Colorado’s National Parks are some of the most diverse and stunning in the United States. Colorado is the ‘Gateway to the Rockies’ and some even call it the ‘Switzerland of America’. Colorado has four National Parks – Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Mesa Verde, the Great Sand Dunes and Rocky Mountain National Park.
As well as these big-name national parks, Colorado also is home to 13 other national park sites, including historic sites, trails, monuments and recreational areas. A fantastic way to explore Colorado is to take a National Parks road trip around the state. So, whether you hit the road, book a trip to one of the more significant national parks or visit a couple, check out this guide to our 17 Colorado national parks sites.
- 17 Colorado National Parks
- National Parks In Colorado
- National Historic Sites In Colorado
- National Monuments In Colorado
- National Recreation Area
17 Colorado National Parks
National Parks In Colorado
1- Rocky Mountain National Park
Rocky Mountain National Park is the jewel of Colorado, and you simply visit Colorado without going to the famous Rocky Mountains.
This national park covers 415 square miles (1074 sq km) and encompasses mountains, alpine tundra, meandering rivers and thick forest.
It has two distinct halves connected by Trail Ridge Road.
The east side of the park includes some of the top attractions, such as Longs Peak, Bear Lake, Moraine Park and Sprague Lake.
This side of the park is much busier than the western side, where you’ll find Grand Lake, the Kawuneeche Valley, and a lot of the backcountry.
Visit this incredible park in summer for snow-free hiking trails, gorgeous wildflowers and stunning colours.
To enter during the peak summer season (between 27 May and 10 October), you will need a timed entry permit, and a park pass for your vehicle.
The Timed Entry Permit is a way for the park to manage the increasing visitor numbers to the third most popular park in the USA.
With this permit, you must inform the National Park Service (NPS) of the exact times you will be visiting the park and can purchase this timed entry permit and parking pass directly on the NPS website.
The Rocky Mountains is also a popular national park in winter, and the change in season brings an incredible new landscape covered in snow.
Although many mountain passes are closed due to snowfall, much of the park can be explored by cross-country skiers.
- Drive Trail Ridge Road – the 48-mile (77 km) road from Estes Park to Grand Lake.
- Hike Gem Lake – 3.4 miles (5.5 km) of moderate trail offers incredible views of the mountains.
- Bear Lake – this walk is super easy and has stunning views.
- Moraine Park – this is an excellent place for spotting herds of elk.
- Go snowshoeing or cross-country skiing – the Kawuneeche Valley is the perfect area for winter sports.
- Sprague Lake – this is the place to be for reflections of the Rockies in the lake.
2- Great Sand Dunes National Park
Perhaps there is no stranger yet more beautiful area than Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes backed by the Rocky Mountains.
The Great Sand Dunes National Park is in southern Colorado, around 230 miles (370 km) south of Denver.
The park covers 232 square miles (603.1 sq km) of space and is home to North America’s tallest dune, the Star Dune.
This is one of Colorado’s quietest national parks because it is a little out of the way from other Colorado attractions, but it is worth visiting.
Your reward for making an effort to drive down is fewer visitors and mind-blowing views.
- Medano Creek – cool off from the heat and splash around, with views of the dunes and the Rocky Mountains.
- Stargazing – In 2019, the park was designated as an International Dark Sky Park, so stargazing is a fantastic experience for those interested in night photography.
- Sandboarding and sand sledding – You can enjoy this activity practically anywhere on the dunes if it’s away from vegetated areas.
- Hike up and down the dunes – You’ll be itching to explore these impressive dunes and find all the spectacular vistas.
3- Black Canyon Of The Gunnison National Park
Another of Colorado’s underrated national parks, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, is a vast and imposing canyon in western Colorado.
The park has three areas: South Rim, East Portal Road, and North Rim.
South Rim is the park’s most popular area, and the seven-mile (11.2 km) drive along the South Rim Road has 12 vantage points to stop at.
The Black Canyon is 2,722 ft (829 m) deep, enough to make anyone feel queasy.
- Drive the South Rim Road – You must drive this road and make sure you stop at every single vantage point. The views are spectacular!
- East Portal – This is the best spot to see the canyon from the bottom and gaze up at this immense steep-sided valley.
- Camp in the canyon – Camping in this spectacular spot is a fantastic experience in Colorado to immersive yourself in nature.
- Take a boat trip – During summer, the Curecanti National Recreation Center offers boat tours along the canyon.
4- Mesa Verde National Park
Mesa Verde National Park is significant for its well-preserved cliffside Puebloan settlement.
These ancient dwellings carved out of the cliff face are around 700 years old.
Mesa Verde is not just a national park, but it is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most significant archaeological preserves in the USA.
This unique, historical, and breathtaking landscape should absolutely be on your Colorado National Park bucket list.
- Cliff Palace – This is the park’s main attraction, so be sure to take a guided tour to discover the area’s rich history.
- Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum – Budding architects will love this museum, which provides visitors with a look into Mesa Verde’s history.
- Petroglyph Point Trail – This 2.4-mile (3.86 km) circular trail is the only place in the park to see petroglyphs.
- Head to the rim to see the cliff dwellings – With Puebloan settlements, cliff views and expansive valley landscapes, what more could you ask for?
National Historic Sites In Colorado
5- Amache National Historic Site
Amache National Historic Site was a Japanese-American incarceration camp with a harrowing history that isn’t often shared with the world.
As a result of the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt ordered the relocation of Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast to this camp.
This was one of 10 camps built at the time, and by 1943, 7,318 people were living at Camp Amache.
You’ll learn a lot about an untold part of America’s history if you visit this historic site.
