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The Ultimate Guide to Colorado's 4 National Parks

39.5501° N, 105.7821° W

Sunset colors on a mountain meadow in Rocky Mountain National Park

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

NATIONAL PARKS

 






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



PARK HOURS

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.


PARK FEE

$30 per private vehicle, good for 7 days.


CLOSEST TOWN

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.


TOP HIKES

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.




Sunny day on the canyon rim of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

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



PARK HOURS

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.


PARK FEE

It costs $25 per private vehicle to enter the park, this is good for 7 days.


CLOSEST TOWN(S)

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.


TOP HIKES

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.