You’ll Want to Visit All 4 Colorado National Parks
Everyone comes to Colorado for one thing: the nature. Sure, the Centennial State has a thing for microbreweries, food trucks and vest jackets, but it's the great outdoors that truly defines everyday life here. If REI were a person, it would be Colorado.
There are too many state parks, campgrounds and trails to ever visit in a lifetime. To prioritize, start with the national parks. By hitting these four natural landmarks, you'll get to experience vastly diverse and contrasting landscapes that include sand dunes, canyons and mountains.
Here are all four Colorado national parks, ranked.
4. Mesa Verde National Park
Size: 81.25 square miles
Annual visitors: 556,203*
Best time to visit: Tours to see the dwellings are available from May to October, so try to come during that time. If possible, skip mid-June to August, when temperatures can be too high for comfort.
*Visitor numbers are from 2019, since they provide a more accurate picture of travel due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Experience: Mesa Verde
Mesa Verde is one of the most unique national parks in the United States. Besides protecting nature, it preserves ancient cliff dwellings of the Pueblo people. These homes, carved into rock, date back to around the 12th century and make up the country's largest archaeological site.
There are over 600 dwellings, but you can only visit four. The most important and impressive of which is Cliff Palace. A tour of the gigantic site is an adventure, where you'll climb hundreds of stone steps and numerous ladders. Besides the homes, you can see petroglyphs.
In the National Geographic book, "100 Great American Parks," author Stephanie Pearson says "visitors can explore the homes, learn about the native culture, and marvel at both the benefits and dangers offered by living several hundred feet off the ground, in structures tucked into small openings on the cliff face."
If Mesa Verde comes in fourth place, it is not because it lacks allure. Far from it. But leaving civilization and heading into nature is usually what people want from a national park. And for that, the other three parks shine much brighter.
3. Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Size: 47 square miles
Yearly visitors: 432,818
Best time to visit: The South Rim Road is open from April to November. Summer is usually the most popular time for travelers, given that the canyon can have strong winds and low temperatures.
The Experience: Black Canyon of the Gunnison
If you've never heard of this protected land, you're not alone. Black Canyon of the Gunnison is one of the 20 least-visited national parks, with a little over 430,000 people visiting every year.
At its deepest point, the canyon is 2,722 feet (830 meters) deep. While that doesn't compare to, say, the Grand Canyon, the area "has been nearly impenetrable to humans for time immemorial," according to Pearson. This is because of the narrowness of its cliffs — whose sharp drops are sure to induce vertigo — and the force of the untamable Gunnison River.
Experienced hikers will enjoy the challenge of the pristine wilderness. As Pearson explains, "there are no maintained or marked trails into the inner canyon, but intrepid souls can descend via a number of wilderness routes along the South Rim." Some of these trails provide spectacular views of Painted Wall, the highest cliff in Colorado.
The lack of crowds also means a higher chance of seeing wildlife like elk and golden eagles.
2. Great Sand Dunes National Park
Size: 232.9 square miles
Yearly visitors: 527,546
Best time to visit: Pearson recommends late summer: "In late August, bright yellow prairie sunflowers blanket the dunes, and in September, golden aspen flank the Sangre de Cristo Mountains as the Milky Way shimmers in the night sky."
The Experience: Great Sand Dunes
The tallest sand dunes in North America are nowhere near the ocean. Formed in a valley left behind by a dried-up river, the sand came from the sediment in nearby lakes and rivers. The wind then helped deposit and shape it into the natural phenomenon we can enjoy today.
Standing at the top of the dunes, you could easily feel as if you're in the middle of the Sahara desert — except you'll have snowcapped mountains (which include some Fourteeners) in the backdrop. It's this unexpected juxtaposition of landscapes that makes Colorado one of the 10 most beautiful states.
Climbing the dunes provides sweeping views, but the most popular activity is sandboarding. Bring your own board, as renting one is not always possible at the park, and spend the day sliding down sandy slopes.
Just a word to the wise. The combination of strong winds and harsh sand can be brutal, so take note from people who live in the desert and make sure you cover your legs, arms and face.
1. Rocky Mountain National Park
Size: 382,894 square miles
Yearly visitors: 4,670,053
Best time to visit: There is no bad time to come to the Rocky Mountains, but summer is ideal for hiking, and winter is fantastic for back-country skiing.
The Experience: Rocky Mountain
Rocky Mountain isn't just the most popular national park in Colorado, but it's also the third most-visited in the country. Every other place on here is incredible, but the Rocky Mountains basically define the state.
The large protected land has too many trails, lakes and peaks to count. You could come here every single week of your life and still find a new nook to explore. Aspen trees cover the mountains and provide hikers with a space shielded from modernity.
Pearson points out that there are "77 peaks higher than 12,000 feet (3,657.6 m)." This brings hard-core mountaineers to the state year after year. Rock climbing is also a popular activity, as is camping.
Despite the crowds, it is surprisingly easy to see wildlife in this national park. You probably won't have to work too hard to see elk or moose roaming around. Thankfully, mountain lions, coyotes and black bears are a bit more reclusive.
Map of Colorado National Parks
Plan a grand tour of Colorado's national parks with this handy map.
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