I’ve been to a few National Park Service sites in Colorado, and they never disappoint! Here are the US National Parks in Colorado so you can plan your own Colorado adventure.
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How to Visit Colorado’s National Parks
Well, if you’re a Colorado local then you probably already know that getting around the state is really tough without a car. There just isn’t good public transportation between cities.
Since you really need your own wheels, I have tips below for renting a car if you don’t have one.
Tips for Renting a Car in Colorado
It’s awfully hard to get around Colorado without a car. Trust me, I’ve tried! Typically, I drive to Colorado from Oklahoma or Kansas, but when I don’t have access to my own wheels I use Discover Cars to rent cars on my travels. You’ll be able to pick up a car at any airport or in your hometown.
Check availability and get a quote for a rental car for your trip here.
The Best Colorado National Parks
What’s listed here are the sites that are governed by the National Park Service (NPS), hence the term “national parks.” Keep in mind that there are many more natural wonders in Colorado, including national forests and national recreation areas that are overseen by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the US Forest Service (USFS).
Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site
Back when it was built, Bent’s Old Fort served as a trade center for several Native American tribes including the Cheyenne and Arapaho. The building is a walled adobe structure that was built in 1833 in Otero County, Colorado.
The fort was damaged in a fire in 1849, although it wasn’t destroyed at the time. The destruction of the structure came in 1920 after years of neglect. It was later rebuilt in 1976 using old paintings and artifacts as reference materials.
Today, it serves as a historic landmark where people can look back in time at how the ancestors of the country lived.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Camping, fishing, boating, hiking, wildlife viewing, sightseeing, whitewater rafting, and rock climbing are only some of the pleasures that this national park has to offer. The park is a part of the long and deep Black Canyon of the Gunnison River. While most of the park lies on the south rim of the canyon the north rim can be accessed via an unpaved road.
Two entrances (north and south) lead to the 19km park. The entrance to the north nestles in the city of Montrose while the southern entrance lies near Crawford.
To explore the beauty of the canyon, taking a hike in the park is the way to go, this takes about 3 hours. Alternatively, scenic drives are also an excellent way to enjoy the beautiful landscape.
California National Historic Trail
Back in the mid-nineteenth century, the California Trail was the most popular route among travelers (mostly miners and farmers) with over 200,000 of them traveling along the trail into the beautiful city of California.
The 5,000 mile-long trail starts in Missouri, passes through ten states and ends in Sacramento. The trail was recognized as an important part of the nation’s history and was commissioned as a National Historic Trail in 1992.
Today, the trail is treated as a historic, educational site and tours are available to all who come visiting, be it individual tours or group tours including schools.
Colorado National Monument
The Colorado National Monument came to be a overseen by NPS because a canyon dweller, John Otto went on a one-man campaign to have what was then his backyard declared as a national park. It is on the northeast of the Colorado Plateau.
The only paved road in the whole of the monument is Historic Rim Rock Drive, a 23-mile route that is a road biker’s heaven. The route is challenging for road-biking, and it offers a spectacular view. It is no wonder it hosts the annual bike race called Tour of the Moon.
Hikers are not left out as the monument has fourteen hiking trails. The most popular of these trails is the Serpent Trail, the original dirt road that leads into the national monument.
There’s lots to see here whether you travel by car or by food, from the beautiful red rock canyon to seeing bighorn sheep and spotting wildflowers.
You can stay in nearby Grand Junction if you want a little rest and relaxation after a long day of hiking or driving.
Curecanti National Recreation Area
The Curecanti National Recreation Area is an outdoor wonder that is made up of three reservoirs (Crystal Reservoir, Blue Mesa Reservoir, and Morrow Point Reservoir) along the Gunnison River.
If you are seeking water-based fun in the Rocky Mountains area, this is the destination for you. Asides from the three reservoirs, the Curecanti National Recreation Area has seven hiking trails with different difficulty levels, and great fishing (especially trouts and salmon).
This is a great spot to camp as you’ll be surrounded by nature, and if you enjoy activities such as bird watching, boating, hiking, and fishing, you will have a blast.
Dinosaur National Monument
If you are looking for a great national park in Colorado to take your kids for a family vacation, Dinosaur National Monument is a great option! You can see the evidence that dinosaurs once lived and roamed around Colorado right here in the stone!
There are also petroglyphs that highlight early Native American life here, and interesting stories to learn about bandits, outlaws, and Colorado homesteaders.
Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument
Far below the mountain valley in central Colorado is one of the most diverse, richest, and interesting fossil deposits ever discovered in the world to date. Petrified redwood stumps, which are up to fourteen feet wide, along with thousands of detailed fossils of plants and insects tells the story of what Colorado was like in the very, very distant past.
The fossils and geology of the area has a story to tell. Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument is a place for us to learn about North America and how it has changed since the Eocene Epoch, which took place between 56 to 33.9 million years ago.
Great Sand Dunes National Park National Park and Preserve
The Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is essentially a giant sandbox that offers a lot of recreation opportunities. The dune covers 30 square miles, with the tallest sand dune tower being 750 feet high.
Asides from the majestic dunes on display, the Great Sand Dunes National Park offers opportunities for hiking, horseback riding, picnicking, nature walks (with a ranger), and camping. You can also enjoy a scenic drive through the Medano pass, splash around in Medano Creek, and, if you enjoy climbing, there are about four peaks you can climb. They are around 13,000-14,000 feet tall.
