Konnichi wa / Great Outdoors
11 Must-See National Parks in Colorado
Colorado is home to some of the most beautiful and diverse national parks in America. They are perfect for both adults and families looking to enjoy a day outdoors, or those who need a break from their bustling lives. Whether you're into hiking, photography, or just want to enjoy the majestic beauty that surrounds us each day- Colorado's National Park Service and the Colorado Rockies have something for everyone!
Rocky Mountain National Park
We're not exaggerating when we say Rocky Mountain National Park is a photographer's paradise. This park will take your breath away- from the stunning views of glacier-carved valleys and snow covered peaks to wildlife like elk, bighorn sheep, and deer that wander around freely for you to catch on camera. In Colorado's most iconic national park there are endless outdoor activities including hiking the Continental Divide Scenic Trail or Bear Lake Loop, fishing or boating along the lakeshore, cross-country skiing, exploring historic buildings where explorers first came through the state over 100 years ago.
If you're looking for a great way to get a birds-eye view of this stunning Colorado national park, check out Hurricane Mesa. This easy hike takes visitors up the mountain with spectacular views all around them as they walk through mountain meadows dotted with wildflowers and cross iced creeks on their journey up towards 12,612 foot Pikes Peak!
Trail Ridge Road Hike: The Highest Pass in North America
The road that crosses Rocky Mountain National Park is so high it's considered one of our country's "thirteeners" or mountains over 13,000 feet tall (in comparison to Mount Everest which measures 29,029 ft). Along this scenic route are some incredible sights including the Kawuneeche Valley, Wild Basin and Moraine Park.
Beneath towering spruce trees (the tallest species in North America), this tiny town nestled against the Rocky Mountains is a favorite destination for families and outdoor enthusiasts alike. Estes Park provides adventure, discovery, relaxation and fun in an environment that's both modern and rustic.
The town has plenty of shops to explore- from souvenir stores to the award winning Tattered Cover bookstore - as well as activities including whitewater rafting on the Colorado River or touring Stanley Hotel where Stephen King spent his summers writing horror novels like The Shining!
Beaver Meadows & Moraine Park Area
In this expanse of high altitude evergreens covered with deep snowfields, you'll find beautiful alpine lakes surrounded by stunning rock formations. It was designated one of America's first national parks way back in 1915 because it was one of the few places in America that were untouched by human development.
Grand Lake Area
In this tiny mountain town, you'll find access to some of Colorado's most amazing national parks- including Rocky Mountain National Park and Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park! The area also offers world-class fishing on both lakes and streams for trout as well as other freshwater fish like crappie or bass. If you're planning a trip out here with your family, be sure to stop at nearby Inspiration Point where kids can enjoy panoramic views while adults admire expansive vistas from Poudre Lakeside...all without worrying about climbing any stairs!
Red Rock Canyon Open Space
Located in between Denver and Colorado Springs, Red Rocks Canyon Open Space is one of the most beautiful parks Colorado has to offer. It's famous for its vibrant red sandstone rock formations that are part of a larger geological formation called Independence Pass. The park offers hiking trails, picnic areas with scenic views, and short walks leading you past dramatic sculpted rocks. Be sure to bring your camera- these picturesque views will never disappoint!
Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
This is the tallest sand dune system in North America and it's also one of our newest national parks! The Great Sand Dunes are relatively new geologically speaking- they're thought to have formed around 11,000 years ago.
The sand dunes are a unique and rare geological feature in Colorado. These towering, snow-capped mountains of sand reach heights up to 750 feet tall! It's the only place in North America where you will find these sandy hills that appear like waves on the ocean when seen from different vantage points. This park is also home to many other animals including bighorn sheep, elk, coyotes, pronghorns or prairie dogs (ground squirrels). The dunes can be found unattended along trails for exploration by adults and children alike...but beware: it gets HOT out there!
The park contains many other natural features like wetlands which attract migrating birds; visitors can stay in nearby lodges or campgrounds while enjoying all that this vast area has to offer. If you're looking for offbeat attractions though, try hiking up a sandy slope so great that people refer to them as "mountains" (you won't need any mountaineering gear!)
Visitors will find two hot springs here with small pools perfect for soaking after long days spent exploring: Medano Creek Hot Springs and the comparatively remote Zapata Falls Hot Springs.
Medano Creek Area
Medano Creek flows through this enchanting canyon below the sand dunes. Visitors can hike along the creek and enjoy fishing or swimming at the Medano Creek Campground, before exploring one of Colorado's most breathtaking sights: two majestic waterfalls that tumble down from high atop Mount Herard into this lush valley where hummingbirds fly in search of food!
