See Colorado’s National Parks Like a Local

By Lisa Blake

Colorado is graced with four sizeable national parks—Great Sand Dunes, Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Rocky Mountain and Mesa Verde.

These sprawling natural playgrounds draw thousands of visitors from May to October. To dodge crowds, go mid-week and be sure to plan your summer trip in advance, booking campsites and mapping out hikes months ahead of your national park visit. Another smart move is to slide into Colorado’s parks during the quieter spring season.

Bonus: National Park Week is April 15–23, with fee-free access on the weekends of April 15–16 and April 22–23.

Here’s what you need to know about Colorado’s national parks.

Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky is one of the most popular national parks in the U.S., drawing more than 4 million guests each year to its 415 square miles. Camping, hiking and scenic drives are big here.

During summer months, drive Trail Ridge Road to take in grand views from 12,000 feet. Pull off at overlooks to gaze out on spectacular subalpine and alpine ecosystems and snap top-of-the-world pics.

Discover pristine lakes, tumbling waterfalls and serene forests and look up at 14,259-foot Longs Peak while hiking some of the 300+ miles of trails. Wildflowers are prime in July and fall gold peaks in September when the elk bugle loudest.

Iconic park animals include beaver, bighorn sheep, black bear, elk and marmot. Moose and mountain lions have been known to make cameos.

Local Tip: Don’t miss Bear Lake—one of Rocky Mountain National Park’s most loved hikes for its scenic overlooks, picnic sites and trailheads. Take the free summer and fall shuttle for easiest access.
Rocky Mountain National Park

Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve

The tallest sand dunes in North America rise and swell like waves below the snowcapped Sangre de Cristo mountains. It’s a surreal sight that can only be found in Colorado’s San Luis Valley.

The adventures are as diverse as the landscape here, spanning sand sledding, hiking, star gazing, backpacking and four-wheel-driving among grasslands, wetlands, forests, alpine lakes and tundra.

Splashing around in Medano Creek is a refreshing summer activity. Snowmelt run-off contributes to the cool, shallow waterway and annual flow typically peaks in May as temps rise.

Climb to alpine lakes and peaks and carve out some time to try sand sledding. Nearby retailers rent and sell sandboards and sleds with extra slick bases designed to slide across sand.

Local Tip: Thanks to its ideal elevation and minimal light pollution, the Great Sand Dunes are the perfect star-gazing backdrop. View thousands of stars while listening for the songs of night owls.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison

Dramatic, steep and simply stunning, the Black Canyon is an amazing Colorado natural wonder. Craggy mountains and cliffs sculpted by the ages jut out over the Gunnison River, a winding green-blue ribbon viewed from above.

Unique campsites dot the national park, all within proximity to beginner-friendly hiking along the North and South rims. Scenic driving loops are well-marked and provide pull-over-and-learn opportunities and the visitor center is a fun stop equipped with educational exhibits and films.

Cast along the Gunnison River for legendary trout fishing. Stroll the sunny Rim Rock Nature Trail for a laid-back, self-guided hike with postcard views. Or take the two-mile Oak Flat Loop Trail and traverse more technical slopes.

Local Tip: More experienced hikers can tackle the strenuous inner canyon trek down to the river.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison

Mesa Verde National Park

Spanish for green table, Mesa Verde protects nearly 5,000 known archeological sites. Explore cliff dwellings and mesa-top villages while peeking into the lives of the Ancestral Pueblo people who made this area their home for over 700 years.

The national park is open daily, year-round. Begin your visit with a stop into the Visitor Center or Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum. Depending on the season, there are a variety of ranger-guided tours.

Buy tickets for the adventurous Balcony House cliff dwelling tour for a one-hour excursion where you will climb a 32-foot ladder into the site, crawl through a tunnel and traverse stone steps to an exposed cliff face.

Local Tip: Drive six-mile Mesa Top Loop Road and catch sunset views from Sun Point Overlook.
Mesa Verde National Park
Learn more about Colorado’s state and national parks.

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