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EXPLORE OUR GUIDE ON COLORADO'S FOUR AMAZING NATIONAL PARKS - INCLUDING THE THREE LESSER-KNOWN NATIONAL PARKS IN THE STATE: BLACK CANYON OF THE GUNNISON, GREAT SAND DUNES AND MESA VERDE.
Yes, this might be surprising to some, but in fact the Centennial State does indeed have four very different, very beautiful national parks: Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, Mesa Verde National Park, and Rocky Mountain National Park.
Located across the state, these four national parks each have their own set of adventures, places to explore, nature to experience and memories to be made. And while they all might be located in the state of Colorado, all four are very different.
From the deep river canyon of Black Canyon of the Gunnison NP to the high cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde NP to the tall peaks of Rocky Mountain NP to finally, the largest dunes in the whole of North America in Great Sand Dunes NP.
While Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) definitely gets most of the visitors, the other three national parks each have their own amazing qualities and things to explore. Not that we are saying RMNP doesn't have amazing things to explore - it definitely does. BUT, it also comes with a lot of people, congested roads, busy trails and an overall feeling of being more like an amusement park than a national park.
So if you are curious to learn more about Colorado's three lesser-known national parks, then keep reading this guide. Hopefully, it inspires you to get a bit more off the beaten path in Colorado.
YOUR GUIDE TO COLORADO'S 4
MAP OF COLORADO'S 4 NATIONAL PARKS
\\ Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
We are not going to lie, we didn’t know this park existed until about five years ago - and we only found out about it then because we were reading some random outdoor magazine. But it is safe to say, that once we finally got the chance to check the national park out, we have been pushing other people to explore it ever since.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is not a very large park - but what it lacks in space it makes up in sheer beauty. The park is mostly made up of the Black Canyon itself - a deep, steep, dark canyon that was cut into the face of the earth by the Gunnison River over the past two million years. For some of the best views and hikes, head to the North Rim. Here you can hike either the North Vista Trail, which offers some of the best views of the canyon or the Deadhorse Trail, which actually enters the Black Canyon of the Gunnison Wilderness Area and is best for people looking to check out the thriving bird scene.
But maybe one of the best ways to experience the park is to actually drop down into the canyon itself (either from the South Rim or North Rim, we chose the latter). Before heading out you must get a Wilderness Permit - which can be picked up at the Ranger Station the day you are planning to hike down. Then it is up to you to find the best route to the bottom of the canyon. We took on the SOB draw, and while it was steep, it wasn’t too terrible.
Once at the bottom, you can camp in one of the designated campsites, go rock climbing (if prepared), spend some time fishing, or just meander along the river and check out the geology of the canyon walls high above you.
This national park is not very well-known, especially compared to other parks in the area. But if you are willing to go a bit out of your way, you will be rewarded with a beautiful, multi-colored canyon, quiet camping, and stunning stars. Oh yeah, did we mention that this park is also a recognized Dark Sky Park? Well, it is. And not only that, it has some of the darkest skies in the USA - beat only by places such as Natural Bridges National Monument and Big Bend National Park.
➳ Learn more about Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park here.
BLACK CANYON OF THE GUNNISON | THE NITTY-GRITTY
The national park is open 24 hours, 365 days a year. There are two visitor centers: one of the South Rim and one on the North Rim. The South Rim is usually open from mid-April to mid-November (snow permitting), while the North Rim ranger station and road (and campground) is closed in the winter.
$30 per private vehicle, good for 7 days.
The closest big town with multiple lodging and restaurant options is going to be the town of Montrose (the town is located 25 minutes from the South Rim Visitor Center and almost an hour and a half from the North Rim Ranger Station). We recommend staying at the Holiday Inn Express or the Red Arrow Inn.
💬 INSIDER TIP: if you are looking for a more unique lodging option, consider staying at the Stone House Inn in the small town of Crawford. This is a great option if you are looking to visit the North Rim of the canyon.
There are not very many long trails within Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. In truth, many of the trails are under 3 miles round-trip. Only two trails are longer: the North Vista Trail (up to 7-miles) and the Deadhorse Trail (5-miles). Another great option is to take one of the few backcountry trails down to the bottom of the Black Canyon. We personally like the SOB Draw route, which starts right next to the North Rim Ranger Station.
OTHER CAN'T MISS ADVENTURES NEARBY
Crawford State Park is located just down the road from the park and offers boating, swimming, and even skiing in the winter. Similarly, nearby you can explore the town of Ridgeway - which has awesome hot springs and is close to many hiking trails. Finally, you also have the opportunity to drive the incredibly scenic Million Dollar Highway (Highway 550), which is often said to be one of the prettiest roads in the whole USA (especially in the fall). Definitely make sure to check out the town of Ouray, nicknamed the Switzerland of America, along the way.
