Alberta Falls at Rocky Mountain National Park
Colorado’s Mighty Four National Parks
Though the National Park Service preserves many sites in Colorado, only four of these vast playgrounds have been given the title of “park.”
Centennial State visitors may wander the iconic Rocky Mountains, sandboard the Great Sand Dunes, raft the Gunnison River, and explore the Cliff Palace – all thanks to the hardworking folks over at the NPS.
1. Rocky Mountain
One of the more famous playgrounds operated by the NPS, the Rocky Mountain National Park covers more than 265,000 acres in northern Colorado, and offers four visitor centers. Set near Estes Park, Rocky Mountain features everything from hiking, biking, fishing and wildlife viewing to horseback riding, rock climbing, and mountaineering.
Visitors enjoy – or maybe not – following the edge-of-cliff drive along the well-known Trail Ridge Road, hiking to the scenic Alberta Falls, or circling the stunning Bear Lake. Winter activities at RMNP include cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, telelmark skiing, and alpine touring.
2. Great Sand Dunes
Located in the San Luis Valley, set in south-central Colorado, the Great Sand Dunes National Park preserves North America’s steepest sand dunes at 750 feet – plus plenty of wilderness for recreation and wildlife. Set near Alamosa, the park covers nearly 150,000 acres.
The Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve features some unique activities, including sandboarding, sand sledding, and stargazing, plus hiking, bird watching in the wetlands, and fishing Medano Creek.
3. Black Canyon of the Gunnison
Set in western Colorado near Montrose, Gunnison, and Crawford, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is ready to pack your itinerary. Spanning 30,000 acres southeast of Grand Junction and Clifton, Black Canyon yields hiking, intense rock climbing, fishing, and famous scenic drives.
Dry activities include hiking the inner Black Canyon, horseback riding, and checking out one of 12 scenic overlooks along the South Rim Road – plus the North Rim and East Portal roads. Wet activities include rafting, kayaking, and fishing for wild trout in the Gunnison River.
4. Mesa Verde
Preserving more than 600 cliff dwellings, and more than 4,000 archaeological sites, the Mesa Verde National Park is set in southwestern Colorado – otherwise known as the “archaeological heartland of the United States.” A UNESCO World Heritage Site, and listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places, Mesa Verde is located just south of Cortez – and not far from Four Corners.
Covering more than 50,000 acres Mesa Verde is the National Park Service’s largest archaeological preserve – and was established in 1906 by the man himself, Teddy Roosevelt. Today visitors enjoy guided tours of the cliff dwellings, hiking, winter recreation, and exploring the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum, Spruce Tree House, and the Mesa Verde Visitor & Research Center.