4 National Parks in Colorado & Why You Should Visit 

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Heading out west and want to visit the best national parks in Colorado? This guide outlines the best Colorado national parks all across the state. 

Colorado’s National Parks are famous for their breathtaking views and rugged hiking trails. Although Colorado has a pretty harsh winter, the other seasons are an enjoyable time to visit national parks around the state. 

If you’re looking for great things to do in the national parks of Colorado, this guide has got you covered! 

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Buy the America the Beautiful Pass

Since the US has 63 national parks, many people do park tours of the country. If this is your plan, I recommend purchasing an America the Beautiful Pass. You can find it at hiking stores like REI for only $80!

It’s a great way to save money as you won’t have to purchase entrance to all the parks separately. 

Colorado National Parks 

Colorado has four national parks: Rocky Mountain National Park, Black Canyon National Park, Great Sand Dunes National Park, and Mesa Verde National Park. 

Colorado draws thousands of visitors every year, coming to hike, camp, and spend time in these national parks. They are some of the most beautiful sites in the USA, with many different landscapes, including forests, mountains, and deserts. 

If you’re an adventure seeker looking to explore some of the best national parks in the western US (and even in all of the US!), head to these four spots in Colorado!

1. Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain is one of the most visited National Parks in Colorado, and for good reason! You can immerse yourself in the Rockies by doing some rugged mountain hiking. Along the way, you’re almost certain to spot wildlife as the national park is home to mountain lions, bears, beavers, moose, and many other animals! 

Since Rocky Mountain National Park is just a 1.5-hour drive from Denver, it makes for a great day trip (or longer, if you have the time)!

river in rocky mountain national park, denver to rocky mountain national park, colorado national park, hiking in estes park

Top Things To Do in Rocky Mountain National Park 

Here are the few top places for hiking and wildlife viewing in the park:

  • Trail Ridge Road: By far the best hiking spot in the park. At the top, you can see amazing views of the Rockies. 
  • Deer Mountain: This is known as one of the easier trails in the park, making it a great option for beginner hikers. From the top of the trail, you get a great view of Longs Peaks and Moraine Park. 
  • Gem Lake: This trail is pretty tough, but it’s only 3.5 miles. It ends at a lake, a nice spot to relax as you gaze out on Estes Park. 
  • Sky Pond: If you want a challenge, take this 6-hour hike! It ends at Chasm Lake, which has one of the best views in the park. 

How to Get Around Rocky Mountain National Park

If you’re coming to the park in late May to early October, you can use the park’s free shuttle. This is a great way to get around because you don’t have to fight for parking spots around the park’s most crowded areas. 

If you’re coming during other parts of the year, the best way to get around is to rent a car. 

winter in rocky mountain national park, blue skies, snow on the ground, mountain in the distance behind trees

How Much Time to Spend in Rocky Mountain National Park

You’ll want to spend a minimum of three days in the park if you can. This will give you enough time to go on a couple of hikes, which is the main activity in Rocky Mountain National Park. If you have extra time, five days or more will let you experience more of the park. 

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Where to Stay in Rocky Mountain National Park 

Budget—Alpine Trail Ridge Inn: This small inn has all the amenities you need to enjoy your stay near Rocky Mountain National Park. Make sure to book a room with a balcony so you can see the mountains! They have an outdoor heated pool and a restaurant on-site. 

Mid-range—The Inn on Fall River: These are great little lodges perfect for staying a night or two while in the park. Each lodge has a kitchenette and a fireplace. There is a hot tub on site, as well as two playgrounds. The entrance of Rocky Mountain National Park is only three miles away. 

Luxury—Aspen Winds on Fall River: This beautiful lodge is only two miles from Rocky Mountain National Park. All the accommodation is suites with kitchens and private patios. You can also get an upgraded suite, so you can have a hot tub in the room!

summer day in rocky mountain national park, tall grass, hiking, flowers

Where to Eat in Rocky Mountain National Park

The inside of the park doesn’t have any dining options, but there are great choices nearby!

  • Hunters Chophouse: Come here if you want a nice steak or ribeye. The inside of the restaurant is very rustic and beautifully decorated. 
  • Claire’s Restaurant & Bar: Make sure to ask for a seat on the patio as you get a great view of the mountains! They have great burgers with some interesting meat choices, including elk and bison. 
  • The Egg of Estes: This is a small family-owned diner that serves a great breakfast! You can also stop in for lunch or dinner, but their breakfast is the best. 