EXPLORE MORE | THE ULTIMATE ADVENTURE GUIDE TO BLACK CANYON OF THE GUNNISON NATIONAL PARK
\\ Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
There has been a long history of people exploring and living in or near what is now Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. From nomadic hunters and gatherers who came to the area for mammoths and prehistoric bison to Zebulon Pike, who was the first person to write about the sand dunes in 1807, to African American Buffalo Soldiers who patrolled the region from 1876-1879 and courageously worked to protect both the settlers and Native American tribes in the area, to finally, in 1932 when the area - after much lobbying by the Ladies P.E.O. (a women’s group) - was made into a National Monument by President Herbert Hoover (it would become a national park and preserve in 2004).
Today, the park is a wonderful place to explore for people of all ages. Some of the best adventures include the long hike up to the top of Star Dune - the tallest sand dune in North America, sitting at 750 feet. This hike (though there is no formal trail) is about 9 hours round-trip - or you can make it more exciting by spending the night out in the dunes (which you can for up to 14 nights!). Another adventure you can’t come to the park and NOT do is sandboarding. While the park does not rent sandboards directly, there are a number of places nearby that do. Come prepared and plan to spend the afternoon hiking up the dune, sliding very quickly back down, and then repeating over and over again (we swear it's fun).
While the sand dunes are the main attraction of the park, there are actually numerous biomes to explore within the boundaries. Including, lush mountain meadows, alpine lakes, and even a 13,000-foot mountain. Some of the best hikes in the area are Medano Lake, Mount Herard (elevation: 13,297 feet), and Mosca Pass Trail, which is a shorter hike (3.5 miles, but one that has been in use for centuries as a route into the San Luis Valley). And similarly to the dunes, there are backcountry camping options in this region as well.
While this park is beautiful during the day, it is just as stunning at night. As of 2019, Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is a certified International Dark Sky Park (just like Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park). This is mostly due to its perfect location: almost no light pollution (the park is waaaay out there), high elevation, and very dry air. To get the most out of your trip, plan to be in the park during a new moon for the best star photos (the Milky Way is brightest in summer and fall) or during a full moon for a crazy night hike - no flashlights needed!
➳ Learn more about Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve here.
GREAT SAND DUNES NATIONAL PARK AND PRESERVE | THE NITTY-GRITTY
Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The park visitor center is open from 9 AM to 4:30 PM 7 days a week, except on major holidays.
It costs $25 per private vehicle to enter the park, this is good for 7 days.
The closest big towns to Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve are going to be Alamosa to the south and Salida to the north. Both towns offer plenty of lodging and restaurant options. Some good spots to consider staying are the Comfort Inn and Suites in Alamosa and the Amigo Motor Lodge in Salida.
💬 INSIDER TIP: if you are thinking of staying in Salida, we highly recommend stopping by Bunny and Clyde's Corner Café and Market for a delicious coffee and healthy treat.
It isn't necessarily a "hike" but one of the best things to do in the national park is rent a sandboard (from outside the park) and then hike and slide around on the massive dunes. If you are really feeling up to it, you can hike up to the top of one of the tallest sand dunes in North America - Star Dune - which sits at 741 feet or 225 meters tall.
OTHER CAN'T MISS ADVENTURES NEARBY
There are a few very cool adventures within a couple of hours of Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve; including, hiking to Zapata Falls, visiting the UFO Watchtower (because why not?) and exploring the nearby Sangre de Cristo Wilderness area - which is home to sharp peaks and numerous empty trails. Further afield you have the very cute towns of Pagosa Springs and Crested Butte.
\\ Mesa Verde National Park
Located in the far (far) southwest corner of Colorado, this national park has probably been seen in dozens of history books, and for good reason. It is home to some of the best-preserved Ancestral Puebloan sites, including nearly 5,000 archeological sites - of which, 600 are the famous and highly photographed cliff dwellings.
Mesa Verde National Park was made a national park by Theodore Roosevelt in 1906 (making it one of the oldest preserved areas in the USA) to "preserve the works of man." This actually made it the first park of its kind to focus on humans and not just natural beauty. Today, you cannot visit the park and not take in at least one of the awe-inspiring archeological sites, the most famous and most visited of which is the Cliff Palace (the largest cliff dwelling in the park).
Other must-do adventures include hiking along either (or both) the Petroglyph Point Trail and/or the Spruce Canyon Trail. The first of which is 2.4 miles and provides excellent views of the Spruce and Navajo Canyons, as well as a large petroglyph panel. The second trail follows the bottom of Spruce Tree Canyon and offers an opportunity to explore the canyon bottoms of Mesa Verde and discover the various plants and wildlife that live in the region.
While not a designated Dark Sky Park, Mesa Verde is still located in a very dark, non-light polluted area. Some of the best places for stargazing within the park are the Montezuma or Mancos Overlooks, both of which are located off the Main Park Road.
MESA VERDE NATIONAL PARK | THE NITTY-GRITTY
Mesa Verde National Park is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year (unless there are specific emergency conditions). But most of the trails open at 8 AM. The visitor center is open from 8:30 AM to 4 PM between March 21 and October 22 and 9 AM to 3 PM between October 23 and December 31.
Between January 2 and April 30 and also between November 1 and December 31 it costs $20 per vehicle to enter Mesa Verde National Park. While the rest of the year (summer/busy season) it costs $30 to enter the national park. Both are valid for 7 days.
