Article Overview: Colorado National Parks
Colorado National Parks evoke some of the most spectacular western scenery in the United States.
From the towering Rocky Mountains to the windswept deserts of Mesa Verde, Colorado truly has something for every national park fan.
For most people, Colorado calls to mind vistas of the famous Rocky Mountains.
So it’s no surprise that Rocky Mountain National Park is the most visited park in the state, but Colorado is home to much more than the Rocky Mountains.
The state is rich with scenery ranging from canyons to deserts to rolling plains and gleaming rivers.
So next time you think of Colorado remember there’s much more to the state’s outdoors than mountain views and Rocky Mountain National Park.
Things to Know Before You Visit Colorado National Parks
Entrance Fees: You can expect $20-$30 per vehicle but we suggest you go ahead and purchase the America the Beautiful Pass (which can be found at the entrance gates to most national parks). This pass gets you into all National Parks, Forests, Monuments, and more including 2,000 sites for free after a one time $79 fee.
Sunscreen: For many of us visiting national parks in the summer means lots of sun. Seriously, some of these parks can zap you if you don’t wear sunscreen. We happen to like this one because it works AND it’s not full of a bunch of chemicals.
Leave No Trace: We’re big fans of Leave No Trace, here at MTJP. Want to learn more? Read about the seven principals of Leave No Trace here.
Insect Repellent: You hope not to need it, but you want to have it. We typically bring an Eco-Friendly Insect Repellent with us just in case.
Dogs are not allowed on trails in most national parks due to their potentially disruptive presence with the natural ecosystem. The basic rule is they are allowed where cars can go so be sure to check the rules before bringing along your furry friend.
The Best Colorado National Parks
1. Rocky Mountain National Park
Location: Central Colorado
About Rocky Mountain National Park
Tucked into the heart of Colorado’s Front Range, Rocky Mountain National Park spans more than 400 square miles of breathtaking mountain scenery.
This national park is considered by many to be the crown jewel of the American Rockies and it’s no wonder why.
Rocky Mountain is home to an incredible diversity of wildlife including elk, moose, bighorn sheep, beaver, deer, black bear, eagles, marmots, mountain lions, and so much more.
This is also the closest national park to Colorado’s bustling capital, Denver. The quick 1.5-hour drive from your Denver apartment makes this an easy day trip for locals.
However, in recent years visitation has increased dramatically at the expense of the visitor experience (not to mention the impact on the park itself).
What was once mostly an issue reserved for the bear lake area of the park has now spread to the rest of the park (especially around the Estes Park entrance).
Crowd sizes have swelled to the point that the National Park Service has instituted a timed entry program to control the crowds. With population centers soaring near the park, we expect this issue to become more exacerbated with each passing year.
Watch the Award-Winning Rocky Mountain Video
Best Time to Visit Rocky Mountain National Park
The best time to visit Rocky Mountain is in the fall. You’ll find smaller crowds and spectacular fall color blanketing the hillsides of the park. Elk are very visible at this time of the year as the males compete for dominance of the herds.
The valleys of the park are often filled with the sound of bugling from the male elk in the evening. Nights can be chilly in the fall and unexpected snowstorms do happen so you’ll want to prepare for cold weather.
Rocky Mountain National Park is an incredible place to see wildlife. So much so that we ranked it among our Best National Parks to See Wildlife.
Best Things to Do in Rocky Mountain National Park
Bear Lake is a popular alpine lake in the park any time of year. The lake has a huge parking lot that is almost always full and is the jumping off point for many hikes into the interior of the park.
Trail Ridge Road is the highest road in the national parks system and provides breathtaking views of the Rockies in all directions.
Sprague Lake is a popular small lake with glassy mirrored reflections of the Rockies looming over it. Wildlife, including moose, can often be spotted here at the right times of day.
For more, check out our article all about the best things to do in Rocky Mount National Park.
Where to Stay in Rocky Mountain National Park
- These are some of my favorite spots to stay in Rocky Mountain National Park
2. Great Sand Dunes National Park
Location: South Central Colorado
About Great Sand Dunes
Imagine the Sahara Desert with a backdrop of the Rocky Mountains – you’re looking at one of the most underrated national parks in America, Great Sand Dunes National Park.
