Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve (credit: CBS)
There is no shortage of beautiful parks to explore in Colorado but if you want to check out some truly magnificent scenery, then you’ll want to visit one of Colorado’s four national parks or one of the national monuments. These national parks are the perfect place to get out and enjoy what Colorado does best – picturesque hikes, crystal-clear skies for stargazing, serene campgrounds and all the other fun outdoor activities that you can only find in this amazing state. You’ll need to drive a bit outside of Denver to get to all of these parks, but you’ll also want to arrange for at least a few days to get the most out of your trip. So plan a long weekend or make it a week-long family vacation. No matter how you do it, you’ll love exploring these great national parks in Colorado.
Rocky Mountain National Park
1000 Highway 36
Estes Park, CO 80517
The closest national park to Denver, Rocky Mountain National Park is also one of the busiest. It’s a haven for anyone that loves hiking, camping, fishing and any other outdoorsy activity that is usually very popular in Colorado. You can conquer a 14er by climbing Longs Peak or explore more than 415 square miles at a slightly lower elevation. Make sure to take a drive over Trail Ridge Road, the highest continuous paved road in the United States. It’s the best way to get an amazing view of the park and a truly beautiful drive. Then spend the rest of the time checking out all the stunning hiking trails and campgrounds for a perfect vacation with the whole family.
Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument
15807 Teller County Road 1
Florissant, CO 80816
Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument is another amazing spot to visit and it’s only about two hours outside of Denver. If you are into fossils, then you’ll love this 6,000-acre park with tons of fossils that date back millions of years. It’s a rare chance to see actual leaf, seed and insect fossils, and a great place to explore the history of the area. There is also a great museum to further your education and an early Colorado homestead to show you what life was like when Colorado was first being settled. You can even find several places outside the park limits where it’s perfectly legal to hunt and find your own fossils to take home.
Related: Top Colorado State Parks Near Denver
Great Sand Dunes National Park
11999 Highway 150
Mosca, CO 81146
Head about four hours south of Denver and you can explore another amazing Colorado park – Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve. It’s home to the tallest dune towers in the country, with the highest hitting 750 feet high at 8,700 miles above sea level. It’s a massive 150,000 acres of dunes, with lots of hiking trails and plenty of chances to go off-road with a sturdy four-wheel drive. You’ll even find many visitors heading down the dunes on skis, sleds and snowboards, and since they don’t need any snow, this is one ski trip that you can take all year long. Great Sand Dunes National Park is truly unlike any other park you’ve ever been to, so make sure to put this one on your bucket list.
Mesa Verde National Park
Mesa Verde, CO 81330
A trip to Mesa Verde National Park will take quite a few hours (around seven, but you’ll be rewarded for the trip with lots of amazingly well-preserved Puebloan dwellings to explore. You can take a guided tour through the ancient homes, thanks to the many ladders that help eager explorers up into the cliffs above. You can often find rangers giving talks and demonstrations all about what life was like for this ancient culture. You’ll need a day for driving each way, so your trip to Mesa Verde should be at least four or five days, so you can really enjoy all the history and beauty of this national gem.
Related: Best Parks For Kids In Denver
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
102 Elk Creek
Gunnison, CO 81230
Rounding out the fourth national park in Colorado is Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. Located about five hours southwest of Denver, this park is home to one of the most beautiful natural gorges in the world. It’s a smaller park surrounding a 53-mile gorge with walls that drop 2,700 feet into deep darkness. If you want some truly impressive photos, you’ll definitely want to take the drive to check out this hidden gem in Colorado. Train enthusiasts will also love the railroad museum, with lots of information about the railroads that were used to transport people and goods across this massive gorge, and you can even find ranger talks with even more information about the history of the area.
Deborah Flomberg is a theater professional, freelance writer and Denver native. Her work can be found at Examiner.com.