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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.

The Colorado Rockies Road Trip

As you could probably guess from the title of this article, this revitalizing road trip occurs across the graceful state of Colorado, taking you from elegant and scenic mountain ranges to archaic dwellings and sizable sand dunes. The Colorado Rockies Road Trip takes you across several parks in the state, including the Rocky Mountain National Park, Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, Black Canyon of the Gunnison, and many others.

This road trip is accessible from large cities such as Colorado Springs and Denver, so don’t shy away from embarking on this trip as you may just be one plane ride away from an adventure of a lifetime!

Now onto why you really need to take this trip.

Rocky Mountain National Park

Never has there been such an influx of visitors coming to experience the splendor of Rocky Mountain National Park. During 2019 alone, this national park has recorded over 4.7 million visitors, the third most visited national park in the country. The 415 square miles of Rocky Mountain National Park encompass and protect a stellar mountain range along with other breathtaking natural features. While visiting the park, be sure to enjoy the tranquility of the Trail Ridge Road, which peaks at 12,000 feet and includes multiple overlooks for the ultimate snowcapped mountain viewing experience. Along with 300 miles of hiking trails, peaceful starry nights, wildlife, and adventure, you’re in for a seriously great time at Rocky Mountain National Park!

Though not uncommon to travel through a national park and not catch sight of any wildlife, it’s highly unlikely at Rocky Mountain National Park. From daily sightings of mule deer and chipmunks to rare elk viewing opportunities during the mating season, the wildlife in this park is immersive and makes you feel you’re a part of something wonderful.

Apart from the stunning landscape, Rocky Mountain National Park also offers a multitude of opportunities for relaxing and enlivening experiences. If you’re up to it, the park offers a variety of activities to do with friends and family, which include:

  • Hiking
  • Whitewater rafting and kayaking
  • Mountain biking
  • Backcountry skiing
  • Horseback riding
  • Attending a ranger program
  • Visiting waterfalls
  • Bird watching
  • Picnicking

Make sure to review the visitor information and seek out a visitor center for all the important details like where to go, what to do there, and how to prepare for a fun and safe experience at the park.

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve

Dive right into the tallest mountains of sand in North America. Yes, you heard that right, sand mountains, in Colorado. This goes to show how truly diverse the landscape is in this country. Enclosed where the Sangre de Cristo Mountains converge inwards, the dunes at Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve have been growing for many years. A marvel of Goliath proportions, the entirety of the dunes only take up 30 square miles, though the tallest dune stands at over 750 feet high.

Your inner child will love sledding down the dunes all year round and digging into the smooth sand tracks of those who have climbed before you.

The park also offers several camping options. The Piñon Flats Campground, which is managed by the National Park Service, can be booked in advance. However, there are only 44 sites available and they’re distributed on a first come, first serve basis. For the more adventurous, free (mandatory) backcountry permits are also available at the park’s visitor center. Once you obtain the permit, you will be able to set up your tent anywhere in the 30-square-foot dune field situated outside the “day-only use” area. Unfortunately or fortunately (depending on the type of person you are), you must hike a minimum of 1.5 miles across the dunes, but it will definitely be worth it. Backpacking (again, with permission) is also possible within the foothills.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison

Steering in a different direction, you’ll find the Black Canyon of The Gunnison. The power of mother nature is evident here, as this terrain characterized by steep, ancient rocks has been in the making for millions of years.

Just like any other park, you can take part in a variety of adventurous activities within the borders of the Gunnison’s Black Canyon. If you’re not afraid of heights, feel free to explore the inner parts of the canyon, but be careful, some parts of the hike may be a little tricky! If you’re not feeling up for a challenge during your visit, opt for a scenic drive along the rim of the river which will take you all the way down into it. Visitors can also go kayaking in the lake.

So what are you waiting for? Grab your calendar and set a date for your trip today, you will not regret it. Each season provides you with a whole new array of opportunities, making any time ideal to take this road trip!

Before your trip, plan a route using the map guide at the US-Parks website. However, you’ll want to plot your route using either Google Maps or any other GPS provider to ensure that you are aware of any potential road closures or construction work that may delay your road trip. This will help you optimize your time for all the fun activities along the way!