Great Sand Dunes is a spectacular park located in southern Colorado that features some of the most breathtaking and unique scenery anywhere in the world.
The park boasts the tallest dune in North America, Star Dune!
The park is fairly remote and not necessarily near other big attractions, but it’s certainly more than worth the trip.
Due to its remote location you won’t have to deal with crowds which are becoming more and more of a problem in many other once-quiet parks.
The bugs can be quite pesky here in the Spring and summer floods can intermittently wash out road access to some parts of the park.
Best Time to Visit Great Sand Dunes National Park
We recommend late-summer for optimal conditions at Great Sand Dunes.
Late summer brings few bugs and slightly cooler temperatures on the dunes making for enjoyable hiking and overnight camping.
Best Things to Do at Great Sand Dunes
Hike the Dunes! Great Sand Dunes National Park is home to the tallest sand dunes in North America if you can believe it! Once at the park you won’t be able to resist wandering into the dunes and trying to climb the nearest one. Prepare to get sandy!
Medano Creek runs through the park and right by the base of the dunes and is the perfect place to cool off on a hot day! The creek winds its way down through the mountains that loom over the park’s sand dunes and provides an excellent opportunity to enjoy some fun in the sun.
Stargazing is a popular activity at Great Sand Dunes thanks to the park’s exceptionally dark skies. In 2019 the park was certified as an International Dark Sky Park and once you’re there at night you’ll understand why.
Summer provides the best stargazing opportunities on moonless nights. But don’t sleep on the moon, a full moon offers the incredible opportunity to walk the sand dunes at night with no need for a flashlight!
There’s an experience you won’t soon forget!
Where to Stay in Great Sand Dunes
3. Mesa Verde National Park
Location: Southwestern Colorado
About Mesa Verde
Known for the cliff dwellings it protects, Mesa Verde is a budding archaeologists’ dream national park. Ancient pueblo dwellings and ruins are beautifully preserved throughout this remote desert park.
It is estimated that the dwellings and ruins at Mesa Verde are 700 years old. Getting to walk amongst the exquisite ruins and ponder the lives of those who made this place home so long ago is a rite of passage for any historical-minded American.
Located in the southwest corner of Colorado this park is a bit out there but totally worth a trip if you can make it happen. Sunsets here are spectacular as you walk amidst vast ruins and gaze out at the never-ending expanse of sage-brush desert beyond.
Mesa Verde Highlights
Cliff Palace is the show-stopper and the main attraction at Mesa Verde. A guided tour is required and is highly enjoyable as a park ranger explains to you historians limited understanding of what went on at Mesa Verde so long ago.
Cedar Tree Tower is a great example of the many ruined towers that have been discovered along mesa tops in this area. It requires a very short hike and is self-guided so you can take your time exploring the area.
Where to Stay at Mesa Verde
4. Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Location: Western Colorado
About Black Canyon of the Gunnison
Of all the underrated national parks out there, this one is near the top of the list. As a relatively new park it has flown under the radar of most park-goers’ summer travel plans.
For those who love Black Canyon, this is great news as it means more of the park for us. At its deepest, the canyon is 2,722 feet deep!
The scenery here is breathtaking and warrants the same long gazes afforded to places like the Grand Canyon and Yosemite.
The catch of course is that the park is remote, and when we say remote, we do mean remote. The nearest services are quite a ways from the park entrance so you’ll wan to bring everything you need with you.
That said, this one is worth a visit if you can swing it.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison Highlights
South Rim The South Rim is the developed side of the park with paved roads, a visitors center, and plenty of overlooks offering spectacular views.
North Rim The North Rim is the more remote and rugged part of the park with a 7-mile unpaved road offering chances to see the canyon from the other side.
East Portal is an area at the bottom of the canyon reachable by car via the south rim and offers visitors the opportunity to gaze up from the depths of the canyon and further appreciate its size and beauty.
