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A Natural Wonderland: Explore Colorado’s Wild Spaces, National Parks, and Monuments

Within Colorado’s four corners is an entire world waiting to be discovered. There are four national parks in this incredible state, plus nine national monuments and 42 state parks. For outdoor lovers, there’s no better place to explore wild spaces, seek adventure, and find solace amidst the beauty of nature.

Whether you’re looking to discover new hiking trails, climbing routes, places to camp, or scenic views, you’ll find all this and more in Colorado. Wildlife enthusiasts, too, are in for a treat in this natural wonderland.

Colorado offers unforgettable experiences for nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts alike. No matter where you go to experience the outdoors in Colorado, you’re going to love it. Let’s explore some of the options.

Presented by Visit Colorado

Colorado’s National Parks and National Monuments

Colorado has over a dozen national parks and monuments, offering hundreds of recreational opportunities—from mountain biking to bird watching. When traveling to Colorado, consider buying an America the Beautiful pass to gain access to all of the U.S.’s National Park Service and Federal Recreational Lands for a full year from the purchase date. With an America the Beautiful pass in hand, visitors can enter all of Colorado’s national parks and monuments without paying a separate entrance fee each time.

Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain national park
Rocky Mountain National Park. Image by Lauren Lopes

Possibly the most well-known of Colorado’s national parks, Rocky Mountain National Park is a feast for the eyes. With towering mountains, crystal-clear lakes, gushing waterfalls, and wildlife ranging from moose to black bears, it’s easy to see why Rocky Mountain is one of the most popular national parks in the U.S.

Just 90 minutes from the Denver International Airport, Rocky Mountain National Park is a must-visit location for anyone who loves the outdoors. The park has over 200 hiking paths for every hiker—from a short, accessible walk around Sprague Lake to an epic trek up Longs Peak (a 14er). Or, drive the incredible Trail Ridge Road, which takes visitors across the Continental Divide. 

Please note that this park requires reservations from late May to mid-October. Book your timed entry online and discover the wonders of this iconic national park.

Here are five hiking trails to try out in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Mesa Verde National Park

Mesa Verde National Park
Mesa Verde National Park. Image courtesy of CTO

The National Park Service (NPS) calls Mesa Verde National Park “a sacred place.” That’s because Ancestral Puebloan people lived here—in the cliffs and on the mesas—for more than seven centuries. Entering this park, which is near Cortez in southwest Colorado, is like walking back in time. Experience the area’s rich history by reserving a spot on a tour of the spectacular preserved cliff dwellings and ceremonial sites.

Anyone taking the 116-mile Trail of the Ancients scenic byway will pass through Cortez, where they can not only visit Mesa Verde but also explore the greater area by mountain biking within the Phil’s World Mountain Bike Trail System or riding ATVs on the multi-purpose Aspen Loop Trail. Cortez is also a stopping point on the San Juan Skyway—a 236-mile loop starting and ending in Durango.

Mesa Verde offers a unique experience—a mix of natural wonder and history that’ll engage and inspire.

Check out a recommended three-day Mesa Verde itinerary here.

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve

Great Sand Dunes National Park
Great Sand Dunes National Park. Image by Lauren Lopes

For camping, hiking, backpacking, and even sledding, head to Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve outside of Alamosa, Colorado. This unique park is home to the highest sand dunes in North America. The tallest of the tall—Star Dune— rises 750 feet from its base to its crest, and visitors can get a thrill by sandboarding or sand sledding down the giant dunes.

The sand isn’t the only thing to see at this Colorado park. Visitors can also splash in Medano Creek (seasonally, in early-to-mid summer), go horseback riding, or take it offroad in a 4WD vehicle on Medano Pass Primitive Road. With so little light pollution, the perfect way to round out a visit to Great Sand Dunes is to stay after dark. In this certified International Dark Sky Park, you can experience the night sky in a whole new way.

