Colorado National Parks: The Complete Local Guide

Colorado national parks offer a wide range of diversity. From the epically beautiful landscapes of Rocky Mountain National Park to the rich history of Mesa Verde there’s a lot to explore. Colorado’s national parks and national recreation areas will fuel your adventures for years to come.

As a long-time local of over 13 years, I’ve spent plenty of time in Colorado’s beloved national parks. If you’re looking to experience Colorado like a local, not a tourist, then you’re in the right place.

About this Local Guide to Colorado National Parks

Inside this local guide to incredible Colorado national parks you’ll find:

  • Info on where to find Colorado’s national parks
  • Practical information for visiting each of the parks including what to see, where to stay, and when to visit
  • A guide to Colorado’s national monuments
  • Additional local Colorado travel resources

How Many National Parks are in Colorado?

Colorado has 4 national parks; Mesa Verde, Rocky Mountain, Black Canyon of the Gunnison, and Great Sand Dunes. Each of these parks features its own unique history and geography.

On top of four national parks, Colorado also has eight national monuments and two national recreation areas that should be on your bucket list if you’re visiting Colorado.

Map of Colorado’s National Parks

Colorado National Parks map

Below you’ll see the location of each of the four national parks in Colorado. Get the interactive map here.

What is the Prettiest Park in Colorado?

It’s hard to choose the prettiest national park in Colorado since each of them offers very distinctive scenery.

However, many people claim that Rocky Mountain National Park is the prettiest. Considering it is the 4th busiest national park in the country, it certainly is stunning!

The Great Sand Dunes National Park offers incredibly unique views of the tallest sand dunes in North America laid against a backdrop of snow-capped peaks.

Meanwhile, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison features dizzying views of 1,000-plus-foot canyon walls dropping down into a roaring river below.

Mesa Verde houses some of the most impressive ancestral Puebloan ruins found anywhere in the desert. Seeing these incredible structures takes you into the heart of one of the world’s great civilizations.

prettiest park in colorado

When Should I Visit Colorado National Parks?

Since each park is so geographically different, the best times to visit are different too. In general, these are the best times to visit each park.

  • Rocky Mountain National Park: July through mid-September
  • Mesa Verde National Park: May and September
  • Great Sand Dunes National Park: May through September
  • Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park: Spring and fall

Should I Get an Annual National Parks Pass?

If you’re interested in visiting more than one Colorado national park during a 12-month period, you may want to consider snagging an annual national parks pass.

This pass gets you into any national park, recreation area, national monument, or historical site in the US. It’s a great deal, especially if you’re on a national parks road trip.

The Best National Parks in Colorado

Featuring four fabulous parks, this list of the best national parks in Colorado gives you in-depth details about each locale.

Rocky Mountain National Park

When you think of Colorado national parks, Rocky Mountain National Park is usually the first one that comes to mind! It’s the closest national park to Denver, making it the easiest to access for most visitors to Colorado and for people who live in the Front Range. Plus, it’s truly one of the prettiest places in Colorado, making it well worth it to go from Denver to Rocky Mountain National Park.

Featuring some of the best hikes in Colorado along with one of the best Colorado scenic drives, Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP, as locals call it) is definitely at the top of the list of places to visit in Colorado.

prettiest national park in colorado

Important Visitor Info for Rocky Mountain National Park

Entrance Fee: $30/vehicle for 1-Day Pass or $35/vehicle for 7-Day Pass
Reservations Required: Yes, during peak season (May 27 – October 10, 2022)
Distance/Drive Time from Denver: 75 miles/1.5 hours
Crowds: Extremely high – by far the busiest of the Colorado national parks!

Best Time to Visit Rocky Mountain National Park

Deciding when to visit Rocky Mountain National Park requires weighing a few different factors. Weather-wise, the best time to visit RMNP is from summer through early fall.

Of course, this is also the most popular time to visit RMNP, which means the park will be crowded, and you will need reservations to enter.

Can’t Miss Highlights of Rocky Mountain National Park

The extensive list of things to do in Rocky Mountain National Park definitely makes it one of the best national parks in Colorado. You could spend several days in RMNP and barely scratch the surface of what it has to offer, so here are some of the highlights that you don’t want to miss.

