National Parks of Colorado: The Complete 2023 Guide

National Parks of Colorado blog post cover.  Text overlaying an image of Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado during fall.

The four National Parks of Colorado include Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Great Sand Dunes, Rocky Mountains, and Mesa Verde. They are among the best you will find anywhere in the United States. In a state already renowned for its incredible natural beauty, these parks haved earned the distinct recognition of being the best of the best.

This comprehensive guide discusses everything you need to know for visiting all of the Colorado National Parks and National Monuments. In addition to preparation for visiting, planning, and showcasing the highlights, we also will provide you with tips for photographing each of the parks.

Those of you looking to visit all four parks or planning a Colorado Road Trip will also find useful maps to factor a trip to each of these parks into your itinerary.

Disclosure: In order to keep providing you with free content, this post likely contains affiliate links. If you make a booking or purchase through one of these links we earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. So a HUGE thank you to you if you click one of these links 🙂

Planning A Visit to the Colorado National Parks

The National Parks provide some of the best vacation destinations in Colorado. Before we dive into specifics on each individual national park, we wanted to help you get oriented with all necessary information relevant to planning a trip. In this section, you will find maps, prices, and other useful information relating to all of the parks in Colorado.

National Parks of Colorado Overview

There are 4 national parks and 8 national monuments managed by the National Park Service (NPS) in Colorado.

The four national parks of Colorado are:

  1. Rocky Mountain
  2. Black Canyon of the Gunnison
  3. Great Sand Dunes
  4. Mesa Verde

The national monuments of Colorado are more focused on preserving the history of the region’s earliest ancestors. The 8 national monuments include:

  1. Browns Canyon NM
  2. Canyon of the Ancients NM
  3. Chimney Rock NM
  4. Colorado National Monument
  1. Dinosaur National Monument
  2. Florissant Fossil NM
  3. Hovenweep NM
  4. Yucca House NM

US National Park Entrance Fees

A fiery sunset over Bear Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.

Each of the national parks in America charges an entry fee per vehicle type. These differ slightly from park to park, with varying length-of-stay options as well.

The best thing you can do is purchase the Annual Interagency Pass. For just $80, this pass grants you admission to every location managed by the National Park Service (NPS) in the entire country for one year. This includes over 2,000 federal recreation sites, such as national monuments, recreation areas, and anything else with the arrowhead logo.

If you are a senior citizen (62 years or older), this same pass is only $20 for a year or $80 for your entire lifetime!

For reference, individual entrance fees for each of the parks are detailed below. You will notice two prices for Mesa Verde as the price changes seasonally.

7-Day (Walk / Bike)7-day (Motorcycle)7-Day (Vehicle)One Year Pass
Black Canyon of the Gunnison$15$15$25$55
Great Sand Dunes$15$20$25$45
Mesa Verde $10 or $15$15 or $20$20 or $30$55
1-Day (Walk/Bike)1-Day (Motorcycle)1-Day (Vehicle)
Rocky Mountain$15$25$25$70

As you can see from the table, the cost of visiting the parks adds up very quickly if purchased individually. For perspective, a one-year pass for Rocky Mountain National Park is nearly the cost of the one-year interagency pass for every NPS site.

When to Visit the National Parks of Colorado

Fall colors at Bear Lake in Rocky Mountain NP.
Autumn is the best time to visit most of the Colorado National Parks for small crowds and amazing colors.

The best time to visit the national parks of Colorado is in the early spring and late fall, regardless of which one(s) you are exploring. These times of year come with the benefit of smaller crowds and more interesting weather, such as snow dustings, autumn colors or springs clouds

Almost every national park in the US faces excruciating heat and/or crowds during the summer season. On top of that, many (such as Rocky Mountain NP) have had to implement reservation systems to manage the crowds. Accordingly, summer is typically an unideal time to visit any of the parks in Colorado.

Conversely, winters in Colorado tend to come with a lot of snow and road closures. The winter weather will impact your experience at Rocky Mountain and Black Canyon of the Gunnison most notably as these parks experience significant closures and challenging road conditions.

