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Colorado National Park Road Trip

This Colorado road trip takes you to all four national parks inside the state as well as other scenic and beautiful destinations in the area. Along your way, you’ll also have the opportunity to visit and learn about destinations with significant cultural importance.

Denver

Your road trip will start in Denver, the capital and largest city in Colorado and the ideal starting point for any road trip around the state. Resting near the foothills of the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, Denver is an enormous economic hotbed of the U.S. mountain time zone. The urban Front Range area is home to around 80 percent of Colorado’s population, and the Denver metro area has grown into one of the 20 largest in America.

Settled in the mid-19th century at the height of the Gold Rush, Denver now features a diverse cultural and gastronomic scene. Institutions include the Denver Art Museum, Denver Museum of Nature & Science, and the Center for Colorado Women’s History. The city boasts dozens of neighborhoods with distinct flair such as the Art District on Santa Fe and the hip Five Points District. With more than 300 days of sunshine per year, it’s a popular base for nature lovers wishing to spend time in the outdoors.

Rocky Mountain National Park

Next you will cross the Continental Divide into Rocky Mountain National Park which provides awe-inspiring glimpses of the snow-capped Rockies. Visitors can explore numerous alpine and subalpine environments to grasp the diversity of the mountain range. Reaching elevations of over 12,000 feet, Trail Ridge Road is the primary transport network coursing through the park. The All-American Road opens your eyes to evergreen forests, alpine meadows, and unforgiving tundra. Connecting Estes Park and Grand Lake, the 48-mile byway is an unforgettable journey through the heart of the Rockies.

There are more than 300 miles of hiking trails that delve deeper into the interior wilderness of the Rockies. Longs Peak is one of Colorado’s beloved fourteeners that gives daring climbers a challenging expedition. Alpine lakes dot the landscape, and the Bear Lake Trailhead gives you access to Bear Lake, Dream Lake, and Emerald Lake. Shadow Mountain lake lies just outside the park and attracts boaters, jet skiers, and kayakers. Craggy spires form an unbelievable backdrop at Sky Pond, and the rock scramble to Chasm Lake brings you face to face with rugged peaks.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

The next stop on your road trip will bring you to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. The sheer drop of the Precambrian rock in Black Canyon of the Gunnison continues to win the admiration of trekkers and rock climbers. Looking downward at the steep gorge feels like you’re staring straight into the abyss. Carved by the Gunnison River, the canyon has one of the most dramatic drops anywhere in North America. Drive along the north or south rim for breathtaking views of the striated black cliffs towering above the canyon floor.

Hiking trails that follow the rims are tame, but experienced trekkers will find grueling challenges deep in the canyon. Voyages into the depths of the Gunnison wilderness should not be taken lightly, and you should pack the necessities to survive any emergency. If you prefer the comfort of your vehicle, the scenic South Rim Drive and North Rim Road provide stunning overlooks of the vertical canyon walls.

You’ll find all sorts of wildlife that thrive in the rocky outcrops, juniper woodlands, and wetlands hugging the Gunnison River. The waterways provide world-class trout fishing, and camping in the depths of the Black Canyon creates an otherworldly stargazing experience.

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve

Continue on to Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. For thousands of years, sediments from the Sangre de Cristo Range filled the San Luis Valley to create the tallest sand dunes in North America. Ancient Native American tribes lived in the valley for centuries and the mountain watershed supports incredibly diverse ecosystems. In addition to the rolling dunes, you’ll find alpine woodlands, riparian zones, and tundra. Intense woods in higher elevation zones form crooked trees, and wildflowers thrive above the treeline.

The versatile ecosystem creates a whirlwind of outdoor recreation opportunities throughout the year. Sandboarding and sand sledding are allowed anywhere there’s no vegetation, and gear is available to rent just outside the park. The 30 square mile dune field doesn’t have hiking trails but can be explored by intrepid trekkers. However, there’s a warning about sand surface temperatures reaching dangerous levels and the possibility of dangerous weather. To reach the dunes, you’ll have to cross the Medano Creek, and the stream is an enjoyable place to swim during peak flow.

