Here's where to explore, hike, and backpack in the four national parks in Colorado.
Colorado’s beautiful mountain scenery offers some incredible natural beauty. While Yellowstone, Glacier, Yosemite or the Grand Canyon tend to be most popular national parks in the U.S., the national parks in Colorado are perhaps lesser-known, but equally as impressive. The national parks of Colorado include Rocky Mountain, Mesa Verde, Black Canyon of the Gunnison, and The Great Sand Dunes. Colorado’s expanse of over 100,000 square miles and snowy mountain passes can make travel between these national parks difficult. Therefore, these national parks aren’t necessarily good day trips from Denver, but you can make the whole tour a great Colorado road trip. The scenery of Colorado is undeniably spectacular, so the mountain drives become rewarding. Once at these national parks in Colorado, you’ll want to explore the mountains, lakes, canyons, and cliffs. We’ll show you the best hiking and even backpacking within each of the national parks in Colorado.
Rocky Mountain National Park
Rocky Mountain National Park’s expanse of 415 square miles is all totally impressive wilderness. Colorado’s tall mountains drop into Bear Lake, and the park features many waterfalls and streams. This most popular of the national parks in Colorado includes the continental divide and is located in the northern part of the state. Estes Park, Colorado is nearby, and the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forest surround it. Here in Rocky Mountain National park, you’ll find alpine areas and wide open meadows, all with beautiful mountain peaks surrounding. Additionally, Rocky Mountain National Park is home to bighorn sheep, bear, mountain lion, snowshoe hare, and the cute “pika,” a small mammal related to rabbits. Therefore, hiking or backpacking in this Colorado national park offers spectacular panoramas of the mountains, streams, lakes, and waterfalls. Additionally, this park makes a great weekend road trips from Denver or Estes Park. Rocky Mountain National Park reveals some of the best of Colorado.
Hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park
Bear Lake Loop
Bear Lake Loop is less than a mile, and a great family-friendly hike. The trail head and parking lot for Bear Lake Loop is a really established area, so it makes a great family destination to explore. This short hike in Rocky Mountain National Park provides a chance to explore to your heart’s desire along the lake. You’ll easily access the trail head by car at the end of Bear Lake Road, but you can also choose to take the shuttle (a nice option so you don’t have to compete for a parking spot in the crowded summers). You can purchase an interpretive guide for your hike, or simply enjoy strolling on the path. As you walk along the lake, you’ll come to a truly breathtaking view of the Half Mountain and Longs Peak.
Lake Haiyaha Hike
Another hike in the Bear Lake area is the Lake Haiyaha hike. This one is a bit more substantial than the Bear Lake Loop and makes for a great picnic hike. You’ll begin at the trail head for the Bear Lake Loop, but then branch off to the left. This is one of the best hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park because it’s the jackpot for spotting lakes. You’ll come to an open space where you can see Nymph Lake, Bear Lake, and Bierstadt Lake, plus Lake Haiyaha, of course. This Lake Haiyaha loop hike in Rocky Mountain National Park is just under four miles. These hikes provide a good sampling of one of the best national parks in Colorado!
Backpacking in Rocky Mountain National Park
Continental Divide Scenic Trail
Backpacking in the Rocky Mountain National Park does require a permit, and of course some planning. Perhaps the most “epic” backpacking trip in this Colorado National Park is the Continental Divide. The trail encompasses 45 miles and generally takes a week to complete. We like this one especially since it’s a loop, allowing you to park and begin at Bear Lake Trail Head. You’ll need to pick up your back country camping permit from the Wilderness Office. You can find more information about back country camping permits in Rocky Mountain National Park here. The trails along the way are well maintained, and most of the route, you’ll be surrounded by breathtaking views. Check out more details about the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail here. It’s some of the best backpacking in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Mesa Verde National Park
A second national park in Colorado is Mesa Verde National Park, offering quite a contrast from Rocky Mountain. Here, you’ll find an abundance of archaeological sites, uncovering the past of Ancestral Puebloan life. The iconic cliff dwellings await your exploration here at this national park in Colorado. Trees line the tops of sedimentary rock faces, where man-made houses and structures rest within the protection of the rock.
While there is some good hiking still in Mesa Verde National Park, this park orients itself around the wonders of the archaeology of the ancient culture. You can drive on the scenic road, visit the museums, and explore the dwellings in the cliffs. Therefore, the park is a great option for those looking for some good day hiking in the national parks, or those who want to drive to scenic destinations and learn the history. The trip from Denver to Mesa Verde is over six hours by car since Mesa Verde is located in the very southwestern corner of Colorado.
Hiking in Mesa Verde National Park
Credit: Jacopo Werther
Knife Edge Trail
This hiking trail in Mesa Verde is relatively easy and offers some nice views of the expansive Montezuma Valley. You’ll leave from the Moorefield Campground, and just head up and then back. This area is a short ride south of the Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center. Plus, there’s a camp store to get some souvenirs after your hike!