More information about seasonal considerations such as partial park closures will be detailed in each of the specific park overviews to come.

Etiquette and Responsibility

The NPS has the nearly impossible task of simultaneously having to protect our beautiful lands while also making them accessible and enjoyable for the people. Please do your part by recreating responsibly and following leave no trace principles.

  • Do not park or stop for photos where legal parking areas are not available, especially in the middle of the road.
  • Pack out what you pack in, and always use the provided facilities for all manners of waste disposal.
  • Never feed or touch wildlife. They can become aggressive and lose their fear of humans, resulting in having to euthanize the animal.
  • Read about park-specific rules and regulations prior to visiting. These can always be found at the official NPS website.
  • Carry plenty of water on hikes any time of year. Rescue missions are expensive and dangerous for all involved.

Maps of the National Parks of Colorado

The following maps will help you plan your trip to Colorado, whether you’re looking to take a road trip to visit all four National Parks, or just looking to visit one. We have included a Google Map with all of Colorado’s National Parks and Monuments, as well as all of the individual National Park maps and topographical maps.

Google Map of Colorado’s National Parks and Monuments

We have included all 8 National Monuments and 4 National Parks in Colorado on the map below. If you’re looking to plan a Colorado road trip, this map will help you visualize where each of the parks are and plan a route that best suits you. Click here (or on the image) to open the interactive Google Map in a new tab.

National Parks of Colorado Map
Map of the National Parks of Colorado.

Official NPS Colorado National Park Maps

You will most likely lose serviced when you enter any of the parks. It is best to download and potentially print the official maps, if possible, so that you can access them anywhere and anytime.

You can download and view the NPS maps for each of the four Colorado National Parks below.

Colorado Guide Maps

You may wish to consider getting National Geographic’s Colorado Guide Map if you’re planning on driving through the state. Additionally, for those that are keen hikers, their topographical Trail Map should be stashed away in your backpack!

Both maps include all of the National Parks in Colorado and are printed on durable synthetic paper, making them waterproof and tear-resistant.

Discover 65+ Perfect Gifts for National Park Lovers

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

Sunset photography of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park in Colorado.
Behold the sheer black walls of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison is the least-visited of the four national parks in Colorado. This is in no way indicative of its beauty! In fact, it is perhaps our favorite of the Colorado parks for landscape photography.

Home to the sheerest canyon walls in the US, the black canyon derives its name not from its dark color, but because the canyon floor receives less than one hour of sunlight on average each day.

This is one of those parks that is hard to capture in a frame because the view is just so vast that it needs to be experienced to understand.

If you are planning a visit, you will absolutely want to open our comprehensive guide to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park in another tab. In it, we compare the north and south rim options and provide everything you could possibly need to know along with tons of amazing photographs.

Quick Facts

Location:West Colorado, USA
Established:October 21, 1999
Gateway City:Montrose
Size:30,750 aces (124.4 km²)
Annual Visitors:308,962 (2019)
CO Ranking (visitation):4th (out of 4)
USA Ranking (visitation):48th (out of 63)
Visitor Centers:South Rim Visitor Center and North Rim Ranger Station
All visitor numbers are from 2019 rather than 2020 as this more accurately reflects typical visitation.
During 2020, there were many park closures that skewed visitation numbers.

Seasonal Closures & Considerations

Night Photography at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park featuring the Milky Way above Painted Wall.
Night Photography at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park featuring the Milky Way above Painted Wall.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison is open all hours and all days, and no reservations or permits are required for entry beyond your park’s pass. However, winter visits are nearly impossible for most as road access to both the North Rim and South Rim becomes extremely limited from November through mid-April. The South Rim road is closed to vehicles traffic beyond Gunnison Point and the North Rim Road is closed entirely to vehicles.

To reiterate, avoiding winter visits to this particular park is highly recommended.

Beyond that, there is major road construction occurring on some of the roads into and out of the park. The East Portal Road remains closed as of the time of this writing (December 2021). Additionally, Highway 50 is intermittently closed as well. Neither of these roads are required for visiting the park but they may affect travel plans. Check the NPS website for the most up-to-date information.