Mesa Verde National Park

The next stop on your journey is Mesa Verde National Park which is situated in southwest Colorado. Mesa Verde National Park preserves one of America’s greatest archaeological discoveries. The ancient Pueblo groups that thrived in the region for hundreds of years and their cliff dwellings offer insight into Native American culture. For an explanation about the Pueblo way of life, visit the Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum to view lots of intriguing exhibits.

To explore the archaeological sites, take the Mesa Top Loop Road to find accessible trails to the historic homes and villages. In total, discover a dozen sites that include overlooks of cliff dwellings that supported the Pueblo people for centuries. Wander the Petroglyph Point Trail to view rock carvings or climb to the Sun Point Overlook for sweeping canyon vistas. Continue your journey through time by hiking the Farming Terrace Loop to see how the Pueblo cultivated the land.

Canyons of the Ancients National Monument

Continue on to Canyons of the Ancients National Monument. Protected by the Bureau of Land Management, Canyons of the Ancients preserves America’s most extensive collection of archaeological sites. Located in southwest Colorado, the monument has more than 6,000 sites of cultural and historical value. Remnants of the ancient civilizations showcase the way of life and unique heritage of numerous native tribes. You’ll find cliff dwellings, petroglyphs, religious shrines, rustic villages, and other aspects of Puebloan culture. The Canyons of the Ancients Visitor Center and Museum consists of exhibits, artifacts, and historical records of the Four Corners region to educate visitors on the cultures that once inhabited the area.

Colorado National Monument

Finally, your road trip will end at the Colorado National Monument. The arid plateau in western Colorado presents some of the grandest landscapes within the state. Embark on the 23-mile Rim Rock Drive for stunning images of towering monoliths, rocky cliffs, and red rock canyons. As you course along the Colorado River, you’ll climb from the Grand Valley floor to uninterrupted views of the western sky.

Cars and bicycles share the roadway, and you should drive with caution due to the sharp hairpin turns. Hiking trails cut through the sheer canyon walls and offer glorious vistas of sandstone cliffs and craggy spires. The Monument Canyon Trail is one of the numerous paths that show you the geologic wonders of the diverse ecosystem.

When to Go

While Colorado offers thrilling activities all four seasons, the best time to visit will depend on your preferences. Summers are dry and hot, while winters produce cold, snowy weather. Spring and fall produce mild temperatures, but you’ll find lots of fluctuations due to elevation changes. Since many byways will be closed from November until April, May-October is the ideal time for your road trip.

Points of Interest in Great Sand Dunes National Park

A vast national park composed of massive sand dunes, wetlands, forests, and the Medano Creek, Great Sand Dunes National Park is situated in southern Colorado. A wonderful place to explore, you’ll have the opportunity to hike, view native wildlife, and take in sweeping views over the entire park. Read on to discover the main points of interest in Great Sand Dunes National Park.

Medano Lake

Head out on the 7.9 mile Medano Lake Trail which begins just below Medano Pass. The trail follows Medano Creek, making for a lovely scenic hike. Once you arrive at Medano Lake, you’ll have the opportunity to go camping, hiking, fishing, wildlife viewing, and more.

High Dune 

The tallest sand dune in North America is one of Great Sand Dunes National Park’s most iconic features. Among the most popular hikes in the park, the peak of this dune offers dramatic panoramic views; you definitely won’t want to miss High Dune! 

Great Sand Dunes Visitor Center

With an informational video about the park, a shop, interactive exhibits, paintings and photography, and incredible views, you’ll definitely want to stop into the Great Sand Dunes Visitor Center. Chat with a ranger to gain a deeper understanding of the park and its history and discover some lesser-known destinations within the park, too.

Medano Pass Primitive Road

Medano Pass is a rugged 20-mile  trail that features Medano Lake. Navigating this trail requires a sturdy vehicle that can maneuver well while off-roading. With unique water crossings and spectacular views along the way, there’s no question why the Medano Pass is one of the park’s top points of interest.