Explore Cliff Palace
This is the largest cliff dwelling in North America and it’s pretty impressive to see in person! You can take a guided tour and get to be right in those cliffs. Alternatively, you can drive along Cliff Palace loop road and you’ll get to see Cliff Palace, Balcony House, and other dwellings from overlooks along the way.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
All thanks to the sculpting of the Gunnison River, this national park in Colorado features some really cool landscapes. You’ll find steep cliffs, ancient rocks, and spires From below in the canyon, the steep vertical cliffs rise straight towards the sky. Narrow passageways feature some trickling water and the aerial view reveals the path of the Gunnison River. The Black Canyon of the Gunnison, one of the four national parks in Colorado encompasses over 30,000 acres. “Must-see” points include the Painted Wall Cliff and the South Rim Visitor Center. Because Colorado’s mountains make car travel difficult, there aren’t many national parks near Denver. This national park is located south-west of the Denver, in between Crested Butte and Grand Junction.
Hiking in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Rim Rock Nature Trail
Rim Rock Nature Trail is a nice “stroll” for anyone. It’s short and easy and offers some beautiful views of the canyon below. This one-mile loop follows some of the rim, and you’ll get to see the Gunnison River and the steep walls of the Canyon below. Additionally, the park ends at the South Rim Visitor Center, where it’s easy to park.
North Vista Trail
Choose between the three-mile option or the seven-mile hike here at the North Vista Trail. Both begin at the North Rim Ranger Station. The three-mile route brings you to Exclamation Point. This trail begins through some brush and wooded area and follows along the Canyon’s Rim. Throughout, you’ll be able to snag some views of the SOB Draw, the narrow part of the canyon. Continuing on to Green Mountain extends your hike to seven miles.
Backpack in the Inner Canyon at Black Gunnison
For the more adventure-seeker, hiking the inner canyon at The Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park offers a rewarding challenge. While there aren’t marked trails, you’ll forge your own path down into the canyon. There are a few designated campsites throughout the inner canyon. You’ll feel totally removed from civilization, pleasantly lost within this canyon. Steeps cliffs surround you, and animals explore this out-of-this-world destination. We’d say that camping in the inner canyon is an epic experience for this national park in Colorado. You’ll need to consider some logistics, though, when you hike the inner canyon. You will need a Wilderness Use permit. Additionally, campfires are prohibited, so you’ll need to carry in a camping stove. The terrain is rugged; there’s poison ivy, steep cliffs, and strenuous hiking up and down.
A good first-time route hiking the inner canyon at Black Canyon of the Gunnison is the S.O.B. Draw. You’ll realize the adventure you’re in for when you have to access the trail with the ladder along the fence. There are some other areas you’ll need to climb a bit, too. This hike will lead you to river access at two miles, but it’ll take a few hours. You can find campsites once you’re down. Long Draw is another good inner canyon hike at this national park in Colorado. The area is one of the narrowest parts of the canyon. These hikes are both located at the North Rim.
The Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
You might have pegged the highest sand dunes in North America to be on a North Carolina coast, but the truth is that they’re located at one of the national parks in Colorado. The Great Sand Dunes National Park offers a unique variety of terrain, all within about 130 square miles. Medano Creek creates a sort of “beach” area at the base of the sand dunes, and it’s fun to play in the water there. You can try out some sand sledding, or sand surfing on these impressively tall dunes. Additionally, the nighttime sky out here at The Great Sand Dunes is totally spectacular. Furthermore, you can explore trails that will lead you to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and Medano Lake in the alpine region.
Hiking at The Great Sand Dunes National Park
Mosca Pass Trail
The dunes don’t have established trails, but you can walk through the open expanse of sand dunes and explore (we suggest avoiding the hottest part of the day). However, many don’t realize that there are many beautiful, wooded trails at The Great Sand Dunes National Park, too. Mosca Pass Trail is a total of 3.5 miles. It offers a nice hike through a wooded valley. The route isn’t incredibly steep, and you’ll have some nice wildflowers in the summertime. You won’t see views of the sand dunes, just off the mountain pass.
Backpacking in the Great Sand Dunes
For a really unique experience, you can backpack on The Great Sand Dunes! The stars out here are incredible, and you can explore the dunes and nearby forested trails throughout the day. Additionally, you can camp in the foothills and mountains. Many of the hiking trails are open to backpacking, but you will need to obtain a free camping permit to do so. The Great Sand Dunes are nice option for free camping, and you can check out more ways to find free campsites here.
These national parks in Colorado offer some beautiful scenery to explore.
Colorado’s preserved areas offer some beautiful tranquility, with plenty of space to explore without civilization. Whether you’re looking for a scenic car ride and a short nature walk, or a back country camping adventure, these national parks in Colorado await. Head out to explore the mountains, canyons, lakes, rivers, and dunes that Colorado has to offer! If you're looking for an ultimate Colorado road trip adventure, you can head to Arizona as well and explore these Arizona national parks.
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