Discover the Beauty of National and State Parks in Colorado
by Emily Krempholtz
There are over one hundred thousand square miles within the state of Colorado, and over a third of that land belongs to the people in the form of parks and public land. And maybe we’re a little biased, but it’s not just any land—the parks in Colorado are some of the most beautiful in the country, with gorgeous mountainscapes, thick forests, grassy plains, dramatic canyons, and thousands of cultural heritage sites. The world is at your fingertips in Colorado, so get out there and explore it!
Colorado’s four national parks are the big guns, with some of the most gorgeous and unique landscapes and views in the Rockies. For sweeping mountain vistas, elk, and high elevations, there’s Rocky Mountain National Park, which is one of the most popular national parks in the US. On the other end of the spectrum, there’s Black Canyon of the Gunnison, which is one of the least visited national parks in the country and is named for the deep, shadowy canyon that receives little to no sunlight in places. Down at the southern edge of the state, Mesa Verde National Park offers a fascinating look at over five thousand ancestral heritage sites of the ancient Pueblo people, and amongst the Sangre de Cristo mountain range, Great Sand Dunes National Park contains the tallest dunes in North America, as well as some truly unique and gorgeous scenic views.
There are forty-two state parks in Colorado, and while they range in size, location, and landscape, it’s safe to say that many of them are just as beautiful and varied as their nationally-recognized counterparts. If you’re looking for fishing, hiking, water sports, horseback riding, snowshoeing, rock climbing, or other outdoor activities, chances are there’s a state park nearby that’s got you covered.
While every one of Colorado’s State Parks has something unique and gorgeous to offer, from the massive dog park at Cherry Creek State Park to the serene paddleboarding and summer wildflowers at Paonia State Park, but below are the five you should definitely add to your bucket list this year:
- Arkansas Headwater Recreation Area - This park in Salida is where the Arkansas River originates, and it is home to some of the best whitewater rafting in the country, maybe the world.
- Eldorado Canyon State Park - Known as “Eldo” by locals, Eldorado Canyon State Park is easily accessible from Boulder and has plenty of gorgeous opportunities for hiking, mountain biking, fly fishing, and rock climbing, just a short drive from the hustle and bustle of the Front Range.
- Rifle Falls State Park - Located in Garfield County, the centerpiece of this beautiful park is the 70-foot triple waterfall, as well as the abundant wildlife that you can spot there if you’re patient.
- Eleven Mile State Park - The waters of the South Platte bottleneck west of Colorado Springs at Eleven Mile State Park, where you’ll find some of the best trout fishing in the state.
- Highline State Park - West of Grand Junction is Highline State Park, where mountain biking enthusiasts will find a veritable playground, including the world-famous 18 Hours of Fruita Loop.
For more information on visiting Colorado State Parks, click here.
Colorado National Forest, Wilderness Areas & More
Visitors to Colorado and locals alike are extremely fortunate to have such a natural playground at their fingertips. So much of Colorado is unbelievably beautiful, and there’s a lot to explore even outside the bounds of state and national parks. Wilderness areas like Lost Creek Wilderness in Bailey, CO offer miles of trails for hiking, camping, snowshoeing, and more, and spaces like Rainbow Falls Mountain Trout Recreational Area in Sedalia give visitors the opportunity to fish and explore.
Tips for Enjoying the Great Outdoors
When you’re cooped up all day due to social distancing regulations, it can be more tempting than ever to hit the trails and get some fresh air. But spending time in parks without thinking ahead can actually be more dangerous than it’s worth—you might find yourself in an unnecessarily crowded space, or get yourself into a sticky situation in the backcountry. To keep you and the people around you as safe as possible, here are some tips for spending time outside during the COVID-19 pandemic:
- Avoid crowded areas. If you pull up to the trailhead and the parking lot is packed or cars line the side of the street, then do everyone and yourself a favor and move on. Make it your mission to find the hidden gems of the Colorado parks system, where you can avoid the awkward need for sidestepping the trail in order to stay six feet apart from other hikers.
- Go on off-peak days. Many of us might be working from home these days, but it’s still technically working, which means weekends, when those people have days off, are still a much more crowded and popular time for people to be using the parks system. If you’re able, try and schedule your family hike for, say, a Tuesday morning rather than a Saturday afternoon.
- Keep your distance on the trail. We’re not sure how many other ways there are to say this, but please, keep your distance. Stay at least six feet from other trail-users whenever at all possible. This might mean having to step off the trail at times, so if conditions are muddy, you have to know this might mean damaging the integrity of the trail, which means, as much as you might not want to hear it, it’s probably best for you to stay home that day.
- Stay out of the backcountry. Accidents happen, and they are even more likely to happen in the backcountry, during a time like now when areas that are usually being monitored for avalanches aren’t. Already this year, several Coloradans have had to be rescued from some pretty dangerous situations, and right now, our health care system can’t handle that. In addition, a search and rescue response team involves dozens of people, so by choosing to explore the backcountry, you’re not only putting yourself at risk, but you’re also asking all those people who have to come to save you to be in close proximity to one another, risking community spread.
- Pay attention to the news. Official restrictions are changing every day, and while parks remain open for now, this could change at any moment. Make sure to check social media and websites for wherever you’re planning on visiting to make sure it’s open and read about any restrictions or special instructions for using that park. For example, campsites, playgrounds, and visitor centers are currently closed across all Colorado Parks and Wildlife facilities. As far as national parks are concerned, Rocky Mountain National Park and Mesa Verde National Park currently closed to the public, but Black Canyon of the Gunnison and Great Sand Dunes are still partially open as of the end of March 2020.
- Consider an alternative. When the weather is bad, you’re feeling sick, the parks are crowded, or you just can’t justify leaving the house, there are alternatives. On Google Earth, you can virtually tour over thirty US National Parks, and if you visit the NPS website for each park, you’ll find photos, videos, and resources that will make you feel like you’re right there, from the comfort of your own home.
For more information on closures, conditions, and more, visit the Colorado Parks and Wildlife website.