What to See in Black Canyon of the Gunnison NP

Painted Wall: This aptly named section of the Black Canyon is rich in pegmatite, creating an impressive display of stripes and patterns.

Painted Wall Black Canyon of the Gunnison
The Painted Wall derives its name from the pegmatite striations that adorn its facade.

Chasm View: Considered “the best quarter-mile hike in Colorado”, the view from Chasm Point is one of the best in the park for providing perspective on the true verticality of the Black Canyon.

Chasm View on the North Rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison as seen during the morning golden hour.
Chasm View as seen during the morning golden hour.

Best Hikes in Black Canyon NP

Oak Flat Trail

Fall colors adorn the Black Canyon of the Gunnison from Oak Flat Trail.
Fall colors adorn the Black Canyon of the Gunnison from Oak Flat Trail.

A short walk beginning from the South Rim Visitor Center and meandering downward through beautiful forest while providing unique views from below the rim.

Exclamation Point (North Vista Trail)

Golden hour light from Exclamation Point in Black Canyon National Park of Colorado.
Golden hour light from Exclamation Point.

The entire hike is 4 miles, but most only bother going to the remarkable “Exclamation Point” a little over a mile in. The trail begins at the North Rim visitor center.

Chasm View Trail

Chasm View photography from the North Rim of Black Canyon NP.

There are two Chasm Viewpoints in the park, but the trail from the North Rim is the more popular and considered “the best quarter-mile hike in Colorado.” This hike is easy and beautiful any time of day, but is particularly photogenic at sunrise, sunset, and around noon with overhead light.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison Photography Tips

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is one of the most challenging landscapes you will encounter for photography. While your eyes can appreciate the grandeur, verticality, and drama of the scenery here, the camera struggles to capture that same sense of awe.

The best way to take home photos you are happy with is to be there at the right times of day. If you post-process your images, sunset and sunrise are fantastic as the light is even and balanced within the canyon. However, this creates a scene with a high dynamic range, so the ability to edit your photos is very helpful.

Sunset photography at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park in Colorado.
Sunset photography at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park in Colorado.

If you do not process your photos, that’s ok! You should still attempt some sunset shots, particularly from Cedar Point on the South Rim. In addition, high noon is actually a great time to take photos in this park as the sun will be overhead and lighting the scene all the way down to the canyon floor. This is one of the very few places we recommend mid-day photography.

The last thing we would suggest playing with is different focal lengths (aka zooms). Even wide-angle lenses will struggle to fit everything into a frame with how tall the walls are, but some viewpoints work fine with standard lenses.

Ironically, a good telephoto lens may be the better choice as it allows you to punch in tight on specific points of interest. The light is very challenging in this park, so focusing on small sections with a tight zoom instead of trying to capture the scene in its entirety often works well.

Where to stay near Black Canyon NP

There is no lodging available within Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. Camping is available at both rims but is extremely limited on the North Rim. However, there is ample BLM land for dispersed camping just outside the North Rim entrance gate.

The closest town to the South Rim is Montrose where you can find a variety of lodging options. The Super 8 by Wyndham is an affordable option with excellent reviews in the heart of Montrose, just 20 minutes from the South Rim visitor center.

If you’re traveling with family, or just prefer your own space, The Blue Bungalow is a delightful holiday home in Montrose and comes at a great rate. Although a little further away, the Double G Ranch & Guest Lodge is a great option, offering a wonderful bed and breakfast with mountain views and a personal feel.

There are fewer options for accommodation for the North Rim, with Crawford being the closest town. Stone House Inn and The Hitching Post both have excellent reviews and are within 25 minutes drive of the North Rim ranger station.

Rocky Mountain National Park

Beautiful long exposure photography at Bear Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park of Colorado.
Rocky Mountain National Park is home to some of the most idyllic scenery in the US.

Not only is Rocky Mountain National Park the most visited park in Colorado, but it is actually the third or fourth (depending on the year) most visited park in all of the United States!