2. Black Canyon National Park

Black Canyon National Park is one of the best places to visit in Colorado for adventure seekers. Many people like to hike along the outer rim of the canyon. It’s a tough hike, and you can see some amazing views of the cliffs below. 

You can also hike inside the inner canyon. Throughout the canyon, you’ll find the Gunnison River. Renting kayaks is a popular activity here for those who like to be in the water. 

black canyon national park, orange leaves on tree, cloudy skies, view at the edge of the canyon, black canyon colorado

Things to Do in Black Canyon National Park

  • Go on a scenic drive. You can rent a car and drive in most parts of the national park. The most popular places to drive with the best views are along the outer rim and along the river. 
  • Skiing: If you’re visiting in the winter, you can ski or snowshoe across the South Rim. 
  • Fishing: The Gunnison River is known for its unparalleled trout fishing. Many avid and amateur fishers come here to try their hand at catching a trout or two. 
  • Explore the Inner Canyon: The Inner Canyon has some of the best activities in the park, including rock climbing and kayaking. 

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How to Get Around Black Canyon National Park

The best way to get around Black Canyon, Colorado, is to drive. The park doesn’t have a transportation system, so driving is the only way to get around the park. 

Renting a car also gives you opportunities to do some scenic drives! 

sun streaming through the clouds, edge of the canyon

How Much Time to Spend in Black Canyon National Park

Try to spend a minimum of two days in the park. This enables you to do some hiking along the outer rim, one scenic drive, and then activities in the inner canyon on the second day. 

For skiing, you should also add on an extra day so you can spend the whole day in the South Rim. 

Where to Stay in Black Canyon National Park

Budget—South Rim Campground: This is the best place to stay if you want to be inside the park. It’s also the only camping place in the park that is open all year rather than seasonally. The campsite is very remote without many amenities. They do have staff working there and vault toilets

Mid-range—The Old School Lodge: This small lodge is in the nearby city of Montrose. It’s set up more like a home with a nice living room, a newly renovated kitchen, and a beautiful wraparound porch. The rooms are nicely decorated with private bathrooms. 

Luxury— The Pad: With modern rooms and tons of on-site amenities, The Pad also has a riverfront terrace, a hot tub, and a bar on-site. You can book a suite with a kitchenette, balconies with mountain views, and futons. For those on a stricter budget, the lower level of the hotel is dorm rooms. 

south rim campground in black canyon national park, picnic tables, hiking trails, sunny skies,

Where to Eat in Black Canyon National Park

There are no restaurants inside the canyon, so you’ll need to drive to one of the nearby towns to eat. Here are some of the best places to check out nearby:

  • High Alpine Brewing Company: Head here if you need a few pints of beer after a day of hiking and being outdoors! They also have pizza and typical bar food. 
  • Back Country Cafe: This is a popular place to get breakfast before heading to the park. It’s about 10 miles from the South Rim Campground inside the park. 
  • Garlic Mike’s Italian Cuisine: This is a great place to come if you’re craving classic Italian food while in the area. It’s a casual little place with great outdoor seating. 

3. Great Sand Dunes National Park

Great Sand Dunes National Park is in southern Colorado. It’s a unique park because it’s mountainous but also desert terrain at the same time. It’s home to the Star Dune, the tallest dune in North America. 

One of the best things about this national park is that it doesn’t get as crowded as the other national parks near Denver. 

You’ll have to drive further to get here as it’s pretty remote, but the scenery is enough to make it worth it. 

sand dunes national park, grassy land before the dunes, sand dunes colorado, national park colorado

Things to Do in Great Sand Dunes National Park

  • Hike among the dunes. This is the number one activity in Sand Dunes, Colorado. The park has the highest dunes in North America. Whether you’re a beginner hiker or an expert, you will be able to get to the top of a dune or two. 
  • Go stargazing. The best way to see the stars is to camp in the park. The park has some of the best campgrounds for stargazing, and the remote locations make the stars extremely clear. 

How to Get Around Great Sand Dunes National Park 

The National Park Service does not allow cars or ATVs on the dune field. Once you’re inside the park, you’ll leave your car in the parking lot. 

The best way to get around the dune fields is by hiking. If you’re a little more adventurous, you can go sandboarding or sledding. 

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How Much Time to Spend in Great Sand Dunes National Park

Since the only thing to do is hike the dunes, you really only need one day in Great Sand Dunes National Park. You can spend all day hiking and then stay in the campgrounds to see the stars before heading home the next morning. 