The closest major town to Mesa Verde National Park is the town of Cortez. This mid-size town has lots of restaurants and lodging options, as well as easy access to other outdoor adventures; including, Canyon of the Ancients National Monument and the Mcphee Recreation Area.
Some good spots to consider staying at in Cortez are the Retro Inn at Mesa Verde and the Hampton Inn. Another option, especially if you ae looking to be super close to the famous ruins in Mesa Verde, is to stay within the national park at the Far View Lodge. Learn more about it and check rates here.
There are numerous hikes to take on within Mesa Verde National Park. Some of the best are the super easy Cliff Palace Loop Trail (ranger-led) and the Balcony House Loop Trail (also ranger-led), and the Mesa Verde Point Lookout Trail (2 miles out-and-back), which is not ranger-led.
OTHER CAN'T MISS ADVENTURES NEARBY
Mesa Verde National Park is only one of many preserved ancestral places in southern Colorado and Utah. Nearby you can also explore Canyons of the Ancients National Monument - home to some truly stunning archeological sites, Yucca House National Monument and Hovenweep National Monument. There is also Pinkerton Hot Springs and the Four Corners Monument within a short drive of the park.
\\ Rocky Mountain National Park
While it is widely known for its rugged, snowy mountains, clear alpine lakes and abundant wildlife, Rocky Mountain National Park has a lot to offer the adventurous explorer. Especially someone who is willing to get a bit more off the beaten path. Because, in all actuality, even though Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the most visited and popular parks in the USA, due to its size and abundance of trails, it is still totally possible to escape the crowds if you are willing to head to lesser-known areas and trails.
ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK | THE NITTY-GRITTY
The national park is open 24 hours, 365 days a year. The park's four visitor centers have different hours depending on the season. But overall, you can expect the three main visitor centers - Fall River, Kawuneeche and Beaver Meadows - to be open from either 9 AM to 5 PM (for Fall River and Kawuneeche) and 9 AM to 4:30 PM for Beaver Meadows.
$25 for a car for 1-day and $35 for 7 days.
The two closest towns to Rocky Mountain National Park are Estes Park (on the east side) and Grand Lake (on the west side). Estes Park is by the busiest of the two and therefore has a lot more lodging and restaurant options available. Some of the best places to stay are the historic Stanley Hotel, the Inn on Fall River, and the McGregor Mountain Lodge.
► Read more about visiting Estes Park, Colorado in our in-depth travel guide.
There are nearly a hundred trails within Rocky Mountain National Park, so you can really find what trail is right for you. Some of the most popular trails to consider hiking are Sky Pond via the Glacier Gorge Trail and Chasm Lake. Though both are often quite busy - especially during the popular summer months. For a more off the beaten path hiking adventure, consider hiking up Mount Alice or taking on the CCY Trail (which hits Mount Chapin, Chiquita and Ypsilon).
If you want a real challenge, then consider taking on Longs Peak, a 14,000 foot peak that towers over the park. You can learn more about hiking your first 14er (14,000 foot peak) here.
OTHER CAN'T MISS ADVENTURES NEARBY
Rocky Mountain National Park is quite centrally located to many other amazing outdoor adventures; including, the nearby Indian Peaks Wilderness area (where there are a ton of awesome hiking trails), the fun towns of Boulder and Fort Collins, and a bit further afield, the exciting outdoor town of Steamboat - where you can hike, mountain bike and ski depending on the season.
\\Colorado's 8 National Monuments
Besides being home to four amazing national parks, Colorado is also lucky enough to have 8 national monuments within its borders. National monuments are run very similarly as national parks and often have the same level of amenities and services, and therefore they should also 100% be on every adventurer's travel list.
Below are the eight amazing national monuments within the state of Colorado.
| Browns Canyon National Monument (near Buena Vista)
| Canyons of the Ancients National Monument (near Cortez)
| Colorado National Monument (near Fruita) - read our full adventure guide on the national monument here.
| Chimney Rock National Monument (near Durango)
| Dinosaur National Monument (near Dinosaur)
| Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument (near Colorado Springs)
| Hovenweep National Monument (near Cortez)
| Yucca House National Monument (near Cortez)
► Want to keep track of what National Parks you have visited? Then consider subscribing to Backroad Packers and receive our FREE National Park Checklist.
While Rocky Mountain National Park definitely takes the cake in terms of the most visitors and likely the most notoriety, it is definitely not the only national park in Colorado that is worth visiting - especially if you are someone looking to get a bit more off the beaten path and explore lesser-known (but no less beautiful) places. The three other national parks in Colorado - Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Great Sand Dunes and Mesa Verde - are all totally amazing, beautiful and exciting in their own right.
So if you are looking to visit Colorado and want to check a few national parks off of your list, but you also don't want to feel like you have stepped into a mountainous Disneyland, then definitively add these three parks to your travel list. We promise you won't be disappointed!
Hopefully, this guide covers a lot of the things you need to know about Colorado's four national parks. But if you have any questions, please leave a comment below or reach out to us directly.
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