Where to Stay in Black Canyon of the Gunnison
- Best Hotels Near Black Canyon of the Gunnison
- South Rim Campground
- North Rim Campground
- East Portal Campground
5. Dinosaur National Monument
What a hidden gem straddling the remote northern corners of two states, Colorado and Utah. The common refrain here is that if you’re interested in dinosaurs you’ll love this monument – which is true, but it vastly undersells this sprawling and immensely beautiful monument.
In addition to the famous dinosaur quarry and countless immaculately preserved dinosaur bones and skulls from various species, the park is home to over 200,000 acres of outdoor grandeur.
Here you can peer into the depths of stunning red rock canyons, whitewater raft the world-class Green or Yampa rivers, explore historic cabins and ponder ancient petroglyphs, camp out under a star-studded sky, and of course hike numerous trails venturing into the rugged and beautiful surroundings.
6. Colorado National Monument
Add this one to your list of Colorado National Parks to visit if you want to see some Utah-esque scenery without leaving the state!
Here’s a terrific example of a national monument done so well it could easily be a national park (and should be). Overlooking the far flung western Colorado city of Grand Junction, Colorado National Monument is home to dazzling red rock formations and canyons reminiscent of Monument Valley.
Sunsets and sunrises over the vast expanses are nothing short of magical here and with plenty of campsites and amenities you’ll have no excuse not to see them.
Rock-climbing the beautiful red-rock spires and monuments is a popular pastime here, eclipsed only by bicycling the park’s scenic roads. Hiking is of course another popular activity and the perfect way to explore the monument in greater detail.
7. Browns Canyon National Monument
Location: Colorado, USA
Managed By: USFS, BLM
Size: 21,604 acres
Established: February 19, 2015
For many folks, this is one is a can’t miss on their list of Colorado National Parks. Exquisitely carved by the Arkansas River, featuring massive granite cliffs, and pristine rivers, Browns Canyon National Monument is one of the latest additions to the national monuments system. We’re tagging this one in the underrated category of US national monuments.
If you’re into rivers, few are finer than the portion of the Arkansas that flows through Browns Canyon National Monument.
Some of the scenery here is absolutely breathtaking and the recreational opportunities are plentiful including white-water rafting, world class fishing, excellent hiking, climbing, camping, horseback riding, and more.
8. Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument
Location: Colorado, USA
Managed By: NPS
Size: 5,998 acres
Established: August 20, 1969
Located just outside Colorado Springs, this Colorado National Park about 2 hours driving from Denver, Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument is a great place for budding geologists.
Something a lot of people don’t realize is that California is not the only place redwoods once thrived. Believe it or not, there are thousands of years old fossilized redwood stumps located in Colorado’s Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument. Some of these stumps are up to 14 feet wide.
Folks interested in visiting Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument should definitely add hiking the Petrified Forest Loop to your list of things to do in the park. On this trail you’ll find the “Big Stump” which is one the largest petrified stumps in the world!
9. Hovenweep National Monument
Location: Colorado & Utah, USA
Managed By: NPS
Size: 784 acres
Established: March 2, 1923
A Colorado National Park that spans multiple states, Hovenweep National Monument protects six prehistoric villages constructed nearly 3,000 years ago. The fact that the Puebloan ruins of Hovenweep are still standing today is a testament to the skill of the builders.
Folks visiting Hovenweep National Monument should know that the monument is splintered into five isolated tracts of land. The driving distance between the furthest points however, (the Cajon Group to the Cutthroat Castle Group) is only 25 minutes.
I recommend seeing the Square Tower Group as the most impressive of the ruins. While in the area be sure to check out Canyon of the Ancients National Monument (also included on this list).
Visiting Hovenweep can be a bit of a challenge as it is a remote national monument located in the four corners region of Colorado and Utah. The closest sizable city is Durango, Colorado at just under two hours away. The closest major city to Hovenweep is Albuquerque despite being just under 5 hours away.
10. Canyons of the Ancients National Monument
Location: Colorado, USA
Managed By: BLM
Size: 176,056 acres
Established: June 9, 2000
This vast national monument protects countless archeological and historical sites and offers spectacular hiking, biking, horseback riding, and camping opportunities for the adventurous sort.
