Prepare to be wowed by the sheer wealth of national parks in Colorado. Yep, this great cut-out of the Western United States is among the wildest places in the USA. For starters, the Rocky Mountain National Park peaks upwards here. It’s laden with all the snow-dusted ridges, fir woods, and glimmering alpine lakes you’d expect of America’s most famous range. Then come to the Mesa Verde National Park and its ancient pueblo villages. You can head there to wonder at thousands of adobe homes carved into gigantic bluffs.
Still not enough to get you booking an outdoors trip to the Centennial State? Colorado national parks and monuments don’t stop coming. Everything from deep canyons to wiggling rivers meets here. You can hike for days on end and not see another human. You can strap on the skis and go cross-country through remote valleys steeped in snow. There are wolves and bison and bear aplenty to boot.
This list ranges from north to south, east to west, all in search of the most awesome national parks in Colorado. Read on and, before you know it, you’ll be planning an odyssey over sand dunes, deep into Rocky Mountain woodlands, high above the Continental Divide, and through Uinta gorges where pre-historic dinosaur relics await…
Rocky Mountain National Park
If there’s just one wilderness that this corner of the US is famed for around the globe, it’s surely the American Rockies. Rising like a great wall of stone above the rolling grasslands that dominate the eastern half of the state, they shatter the skies with peaks and glaciers and craggy summits. On the so-called Front Range by Denver, they are also home to perhaps the most iconic of all national parks in Colorado.
Cue the Rocky Mountain National Park. Covering 265,000 acres, the vast reserve was signed into law by Woodrow Wilson in 1915. These days, it’s recognized as quintessential America, with all sorts of unique habitats and zones for adventurers to explore. Down low are riparian woodlands filled with Douglas firs and spruces. Higher up are sections of tundra where rocks poke out from dusty ridges and bighorn sheep move between the crags.
The Rocky Mountain National Park is a haven for recreation. Hiking is often top of the bill. For that, a 45-mile circuit of the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail cuts through the territory. There are also hardcore climbing sections. (Take 4,300-meter-high Longs Peak, which has sheer faces to challenge the experts. Or, you’ve got the technical sections up Hallett Peak.) And there’s snowshoeing come winter, eagle spotting, fly fishing, wildlife spotting – the list goes on even during the unpredicted weather in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Tips: Visit here in late May till the early of June when the summer crowd dies down a little. During this time, the weather at Rocky Mountain National Park is good with sunshine and a cool breeze. Otherwise, mark your calendar from September to October. The weather is equally good, however, expect snows at a higher elevation.
Mesa Verde National Park
Calling all history buffs and culture lovers – the Mesa Verde National Park is certainly one of the best Colorado national parks for you. This amazing corner of the state was designated way back in 1906 to protect the lands of the Ancestral Puebloans. They were a fascinating Native American people who once inhabited great portions of Utah, New Mexico, and Colorado. Their aged sandstone homes and cave dwellings, along with oodles of other relics, span this whole region. In fact, there are an estimated 5,000 ruins and archaeological dig points to encounter in the Mesa Verde overall!
Perhaps the highlight of the lot is the so-called Cliff Palace. That’s the biggest complex of cliff-built dwellings on the continent. Estimated to have been built in the final decades of the 12th century, they were used until at least 1300. There are many structures to explore at the site. Most are homes, but there are also preserved defense towers and ceremonial rooms known as a kiva.
At the Mesa Verde National Park entrance, you can stop off at the Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center. A cutting-edge facility, it’s got sprawling collections of artifacts that relate to the Puebloans and their culture. (Expect to pay $25 entry to the park for a single vehicle during the summer months. Prices are cheaper in spring, winter and fall, at just $15 per car.)
The Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Carved out of the buttes and mountains in the western half of Colorado is the dramatic centerpiece of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. That is – as the name implies – the Black Canyon itself. A mighty gorge that runs for a whopping 48 miles through the Centennial State, it’s known for its steep ridges and precipitous sides. In fact, the mountains that lurk above the canyon are so high, the bottom of the valley receives just 30 minutes of sunlight per day in some areas!
The soaring peaks and the deep gorge base here mean that most people will visit to see the panoramas. For that, there are some breathtaking lookout points. There’s Tomichi Point, where a V-shaped cleft in the Gunnison River unfurls in the foreground, and scrub-clad summits roll to the horizon. Or, there’s the eye-watering Pulpit Rock Overlook. That’s quintessential Wild West stuff, offering a wiggling waterway and a right-angle bend carved into the Coloradan massifs. These days, it costs $20 for a seven-day car pass to Gunnison, in line with entry to other national parks in Colorado.
Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
A little taste of Arabia in the heart of the West, this Colorado national park isn’t like anything else in the state. You’ll find it wedged up to the duty Sangre de Cristo Range of the Rockies east of Hooper. There, seas of beige sand crumple the landscapes like brown paper. They emerge from the snow-dusted summits and spread over a whopping 149,000 acres in total.
