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.

Basic Facts About Mesa Verde National Park

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Mesa Verde National Park is located in the southwest corner of Colorado. Characterized by a wide variety of ancient cliffside cave dwellings and desert landscapes, this fascinating archeological site makes Mesa Verde one of the country’s most unique national parks.

History 

The Ancestral Puebloans were an ancient Native American group that inhabited the Mesa Verde area 1,400 years ago. These people carved their homes into the mesas, creating the cave dwellings that can be seen today. 

Initially, this group created their homes in pits in the ground with wooden roofs along the mesa tops. As time went on, the Ancestral Puebloans became more advanced, and so did their dwellings. The original carved out pithomes became kivas, or ceremonial rooms, while more complex dwellings were built atop the mesas, creating villages. The name Mesa Verde means “green table” in Spanish, which references the lush vegetation that covers the tops of the region’s mesas which these native peoples inhabited. 

At around 1200 CE, the Ancestral Puebloans became even more complex as a civilization, and began to use the cliffside overhangs as roofs and carved out a network of homes with multiple stories. However, their stay in these organized cities was short lived, as they migrated south to Arizona and New Mexico only 100 years later.

Landscape

Mesa Verde National Park’s characteristic sandstone was created over 100 million years ago, when the area was covered by a shallow sea. This resulted in sand deposits combining with the sandstone layers that can be seen today. When the sea began to recede, the high plateau of Mesa Verde was created. Rivers and streams have cut through the region, forming the canyons between the mesas.

The elevation in Mesa Verde National Park ranges from 6,100 feet to 8,400 feet above sea level at the rim of the mesa’s flat top.

Places to Visit After Mesa Verde National Park

One of Colorado’s most unique national parks, Mesa Verde offers visitors a captivating dose of history among beautiful vast desert landscapes. After you’ve had your fill of exploring Mesa Verde’s incredible cave dwellings, petroglyphs, and historic artifacts, continue your journey by checking out the following nearby destinations.

Cortez, Colorado – Just 10 miles outside of Mesa Verde National Park, the small town of Cortez is perfect for a stop at a casual restaurant or bar, and provides some overnight lodging options nearby the park. Stop by the Cortez Cultural Center for the outdoor theater and cultural events.

Durango, Colorado – The small town of Durango offers a charming Old West feel and isn’t far from Mesa Verde. Check out the town’s historic railroad and take a day trip into the nearby town of Silverton. Durango is also a popular destination for skiers. 

Dolores, Colorado – A tiny Colorado town, Dolores is situated alongside the Dolores Valley and the McPhee Reservoir. The town was established as a stop on the Rio Grande Southern Railroad and makes for an interesting place to continue your trip after visiting Mesa Verde National Park. Be sure to visit the Anasazi Heritage Center here.

Canyon of the Ancients – This national monument protects age-old archeology in this historic region. Ancestral Puebloan and other Native American cultural and archeological sites are encompassed by this massive preserved canyon.

Telluride, Colorado – Just an hour and forty minutes outside of Mesa Verde National Park, Telluride is a charming ski resort town in Colorado. A gorgeous mountain town, Telluride offers phenomenal views of the impressive Rocky Mountains.

Points of Interest at Mesa Verde National Park

Mesa Verde National Park is home to some of the country’s most spectacular cliff dwellings. Rife with petroglyphs, Indian ruins, and breathtaking landscapes, you’re sure to be amazed by this unique U.S. national park. Situated in southwestern Colorado, there’s plenty to see and explore in Mesa Verde National Park.

Cliff Palace

Head to the east side of Cliff Canyon to view the magnificent Cliff Palace. With 150 rooms, Cliff Palace was discovered in 1888 and is the largest settlement of cave dwellings in the park. Take a tour to this fascinating area and discover the settlement’s rich history.

Balcony House

Situated on the wall of Soda Canyon, Balcony House contains 40 rooms and is thought to be around 800 years old. If you plan to visit Balcony House, be prepared for an adventure. In order to access the site, you’ll need to climb several ladders, squeeze through a tight tunnel, and walk up an uneven walkway. 

Long House

The second largest ruin in Mesa Verde National Park, Long House is located in one of the more remote locations in the park, on Wetherill Mesa. Long House is composed of wide open spaces which were used for dances and ceremonies by the native inhabitants in ancient times.

Spruce Tree House

Positioned on the edge of Spruce Canyon, Spruce Tree House is an incredibly well preserved settlement in Mesa Verde National Park. With 130 rooms and 8 kivas, the Spruce Tree House was inhabited by the locals during the 13th century. 

Petroglyph Point Trail

Head out on the 2.4-mile loop that makes up the Petroglyph Point Trail and experience spectacular views of both the Navajo and Spruce Canyons. The highlight of this trail is of course the ancient petroglyphs left here by the Anazai Indians. Be sure to register your hike at the trailhead or at the Chapin Mesa Museum before you go.

Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum

This captivating museum is home to many of the region’s top archeological remains and ancient Indian artifacts. The museum offers an in-depth history of Mesa Verde and the people who inhabited it. You’ll get a sense for what life was like when Mesa Verde was constructed and actively in use.

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Staying Safe at Mesa Verde National Park

Situated in Colorado, Mesa Verde National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Home to a significant amount of archeological sites, this national park is situated in the middle of a vast desert with steep canyons and mesas. Be sure to take the relevant safety precautions when visiting Mesa Verde National Park.

Weather

The park is warm year round and summers can get particularly hot. Be sure to pack plenty of water and drink it frequently to avoid dehydration. Wear sunscreen, sunglasses, and a hat for sun protection.

Thunderstorms can come quickly and without warning, so protect yourself from lightning in case of a storm. Seek shelter and avoid wide open spaces and tall trees.

Wildlife 

Do not feed any wildlife you encounter in the park. Make sure to keep a safe distance from wildlife and keep your food stored safely and securely. 

Other Concerns 

There are a variety of cliff dwellings that can be difficult and dangerous to reach as there are uneven steps and ladders and are located on steep cliffs. Nearly all of the trails throughout the park are strenuous so be prepared before you head out. 

Beware of falling rocks blocking the roads and make sure you’ve got enough gas to last through your visit as there is only one gas station inside the park. Be cautious while driving as park roads are narrow and winding.

Cell service the park is limited so don’t rely on your cell phone for communication or directions. Bring a compass and map and be sure to familiarize yourself with your route ahead of time.

Be prepared for altitude sickness as elevations vary greatly within the park. A large part of staying safe is remaining hydrated so don’t forget the water!

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Safety- Mesa Verde National Park

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