For a great intro to Rocky Mountain National Park hikes, check out the Emerald Lake hike, which also takes you to Nymph Lake and Dream Lake along the way. This relatively easy trail is 3 miles round trip with 700 feet of gain and can be done year-round (although you might need microspikes or snowshoes in the winter). You can also add on a hike to Lake Haiyaha which is nearby and starts from the same Bear Lake trailhead.

If you’re looking for a longer hike, check out some of the more challenging trails to RMNP lakes. You can hike to The Loch for a moderate hike with amazing views of the Cathedral Spires or continue your hike to Sky Pond for a difficult but rewarding adventure. You can also choose to visit Chasm Lake, which is quite a challenging hike that takes you to the base of the Diamond on Longs Peak.

Speaking of Longs Peak, this iconic 14er near Denver is a must-see if you can. Hiking to the summit via the Keyhole is quite an endeavor, so you should only attempt it if you have the proper training and skills – and the weather cooperates.

Finally, make sure to put the scenic drive along Trail Ridge Road on your Rocky Mountain National Park itinerary. It takes about two hours to drive Trail Ridge Road one way, but plan plenty of time to stop at the many gorgeous overlooks along the way that help make RMNP one of the best national parks in Colorado.

Local Tip: Trail Ridge Road is the highest elevation continuously paved road in North America, and it closes seasonally in the winter as well as any time there are severe weather conditions.

Where to Stay

You can camp at one of five campgrounds in the park (advanced reservations are highly recommended) or opt to snag a backcountry permit.

For lodging, your best bet is to stay in Estes Park (east side of the park) or Grand Lake (west side). There are a wide variety of accommodations available, just be sure to book early if you’re visiting during the high season!

Mesa Verde National Park

Located in the Southwest corner of Colorado, Mesa Verde National Park is special among Colorado national parks since it showcases the history and heritage of the Ancestral Pueblo people who once called the area home.

Mesa Verde protects and showcases hundreds of cliff dwellings among 5,000 archaeological sites in the park.

Since Mesa Verde National Park is across Colorado from Denver, it would make a great destination on a Colorado road trip to Durango where you could visit Vail, Glenwood Springs, Grand Junction, and Telluride along the way.

Colorado National Parks

Important Visitor Info for Mesa Verde National Park

Entrance Fee: $30/vehicle in summer (May 1 – Oct 31), $20/vehicle in winter – good for 7 days. $55 for Mesa Verde Annual Pass.
Reservations Required: No
Distance/Drive Time from Denver: 375 miles/7 hours
Crowds: Medium – can be high in peak summer (mid-June to mid-August) but much less crowded than RMNP.

Best Time to Visit Mesa Verde National Park

Summer is the most popular time to visit Mesa Verde National Park. So, if you want to avoid the crowds, late spring or early fall are your best bets for enjoying one of the most unusual things to do in Colorado.

Just be aware that most cliff dwellings, which are the most popular things to see in Mesa Verde, can only be visited on a ranger-led tour, which runs from May 1st through mid-October (some dwellings have a more limited season).

Can’t Miss Highlights of Mesa Verde National Park

The incredible cliff dwellings of the Ancestral Pueblo are what make Mesa Verde National Park unique among Colorado national parks.

You can visit the Step House on Wetherill Mesa on your own, but to explore all the other cliff dwellings, you must book one of these ranger-assisted or ranger-guided tours:

Cliff Palace – The largest cliff dwelling in North America is an incredible achievement of Ancestral Pueblo architecture. Tour takes about 30 min on a ¼ mile hike.

Long House – This dwelling features views of the canyons and mesas of the park and has an active seep spring inside. Tour takes about 60 min on a 2.25-mile hike.

Balcony House – Be ready for some fun on this tour! Exploring Balcony House requires climbing a 32-foot ladder, crawling through a 12-foot tunnel that’s only 18 inches wide, and climbing a 60-foot cliff face via stone steps and two ladders. Tour takes about 60 min.

Mug House – In this dwelling, you’ll find an adobe cave, ancestral rock art, and views of Rock Canyon. Tour takes about 60 min on a 2.25-mile hike which includes steep drop-offs, switchbacks, and scrambling.

Square Tower House – This incredible cliff dwelling is the tallest structure in the park and still has an intact kiva roof. Tour takes about 90 min on a 1-mile hike with steep drop-offs, scrambling, and two ladders.