You can stay nearby in Alamosa, or you can camp. Stargazers will especially love this location at night. Since it is located in a rural area, it is easy to see the stars. This just might be the best of Colorado’s national parks for astrophotography!
Hovenweep National Monument
The Hovenweep National Monument offers a trip to the past, to as far back as A.D. 1200. It is a collection of six prehistorical villages that were built between A.D 1200 and 1300. According to history, it used to house about 2500 people, and you can still see traces of that civilization there. There are a variety of structures around the site to explore, some of which include multistory towers.
The easiest way to explore Hovenweep is by hiking; this is also the only way. It boasts of ancestral Puebloan structures that are as impressive as they are rare. The trails have been carefully constructed around its structures, giving visitors a spectacular view of Hovenweep and its wonders.
Mesa Verde National Park
Mesa Verde National Park was once home to the Ancestral Pueblo people. They lived there for over 700 years, from 600 to 1300 CE. The park stands today to preserve its archeological heritage. It protects about 5000 known sites, part of which includes 600 cliff dwellings.
The park is an excellent location for sightseeing, if you enjoy old architecture, camping, hiking, cliff dwelling, and picnicking. Don’t miss out on seeing the magnificent Balcony House and Cliff Palace in person! During the winter, there are winter trails for Nordic skiing and snowshoeing.
A trip to Mesa Verde is not complete without a visit to Mesa Verse Visitor and Research Center and Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum. The Research Center is right at the entrance, and you can explore different options for what to do during your visit. The museum will give you more information about the Ancestral Pueblo people and the life they led.
Located in southwest Colorado, most visitors to Mesa Verde National Park will stay in either Durango or Cortez.
Here’s a guide to spending the perfect day at Mesa Verde National Park, which is one of the best UNESCO World Heritage Sites in North America.
Old Spanish National Historic Trail
The old Spanish trail located in New Mexic and Colorado is also known as the longest and most dangerous mule route in America. The route spans New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and California. The Age of the Old Spanish Trail ended in 1848 after the U.S. took over the southwest and opened a wagon route to southern California.
It sounds intense, but it boasts of a few recreational sites such as the Anasazi Heritage Center, Canyons of the Ancients, museums (Fort Garland Museum, Rio Grande County Museum, Saguache Museum and San Luis Valley Museum) and Dominguez-Escalante National Conservation Area.
Pony Express National Historic Trail
This historic site is a famous attraction known for the many activities it supports. The hiking trail leads to interesting locations like the museum, historic structures, and forts. Another activity popular here is horseback riding, as the open land is perfect to feel the wind on your face atop a horse while taking in the sights.
If you’re interested in activities that involve considerably less physical exertion, the museums and other historic structures provide a different kind of stimulation. The visitor centers are also built to enhance relaxation and enlightenment with ancient artifacts and equipment that shed light on how the Pony express must have operated. The 2,000-mile historic site spans from St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, California.
Rocky Mountain National Park
The Rocky Mountains consist of protected mountains, alpine tundra and forests along the Continental Drive. Rocky Mountain National Park is best known for the Trail Ridge Road and the Old Fall River Road, both of which are drives that take you past aspen trees and rivers. You will also find stunning views of the continental divide here.
There are several recreational options to chose from, depending on what you want. Whether you want some alone time, family time, or you are looking to have some adventure and learn about nature, there are things you can do at RMNP!
Outside the park, you could go for a drive and stop at scenic overlooks or visit the nearby hot springs.
Located near Estes Park and Grand Lake, RMNP is the national park that is closest to Denver. It is just two hours from the city by car.
Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site
This national historic site commemorates the Sand Creek Massacre. An event unlike any other in America’s history. You can read about its tragic history here.
Among the things to do here is to learn in the visitor’s area which provides educational materials or you can learn about the massacre from an interpretive ranger.
The second floor of the building features an exhibit that shows images of people connected to the Sand Creek Massacre. You could also pay your respects to those lost atop the monument hill and the repatriation area.
If you enjoy bird watching, this is a perfect place to do just that. The site boasts an abundant supply of rare birds and insects.
Santa Fe National Historic Trail
In the 19th century, the Santa Fe Trail was the primary commercial route that connected Missouri and Santa Fe. Although there have been many changes over the years, there are still several discernible landmarks for you to identify on this historic site.
The National Trail offers a lot of historic sites and knowledge and you could find them all on a hike along the trail that immerses you into the ancient days past.
At the visitor center, you can either choose to relax and take in the sights or you can continue your pursuit of knowledge by visiting the museum.
Yucca House National Monument
While many places in Colorado and the western United States have been excavated and then (hopefully) preserved, Yucca House National Monument is a mostly unexcavated site.
One of the largest archeological sites in southwestern Colorado the fact that it is unexcavated preserves its for future scientists who may come up with less invasive ways for us to learn about the past.
It is thrilling to visit a site that is both important and yet has remained untouched for almost a millennia!
Colorado Travel Resources
Don’t Forget About Travel Insurance!
Before you leave for your trip make sure you have a valid Travel Insurance Policy because accidents happen on the road. I have used World Nomads when I travel since 2016, and I happily recommend them.
Getting coverage is important whenever you’re more than a hundred miles from home in case of an accident, sickness, theft, etc.
Get a travel insurance quote for your trip here.
Pin this Guide to the Best National Parks in Colorado for Your Colorado Adventures!
Stephanie is a born-and-bred Oklahoma mom and travel expert who has been to over fifty countries. After living in Eastern Europe for four years, she has moved with her family back to Oklahoma to write about her favorite places growing up: Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas, & Route 66!