Colorado is known for spectacular mountain beauty, so it’s no surprise that four of the country’s national parks lie within its borders. Each park offers a unique experience and is brimming with cultural significance and amazing scenery. Here’s a brief synopsis of each park, as well as some highlights and suggestions on how to make the most of your visit.
The Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park and Curecanti National Recreation Area
102 Elk Creek
Gunnison, CO 81230
The Black Canyon of the Gunnison was designated as the third national park in Colorado in 1999. Sitting between the towns of Montrose and Gunnison, the Black Canyon is more than a 4 hour drive from the Denver area. If you approach the national park from the east, through Gunnison, you’ll pass through the Curecanti National Recreation Area — a spectacular collection of reservoirs that make for a great companion trip to the national park with additional opportunities for boating and camping. A lot of people travel to the Black Canyon for the great rock climbing opportunities. But if climbing isn’t your cup of tea, there are still plenty of other ways to enjoy and experience this great national park; hiking, horseback riding and wildlife watching can also make for a special visit. And if you enjoy fishing, the national park is one of the best places in the country to catch trout, completely surrounded by the beautiful scenery that acts as an exclamation point to the big catch. In the wealth of enjoyable outdoor activities, simply taking a scenic drive at the canyon should not be passed up. The Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park’s stunning scenery is all easily accessible during a short drive, and well worth taking the time to do. And whether you drive down a series of switchbacks into the canyon or take a rim drive to admire the picturesque Painted Wall and the views to the west from 8,200 feet above sea level, a drive into and around the canyon will surely leave an impression (2,200 foot walls tend to do that, though).
MUST SEE: The Painted Wall.
MUST EXPERIENCE: Listen to the Gunnison River run from the bottom of the canyon.
The Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
11999 Highway 150
Mosca, CO 81146
The Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is the newest of Colorado’s national parks, having just received its new designation in 2004. It’s a wonder the status upgrade from a national monument wasn’t done sooner; the park contains the highest sand dunes in North America — six peaks over 13,000 feet in elevation — and an array of other beautiful scenery including wetlands, grasslands and alpine lakes. And it’s all packed into 150,000 acres of pristine wilderness that’s approximately a 4 hour drive from the Denver metro area. The park is a fantastic place for a family camping expedition. Not only is the park easily accessible from Colorado’s Front Range, but it also presents great opportunities for kids — including sand castle building. When the shallow Medano Creek is running on the east side of the dunes there are perfect occasions for beach enjoyment right in the middle of the Sangre de Cristo mountain range. Across the creek, the dunes present a formidable obstacle while standing at their base, but also present great chances for outdoor recreation. Hiking is a favorite activity in the Great Sand Dunes National Park. And it seems like there are endless possibilities as another dune immediately presents itself after the first is crested. Make sure to come prepared with plenty of water; summertime temperatures can soar well over the 100 degree mark.
MUST SEE: The snowcapped mountains in the spring from atop the sand dunes.
MUST EXPERIENCE: Climbing one of the sand dunes.
Mesa Verde National Park
Loop Rd Mesa Verde
Mesa Verde, Colorado 81330
Designated more than 100 years ago, Mesa Verde National Park was the first national park in Colorado. The amazing Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings there are also protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The park is located in the southwest corner of the state — the Four Corners region — and it makes for a perfect getaway from the hustle and bustle of city life. Construction of the cliff dwellings began in the 12th century, and there are now more than 4,700 archaeological sites relating to their existence. The cliff dwellings, which acted not only as shelter but also as fortifications, were abandoned as the Ancient Puebloan people moved out of the area over a couple successive generations. The exact reason for their departure is still debated, but possibly related to drought and other agricultural issues. Thousands come to see the dwellings each year and most come away wondering just how the Puebloans were able to do what they did. To get to Mesa Verde, which translates as “green table” in English, from Denver you need to plan ahead since it is approximately a 7 hour drive one way.
MUST SEE: Tour a cliff dwelling, particularly the Balcony House or Cliff Palace, if they are open.
MUST EXPERIENCE: Be one of the last to leave one of the dwellings on a tour with a ranger.
Rocky Mountain National Park
1000 Highway 36
Estes Park, Colorado 80517
There is no better spot in all of Colorado to experience the alpine beauty of the Rocky Mountains than Rocky Mountain National Park. That’s not to take away from any one of the other stunning locations throughout the state, but the national park does contain more than 60 named peaks over 12,000 feet above sea level. Longs Peak is the tallest mountain in the park and the fourth largest in the state at 14,255 feet. And it’s all a short drive away from Denver, creating perfect day trip opportunities out from the city. It’s an impossible task to visit the 265,000 acre Rocky Mountain National Park, hiking on any of the 359 miles of trails, and not leave impressed. And all of it can be seen and enjoyed year round. Rocky Mountain National Park is mainly known for its summer recreation, but the park stays open in the winter as it plays host to a flock of snowshoeing enthusiasts who trudge along the trails and up to various alpine lakes, glaciers and now-frozen waterfalls. Unlike any other experience in the park, though, is the opportunity to drive the highest continually paved road in the United States, Trail Ridge Road (U.S. Highway 34). When someone talks of a scenic drive this should be used as the benchmark. Trail Ridge Road stretches the length of the park, crossing the Continental Divide in the process and provides access to several trailheads, including one at the Alpine Visitor Center nearly 12,000 feet above sea level. Unfortunately, due to the heavy winter snowfall, the road is closed for much of the year and only passable in the summer.
MUST SEE: The alpine peaks on a drive on Trail Ridge Road from one side of the park to the other.
MUST EXPERIENCE: Listen to the bugling elk that are found in plenty in and around the park.
This was originally posted on CBSDenver.com.