Colorado has one of the most diverse landscapes of all the states in the U.S. If you’re looking for your next vacation spot, it’s time to make your way to the Centennial State. You might be wondering how many national parks are in Colorado. Colorado is home to four national parks, so you have plenty of areas to explore when visiting this Rocky Mountain state. However, no matter the park you choose to adventure in, it’s important to be prepared. Below, you’ll find an in-depth Colorado national parks itinerary and a list of Colorado national park travel tips, so you can make the most out of your visit.
Colorado National Parks Itinerary
What National Parks Are in Colorado?
Before diving into the travel tips for Colorado national parks, it’s essential to be informed about Colorado’s national parks and monuments. So, what national parks are in Colorado? Below, you’ll find your guide to Colorado’s national parks, where you can learn more about the history, geography, wildlife, and more before embarking on your outdoor adventure.
1. Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
In Western Colorado, you’ll find Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. This national park was formed over 2 million years, with the Gunnison River carving its way through Precambrian rock to create a massive gorge with steep cliffs and breathtaking spires. In this park, you can spot wildlife such as deer, elk, and golden eagles.
2. Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
As you make your way to Southern Colorado, you’ll come across Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, home to North America’s largest dunes, such as Star Dune and Medano Dune. A diversified landscape of grasslands, wetlands, woods, alpine lakes, and tundra can also be found in this park.
3. Mesa Verde National Park
Mesa Verde National Park resides in Southwestern Colorado and is known for its well-preserved Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings, such as the Cliff Palace. Mesa Verde is also home to more than a thousand species, with several only found in this national park. When exploring Mesa Verde, you can take in incredible vistas, learn about the Ancestral Pueblo people, and walk on the mesas and along the cliffs of this nationally protected area.
4. Rocky Mountain National Park
Along the Continental Divide, you’ll find Rocky National Park. In this park, you can drive along the famous Trail Ridge Road and the Old Fall River Road, climb up the Keyhole Route, and reach the top of Longs Peak, the park’s tallest peak. Rocky Mountain National Park also has three unique environments, including the meadows found in the montane life zone, the subalpine zone with crystal clear lakes, and the alpine zone with steep mountains.
Colorado National Park Travel Tips
Now that you know more about Colorado national parks, it’s time to prepare for your adventure. As you get ready to pack your bags, consider these tips for traveling to Colorado national parks:
Best Time of Year to Visit
The national parks inside Colorado are known for their beautiful landscapes and biodiversity. However, most are also known for their extreme weather, which can make or break your travel experience. Below are some of the best times throughout the year to visit each Colorado national park:
- Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park: April through November are the best times to visit, as the South Rim Road is open and the weather is pleasant.
- Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve: Visit during the late spring or early fall to avoid the hot summer temperatures and crowds.
- Mesa Verde National Park: Spring and fall offer comfortable temperatures and fewer crowds.
- Rocky Mountain National Park: Explore during the summer when most of the snow is melted, and the trails are open.
Now that you know the best time of year to visit the Colorado national park of your choice, it’s time to book your flight. These are the closest airports to each of Colorado's four national parks:
- Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park: Montrose Regional Airport
- Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve: San Luis Valley Regional Airport
- Mesa Verde National Park: Cortez Municipal Airport
- Rocky Mountain National Park: Denver International Airport
It’s important to note most of these airports are smaller regional airports, which can make finding flights more challenging. Denver International Airport is the largest in the state and offers the most accommodations, so flying to Denver and booking a rental car can be another option.
With your flight booked the exciting part is finding a place to stay. You can start by looking for rental homes through sites like Airbnb and VRBO or consider one of these hotels:
- Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park: The Lodge at Needle Rock
- Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve: Zapata Ranch
- Mesa Verde National Park: Far View Lodge
- Rocky Mountain National Park: The Stanley Hotel
What Do I Need to Know Before Going to a Colorado National Park?
The last set of Colorado national parks travel tips is knowing how to prepare. No matter the national park you choose to visit, it’s always important to keep these rules in mind:
- Respect the environment by staying on designated trails and cleaning up after yourself
- Watch wildlife from afar
- Pack layers, as this can allow you to dress up or down depending on the weather
- Bring snacks and hydration to ensure you’re fueled for your adventure
- Pack a camera to document your journey
- Pack safety supplies such as bandages and sunscreen
- Enjoy your time
Review our national parks travel guide for a complete understanding of how to make the most out of your trip.
When Should I Visit Colorado National Parks?
When’s the best time to visit Colorado national parks? The time you visit one of Colorado’s beautiful parks depends on personal preferences and interests, as each time of year offers something spectacular for visitors. For example, summer is your best bet if you’re looking for warm weather suitable for hiking. The summer provides pristine weather with less precipitation than other seasons throughout the year, allowing you to wear lighter layers without the fear of getting stuck in a storm.