Local Tip: Cliff dwelling tour tickets can only be purchased on recreation.gov or by calling 877-444-6777, but not in the park itself, so make sure you get yours before you get to Mesa Verde. Tickets are available 14 days ahead of time on a rolling daily basis.

Where to Stay

There are 2 campgrounds in the park that are open seasonally. Nearby Cortez is an excellent home base if you’re planning multiple days in Mesa Verde.

Or, if you don’t mind a longer drive, you can stay in Pagosa Springs (1hr 40 mins from the park) and enjoy some incredible hot springs after a long day of exploring.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

With jaw-dropping rock walls rising from the banks of the Gunnison River, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison will take your breath away as one of the best national parks in Colorado.

You can explore one of the many hiking trails on the rim of the Black Canyon or undertake a serious adventure and take a strenuous hike into – and back out of! – the inner canyon.

Rock climbers will also love the epic multi-pitch trad routes in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison – featuring some of the most classic climbs in Colorado

colorado national parks

Important Visitor Info for Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

Entrance Fee: $35/vehicle for 7-Day Pass or $55 for Black Canyon Annual Pass
Reservations Required: No
Distance/Drive Time from Denver: 250 miles/5 hours
Crowds: Low – the Black Canyon is the least-visited of the Colorado national parks.

Best Time to Visit Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

Late spring through early fall is the best season to visit the Black Canyon. Summer can get hot, especially if you plan to descend into the inner canyon. Also, the North Rim completely closes in the winter (usually mid-November to late April) and South Rim Drive is only open to vehicles to Gunnison Point during that time.

Can’t Miss Highlights of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

The scenic drive along the South Rim of the Black Canyon is the most popular area of this still-not-crowded national park. The drive takes you to many outstanding overlooks including Devil’s Lookout, Chasm View, and Painted Wall View.

The Black Canyon of the Gunnison North Rim is even more secluded than the South Rim, yet is simply spectacular. And if you want to head down to the river without hiking, you can take East Portal Road all the way down.

If you’re up for a real adventure, you can get a Wilderness Use permit and hike deep into the inner canyon from the South or North Rim.

Experienced rock climbers can rappel in and ascend the multi-pitch trad routes up the canyon walls, which are around 2,000 feet tall.

Where to Stay

Montrose is the nearest town on the south side of the park while Crawford is the closest town on the north end. Each offers a variety of accommodations and certainly has a more local feel.

There are two campgrounds on the south side and one on the north. Most camping is first-come-first-served and does fill up fast, despite the lack of crowds.

Great Sand Dunes National Park

The terrain of the Great Sand Dunes National Park really stands out from other Colorado national parks. Instead of rocky mountains and stone cliff faces, you’ll discover the tallest sand dunes in North America – with a backdrop of the mountain peaks Colorado is famous for in the Sangre de Cristo range.

national parks in colorado

Important Visitor Info for Great Sand Dunes National Park

Entrance Fee: $25/vehicle for 7-Day Pass or $45 for Great Sand Dunes Annual Pass
Reservations Required: No
Distance/Drive Time from Denver: 235 miles/4 hours
Crowds: Low

Best Time to Visit Great Sand Dunes National Park

Early fall is one of the best times to visit Great Sand Dunes National Park. You’ll enjoy generally pleasant temps and avoid the crowds that visit Medano Creek in the summer. Plus, you’ll get some beautiful fall foliage.

And while summer is a nice time to play in the water of Medano Creek, it is not the best time to hike around the dunes. The sand temperatures can reach as high as 150° F in the summer!

Can’t Miss Highlights of Great Sand Dunes National Park

Sand sledding is one of the most fun things to do in Great Sand Dunes, and definitely not something you can do at any of the other Colorado national parks.

You can sand sled anywhere on the dunefield that is not vegetated, and there are a variety of slopes for different skill – and bravery – levels. Sleds can be rented from several local spots outside the park.

You can also hike around the dunefield to summit the prominent dunes, including High Dune, Hidden Dune, and Star Dune.

And for one of the best backpacking trips in Colorado, you can even hike out and camp in one of the designated sites in the Dunes Backcountry for a truly special experience.