This alpine wonderland attracts visitors from all over the world with its legendary wildlife and landscapes. Of course, most visitors are Denver city dwellers in need of fresh air.

Be aware that due to its popularity, visiting Rocky Mountain NP is not the picnic it once was. These days, you require reservations to enter for most of the year. During the off-season, when a reservation is not required, much of the park is closed due to inclement weather. Accordingly, you will have to plan your trip more carefully for this stop than any other in Colorado.

Quick Facts

Location:Northern Colorado, USA
Established:January 26, 1915
Gateway City:Estes Park
Size:265,769 acres (1076 km²)
Annual Visitors:4,590,493 (2019)
CO Ranking (visitation):1st (out of 4)
USA Ranking (visitation):3rd (out of 63)
Visitor Centers:Alpine Visitor Center, Beaver Meadows Visitor Center, Fall River Visitor Center, and Kawuneeche Visitor Center
All visitor numbers are from 2019 rather than 2020 as this more accurately reflects typical visitation.
During 2020, there were many park closures that skewed visitation numbers.

Seasonal Closures & Considerations

A girl on an overlook off of Trail Ridge Road in RMNP.
Sophie immersed in the majestic mountain scenery from Trail Ridge Road.

In 2021, a reservation system was implemented to control overcrowding. From May 28 through October 11, 2021, all visitors were required to have booked a reservation online in order to enter the park. While these dates may be slightly variable going forward, it should be assumed that prior arrangements will be needed during peak season.

If your visit coincides with the summer months, be sure to visit the official NPS website to arrange your timed entry permit well in advance. Dates fill up very, very quickly.

Beyond that, both the Trail Ridge Road and Old Fall River Road scenic drives close seasonally in the winter every year. Check the RMNP current conditions before planning any winter visits.

What to see in Rocky Mountain NP

Bear Lake

Rocky Mountain's Bear Lake Loop  long exposure photography.

Hands down the most beautiful, popular, and photogenic scene in Rocky Mountain is that of Bear Lake. This postcard-perfect setting is everything you imagine when you close your eyes and picture alpine beauty.

Sprague Lake

Photo of Sprague Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park in CO.

Another gorgeous lake nestled into the Rockies, the major reason to make sure you spend some time at Sprague Lake is that this is one of the most common locations to spot moose. This is also the best place in the park to photograph sunrise for the photographers among you.

Trail Ridge Road

Trail Ridge Road in summer.

When it is open, which is limited to the warmer months, the trail ridge road is a must-see. This 48-mile scenic drive provides unbeatable roadside views of the iconic Rocky Mountains.

Best Hikes in Rocky Mountain NP

Bear Lake Loop

Bear Lake Loop Trail sunstar

To call this a “hike” might be stretching things a bit. At less than a mile all the way around, this family-friendly jaunt is more about seeing the impressive Bear Lake from all angles while inhaling that fresh mountain air.

Emerald Lake Trail

Sunset at Nymph Lake on the Emerald Lake Trail in Rocky Mountain NP in CO.
Nymph Lake is the first alpine lake you will discover on the Emerald Lake Trail.

Spurring from the Bear Lake Loop, the trail to Emerald Lake is a 3.5 mile out and back with moderate elevation gain. Along the way, you will discover three unspoiled alpine lakes including Nymph Lake, Dream Lake, and finally the idyllic Emerald Lake.

Alberta Falls

Another short and sweet hike, the walk to Alberta Falls is a fairly easy 1.6 mile out and back through the wilderness. The reward for this easy walk is perhaps the most beautiful waterfall in the national park.

Rocky Mountain National Park Photography Tips

A moose drinking from Sprague Lake in Rocky Mountain NP.
Always be prepared for wildlife photographs when shooting in Rocky Mountain NP.

There is an immediately obvious reason why Rocky Mountain National Park is so popular amongst landscape photographers and nature lovers. Complete with towering waterfalls, pristine lakes, jagged mountains, and dense forest, this is the quintessential definition of wilderness.