The Amache National Historic Site is close to the Kansas border in southeast Colorado.
6- Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site
Old West history fans will love Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site.
This site isn’t a military fort as you might expect, but a reconstruction of the old fur trading post.
Rangers wander the post dressed in traditional outfits making this feel more like a living history museum.
Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site is in southeast Colorado, about an hour’s drive from Amache National Historic Site, and is a decent stop-off if you are in the area or road tripping.
7- Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site
The Sand Creek massacre happened in 1864 when Colonel John M. Chivington commanded around 675 U.S. volunteer soldiers to attack a village where 750 Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians lived.
This harrowing and horrific event is documented at this historic site, where more than 230 Native Americans were massacred.
The interpretive ranger talk lasts around 40 minutes and is an excellent way to learn about Native American culture and the hardships they have faced by their oppressors.
National Historic Trails In Colorado
8- California Historic Trail
The California Historic Trail is an example of the most significant mass migration in American history.
The trail spans 5,665 miles (9116 km), covering 10 states. About 1,100 miles (1770 km) of the trail still have remains of the original trail.
Hike parts of Colorado’s California Historic Trail to see more of the state and how far people used to walk before transportation.
9- Old Spanish Historic Trail
The Old Spanish Historic Trail passes through New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Arizona, Nevada and California, covering 2,700 miles (4345 km).
Dating back to 1831, this trail marks its place in history as the key trade route connecting Santa Fe, New Mexico and Los Angeles, California.
There’s an excellent 13.3 miles (21.4 km) loop trail near Grand Junction in Colorado.
This moderately challenging trail allows you to hike some of the Old Spanish Trail.
So, pack your sun cream, water, and food and head out on this 5 ½ hour hike.
10- Pony Express Historic Trail
The Pony Express Historic Trail passes through eight states, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and California, covering 1900 miles (3057 km).
Pony Express workers used the trail to deliver mail via horseback across the west of the United States.
They could deliver mail in 10 days from one end to the other, which is fast considering the terrain and how far they travelled.
However, after just 18 months of service, the Pony Express trail became obsolete when the telegraph was developed.
11- Santa Fe Historic Trail
The Santa Fe Historical Trail was an old working trail that passed through five states connecting Franklin, Missouri, with Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Along Colorado’s section of the trail, you’ll find Bent’s Old Fort, the Comanche National Grassland, Sierra Vista and the Lamar Welcome Center.
You’ll discover museums, interpretive centres and historic sites along Colorado’s Santa Fe trail.
National Monuments In Colorado
12- Colorado National Monument
The Colorado National Monument is a beautiful part of Colorado and although it does not carry the title of ‘national park’, this national monument is spectacular.
Colorado National Monument is in western Colorado and covers an area of 20,000 acres (8093 ha).
Huge, imposing monoliths cover an extensive plateau, creating stunning scenery and opportunities for photography.
A scenic drive along the Rim Rock Drive will not disappoint. It is a popular spot for hiking and stargazing as well.
13- Dinosaur National Monument
Well, this national monument sounds cool, right? Dinosaur National Monument is a terrific outdoor attraction in Colorado to take kids.
You can still see the remains of dinosaurs embedded in many of the rocks at this national monument, which has an impressive landscape.
Dinosaur National Monument is home to the Quarry Exhibit Hall, where you will find around 1,500 dinosaur bones and can learn about these incredible dinosaurs.
The monument site covers 21,000 acres (8500 ha), so there are plenty of places to explore.
Echo Park should be on your Dinosaur National Monument itinerary and is the heart of Dinosaur canyon.
One of the most adventurous ways to explore the canyon is by taking a white water rafting trip, which is guaranteed to be the highlight of your Dinosaur National Monument adventure.
Dinosaur National Monument is in northwest Colorado, close to the Utah border.
14- Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument
There is one of the most diverse fossil deposits in the world at this site.
You can see petrified redwood stumps, which provide great insight into world history.
Any geologist or archaeologist will love exploring this area.
This national monument is a two-hour drive south of Denver.
15- Hovenweep National Monument
This national monument is split across Utah and Colorado.
At Hovenweep, you will discover six prehistoric settlements built between 1200AD and 1300AD.
These villages were home to around 2,500 people.
Head to the visitor centre first, where you can learn more about the area and pick up a ranger pack for kids.
16- Yucca House National Monument
This monument preserves a big unexcavated pueblo and was made a national monument site in 1919.
Largely untouched since then, visiting Yucca House is a great way to learn about the Pueblo Indian culture and their lifestyle.
Bring plenty of water with you as there isn’t a visitor centre or amenities.
Yucca House National Monument is in the Montezuma Valley between Mesa Verde and Ute Mountain.
National Recreation Area
17- Curecanti National Recreation Area
This part of Colorado is a hidden gem of a recreation area with a series of three reservoirs along the Gunnison River.
It’s a fantastic place to try some watersports or fishing for salmon or trout.
Curecanti National Recreation Area is a fantastic way to spend a day in Colorado.
If you love exploring national parks, you might like to read:
- Wyoming National Parks Guide
- Nevada National Parks Guide
- Michigan National Parks Guide
- 5 Maine National Parks
- New Hampshire National Parks Guide
- 25 National Parks In Canada
- 17 National Parks In Argentina
- Tasmania National Parks
- 20 National Parks In Mexico
- 18 New Mexico National Parks
- 18 National Parks In Massachusetts
- 17 Colorado National Parks
- 11 National Parks In Florida
- 8 Hawaii National Parks
- 6 National Parks In Idaho
- Texas National Parks Guide