Yes, this might be surprising to some. But in fact, the Centennial State does indeed have four very different, very beautiful national parks: Rocky Mountain National Park, Mesa Verde National Park, Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, and Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.
Located across the state, these four parks each have their own adventures, things 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) gets a lot of the visitors (it was third last year in total visitation!), the other three 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 tons and tons of people, congested roads, busy trails and an overall feeling of being in an amusement park and not a national park. That is why we love the other three parks so much - they have the beauty and adventure just like RMNP, but without the enormous number of tourists.
Here are a few of our favorite things to do in the three lesser-known national parks of Colorado:
Mesa Verde National Park
Located in the far (far) southwest corner of the state, 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 people sites, including nearly 5,000 archeological sites - of which, 600 are the famous and highly photographed cliff dwellings.
The area was designated a national park in 1906, making it one of the oldest preserved areas in the USA. Mesa Verde was made a national park by Theodore Roosevelt to "preserve the works of man," the first park of its kind. 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 is 2.4 miles and provides excellent views of the Spruce and Navajo Canyons, as well as a large petroglyph panel. The second 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.
Other can’t-miss-adventures in the area include: Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, also home to some stunning archeological sites, just without the people; Pinkerton Hot Springs, and the Four Corners Monument.
Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
There has been a loong* 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).
*The oldest evidence of humans in the area dates back about 11,000 years.
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 last year (2019), Great Sand Dunes was certified as an International Dark Sky Park by the International Dark Sky Association. This is mostly due to its perfect location: almost no light pollution (the park is waaaay out there), high elevation, and 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 flashlight needed!
Other can’t-miss-adventures in the area include: hiking to Zapata Falls (stunning in summer and winter), the UFO Watchtower - because why not? and the nearby Sangre de Cristo Wilderness area, home to sharp peaks and empty trails.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
We are not going to lie, we didn’t know this park existed until about four years ago - and we only found out about it because we were reading some random outdoor magazine. But safe to say, once we got the chance to check the park out, we have been pushing people to explore it too.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison is not a very large park - but what it lacks in space it makes up in sheer beauty. The park is mostly the canyon itself, a deep, steep, dark canyon 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 like Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve 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 NM and Big Bend NP.
Other can’t-miss-adventures in the area: Crawford State Park is just down the road and offers boating, swimming, and even skiing, the town of Ridgeway isn’t too far and has lots of good restaurants, plus hot springs. And finally, you have the Million Dollar Highway (550), one of the prettiest roads in the whole country - especially in the fall. Make sure to check out the town of Ouray, nicknamed the Switzerland of America.
In terms of Colorado national parks, Rocky Mountain NP definitely takes the cake in terms of visitors and notoriety. But for people like us who want to experience off-the-beaten-path, more authentic locations, these three national parks are more our style. While you still won’t have the parks to yourself, you can still feel as if you are out in nature and not at Disneyland (something RMNP is turning into more and more year after year). So if you are looking for a true Colorado experience, we highly recommend checking these three parks out. You won't be disappointed!