The best advice we have for photographing Rocky Mountain NP is to be prepared for a little bit of everything. You may be geared up for a sunrise shoot and suddenly notice a moose entering the scene, requiring a completely different lens and settings! In other words, bring a camera you are very comfortable with and make sure you always have all of your lenses close by, even the ones you don’t think you’ll need.

Beyond that, we strongly recommend a CPL (polarizing filter) for water features, particularly lakes and waterfalls. This will drastically help to remove glare and bring out the colors much more vibrantly.

Last, the golden hours should be treasured in Rocky Mountain, particularly around sunrise. This is when the light will be best and the wildlife is most likely to make a showing.

Oh, and keep a camera ready at all times as you are driving. It is very common to happen upon a herd of elk or a moose or a bear out in the fields and it is important to be able to react quickly when the opportunity presents itself.

Where to Stay near Rocky Mountain NP

There is no lodging available within Rocky Mountain National Park. However, there are five campgrounds in the park:

  • Aspen Glen
  • Glacier Basin
  • Longs Peak
  • Moraine Park
  • Timber Creek

The campgrounds have seasonal closures. Additionally, some are reservable during summer, whereas others are first-come-first-serve basis. Find out more on the NPS website.

Closest to Rocky Mountain’s east entrance, Estes Park is the most popular town for lodging. Here you’ll find a variety of accommodation options.

For couples looking for a romantic getaway, Mountain Shadows Resort is the perfect location. Their cozy cottages have hot tubs in the room for the ultimate relaxation after a day in the park!

If visiting with family, Rams Horn Village Resort offers luxury cabins for up to six people at affordable prices. They also have a gym, swimming pool, and jacuzzi within the resort.

We appreciate that everyone’s needs are unique, so we recommend comparing several properties to find the right one for you. Some other highly rated hotels and inns in Estes Park include:

You may also wish to consider staying in the quieter town of Grand Lake, close to the western entrance. While accommodation is more limited, you will find fewer crowds here. Western Riviera Lodging and The Historic Rapids Lodge both have excellent reviews and are reasonably priced.

Great Sand Dunes National Park

The entrance to Great Sand Dunes National Park.
The entrance to Great Sand Dunes National Park.

Discover the tallest dunes in North America nestled into the idyllic Colorado scenery at Great Sand Dunes National Park. While you’re at it, grab a sand board (most sleds will do) and make a day out of shooting down the pillowy-soft sand.

While the dunes are clearly the main attraction, there is a lot more to this Colorado national park. These rolling hills of sand are surrounded by a diverse landscape including grasslands, forests, mountains, wetlands, and even alpine lakes and tundra!

Travelers can expect a unique experience every time they visit as each month and season brings massive changes to this delicate ecosystem.

Perhaps the best part is that for now, Great Sand Dunes National Park remains one of the least visited national parks in the country which means no reservations are required!

Quick Facts

Location:Southern Colorado, USA
Established:September 24, 2004
Gateway City:Alamosa
Size:149,000 acres (603 km²)
Annual Visitors:442,905 (2019)
CO Ranking (visitation):3rd (out of 4)
USA Ranking (visitation):44th (out of 63)
Visitor Centers:Great Sand Dunes Visitor Center
All visitor numbers are from 2019 rather than 2020 as this more accurately reflects typical visitation.
During 2020, there were many park closures that skewed visitation numbers.

Seasonal Closures & Considerations

You may be imagining a hot and arid desert, but don’t let the fact that there are massive sand dunes fool you; this is an alpine environment! Even during the hottest month (typically July), the average highs do not exceed 90°F (32°c). During the winter, the sand often freezes and becomes a destination for snow sledders and cross country skiers instead.

There are no seasonal closures typically and roads are plowed immediately following snowfall. However, each season is very unique and it is worth researching the conditions to expect prior to your visit.

What to see in Great Sand Dunes NP

The entire park is basically an expanse of sweeping dunes that totals 30 square miles. Accordingly, there is not a specific dune or place to pursue. Rather, come in the morning and simply explore to your heart’s content when the light is best and the crowds are limited.