Zapata Falls

Just outside of Great Sand Dunes National Park lies Zapata Falls, a gorgeous natural waterfall that’s well worth the short hike. It’s situated in the heart of the San Luis Valley, which makes for gorgeous views. You’ll need to bring sturdy water shoes with a good traction to navigate this hike.

San Luis Valley 

The vast San Luis Valley is one of the main features of Great Sand Dunes National Park. Head through the valley for a scenic drive, spend the night stargazing, or partake in a ranger led program to explore in greater depth.

Places to Visit After Great Sand Dunes National Park

The tallest dunes in North America, Great Sand Dunes National Park encompasses a vast area of sand dunes, forest, grasslands, wetlands, and more. Once you’ve had your fill of exploring this unique national park, be sure to check out the following destinations to continue your journey! 

Denver – Under 4 hours outside of Great Sand Dunes National Park, Denver is the capital of Colorado and is home to a bustling metropolitan city along with fantastic ski resorts and sweeping landscapes. Rife with museums, restaurants, and shops to explore, Denver makes for the perfect next stop on your trip.

Zapata Falls – A charming hike to these magnificent falls begins just outside of Great Sand Dunes National Park. The short trek provides spectacular views of the nearby dune fields and the San Luis Valley. Don’t forget to bring waterproof shoes with good traction!

Colorado Springs – A high elevation city at the base of the Rocky Mountains, Colorado Springs is known for its magnificent natural attractions, including Pikes Peak, Garden of the Gods Park, the Broadmoor Seven Falls, and more. Just 3.5 hours outside of Great Sand Dunes National Park, you’ll be glad you added Colorado Springs to your trip.

Rio Grande National Forest – This fascinating national forest isn’t far from Great Sand Dunes National Park, and encompasses the San Luis Valley, the Rio Grande River, and the San Juan Mountains. This off the beaten path destination will be an excellent addition to your trip to Great Sand Dunes National Park.

Colorado National Monument – A breathtaking area situated on the Colorado Plateau, the Colorado National Monument boasts gorgeous sandstone rock formations. Offering incredible views and providing a wonderful natural respite, you’ll definitely want to add this national monument onto your trip.

Staying Safe at Great Sand Dunes National Park

Located in southern Colorado, this national park is composed of enormous sand dunes, the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, and the Medano Creek and beach at the base of the dunes. This unique national park offers a variety of outdoor recreation activities that draw visitors from around the country. If you plan to visit Great Sand Dunes National Park, be sure to take the necessary safety precautions.

Weather 

Strong winds can spew sand rapidly and violently which can become a serious safety hazard. This is particularly common in the springtime and during storm fronts at any time of year. Serious storms can also occur without warning in this area and the dunes are highly prone to lightning strikes. If you see a storm approaching, leave the dunes and seek shelter immediately.

Wildlife 

Great Sand Dunes National Park is home to a community of mountain lions, so it’s important to remain alert when exploring in this area. If you do encounter a mountain lion, do NOT run. Stand your ground, make yourself seem as large as possible by making noise and extending your arms, and if it attacks you, fight back as hard as you can. Black bears are also found in the park, so it’s important to store your food safely and securely and make plenty of noise while you hike so as not to surprise a bear.

Check yourself frequently for ticks if you plan to visit the forests surrounding the dunes, as they can cause serious illness if left unchecked. You may also encounter wildlife such as deer, elk, pronghorn, and smaller mammals. Never approach or feed any wild animals and always keep a safe distance for your safety and theirs.

Other Concerns

The sand on the dunes can get dangerously hot, especially during the heat of summer. Make sure to bring proper sun protection, including sunscreen, sunglasses, and a hat, as well as plenty of water and closed-toe hiking shoes for exploring the dunes.

Great Sand Dunes National Park lies at a very high elevation, with the highest peak reaching more than 13,000 feet. Make sure to spend the necessary time acclimating to the elevation, remain hydrated, and bring altitude sickness medication just in case.

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Safety- Great Sand Dunes National Park

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