Mesa Verde National Park and Historical Site
Archaeologists have discovered that as many as 20,000 people once occupied the Mesa Verde region. The ancient Puebloans built their homes from adobe with roofs made of tree bark and created some of America's most beautiful artwork by etching petroglyphs into the cliff walls. Whether you're coming to climb up these iconic dwellings or just see them for yourself- this National Park is a must visit!
Cliff Palace Group
Located near Mancos, Colorado, visitors can hike down steep steps carved into canyon rock to explore one of five ancestral villages preserved within this park: Cliff Palace Group. These amazing ruins offer insights not only about how our ancestors lived but also what it was like to be a part of one of the most complex societies in history.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
This National Park is home to a scenic canyon (with steep canyon walls) that's hardly more than one mile wide. Black Canyon of the Gunnison offers some of Colorado's most incredible views- not only can you see deep into the earth but also all around as it seems like nature has protected this place from man for generations...even though we've been here since before they could imagine!
North Rim Loop Trail
The best way to experience this park is by hiking on its many trails which provide visitors with different perspectives on these amazing cliffs, slot canyons and waterfalls. One such example is the North Rim Loop Trail where kids will be able to enjoy panoramic views while adults admire expansive vistas.
South Rim Loop Trail
This rim trail is a little more adventurous but offers some great views in return- it's also a shorter hike which makes for a perfect day trip with kids! Plus, this route passes by Yum Yum Point and its many interesting rock formations like Pig Troughs Wall...a favorite among climbers.
Ancestral Puebloans settled these cliff dwellings over 600 years ago- they are still home to an active archaeological dig where visitors can watch archaeologists at work (and learn about their findings). They uncovered evidence that puebloan communities were highly structured societies: exploiting resources from as far away as present day Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona.
Most of the ancient structures in this park have been vandalized by those who appreciate them for no other reason than destruction; however there is one tiny village tucked into a remote canyon which has not yet been touched- it's called Cliff Palace Group! These amazing ruins offer insights not only about how our ancestors lived but also what life was like to be a part of one of the most complex societies in history.
Colorado National Monument
Built in 1906, this National Monument was set aside by President Theodore Roosevelt to protect the thousands of ancient Puebloan dwellings or “Cliff Dwellings” found here. Visitors can explore over 600 years worth of history and experience these amazing structures firsthand- from cliff walls that reach nearly 200 feet high at Mesa Verde to smaller remains like High Point Tower which is still surrounded by trees!
The Ancestral Puebloans settled these dwellings more than 500 years ago and built them into the natural cliffs: their homes were made mostly out of adobe with roofs made from tree bark- creating a unique way for people to live off the land without any modern conveniences. They eventually abandoned them around 1300 AD when they migrated south to escape the changes taking place in this part of Colorado.
The National Park Service offers guided tours which include a visit to Balcony House- one of the most famous cliff dwellings found here with great views! Visitors can also explore Spruce Tree House (one of the earliest preserved sites) or walk among some other less visited but equally impressive ruins like Wetherill Mesa, Step House Pueblo and Square Tower House Group.
This is such an important site for understanding how our ancient ancestors lived that it's not uncommon to see people practicing Native American rituals; so visitors should be respectful when exploring these sacred places on their own. These structures were built thousands of years before anything else we know about- they teach us valuable lessons about what it took to sustain life in a challenging environment.
Canyonlands National Park
This is a remote and vast park that's difficult to describe in just one paragraph! One of its most notable features are the canyons which were carved out by ancient rivers: some of them reaching depths up to 1300 feet. The Needles District offers visitors fabulous views, hiking trails for every level and rock climbing routes through incredible spires- it also has amazing night skies with stars so bright they seem close enough to touch!
The Island In The Sky District contains Mesa Arch (the largest single span natural stone arch found anywhere on earth) as well as other mesas that rise nearly 1200 feet into the sky. It’s quite different from the canyonlands found in river valleys below but no less spectacular when viewed at sunset or after dark.
The Maze District is the most remote and inaccessible part of Canyonlands National Park- it's home to a network of canyons, mesas and buttes that defy comprehension! The landscape here will make visitors feel like they're on another planet; however there are plenty of places to explore with trails leading through much more accessible areas such as Squaw Flat or the Shafer Trail Loop which takes in some stunning views before winding back around again.
Dinosaur National Monument
This park is actually an archaeological site that's best known for its fossils! It's a treasure trove of history- within the boundaries, visitors will find footprints which date back to 195 million years ago and dinosaur bones that are over 100 million years old. The area was designated as one of our first national monuments in 1915 by President Woodrow Wilson after it became clear how much important evidence had been preserved here; today there are many trails offering access to this once inaccessible spot.