Just about everything here is off-the-beaten-path, as they say, with ample opportunities for solitude amidst the rocky scenery.
11. Chimney Rock National Monument
Location: Colorado, USA
Managed By: USFS
Size: 4,726 acres
Established: September 21, 2012
In addition to its namesake rock protruding from the forested hills of the San Juan National Forest, Chimney Rock National Monument is home to the ruins of a magnificently complex ancient Pueblo community overlooking the forest valleys that were once cultivated by their Native American inhabitants.
Visitors can marvel at the stone kivas and great houses of the site as well as the incredible astronomical alignments of the rocks and structures.
Developed recreational opportunities are unfortunately still quite limited despite the monument’s size, but it’s well worth a trip to see the incredible ancient site perched atop a mesa with a commanding view at sunset.
12. Yucca House National Monument
Location: Colorado, USA
Managed By: NPS
Size: 33.87 acres
Established: December 19, 1919
Yucca House is a small, seldom-visited national monument south of Cortez, Colorado and just west of Mesa Verde National Park. The monument preserves the site of significant unexcavated ancestral puebloan ruins.
Visitors to the monument will encounter no people and almost no signs of National Park Service management at all. There are no trails, maps, signs, or facilities of any kind and many would-be visitors to the monument have encountered difficulty reaching the monument due to the rough roads and lack of directional signs.
We rank the monument pretty low due to there being no discernible government agency presence at all and no developed recreational or interpretive opportunities. The monument is due to be expanded soon which could add more visitor opportunities in the coming years.
Map of Colorado National Parks
See the map below with the locations of all 4 Colorado National Parks.
List of Colorado National Parks
- Rocky Mountain National Park
- Great Sand Dunes National Park
- Mesa Verde National Park
- Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
- Dinosaur National Monument
- Colorado National Monument
- Browns Canyon National Monument
- Florissant National Monument
- Hovenweep National Monument
- Canyons of the Ancient National Monument
- Chimney Rock National Monument
- Yucca House National Monument
Top 10 List – Best National Parks of the West
- Grand Teton National Park
- Rocky Mountain National Park
- Glacier National Park
- Grand Canyon National Park
- Yellowstone National Park
- Zion National Park
- Great Sand Dunes National Park
- Arches National Park
- Capitol Reef National Park
- Canyonlands National Park
Why Listen to Us About the Colorado National Parks?
You should probably know that we didn’t just make this list up out of thin air. We’ve spent our entire adult lives exploring and filming America’s national parks and public lands.
We’ve worked with the National Park Service, the Department of Interior, and the U.S. Forest Service for years creating films on important places and issues.
Our work has been featured in leading publications all over the world and even some people outside of our immediate family call us experts on the national parks.
We’re Jim Pattiz and Will Pattiz, collectively known as the Pattiz Brothers.
Our goal here at More Than Just Parks is to share the beauty of America’s national parks and public lands through stunning short films in an effort to get Americans and the world to see the true value in land conservation.
Leave us a comment below!
What’s your favorite Colorado National Park? Did we miss one? Let us know!
See Our Full National Park Rankings
We actually ranked ALL 63 National Parks from best to worst using the same point system featured in this article here. Curious to see how California’s parks stack up against the rest of the parks nationwide?
More Helpful Articles Related to Colorado National Parks
Things to Do Black Canyon of the Gunnison: 15 EPIC Things to Do at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Rocky Mountain NP Guide: Expert Guide to Rocky Mountain National Park
Things to Do Great Sand Dunes: 15 Epic Things to Do in Great Sand Dunes National Park
Things to Do Rocky Mountain: 15 EPIC Things to Do Rocky Mountain National Park
Best Hikes Rocky Mountain: 18 EPIC Hikes Rocky Mountain National Park
Zion National Park Guide: Ultimate Guide to Zion National Park
National Parks Rankings: ALL 63 US National Parks Ranked By Experts
Most Visited National Parks: Top 10 Most Visited National Parks
Least Visited National Parks: Top 10 Least Visited National Parks
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