Here's Your Itinerary to Visit the National Parks of Colorado
If you're flying in to Colorado to start your National Parks of Colorado Tour, you can fly into Denver, Fort Collins/Loveland or Colorado Springs. From either of those airports, you can get on the road and start your tour.
No matter where you start, you can easily visit four national parks with relative ease. And there’s really no better way to see this country than from the open road! And, there are so many cool mountain towns in Colorado to visit along the way! While you can camp at any of the parks, Mesa Verde National Park is the only park that has lodging within the park -- at the other parks, you can find lodging nearby.
Colorado features some of the most spectacular national parks in America: Rocky Mountain, Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Mesa Verde, and Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve.
Let’s start our Colorado Tour from Denver, which provides easy access to Rocky Mountain National Park! It’s just about an hour-and-a-half from Denver International Airport to Estes Park, where you will find plenty of options for lodging and dining.
Rocky Mountain National Park
Rocky Mountain National Park’s 415 square miles encompass and protect some of the world’s most spectacular mountain environments. And don't forget the wildflowers, wildlife, and starry nights. Trail Ridge Road – which crests at over 12,000 feet – offers awe-inspiring overlooks to see these subalpine and alpine worlds.
Rocky Mountain National Park has 355 miles of hiking trails. They range from flat lakeside strolls to steep mountain peak climbs. Keep in mind that park elevations range from 7,500 to over 12,000 feet. Even very fit individuals coming from lower elevations may experience altitude problems.
Rocky Mountain National Park visitors have a passion for viewing wild animals, especially the big ones. With an elk herd numbering between 600 to 800 in the winter, about 350 bighorn sheep, numerous mule deer and a small population of moose calling the park home, it's no surprise that wildlife watching is rated the number-one activity by a vast majority of Rocky's three million annual visitors.
Next up is Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. My recommendation is that you take Trail Ridge Road. With a high point at 12,183 feet in elevation, Trail Ridge Road is the highest continuous paved road in North America! From here, you'll be on the west side of the park and you can make stops in Grand Lake or Granby, or continue on through Breckenridge, Buena Vista and Salida before heading west through the Pike, San Isabel and Gunnison National Forests.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Deep, Steep and Narrow
Big enough to be overwhelming, still intimate enough to feel the pulse of time, Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park exposes you to some of the steepest cliffs, oldest rock, and craggiest spires in North America. With two million years to work, the Gunnison River, along with the forces of weathering, has sculpted this vertical wilderness of rock, water, and sky.
Established October 21, 1999, the park contains the deepest and most dramatic section of the canyon, but the canyon continues upstream into Curecanti National Recreation Area and downstream into Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area. The Gunnison River drops an average of 34 feet per mile through the entire canyon, making it the 5th steepest mountain descent in North America. By comparison, the Colorado River drops an average of 7.5 feet per mile through the Grand Canyon. The Black Canyon is so named because its steepness makes it difficult for sunlight to penetrate into its depths. As a result, the canyon is often shrouded in shadow, causing the rocky walls to appear black. At its narrowest point the canyon is only 40 ft wide at the river.
The main attraction of the park is the scenic drive along US Highway 50 and Colorado Highway 92, as well as the south rim. The east end of the park, where it meets Blue Mesa Reservoir at Blue Mesa Point, is the area most developed for camping, as well as canyon tours, hiking, fishing and boat tours. The west end of the park has river access by automobile, as well as guided tours of the canyon. A short hike at Blue Mesa Point Information Center heads down to Pine Creek and the Morrow Point boat tours, boating, fishing and hiking. At the south rim there is one campground for tent and RV camping, one loop of which has electrical hookups, and several hiking and nature trails. The north rim is also accessible by automobile and has a small, primitive campground.
From here, you'll head south...and a stop in Telluride, a former silver mining camp on the San Miguel River in the western San Juan Mountains is a must-do! Traveling through the Uncompahgre National Forest, you'll see some of the most spectacular scenery in all of Colorado!
Mesa Verde National Park
Mesa Verde National Park was established in 1906 to preserve and interpret the archeological heritage of the Ancestral Pueblo people who made it their home for over 700 years, from 600 to 1300 CE. Today, the park protects nearly 5,000 known archeological sites, including 600 cliff dwellings. These sites are some of the most notable and best preserved in the United States.
Cliff Dwelling Guided Tours
Cliff Palace, Balcony House, and Long House can only be visited by taking a ranger-guided tour which are very popular. A tour of Long House, on Wetherill Mesa, can be taken on the same day as a Cliff Palace or Balcony House tour. Tours can be strenuous. There are no height or age restrictions for tours, but children must be capable of walking the extent of the trails, climbing ladders, and negotiating steps independently. All infants must be carried in backpacks while on tours and adults carrying children in backpacks must be able to maintain mobility and balance. Tour tickets for Balcony House, Cliff Palace, and Long House must be purchased in person. Tour tickets sell out quickly, but can be purchased up to two days in advance.
Next up is Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve and you'll drive through the San Juan National Forest and on to Alamosa before heading north into the park. If you're a train buff, you might want to make a stop in Del Norte or take a ride on the Rio Grande!
Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve
Home to the highest sand dune on the North American continent, Colorado’s gem of a national park is packed with amazing activities given its relatively small size. A much different experience than most other national parks, if you only have a few hours, you can easily explore much of what the park has to offer. But you won’t want to leave.
Visitor Center and Free Ranger Programs
A great way to acclimate yourself to Great Sand Dunes is to first go to the visitor center, where you can get up-to-date information about the area and certain programs. A gift shop is there, along with rangers on-site to answer any questions. Get an in-depth understanding of the unique environment of the dunes. Ranger programs are offered mostly late spring through fall, conditions permitting.
What makes this national park unique is that there are no trails to speak of; you are free to roam any of the 30 square miles of dunefields. For those with disabilities, there is even a dunes-accessible wheelchair available free to loan at the Visitor Center. In the summer months, plan to hike the dunes in the early morning to around noon – later in the day temperatures can reach uncomfortable levels, making the sand too hot to the touch. To escape the heat of the afternoon, there are more forested trails, such as Montville Nature Trail, Mosca Pass Trail, and Sand Ramp Trail.
Summit the Tallest Sand Dune on the Continent
For the more ambitious, hiking to the 750-foot summit offers unique rewards in terms of scenery. However, if you’re not that ambitious, there’s plenty more dune to climb that won’t require so much of a workout. As of 2021, researchers have determined that Hidden Dune has surpassed Star Dune as the tallest in North America, at 742 feet, compared to Star’s 741 feet. To hike to it, plan on seven miles round trip over 6 hours, beginning from the main Dunes parking lot, then hike north/northwest to reach it.
Sand sledding is popular here any time of year, and fun for the entire family. Rentals can be had at several locations throughout the area. Imagine gliding down a gigantic sand dune with the warm sun at your back and the sand sweeping you down for a thrilling ride. Adults can release their inner child; sledding on the dunes is sure to put a smile on even the most hardened of faces.
So now you've been to all four Colorado National Parks! Depending on your timing, you can make a beeline to Denver International Airport on I-25...but I prefer the more scenic route back through Salida, Fairplay, and Bailey.
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