’ll find evidence of human settlement which dates back over 10,000 years. The largest tribes to settle in the area include the Southern Ute, Apache, and Navajo Native Americans.

Recreation in Great Sand Dunes National Park includes dune exploration, hiking, sandboarding, and camping.

In order to access the dunes, visitors must cross Modano Creek. Most days out of the year, this creek is shallow and wide.  Therefore, you’ll probably only need to traverse a few inches of water.

Once across, you’ll then be able to hike across the sand dunes as much as you like. However, keep in mind that these dunes reach extreme temperatures in summertime—and can therefore become fairly dangerous to explore.

As for sandboarding, you can rent boards and sand sleds from an outfitter located just outside the park, such as Oasis or SpinDrift.

 

Bright blue sky and white clouds over the Ship's Prow of Long's Peak at Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado.

Rocky Mountain National Park

Nearest City: Estes Park and Grand Lake, Colorado

Rocky Mountain National Park is the most popular national park in Colorado, and one of the United States’ most frequently visited parks overall. On average, its yearly visitation totals more than 4.5 million people.

Even more impressive is that most of this visitation occurs during just four weeks.  Peak season runs through June, July, and August.

With that in mind, you’ll probably want to plan your trip in a less crowded season, to get the most out of the experience.

The landscape maintained and protected by Rocky Mountain National Park includes several peaks, mountain lakes, and bountiful meadows. While hiking and backpacking are the most popular activities there, admiring its diverse population of wildlife is another big draw.

The most notable animal species living in Rocky Mountain National Park include moose, elk, black bears, bighorn sheep, and coyotes.

In addition to these large mammals, Rocky Mountain also provides a home to many songbirds, and a few amphibians and reptiles.

 

Cliff Palace, ancient homes carved into rock wall at Mesa Verde, one of four national parks in Colorado.

Mesa Verde National Park

Nearest City: Cortez, Colorado

Sitting just north of the New Mexico border, Mesa Verde National Park preserves one of the most unique cultural settlements in the United States.

Inside the park’s borders, visitors will find the largest collection of ancestral puebloan artifacts, as well as several ancient cave dwellings. These sites are open to tours, under the supervision of a park guide.

The most popular cave dwelling is the Cliff Palace, which is thought to be the largest cliff dwelling on the entire continent.

Besides transporting visitors back in time, Mesa Verde also provides ample opportunities to hike and explore the landscape of southern Colorado.

The name, Mesa Verde, translates directly to “Green Table.”

Springtime visitors will quickly see why. Flora species there thrive among woodlands, shrublands, open meadows, and grasslands.

Additionally, nature lovers will find ten hiking trails throughout the Morefield, Chapin Mesa, and Wetherill Mesa areas of the park.

 

Deep blue river running through steep cliffsides in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park in Colorado, United States.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

Nearest City: Montrose, Colorado

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is located in western Colorado.  It’s frequently overshadowed by Great Sand Dunes and Rocky Mountain, which are more popular.

However, visitors to Black Canyon will find this journey well worth it.

The park contains some of the best hiking in the state, including three steep descents down into the Black Canyon Wilderness Area.

Once at the bottom, you’ll be able to take in the sights and sounds of the basin. This is one of the least explored areas, and thus provides the perfect amount of solitude.

In addition to being a hiker’s paradise, the park maintains several backcountry and frontcountry campsites where visitors can rest for the night.

Wildlife species frequently spotted in Black Canyon of the Gunnison include mule deer, black bears, and coyotes.

Visitors wishing to hike into the Black Canyon Wilderness Area will need a wilderness permit.  These are free, and obtained from the park’s visitor center.

 

Landscape portrait of Great Sand Dunes, one of the most popular national parks in Colorado.

Colorado: An Outdoor Playground

When it comes to outdoor recreation, stunning wildlife, and a diverse landscape, the state of Colorado has much to offer.

While Rocky Mountain and Great Sand Dunes are larger and more popular than the other two national parks in Colorado, you can’t go wrong with any option—or, even better, all four.

For more travel recommendations, check out the state and national parks in California, Oregon, or Utah, or these buyers’ guides to the best water filters and packs for hiking and camping.