A photo of the grasslands in front of sand dunes at Great Sand Dunes NP.

Best Hikes in Great Sand Dunes NP

Realistically, the best place to hike is wherever others haven’t been! These are the places where you will discover unspoiled sand dunes that make for more impressive photographs.

You are free to hike anywhere throughout the 30 square miles of sand dunes in the park. Most visitors will hike to “High Dune”, which is not the tallest point in the park but appears to be from the parking lot.

Great Sand Dunes National Park Photography Tips

Moody photograph of Great Sand Dunes NP.

When it comes to shooting sand dunes, the trick is to observe the textures and the shadow play. This landscape provides more opportunity to be creative than, say, a waterfall where it is obvious where your camera should be pointed.

Typically, sunrise is the best time to photograph the Great Sand Dunes because they will be mostly free of footprints and be freshly groomed from the nightly wind. Beyond that, the angular sunlight provides the best light and shadow play you will have. Sunset is also good for this, but the dunes will likely be chewed up from other visitors at the end of the day.

It is extremely important to keep your equipment safe in this environment. Sand is horrible on cameras and lenses, and the high winds that come off the Rocky Mountains are excellent at carrying this sand at high rates into your delicate equipment. I recommend purchasing a protective rain cover designed for cameras that will protect the body and lens while still allowing you to adjust settings.

Where to Stay

There are no lodging options available within Great Sand Dunes National Park. There is one developed campsite within the park, Piñon Flats Campground, which is open from April through October. Sites can be reserved up to 6 months in advance for individual sites. Additionally, there are backcountry car and hike-in campsites. Find out more on the NPS website.

Great Sand Dunes Lodge is the closest accommodation to the park, located just outside the entrance and 10 minutes from the visitor center. They offer both basic and deluxe rooms, with patios overlooking the park.

For those that require fewer amenities, Great Sand Dunes Oasis is a good option. Their rustic camping cabins have no water or bathrooms, but restroom facilities and showers are available on site. They also have tent and RV camping sites available, and there is a restaurant on-site.

If these options don’t suit you, or you don’t mind a longer drive, you can find a wider range of options for accommodation in Alamosa. This small gateway city is located 35-40 minutes from the park visitor center.

Mesa Verde National Park

Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado is home to some of the best-preserved ruins anywhere in the world as seen here.
Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado is home to some of the best-preserved ruins anywhere in the world.

There are a collection of ancient ruins along the “Trail of the Ancients” that runs through the four corners area. However, no other archeological display holds a candle to the incredible cliff dwellings you will discover at Mesa Verde National Park.

Home to the Ancestral Pueblo people for over 700 years, this Colorado national park protects and showcases an incredible display of historic civilizations in seemingly impossible cliffside locations.

Even if ranger-guided tours are not usually your thing, this is one of those parks to make an exception. As impressive as the ruins are, they are best enjoyed with ranger-guided tours who can explain the history of what you are seeing.

In addition, there are a variety of scenic hikes and beautiful overlooks for those looking to enjoy the beautiful Southern Colorado landscapes.

Quick Facts

Location:Southern Colorado, USA
Established:June 29, 1906
Gateway City:Mancos and Cortez
Size:52,485 acres (212.40 km²)
Annual Visitors:563,420 (2019)
CO Ranking (visitation):2nd (out of 4)
USA Ranking (visitation):38th (out of 63)
Visitor Centers:Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center
All visitor numbers are from 2019 rather than 2020 as this more accurately reflects typical visitation.
During 2020, there were many park closures that skewed visitation numbers.

Seasonal Closures & Considerations

Mesa Verde is open year-round. However, winter snowstorms are possible from late September all the way through April. Though unlikely, some years even see snow into May.

The park may close unexpectedly following a snowstorm until plows are able to improve the road! If you are planning a winter visit, the best place for timely updates is at the Mesa Verde Facebook Page.

