The US State of Colorado is known as an outdoor enthusiast's paradise. The four national parks throughout the state (Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Mesa Verde, Rocky Mountain, and Great Sand Dunes) only serve to solidify this reputation. Each place showcases its own character-rich ecology, formations, activities, and combination of natural and human history. No matter which national park one visits, be sure to pack a sturdy pair of shoes and check that the camera is fully charged.
Black Canyon Of The Gunnison
Two million years of erosion have carved out the vertical cliffs of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. Located in Western Colorado, these sheer, scarred cliffs narrowly encroach on the determined Gunnison River below. Near the South Rim campground, the 2,250-foot Painted Wall is the highest cliff found in the state. Two other campsites offer multi-day immersions in this wild setting. There are fun and challenging hikes to and from the river that can be undertaken by sure-footed folks. People of all abilities can also enjoy the scenic lookouts that will stop one in the tracks for a special moment. If one is lucky, one might even spot the Peregrine falcon hitting its world-record dive speeds. When night falls, one must turn attention to the starry skies. Minimizing light pollution is actually one of the conservation aims of the National Park Service in Black Canyon of the Gunnison.
Mesa Verde National Park
Mesa Verde National Park is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site that protects the ancient structures and cultural heritage of the Ancestral Pueblo (Anasazi) people. For over 700 years (roughly between 550 to 1300), this indigenous group built their homes throughout the cliffs and plateaus of Mesa Verde in modern-day Southwest Colorado. About 600 cliff dwellings and another 4,100 archaeological sites have been uncovered throughout the park, with new discoveries still occurring regularly. Self-guided and guided tours are available to explore these fascinating pueblos and to learn about the history and ancestry of the Anasazi, as well as the backstory of the modern Pueblo people. Like Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Mesa Verde is also an International Dark Sky Park.
Rocky Mountain National Park
In the Northcentral part of Colorado, sprawls all 265,807 acres of Rocky Mountain National Park. As the name suggests, this place is all about highlighting the grandiose wonder of the Rockies. Complementing the beauty of the mountains are lush alpine meadows and dazzling glacial lakes. Plus, the big land features come hand-in-hand with big animals, including a herd of about 600 to 800 elk, which make their home here in the winter, approximately 350 bighorn sheep, a healthy population of mule deer, and the occasional moose. Fitness buffs can explore the park and spot some of these animals via a network of hiking trails totaling 350 miles in length. Hiking the off-beaten path can also be a good way to escape the summer crowds. In 2021, Rocky Mountain National Park welcomed over 4.3 million visitors, most of whom came between May and October.
Great Sand Dunes National Park
Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve completes the Colorado package in another unique and enticing fashion. Here in the Southcentral portion of the state roam the tallest dunes in North America. The sandy mountains are backdropped by the 14,000-foot peaks of the snow-capped Sangre de Cristo Mountains, to the North and East, as well as the San Juan Mountain Range, to the West. The 30 square-mile, deceptively fluid desert dune field is without trails but therefore promotes a more freelance style of adventure. Chugging up one of these high-altitude, leg-zapping hills can be a strangely fun experience. Coming back down is all the more exhilarating since it can be done by bounding on foot in large leaps, carving wide tracks on a sandboard, or sliding swiftly on a sand-sled. Nearby retailers provide rentals for the latter two options for anyone tempted to try out these exciting fringe sports. Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is yet another International Dark Sky Park, and it can be visited 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, year-round.
With such a variety of natural beauty, it is no wonder why the four national parks in Colorado attract so much attention. From challenging hikes to mesmerizing viewpoints, scenic drives, evidence of the earth's ever-changing landscape (including from human activity), and of course, the harmonious wildlife ever-present within the protected boundaries, these parks have something for all bold adventurers and weekend road-trippers.