There are four Colorado national parks: Rocky Mountain, Mesa Verde, Black Canyon of the Gunnison, and Great Sand Dunes. The landscapes that these national parks protect are dramatically different from one another.
In Rocky Mountain National Park, journey high into the Rocky Mountains, cross the Continental Divide, and hike to gorgeous alpine lakes and waterfalls. Get a history lesson at Mesa Verde as you tour the cliff dwellings. Explore one of the narrowest and deepest canyons in North America at Black Canyon of the Gunnison. And perfect your sandboarding skills at Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve.
In this guide to the Colorado national parks, get an overview to the best things to see and do in each park, important planning advice, and a sample itinerary to help you plan your Colorado road trip.
Colorado National Parks
Rocky Mountain National Park
With lofty mountain peaks, hiking trails that lead to alpine lakes and waterfalls, abundant wildlife, and a scenic drive along one of the highest roads in the USA, Rocky Mountain National Park is a joy to explore.
Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the highest national parks in the USA. There are sixty mountain peaks over 12,000 feet and many of these top out over 13,000 feet. Longs Peak, at 14,259 feet, is the only fourteener in the park, but for serious hikers, getting to the top of this behemoth is one of the best things to do in Rocky Mountain National Park.
The Continental Divide runs north south through the park. You can cross the Continental Divide by foot or by driving Trail Ridge Road, the highest paved through road in the national park system.
Elk on Trail Ridge Road
Trail to Chasm Lake
Cost: $25 per vehicle, valid for one day or $35 per vehicle, valid for one week. If you plan to visit for multiple days, consider purchasing the Rocky Mountain National Park Annual Pass ($70) or the America the Beautiful Pass ($80 and valid for all of the national parks for one year).
Top Experiences: Drive Trail Ridge Road, take your pick from the extremely long list of hiking trails in the park, take a stroll around Bear Lake, watch the elk at mating season, or go skiing or snowshoeing during the winter months.
Ultimate Adventure: For the ultimate adventure, hike to the top of Longs Peak, the only fourteener in the park. This is a tough fourteener and many people who attempt it never make it to the summit, turning around early because of storms or the difficult conditions.
Rocky Mountain National Park in One Day: Start off on one of the hiking trails. Emerald and Dream Lakes is an essential Rocky Mountain hike but there are tons more to choose from. In the afternoon, drive Trail Ridge Road, visit the highest visitor center in the USA, and see how many elk and bighorn sheep you can count.
Cool Fact: Approximately one-third of Rocky Mountain National Park is located in the alpine tundra, at an elevation over 11,000 feet. The easiest way to venture into these high reaches of the park is on Trail Ridge Road, but numerous hiking trails also top out over 11,000 feet.
Where to Stay: There are numerous campgrounds in the park. The best place to stay outside of the park is in Estes Park.
TIMED ENTRY PERMIT SYSTEM: To visit Rocky Mountain National Park from May 28 to October 11, 2021, you will need to reserve a permit in advance. This has been implemented to limit crowds at the busiest sections of the park during the peak visitation season (the summer months). If you do not have a reservation, you will not be allowed to enter the park. Reservations are made online on the recreation.gov website. Each daily reservation costs $2 per vehicle, which is in addition to the $25 daily entrance fee or $35 weekly entrance fee per vehicle. Learn more on the official national park service website. Or visit recreation.gov to make your reservation.
Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
Great Sand Dunes is a gem of a national park.
This is a small park and the list of things to do is very short. A few hours are really all you need to experience it and hike out onto the dunes. But you might end up wishing you had more time. Sandboarding and sand sledding are a blast, the sunsets are gorgeous, and this park just feels all around fun.
View from High Dune
View of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains from the dunes
Cost: $25 per vehicle, valid for 7 days
Top Experiences: The best thing to do here is to hike out onto the dunes. Those looking for a bigger thrill can rent sandboards or sand sleds (a must if you are visiting with kids).