From day to night, a trip to Great Sand Dunes National Park will be unforgettable. Take in the splendor and try something new—sandboarding, stargazing, or both!

Explore 11 hiking trails in Great Sand Dunes and nearby Alamosa.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. Image by Jeff Heaton

For millions of years, forces of nature have shaped the incredible landscapes and sheer, marbled cliff faces within Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park to forge Colorado’s own “Grand Canyon.” Located near Montrose in the western half of the state, visitors can hike along the rim or camp in one of the park’s three campgrounds. Expert hikers can descend into the steep inner canyon (with a permit) for more hiking, rock climbing, fishing, kayaking, and rafting opportunities on the Gunnison River.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park isn’t the only point of interest in the area for outdoor lovers. Nearby, the Gunnison Gorge Wilderness Area offers nearly 18,000 acres’ worth of wild spaces where visitors can camp, hike, explore rivers, go horseback riding, and more.

To see some of Colorado’s oldest rock, steepest cliffs, and craggiest spires, add Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park to your list.

Spend three days in the Montrose area with this itinerary.

National Monuments

Colorado National Monument
Colorado National Monument. Image by Jeff Heaton

Similar to national parks, national monuments protect “nationally significant” lands and waters. Colorado’s national monuments are an important part of the state’s natural splendor. For backcountry hiking and plenty of wildlife-viewing opportunities, head to Browns Canyon National Monument near Buena Vista. With its forest, canyons, and rivers, this is also a popular destination for rafting and fishing.

Colorado National Monument near Grand Junction similarly offers resplendent views and plentiful recreational opportunities but with drastically different scenery. Here, the dramatic landscape looks other-worldly. With towering spires and sheer sandstone cliffs as a backdrop, visitors can bike challenging trails, watch for bighorn sheep, or take a leisurely drive and stop at all 19 scenic overlooks.

Many of Colorado’s national monuments protect Indigenous sites. For instance, Chimney Rock National Monument near Pagosa Springs encompasses 200 ancient homes and ceremonial structures built by the Ancestral Puebloans of Chaco Canyon. Hovenweep National Monument, Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, and the Yucca House National Monument, all near Cortez, Colorado, each offer unique glimpses into the lives of Ancestral Puebloans. 

From protecting places full of beauty and recreational opportunities to preserving historically important lands, a trip to Colorado wouldn’t be complete without visiting its national monuments. 

See a list of all of Colorado’s national monuments here.

Colorado’s State Parks

State parks rival national parks and monuments in beauty and opportunity for exploration and recreation. There are 42 to discover, spread across Colorado’s diverse landscapes.

In the greater Denver area, try out Roxborough State Park, which visitors call “a gem.” Its stunning red-rock formations create the perfect backdrop for hiking, wildlife viewing, trail running, photography, bird watching, and more. 

Cherry Creek State Park in Aurora is another well-loved state park in this region where visitors can go boating, fishing, camping, and swimming (in the summer). Called Denver’s “backyard playground,” this state park offers prairie scenery with rolling hills and plenty of facilities.

Near the New Mexico/Colorado border, Trinidad Lake State Park is the perfect place for water sports, including paddleboarding and jet skiing. Rifle Falls State Park west of Glenwood Springs is another wonderful summer destination, featuring a cascading triple waterfall at the heart of the park, surrounded by limestone caves, trails, and opportunities for camping.

Colorado’s national parks and monuments may be more famous, but there’s a wealth of hidden gems waiting to be discovered in its state parks. Don’t overlook them!

Check out all of Colorado’s state parks here.

Find Your Wild Space in Colorado

hike-the-50-states
Image by Margaret W

There’s a wild space for everyone in Colorado. Scattered across the state is a treasure trove of stunning parks and monuments brimming with endless possibilities to uncover. Whether it’s the scenic byways that call to you or the sand sledding, waterfalls, and ancient cliff dwellings, explore Colorado’s world-class parks and monuments that keep visitors coming back and searching for more.

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