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Where to Stay in Great Sand Dunes National Park 

Budget—Pinion Flats Campground: This is one of the best campgrounds and is just one mile away from the visitor center. Make sure to make a reservation online ahead of time, as spots get full. The campsite is only open from April through October. 

Mid-range—Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriot Alamosa: This is one of the top places to stay for travelers to the Great Sand Dunes. They have an indoor swimming pool, large rooms with comfortable beds, and free Wi-Fi. 

Luxury—Rustic Rook Resort: There aren’t really any luxury places near the park, but this resort is one of the best hotels in the area. Its remote location makes the starry skies at night breathtaking. Most of the rooms are private canvas tents with all the amenities you need right inside. 

view of sand dunes stretching across the distance

Where to Eat in Great Sand Dunes National Park 

Oasis Restaurant and Store is the only restaurant in the park (or within 25 miles of the park). It’s only open from April to October. They have many different food options, including sandwiches, salads, and breakfast items. 

Since this is the only place to eat in the park, you’ll need to head to nearby Alamosa to find other places to eat:

4. Mesa Verde National Park 

This Colorado national park is unique. It’s best known for its cliff dwellings and the ancient Pueblo ruins. Many archeologists believe that the ruins are at least 700 years old. 

The national park is set in the middle of a desert, making the scenery very different compared to the national parks that boast forests and mountains.  

mesa verde colorado, mesa verde national park, ancient peublo dwellings, cliff dwellings

Things to Do in Mesa Verde National Park 

  • Cedar Tree Tower: You can get here with a short and easy hike, so it’s a great attraction even if you’re traveling with young children. 
  • Cliff Palace: This is the place most people come to Mesa Verde National Park to see. You can only get here with a park ranger-guided tour. The ranger will explain to you the history of the ruins, and then you can wander around a little bit before heading back to the visitor’s center. 
  • Looking for a private tour to learn all about the park’s extensive history? Here’s a great tour option with an archaeology guide!

How to Get Around Mesa Verde National Park 

A car is needed to travel around Mesa Verde National Park. Most visitors will rent a car so they can drive to nearby lodges and restaurants as well. 

How Much Time to Spend in Mesa Verde National Park 

To see the Cliff Palace and the Cedar Tree Tower, you should spend at least one full day in Mesa Verde, Colorado. Many people choose to do one attraction on one day, spend the night, and then go to the other site the next day. 

Where to Stay in Mesa Verde National Park 

Budget–Holiday Inn Express Mesa Verde: This hotel is a little bit outside the national park, but it’s a great place to stay for budget travelers. They have simple rooms with complimentary breakfast, a bar, and an indoor pool. 

Mid-range—Far View Lodge: This is one of the only lodges inside the national park. It’s ten miles from Cliff Palace. All the rooms have balconies with really pretty views of the park. There is free Wi-Fi and a restaurant on-site. 

Luxury—Starry Nights Ranch Bed & Breakfast: This lodge has incredible views with floor-to-ceiling windows in all the main rooms of the lodge. They have beautiful rooms and private bathrooms. You can also rent a stand-alone cabin if you prefer to be outside of the main lodge. 

view of pueblo dwellings through the trees

Where to Eat in Mesa Verde National Park 

There are quite a few places to eat inside the park. Here are some of the best cafes and eateries:

  • Spruce Tree Terrace Cafe: This a great little eatery with many different choices, including breakfast, tacos, and pulled pork sandwiches. 
  • Far View Terrace Cafe: This is a small cafe inside a gift shop that is located in the park. Most of their menu items are sandwiches, soups, and salads. The gift shop has many different kinds of drinks, including beer and wine. 
  • Absolute Bakery & Cafe: This is in the small nearby town of Mancos. Their breakfast is the best part of the menu, with breakfast burritos, omelets, and fresh coffee. 

When to Visit the National Parks in Colorado 

Many amenities in the national parks in Colorado are only open from April or May to October. It’s best to come during these months so you can experience the best of what the parks have to offer. 

The weather is also the best during this time as there is (usually) no snow. The summer months are pretty hot, but there is low humidity. 

The National Parks in Colorado Are Waiting For You!

Ready to plan your trip to the national parks in Colorado? I hope this helped you plan your ultimate Colorado bucket list! 

Whether you’re going to one national park or all four, you’ll never forget your time in Colorado, as it’s one of the most stunning states in the USA. 

Are you visiting the national parks in Colorado? Which one are you heading to first? 

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