Visitors should be aware that most hikes throughout the monument involve some steep climbing but offer incredible views from high points such as "Eagle Cliff" or Monument Point (which can also be reached via historic Dinosaur Quarry). During times when rivers swell with snowmelt, fossil hunters may have to do some hiking to find the remains they're looking for- but it's well worth the effort!
Grand Mesa National Forest
This is the largest flat-topped mountain in North America and it's also one of our newest national forests! It spans an area of about 100 square miles which includes some very rugged terrain.
Visitors can enjoy a variety of recreational opportunities here, including backpacking trips to remote areas or those looking for more gentle pastimes like hiking through old growth forest as well as scenic drives along roads that loop around this rather large mountaintop plateau.
The region was heavily logged between 1870 and 1950 yet still retains its wildness: visitors will find both high alpine lakes with streams fed by snow melt as well as wetlands teeming with wildlife (including bald eagles!)
Those interested in geological history should head towards Tenmile Canyon, which is one of the deepest canyons in North America.
Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge
This refuge sits on a very large and diverse swath of land that includes wetlands, grasslands and forests- as well as some private property! It's home to plenty species including ducks, geese, red tail hawks, coyotes etc.
The area was designated for protection by Congress back in 1966 then expanded twice more (in 1978 and 1990) before being declared a national wildlife refuge; however landowners continue to own much of this region with many farming crops or raising cattle here too (there are even buffalo!). Visitors should be aware that most people who visit come during springtime when there are lots of migratory birds around; but it's not a bad idea to visit before then too.
Visitors will find many opportunities for wildlife viewing, including plenty of marshland with the chance to spot some alligators- but humans are cautioned never approach these fearsome creatures!
The tallest mountain in Colorado is found here: Grays Peak (14,271 feet) which offers views across this region that stretch as far as Utah and New Mexico. Hikers can take on an arduous 12 mile roundtrip trek up this peak with about 4000 vertical feet worth of elevation gain; alternatively they could try doing much shorter hikes/snowshoeing around other areas like Willow Creek Pass or Blue Lake Basin.
Bent's Old Fort National Historic Site
This adobe trading post was built by Missouri Fur Company trappers Charles and William Bent for trade with Native Americans- it is now listed on the United States National Register of Historic Places. The fort played a hugely important role in shaping America as we know it today as its location directly influenced our country to claim ownership over what would become New Mexico rather than just part of Texas (among other things).
Kiowa Indian Reservation and Ute Mountain Tribal Park
Today, the Kiowa tribe lives on a reservation in southwest Colorado that is home to one of America's most revered sacred spaces: Mount Scott. This mountain overlooking the valley is considered by Native Americans as part of their "Seven Sacred Mountains" which are all held in reverence for being gifts from Great Spirit or deity- also known as Wakan Tanka. The other six mountains can be found scattered throughout New Mexico, Arizona, Wyoming, Washington State and Montana...but this beautiful peak remains here forever!
Uncompahgre National Forest
This region features the headwaters of two major rivers- the Gunnison River and San Juan River.
Visitors will find a variety of recreational opportunities in this forest, including camping on lakes or streams as well as hiking, biking and horseback riding along trails that wind through various environments (including meadows with wildflowers!). This is also an excellent area for wildlife viewing; visitors might spot elk grazing next to cottonwood trees, mountain lions near water sources or deer browsing among sagebrush.
A visitor's center here offers interpretive programs about local flora & fauna while providing maps/information too: there are plenty of historical buildings from mining days scattered throughout these hillsides!
The most famous landmark found in this wilderness though is a very large and unusual rock outcropping known as Mesa Verde, which is also one of the best preserved examples of cliff dwellings in North American.
Gunnison National Forest
Gunnison National Forest is on the western edge of Colorado and its nearest large city, Grand Junction. It's a diverse forest with lots to explore: from some high mountain lakes (elevation about 12000 feet) to meadows filled with wildflowers! Visitors here will find an abundance of wildlife including moose, elk, deer etc.; but they're cautioned never approach these creatures as they can be aggressive if startled or threatened.
There are plenty of opportunities for birdwatching too- one place where you might spot grouse or turkey vultures while other areas have been designated as Important Bird Areas by the Audubon Society. There's also fishing in creeks that flow into the Gunnison River; and the nearby town of Crested Butte has plenty to offer in terms of food, lodging, etc.
Final Thoughts on National Parks in Colorado
These iconic parks are national landmarks and worth a trip if you happen to be in the area...
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“The mountains are calling and I must go.”
— John Muir