By Denise Krenning
We are blessed to live in Colorado and the beauty of living in Denver is you can visit 4 National Parks under 8 hours of drive time. That’s pretty impressive but can be daunting if you’re planning a road trip. We had a total of 5 days for this road trip so we wanted to travel less than 8 hours in one day. Turns out we had a lot of choices! Who knew all these parks where within 1 days’ travel time.
Here’s a breakdown of what’s within your reach if you land at DIA Airport or are traveling to our state.
There are 4 National Parks to choose from in Colorado and they’re all stunning, each offering unique attributes and types of beauty. A warning. Based on the time of year you plan on visiting can make or break your trip so keep it in mind when researching your road trip. Weather is always a major factor in Colorado.
Let’s start with the third most visited national park in 2015. Rocky Mountain National Park is north of Denver on I25 and within two hours of driving from DIA Airport. For a straight shot, Take I25 north to US Hwy to Hwy 34 W thru Loveland. The road flows up the Thompson Canyon which winds around the river and wraps around the towering cliffs. In Spring, the Thompson River is high and roaring from the melting snow runoff. As you turn the last turn, you’ll land at the beginning of Estes Park and your first glance of the majestic Rocky Mountains will greet and wow you. If you have more time to drive and want incredible views, the Peak to Peak Colorado Scenic Byway is a must do, especially in fall when the Aspens have turned to gold. Try and avoid the high season (June-August) and weekends in the summer as the traffic up the canyon and Estes Park are overcome with tourists. But if you can’t, just come prepared knowing things are a bit crowed.
Rocky Mountain National Park comes with protected mountain environments. Trail Ridge Road crests over 12,000 feet with overlooks where you can take amazing photos and experience the subalpine and alpine worlds. These worlds are extremely fragile so always stay on trails! There are over 300 miles of hiking trails filled with wildflowers and sightings of wildlife in the park (Big Horn Sheep, Moose and Elk) are almost a guarantee. In fall, the crowds thin dramatically giving you more room to roam. The change of season also brings Elk bugling which is the time elk rut in Rocky Mountain National Park. It generally lasts from mid-September to mid-October, although it is often possible to hear elk bugling into November.
If you head south from Denver on I25, you can reach The Great Sand Dunes National Park in 3-4 hours. The best route from Denver is I25 south to Walsenburg, the west on US 160, north on State Highway 150. For a more scenic drive, take US 285 south, then State Highway 17 south, then County Lane 6 east from Mosca. It’s a bit more time (30 mins) but the rolling mountain views more than makes up for it.
From the floor valley to the mountain crest of 13, 000 ft., The Great Sand Dunes National Park and Reserve sand dunes are the tallest in North America. While the dunes are the focus of this park, there is much diversity to explore. A landscape of grasslands, wetlands and Aspen forests surround the dunes. Explore the park through hiking, sand sledding and wading in Medano Creek.
The favorite time to visit the park is late May to mid-June when Medano Creek is running its highest. Medano Creek’s depth and duration are directly linked to the snowpack in the mountains above the dunes. More snow during the winter means longer play time in the creek. From high in the Sangre de Cristosthe mountains, the snowfields melt into Mendo Lake and spills out into a wide and wavy creek. This is the time to gather the family and children to float and splash in the warm soft sandy waters. Bring your floaty devices and play in “Colorado’s Natural Beach.” For more fun, especially the teen-agers, sand boarding or sand sledding is very popular. The Great Sand Dunes National Park does not rent sleds or sandboards however these may be rented or purchased in the city of Alamosa. Sorry, regular snow boards won’t work.
Medano creek usually dries up by late June leaving only a trickle to start the mosquito season which runs thru mid to late July. Bring strong insect repellent to avoid painful bites.
If you’re visiting in the summer, explore early morning or evening to avoid heat exhaustion and burned feet from 150 F (66 C) sand. Colorado is known for their strong afternoon summer storms with extreme lightning strikes so always be aware of the current weather conditions.
If you have time and since you’re so far south anyway, head over to Mesa Verde National Park. It’s only an additional 3-4 hour drive so a long weekend road trip is very doable from Denver. Just plan on a 7-8 hour drive back.
From Denver, take US 285 S to US 160 W. If you’re continuing on from The Great Sand Dunes National Park and Reserve, stay on US 160 W. You’ll past Pagosa Springs and Durango, both worth exploring and staying a night if you can.
Mesa Verde is Spanish for green table and housed the Ancestral Pueblo people from AD 600 to 1300. For over 700 years, the Pueblo people occupied this area, surviving through a combination of hunting, gathering, and farming of crops. They built the mesa’s first pueblos and constructed the massive cliff dwellings the park is famous for. But by 1285, due to social and environmental instability and severe prolonged droughts, they abandoned the area, moving south to Arizona and New Mexico.
You can learn much more about these people and their history at the Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center. Be sure to make this your first stop if you wish to visit Cliff Palace, Balcony House, or Long House since you must purchase tickets before visiting these stops. Also, the cliff dwellings are in constant repair so depending on the time of year you visit, you may or may not be allowed in some areas.
If you’re looking for a National Park that isn’t filled with crowds, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is your answer with less than 200K visitors a year. Like Colorado’s other National Parks, this park offers stunning raw beauty and breathtaking scenery. It’s also located in the southwest part of Colorado and unless you’re planning on rock climbing and camping, you can enjoy this park in a day. It’s a great side trip if you’re staying in the Glenwood Springs or Durango area, less than 3 hours’ drive from either direction.
If you’re coming from Denver, it’s a 4-5 hour trip and there are two ways to approach this park. Route one is to follow I70 W to CO 82 E to Glenwood Springs. Take CO 82 E toward Aspen and continue on CO 82 until CO 133 S. Route 2 is a bit more scenic using US 285 S to US 50 W. It will take you through Buena Vista which is a great stopping point for lunch. If you’re continuing your roadtrip from Mesa Verde, it’s a 3 hour drive north on CO 145 N.
There are two entrances into the park. The South Rim is 7 miles north on CO Highway 347 from the intersection with U.S. Highway 50 east of Montrose and the North Rim is 11 miles southwest of Crawford. From CO Highway 92, turn west on Black Canyon Road approximately 3 miles south of Crawford. Follow the road signs to the park. Be aware the last 7 miles are unpaved.
The Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park offers easy to strenuous hikes, jaw dropping views of the canyon and for the brave, challenging rock climbing. At the bottom of the canyon, the Gunnison River flows continuously. Due to the steepness of the canyon, sunlight is extremely rare, (less than 30 mins a day) causing the rocky walls to appear black in its shadows and for which the canyon was named.
Have a great time exploring Colorado! There are many more beautiful places to visit that I didn’t mention such as Garden of Gods in Colorado Springs, Ouray, Telluride and Crested Butte. All are great road trips from Denver and each offer unique beauty and outdoor adventures. Enjoy the summer and always remember to leave no trace!
For more information on all of Colorado’s National Parks, please visit, https://www.nps.gov/index.htm. This year, enjoy the parks even more by celebrating the National Park’s Centennial.