Ultimate Adventure: Hike to the tallest dune in North America. To get here, it is a tough day hike up and over the dunes on an unmarked trail. Top off the adventure with an overnight stay, camping on the dunes.
Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve in One Day: In the morning, hike the dunes or go sandboarding. Midday, take a break and hike to Zapata Falls, a great place to cool off in the summer months. Return to the dunes in the afternoon and stick around for sunset…they are spectacular.
Cool Fact: Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve contains the tallest sand dunes in North America. At 750 feet, Star Dune is the tallest dune in Great Sand Dunes, followed by High Dune at 699 feet.
Not So Cool Fact: During the summer months, the sand temperatures can reach a scorching 150°F midday. If you plan to visit Great Sand Dunes from June through early September, plan to take a midday break.
Where to Stay: The best place to stay is camping in the dunes. If camping is not your thing, you can stay in lodging near the park entrance or in Alamosa.
PLAN YOUR VISIT: 8 Amazing Things to Do in Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve
Mesa Verde National Park
Mesa Verde National Park preserves ancient Puebloan cliff dwellings and archeological sites that are hundreds of years old. Short hikes, scenic drives, and viewpoints make the to-do list, but the best way to experience this park is to get up close with the cliff dwellings on a tour.
Square Tower House
Cost: $30 May 1 to October 31; $20 November 1 to April 30. This is the cost per vehicle and your entrance ticket is valid for 7 days. Guided tours have an additional fee.
Top Experiences: Take ranger-guided tour of the cliff dwellings, see Spruce Tree House and Cliff Palace, hike the Petroglyph Trail, see the sights along Mesa Top Loop, and enjoy the view from Park Point Fire Lookout.
Ultimate Adventure: Take a guided tour of Balcony House. This one-hour tour is the most adventurous cliff dwelling tour in Mesa Verde. You’ll climb numerous ladders, crawl through a tunnel, and scale a 17-foot ladder to exit the site.
Mesa Verde National Park in One Day: Tour one or two cliff dwellings (make your reservations in advance). Spend the remainder of the day visiting the sights along Mesa Top Road. As you exit the park, stop at the Park Point Fire Lookout.
Cool Fact: This is the largest archaeological preserve in the United States. This park preserves more than 5,000 archeological sites, including 600 cliff dwellings. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Where to Stay: Inside of Mesa Verde National Park you can stay at the Far View Lodge or Morefield Campground. The closest town is Cortez.
PLAN YOUR VISIT: Top 10 Things to Do in Mesa Verde National Park
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
If you have been to the Grand Canyon, you may have a case of déjà vu when you visit the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. In many ways, the Black Canyon is similar to the Grand Canyon, only on a much smaller scale.
At Black Canyon of the Gunnison, you can enjoy the views along both rims, hike the rim trails, or go on a real adventure by hiking below the rim.
Not only is this the least visited park in Colorado, it is also one of the least visited parks in the entire United States. Black Canyon of the Gunnison is also one of the smallest national parks in the USA.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison’s small size and low crowd level makes this park a delight to visit. During our mid-summer visit, we had no issues finding parking at the overlooks and the park felt wonderfully quiet.
Hiking the Gunnison Route
The Painted Wall
Cost: $30 per vehicle, valid for 7 days
Top Experiences: See the sights along South Rim Road and North Rim Road, hike along the rim, drive East Portal Road, and visit Exclamation Point.
Ultimate Adventure: Hike an inner canyon route. There are a bunch of inner canyon routes to choose from. The Gunnison Route is the most popular. In just one mile, you will drop 1,800 feet, ending at the Gunnison River. There are no maintained trails into to canyon, so only those with prior hiking experience and a high level of fitness should attempt an inner canyon hike.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park in One Day: Visit the South Rim. Drive South Rim Road and visit the overlooks. Hike one of the short trails on the rim. Drive East Portal Road to the Gunnison River. Consider sticking around until after sunset…this is one of the best spots in Colorado to view the night sky.