What to see in Mesa Verde NP

Cliff Palace – The bad news is that you are only able to enter the incredible Cliff Palace via a ranger-guided tour, but the good news is that you are able to actually explore this ancient site. This is easily the most memorable part of a Mesa Verde visit for those who make the effort to arrange a tour.

Looking down at the awe-inspiring dwelling known as Cliff Palace in Mesa Verde NP.
Looking down at the awe-inspiring dwelling known as Cliff Palace.

Cliff Palace is the largest dwelling in Mesa Verde. It was once home to over 100 people with 23 kivas, both of which being far more than are typically seen in these communities. It is thought that, perhaps, the Cliff Palace was once a place of significant social and/or political importance with frequent ceremonial usage.

Long House – Nearly as large as Cliff Palace, Long House has an equal number of rooms totaling 150 and 21 kivas of its own. This is another must-see in Mesa Verde, though it requires a bit more driving. Long House is located 12 miles down a steep, winding road but is full of beautiful overlooks along the way.

Photography of Long House in Mesa Verde National Park.
A view from a ranger-guided tour of Long House.

Spruce Tree House – Much like the other two aforementioned houses, Spruce Tree is a large and well-preserved dwelling in the park. However, what sets it apart is its location in the cliffside, making you wonder how the heck people managed to come and go. The theorized answer is that the ancient dwellers climbed up and down on a spruce fir tree that grew to the base of the large crevice where the house was built!

Spruce Tree House in Mesa Verde National Park as seen from a distant overlook built right into the cliff walls.
Spruce Tree House as seen from a distant overlook built right into the cliff walls.

Park Point Overlook – Mesa Verde National Park is mostly a place to observe archeological sites and ponder a time long past, but it also happens to be located in a beautiful part of Colorado. If you are looking for a side of nature and landscapes to pair with your ancient entree, consider a sunset at Park Point Overlook.

Best Hikes in Mesa Verde NP

Knife Edge Trail – This easy 2 mile out and back trail delivers you to sweeping Northwest views, making it a favorite place to watch the sunset in the park.

Step House – At just 1-mile roundtrip, the drive to the Step House trail may actually be the most difficult part. This short walk brings you inside Long House and Step House, allowing you to observe the dwellings up close and personal. However, please note that this trail is only open when rangers are staffed and onsite.

Mesa Verde National Park Photography Tips

Wide angle photography of Spruce Tree House in Mesa Verde National Park of Colorado.
Bring a wide-angle lens to capture the inner workings of the cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde NP!

If you are planning on doing a ranger-guided tour of one of the dwellings (and you absolutely should!), you will want to make sure you have a super-wide angle lens with you. The Ancestral Pueblo people who called these great houses “home” were much shorter than we are today, meaning you will be photographing in tight spaces. A super-wide lens is helpful for capturing the context of the scenery within the cliffs.

Additionally, you will want to bring a standard lens with a bit of zoom to punch in on some of the cliff dwellings you can only see from the overlooks. You will not need anything telephoto necessarily, but a 70-200mm would serve you well if available.

Where to Stay near Mesa Verde NP

The only lodging inside Mesa Verde National Park is at Far View Lodge. It is open seasonally from early April through late October and offers stunning views of the surrounding area with each room having its own balcony.

There is also only one campground within the park; Morefield Campground. This is also open seasonally from early April to late October. There are 267 sites, therefore, the campground rarely fills. Full RV hook-ups are also available at 15 of the sites. Morefield has a full-service village including a gas station, restaurant, dumping station, laundry, shower facilities and a grocery store.

Nearby, you can also find accommodation in the towns of Cortez and Mancos. Below are a few of the top-rated lodging options in these towns:

National Monuments of Colorado

In addition to the four National Parks of Colorado listed above, the state is also home to eight National Monuments. Much like the parks discussed above, the value in these protected lands ranges from ancient history to unspeakable beauty.

Below is a list of the 8 Colorado National Monuments with a quick description of each.

