The Five Best National Parks in Colorado

Colorado is natural beauty rich, especially at these national parks.

Hopper Editors - Oct. 26, 2017

Colorado’s mountains, forests, canyons and deserts form a spectacular natural world that draws hikers and lovers of the great outdoors from across the rest of the United States. The peaks and pines of Rocky Mountain National Park roll through the heart of the state, but this is only a fraction of the landscapes that Colorado contains. Hikers can climb the tallest sand dunes in North America, discover the continent's biggest cliff dwelling, and gaze down into one of its steepest and narrowest canyons. And if all this isn’t epic enough, one national monument covers a bare-rock terrain strewn with visible dinosaur fossils and daubed with 5000-year-old rock art.

5. See the fossilized remains of Jurassic dinosaurs at Dinosaur National Monument

As its name suggests, this National Monument covers a tract of land once roamed by dinosaurs, which later became a natural sarcophagus for thousands of them. Palaeontologists have disinterred bones and skeletons for research, but many more remains and fragments of giant reptilian skeletons remain fossilized and visibly embedded the region’s rock. These include predatory allosaurus and herbivorous sauropods from the Jurassic Period, around 150 million years ago. As well as these reptilian remains, the park also contains some exceptionally clear petroglyphs and rock art created by the area’s ancient human inhabitants.

4. Contemplate the creativity of a thousand-year-old culture in Mesa Verde

This National Park protects and preserves some of the most remarkable cultural sites in the entire United States. Between 600 and 1300, the Ancient Pueblo or Anasazi peoples settled in the area, growing crops on the surrounding mesas and practicing crafts such as basket weaving and pottery. Although they left no written record, their lives and creativity are etched into the very landscape they inhabited: they built and lived in a series of spectacular cliff dwellings, situated in caves or beneath outcrops in cliffs, of which there are over 600 in Mesa Verde National Park. Among these is Cliff Palace, a series of square and circular sandstone towers thought to compose the largest cliff dwelling in North America.

3. Peer into the narrow and steep-sided Black Canyon of the Gunnison

Over the past two million years, the Gunnison River has been slowly carving out the Black Canyon, so named because the steepness of its sides frequently prevents sunlight penetrating to the floor of the canyon. This effect, which shrouds its deeper reaches in darkness, is heightened by the canyon’s striking narrowness, only 12 meters wide at its thinnest point. When the sun shines directly into the canyon, the glinting blue of the river at its base is all the more brilliant for being so tightly held between sheer vertical cliffs of black-brown rock. The canyon’s rim is a great place to watch raptors flick down into the chasm, and humans can make their clumsy way down to the river on unmaintained trails. A scenic drive runs through the park on US Highway 50 and there are also good camping and RV facilities.

2. Stride through a wind-whipped sea of sand in Great Sand Dunes National Park

Backdropped by the snow-tipped peaks of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, the rolling sand dunes in this national park are the tallest in North America, rising up to 230 meters from the floor of the San Luis valley. Hikers can cross this vast dune field, battling up and over the humps of sand and steeling themselves against the wind-whipped flurries of sand and small stones. Thrill-seekers can also shoot back down the dunes on sandboards and sleds, which can be rented in the nearby town of Alamosa. Beyond the dunes, the park also encompasses a varied terrain of wetlands, grasslands, forests, alpine lakes and tundra, and hikers can walk through caves to find splashing waterfalls, all while looking out for falcons, owls, eagles and ptarmigan.

1. Roam the vast wilderness of Rocky Mountain National Park

This magnificent wilderness in the heart of Colorado is a huge patchwork of peaks, pine forests and mountain lakes, laced together by 359 miles of hiking trails. The Continental Divide splits it in two, and the park has noticeably different characters either side of it: drier montane grasslands compose the park’s floor in the east, while stream-fed wetlands are concentrated in the west. As the mountain slopes steepen, the terrain gives way to subalpine forest and, hours of hiking later, bare alpine tundra. These varied ecosystems give rise to a wide diversity of animals and birdlife. The highest mountain is Longs Peak at 4346 meters, which has several famous rock climbing routes on its broad eastern face, overlooking beautiful Bear Lake cradled in the valley below.

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