Cool Facts: In some spots, the canyon is so narrow that there are sections that only get 33 minutes of sunlight per day, hence the name “Black Canyon.” On the rim, the distance between the South Rim and the North Rim is only 1,100 feet in the narrowest section. From the rim, the walls of the canyon plunge 2,000 feet almost straight down to the Gunnison River. Down by the river, the canyon is only 40 feet at its narrowest spot.
Where to Stay: There are two campgrounds in the park, one on the South Rim and one on the North Rim. The closest town to Black Canyon of the Gunnison is Montrose.
Road Trip Itinerary and Map
The best way to visit all four Colorado national parks is on a road trip. Ideally, you need 10 days. Not only is there a lot to do in each of these parks but they are spread out, so you will spend a nice chunk of time driving from park to park.
To get the full details on how to do this same itinerary, and get suggestions if you have more or less time, read our post The Perfect Colorado Itinerary: National Parks & Scenic Drives.
Day 1: Arrive in Colorado, drive to Colorado Springs
Day 2: Garden of the Gods & Pikes Peak
Day 3: Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
Day 4: Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
Day 5: Mesa Verde National Park
Day 6: Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Day 7: Drive to Rocky Mountain National Park
Day 8: Rocky Mountain National Park
Day 9: Rocky Mountain National Park
Day 10: Fly Home
How to Use This Map: Click the icons on the map to get more information about each point of interest. Click the star next to the title of the map to add this map to your Google Maps account. To view it on your phone or computer, open Google Maps, click the menu button, go to “Your Places,” click Maps, and you will see this map on your list.
Things to Know Before You Go
Best Time to Visit the Colorado National Parks
The best time to visit the Colorado national parks is in the summer and early fall, when all of the scenic drives and hiking trails are open.
The summer months are the busiest months to visit the national parks, but with warm temperatures and great weather, this is also one of the best times to go hiking.
In autumn, Colorado is beautiful, as the leaves change to brilliant shades of yellow, orange, and red. This can still be a busy time in the national parks, in particular Rocky Mountain National Park, as visitors flock to the park to see the fall colors and elk mating season.
Once the snow arrives, usually by mid to late autumn, crowds begin to diminish. Temperatures are low in the winter, but so are the crowds. Several of the scenic drives that we list in this itinerary close during this time.
In the spring, warmer temperatures melt the snow and visitation picks up. Snow can linger on the higher hiking trails in Rocky Mountain National Park all of the way into July, depending on snowfall levels for that year.
Tombstone Ridge in Rocky Mountain National Park
America the Beautiful Pass
If you plan to visit all four Colorado national parks, it is worth it to purchase the America the Beautiful Pass. This annual park pass costs $80 and is valid for one year. Not only will you save money on park fees for this trip but you will also get free admission to any other national park or federal recreation sites that you visit within 365 days of purchasing this pass. Learn more here.
Important Links for the Colorado National Parks
Here are the links to each national park website. Check park conditions and road closures before you go.
- Rocky Mountain National Park
- Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve
- Mesa Verde National Park
- Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Learn More about Colorado
Visit our Colorado Travel Guide to learn more about the national parks in Colorado.
If you have any questions about how to visit the Colorado national parks, or if you want to share your experience, let us know in the comment section below.
You Might Also Like:
- WYOMING: The Complete Guide to Yellowstone National Park
- UTAH: Utah’s Mighty 5: Travel Guide & Road Trip Itinerary
- NATIONAL PARKS: 20 Epic Day Hikes in the US National Parks
- SOUTH DAKOTA: One Week in South Dakota: Black Hills & the Badlands
- ROAD TRIP IDEA: Arches, Canyonlands and Capitol Reef National Parks: 10 Day Road Trip Itinerary
Visit our Guide to the National Parks to learn more about the parks, with important travel planning tips, sample itineraries, advice on when to go, where to stay, and more.
All rights reserved © Earth Trekkers. Republishing this article and/or any of its contents (text, photography, etc.), in whole or in part, is strictly prohibited.