Park NameDescriptionPhoto
Browns Canyon National MonumentThe most recently designated National Monument in Colorado (2015), Browns Canyon features 21.5k acres of pristine rivers, canyons, forests, and wilderness.
Canyons of the Ancients National MonumentOne of many sites of historical significance in Colorado, this monument contains the highest known archeological site density in the country.Ruins from the Canyon of the Ancients National Monument in Colorado
Chimney Rock National MonumentThis archeological site celebrates the Ancestral Puebloans who lived here over 1000 years ago.
Colorado National MonumentA scenic drive above and around an ancient landscape near Grand Junction in West Colorado. Find our full visitor guide to Colorado National Monument here.
Dinosaur National MonumentA site cherished as the modern world’s best window into the Jurassic period.Dinosaur fossil from Dinosaur National Monument in Colorado
Florissant Fossil Beds National MonumentA geologic formation noted for the ample and well-preserved insect and plant fossils that are found in the mudstones and shales.
Hovenweep National MonumentAn ancient home to over 2500 people, Hovenweep is one of the first archeological sites in which multistory ruins can be found along the Trail of the Ancients.Ancient ruins in Colorado Hovenweep National Monument.
Yucca House National MonumentThis is largely considered the worst national monument in America as the majority of the ancient site remains un-excavated and therefore invisible to visitors.

Colorado State Parks

Sunrise photography at the Garden of the Gods near Colorado Springs.
Sunrise at the Garden of the Gods near Colorado Springs.

While the National Parks and Monuments of Colorado may steal all the attention, you will also find some incredible state parks.

There are 42 state parks in Colorado, and these outdoor gems are often less crowded than the more-famous national parks. Although not a national or state park, you should also consider including Garden of the Gods (seen above) on a trip to Colorado. It is spectacular and utterly deserving of the recognition and title!

Some of the best state parks in Colorado include:

  • Eleven Mile State Park
  • Roxborough State Park
  • Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area
  • Rifle Falls State Park
  • State Forest State Park
  • Navajo State Park
  • Eldorado Canyon State Park
  • Golden Gate Canyon State Park
  • Highline Lake State Park

Colorado National Parks FAQs

A girl enjoying the view from Cedar Point at golden hour in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park in Colorado.
Sophie enjoying the view from Cedar Point at golden hour in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park in Colorado.

How many national parks and monuments are there in Colorado?

There are four national parks and eight national monuments in Colorado. The four parks consist of Mesa Verde, Rocky Mountain, Great Sand Dunes, and Black Canyon of the Gunnison.

What are the best national parks in Colorado?

The most visited national parks in Colorado are Rocky Mountain, Mesa Verde, Great Sand Dunes, and Black Canyon of the Gunnison (in that order). While it is hard not to argue that Rocky Mountain is the most impressive and scenic, Black Canyon is perhaps the most unique landscape you will find in the state, while the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde are second-to-none for history buffs.

Can you buy a Colorado national parks pass?

Better than that, you can buy an interagency annual parks pass for just $80 which gets you into every national park, monument, and NPS-run location in the entire country for a year!

Other Things to See Nearby

A hiker enjoying a view of the "Little Grand Canyon," more commonly known as Colorado National Monument.
Sophie enjoying a view of the “Little Grand Canyon,” more commonly known as Colorado National Monument.

While the national parks may get most of the publicity, the Colorado plateau is arguably the most spectacular destination for nature and landscapes in the entire United States. If you are traveling through the region on a road trip or have some spare time in your itinerary, there are a bevy of other must-see stops nearby.

Before you go, have a look at our favorite things to see nearby and find other related guides similar to this one!

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2 thoughts on “National Parks of Colorado: The Complete 2023 Guide”

  1. My wife and I traveled to Rocky Mountain National Park a couple years ago and it was one of my favorite trips ever! It is so beautiful there! And I was amazed and just how enormous national parks are. You can drive for like an hour in the same direction and still be within the park. These photos took me back! Thanks for sharing!

    • So glad it connected you to fond times Wayne and yes, that is one of the particularly large parks! Some, like Crater Lake or White Sands, can be seen in a short drive but Rocky Mountain is HUGE 🙂


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