They were created when a huge and ancient lake receded through the San Luis Valley. That left great mounds of glacial deposits to dry. Nowadays, those silts and minerals tower more than 229 meters at their highest point. The result is the tallest series of sand dunes in North America. That’s all now covered by the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, which even edges into portions of the mountains. Between its boundaries, everything from high-elevation desert to alpine tundra is on the menu for explorers.
People flock by the thousands to see the seasonal wonders of the park. In late spring, the Medano Creek breaks water over the dry dunes, bringing in tubers and waders. In summer, the scorched dust hills are great for adrenaline-hungry sand boarders. Come winter, the snow-plumed hills offer a unique backdrop for hiking in the shadow of the Rockies themselves.
Dinosaur National Monument
Budding paleontologists should be sure to add this one to their tour of the top Colorado national monuments. Yep, as it slopes off the snow-capped tops of the Uinta Mountains on the borderlands of Utah, the Dinosaur National Monument comes replete with fossils, bones, and other relics of our long-lost Jurassic forebears.
You’ll find said remains lodged into the high cliffs and gorges of the park. They have been exposed by millennia of erosion and attrition, and now offer a window onto the pre-historic world of the Americas. One of the best places to do that is at the dedicated Quarry Exhibit Hall. It straddles one of the world’s most prolific dinosaur dig sites but is located on the edge of the Green River over the state line in Utah.
Back in the CO half of the reserve, adventures are just waiting to unfold. You can follow the courses of huge canyons as the Green River pierces the so-called Gates of Lodore. It’s possible to hike to Echo Park to see secluded waterways meandering amid buttes and bluffs. And geologists will love the ancient mud stacks and rock formations that abound.
Browns Canyon National Monument
One of the newest additions to the line-up of Colorado national monuments, this stunning sector of Chaffee County was only dedicated in 2015. Its status was pushed through by then-president Barack Obama, who recognized the area’s significant natural and cultural worth under the Antiquities Act.
There’s certainly no denying that it’s worthy of the accolade. The Arkansas River wiggles through its heart. The foothills around Cameron Mountain and the Rockies peak and trough all around. There are pockets of pine forest and little boulders speckling the hillsides. And fluted walls of stone rise here and there from the woodlands.
However, if there’s one thing that puts the Browns Canyon National Monument on the adventure travel map, it’s surely rafting. In fact, the waterways here are often hailed as the single best place to hop in craft and hit the whitewater in the whole USA. There are loads of outfitters based in the nearby town of Buena Vista. They provide everything from bumpy river rides for families to gnarly rapids that are Class IV and over for the pros.
Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument
The Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument is where this list of Colorado national parks and monuments takes a turn for the strange and ancient. Located in Teller County just over Pikes Peak from Colorado Springs, the reserve is famed throughout the country for its pre-historic rock fossils. They reveal everything from small insects to complex plant species, all of which are now petrified in stone and stored thanks to deposits of volcanic ash over millions of years.
In the heart of the area, it’s possible to join the Petrified Forest Loop. That takes you around the epicenter of the fossil beds and deep into their most iconic feature. You can’t miss it – the mineralized remains of giant redwood trees; their trunks hardened by pumice over the course of more than 34 million years!
Access to the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument is through the namesake town of Florissant that sits just to the north. There’s a visitor’s center that regularly organizes guided walks, night-sky viewing outings, and geology workshops in the park. A standard $10 entry fee per adult that’s valid for seven days applies, while anyone under 16 goes free.
Colorado National Monument
Enter the Wild West. Yep – the simply named Colorado National Monument is just the sort of place you’d expect to see Clint Eastwood slinging his 45. It sits on the edge of the vast Colorado Plateau, tucked between the town of Grand Junction and the ochre buttes of the McInnis Canyon. With just 12 inches of precipitation on average per year, it’s among the driest of all the Colorado national monuments. And it’s one of the westernmost reserves on this list, sitting just a stone’s throw to the state line with Utah.
Explorations here are usually of the high-adrenaline kind. You’ll want to be sure to hit the Rim Rock Drive byway. It’s a bucket-list drive that’s scenic in the extreme. One moment you’ll be gawping at huge hoodoos towering overhead. The next you’ll be whizzing between gigantic stone escarpments, or wiggling up to table-top mountains.
But the auto isn’t your only option. Cyclists have made this one a stomping ground of theirs too. And it’s easy to see why. On-road circuits of the canyons can be done on the aforementioned asphalt. However, the nearby Lunch Loops Trails offer high-speed, off-piste terrain for the hardiest of MTB veterans to boot.
Colorado is certainly no shortage of any scenic national parks. Whether you’re into nature or not, these national parks in Colorado surely have a place in your heart. We carefully curated the top 8 national parks and monument for you. This way, you don’t need to scratch your head planning researching for an ideal park for a hike.
If you’ve been here, share with us your unique experience. Also, drop us a comment for any tips and tricks to make a trip to these national parks in Colorado more enjoyable. If not, check out our other guide to the best springs in colorado.