You also might be surprised to find alpine terrain in Great Sand Dunes National Park, and you can take the trail to Sand Creek Lakes for a change of scenery from the vast expanse of sand.

Where to Stay

There is one campground in the Great Sand Dunes National Park and spots fill up the moment they open, so be sure to plan accordingly. You can also try your luck at a walk-in permit to backcountry camp out on the dunes.

The nearest town is Alamosa. Here you can find a few places to stay and enjoy staring at the night sky in a designated Dark Sky Territory.

Top National Monuments in Colorado

Colorado’s national monuments are not to be missed. These stunning areas will surprise you with their beauty. Not to mention, many Colorado bucket list items can be found within the national monuments.

Colorado National Monument

Located just outside of Fruita, the Colorado National Monument is an unexpected desert wonderland. Impossibly tall red rock canyons and funky desert spires will have you thinking you’re in Moab, not Colorado.

The park features a variety of hikes, desert tower climbs, and scenic driving.

Colorado national monuments

Visitor Info for Colorado National Monument

Entrance Fee: $25/vehicle for 7-Day Pass
Distance/Drive Time from Denver: 260 miles/4.5 hours

Colorado National Monument Highlights

  • Take a Ride on Rim Rock Drive
  • Hike Monument Canyon Loop
  • Look Through Window Rock

Browns Canyon National Monument

Browns Canyon is a world-famous river rafting location. With everything from beginner trips to class 5 rapids, Browns is a must-see for water lovers.

Massive granite cliffs carved out by the mighty Arkansas River make this Colorado hot spot worth seeing.

Visitor Info for Browns Canyon National Monument

Entrance Fee: None
Distance/Drive Time from Denver: 130 miles/2.5 hours

Browns Canyon National Monument Highlights

  • Raft the Arkansas River
  • Hike from Ruby Mountain Trailhead
  • Fish the Gold Medal Waters

Canyon of the Ancients National Monument

This expansive Colorado national monument features an incredible array of ancestral Puebloan ruins, petroglyphs, and more. These archeological sites aren’t for the faint of heart.

In fact, most adventures in the Canyon of the Ancients require grueling backcountry hiking, biking, and exploring. So if you’re up for some type 2 fun while uncovering a rich cultural native history, this is the place for you.

Visitor Info for Canyon of the Ancients National Monument

Entrance Fee: None
Distance/Drive Time from Denver: 400 miles/7 hours

Local Tip: Backcountry permits are required to overnight in the area.

Canyon of the Ancients National Monument Highlights

  • Visit the Kivas at the Lowry Pueblo
  • View Pictographs at Painted Hand Pueblo
  • Hike or Bike the Sand Canyon Trail

Dinosaur National Monument

Located at the corner of Colorado and Utah, Dinosaur National Monument has a rich pre-historic history. Famous for its dinosaur tracks, bones, and skulls, this park pre-dates people!

The adventure doesn’t stop there. You’ll also be engrossed in ancient petroglyphs, historic settler cabins, and plenty of opportunities to hike, bike, and raft in the area.

national parks of colorado

Visitor Info for Dinosaur National Monument

Entrance Fee: $25/vehicle for a 7-Day Pass
Distance/Drive Time from Denver: 280 miles/5 hours

Dinosaur National Monument Highlights

  • Drive Down Echo Park Road
  • Hike Harpers Corner Trail
  • Explore Off Trail Hiking

Hovenweep National Monument

Hovenweep National Monument spans several states and features 6 ancient villages that are over 3,000 years old. This fascinating slice of history takes you into the heart of ancestral Puebloan culture.

This mysterious, highly-intricate ancient civilization virtually disappeared under controversial circumstances. Regardless, the impressive structures such as the Square Tower Group are well-worth a visit.

Visitor Info for Hovenweep National Monument

Entrance Fee: $20/vehicle
Distance/Drive Time from Denver: 475 miles/8 hours

Hovenweep National Monument Highlights

  • Stargaze in an International Dark Sky Park
  • Hike Around the Puebloan Structures
  • Check Out the Community Artists

Additional Local Colorado Travel Resources

Wanna explore Colorado like a seasoned pro? Check out these local resources:

Hi There!

Meg aka Fox is a 30-something who's born to explore. Her mission is to get you out on your greatest adventure. She'd rather be dirty than done up.