However, Colorado summers bring large troves of tourists, which can make its national parks crowded. If you’re interested in taking in the views one of Colorado’s national parks has to offer without people in your way, you might want to consider the fall or spring. Students are back in school, and cooler temperatures keep people at home.
But, the best time to visit Colorado national parks for some adventurers might be the winter. The winter brings unrivaled beauty and quietness, where you can take in stunning vistas of snowy landscapes in complete silence. However, some parks might have road closures in the winter due to snow, which is a factor to keep in mind if you’re looking to explore a park in its entirety.
What Is the Best National Park in Colorado to Visit?
The best national park in Colorado to visit depends on your interests. The most visited Colorado national park is Rocky Mountain National Park, while the least visited is the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. Each park offers its unique features, history, and attractions. With this Colorado national park guide, you’ll be able to learn about each park and which ones pique your interest.
How to Plan Your Time
Now that you know about Colorado national parks travel tips, it’s time to put them into action by creating a plan to visit them. Here, you’ll find our complete Colorado national parks itinerary that you can follow when exploring all four of Colorado’s national parks. With a route in place and suggested attractions to visit, you’ll be able to make the most out of your Colorado adventure. Here’s your guide to Colorado national parks and how to plan your time.
- Day 1 - Denver: To start your trip, it’s best to fly into Denver. As an international hub, most cities offer direct flights or flights with one layover that can bring you to Colorado’s capital city. After landing, you can pick up your rental car, explore the city, and find lodging in its historic downtown.
- Day 2 - Rocky Mountains National Park: The drive from Denver to Rock Mountains National Park is about 1 hour and 45 minutes. Along the way, you’ll drive through cities like Boulder and Altona, which are unique mountain towns with stunning vistas. Upon arrival, you can take a short day hike, such as the Alberta Falls Hike or Nymph, Dream, and Emerald Lakes Hike. Then, you can check into the Stanley Hotel to rest up for your next day of adventure.
- Day 3 - Rock Mountains National Park: To catch the sunrise, you can wake up early and hike to Sprague Lake. Then, you can visit the Alpine Visitor Center for park information, souvenirs, and history of the park. To complete your afternoon, head over to Kawuneeche Valley to spot wildlife and end your day stargazing along Trail Ridge Road.
- Day 4 - Black Canyon of the Gunnison: One of the longest legs of the trip is getting from Rocky Mountain National Park to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, which takes about 6 hours and 30 minutes. If you want to break up this leg, you can stop in Breckenridge or Grand Junction. Upon arrival, you can check into The Lodge at Needle Rock.
- Day 5 - Black Canyon of the Gunnison: Start your day by visiting the South Rim Visitor Center. Then, drive along Rim Drive Road and stop at viewpoints like Painted Wall View and Devil’s Lookout. From there, you can hike along Warner Point Trail to get panoramic canyon views before returning to the hotel.
- Day 6: Mesa Verde National Park: In the morning, you’ll head south and take a 3-hour and 30-minute drive to Mesa Verde National Park. Upon arrival, you can stretch your legs and walk along the Petroglyph Point Trail before checking into the Far View Lodge.
- Day 7 - Mesa Verde National Park: Start your day at the Mesa Verde Visitor & Research Center to learn about the park’s history, then visit the Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum, Spruce Tree House, or both. You can finish the day driving the Cliff Palace Loop and pulling off at many of the viewpoints.
- Day 8 - Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve: To reach your final Colorado National Park, start your morning with a 4-hour drive to Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. Once you arrive, you can head to the Great Sand Dunes Visitor Center to learn about park conditions. You can then hike the Wellington Ditch Trail, and as the dunes begin to cool in the late afternoon, you can try sandboarding or hiking along the dunes. You can end your day at the Zapata Ranch.
- Day 9 - Denver: To complete your Colorado national parks itinerary, you’ll have to drive back to Denver, which will take about 3 hours and 45 minutes. You can spend your final morning in the park exploring the dunes or make stops in Colorado City or Castle Rock.
Explore Colorado National Parks With Road Scholar
At Road Scholar, we have a variety of Colorado national park experiential learning adventures from which to choose. With tours of some of the most popular national parks, you’ll be able to immerse yourself in some of America’s most iconic parks, learning about the people, biodiversity, and environments that make up each park.
Every Road Scholar experience is led by an expert guide who will teach you about your destination’s history, traditions, and culture. Whether you’re exploring Southwest national parks or national parks in the Pacific Northwest, our educational travel programs will allow you to make memories that will last a lifetime.