Hiking at Rocky Mountain National Park

The park offers 359 mi (578 km) of trail to hikers, backpackers and horseback riders. Difficulty levels range from the half mile wheelchair accessible jaunt around Bear Lake to the backbreaking ‘Mummy Kill’, recommended only for those with years of mountaineering experience or a death wish. A few of the most memorable hikes are listed below. Many of the trails in the Eastern Part of the Park can be reached via shuttle buses. Snow conditions should be considered before hiking as higher elevations will be snow-covered later into the year.

Easy hikes

  • 1 Bierstadt Lake. (Trailhead is shuttle bus accessible.) A beautiful morning hike, this Lake is situated on top of Bierstadt Moraine giving brilliant views of Longs and the Front Range. As three routes converge on this lake, all of which lead to Shuttle Bus serviced trailheads, this hike can be done many different ways or even tacked onto a bigger venture. Arguably the best route is from the Bear Lake Trailhead to the shuttle parking lot as this 4.5 mi (7.2 km) stroll is mostly downhill. Walk down, take the bus back up.  
  • 2 Lily Mountain. This short hike leads to the top of a foothill near the edge of the park that gives a great view of the front range. A 3-mile hike, the trail is really close to the edge of the park which spoils some of the wilderness feeling you can get far inside the park, however the view from the top is more than worth it. The Lily Mountain Trailhead can be found a little ways south of Estes Park along Route 7.  
  • Emerald Lake. (Trailhead is shuttle bus accessible.) A beautiful tarn in the shadow of Hallets and Flattop, the hike up with take you past three other lakes (Bear, Nymph, and Dream) on route from the Bear Lake Trailhead. Although this trail can get crowded, an early morning start can give you relative solitude on what many people conclude is the best short hike (under four miles) in the park. 

Intermediate hikes

  • Sky Pond. (Trailhead is shuttle bus accessible.) Definitely the most crowded hike given its difficulty in the entire park with good reason. The vast number of features along this hike make it a favorite of many with two waterfalls and three lakes surrounded by increasingly shear and spectacular mountains. If there seems to be a lot of people, do not be discouraged. Beyond Timberline Falls the number of hikers reduce, as many are turned away by the short scramble up the side of falls. The Hike leaves from the Glacier Gorge Trailhead and is 9 miles long. 
  • Fern Odessa Loop. (Trailhead is shuttle bus accessible.) This 7 mi (11 km) trail consists of hiking from the Bear Lake Trailhead down to the Fern Lake Trailhead and taking the shuttle buses back. Not only will you not need to backtrack on this trail, it has several optional side hikes such as Spruce Lake that you can take if you are feeling better than expected. Look forward to hiking across some snowfields as the northern flank of Flattop seems to gather a lot of them. 
  • Flattop and Hallett. (Trailhead is shuttle bus accessible.) The easiest peak in the park is Flattop Mountain, a 9 mi (14 km) round trip up from the Bear Lake Trailhead. Although the route up is spectacular, the summit is less so though making the half-mile walk to Hallett Peak more than worth it. However, even though it is the easiest of the main summits in the park, even Flattop must be respected. People have died on this hike, mostly because they summitted too late and the weather closed in. 

Difficult hikes

  • Bluebird Lake. One of those destinations which is absolutely assured to make you gasp in amazement the first time you see it. Not only is the Lake itself magnificent the hike up is fantastic as well passing by three major waterfalls and magnificent views. The only question is if you can walk the 9 mi (14 km) round trip distance from Wild Basin Trailhead and back. 
  • The CCY. Also known as ‘Chapin, Chaquita, Ypsilon’ takes in three peaks in less than 9 mi (14 km), rising to 13,514 ft (4,119 m). Rising from Chapin Pass Trailhead on Fall River Road this hike is a local favorite with spectacular views of the entire park. Be wary of the volatile weather of the Mummy Range and do not be afraid to turn back with dark clouds approaching. Getting stuck up here in a storm is no picnic. 
  • Shelf and Solitude Lakes. (Trailhead is shuttle bus accessible.) Considered by many the best alpine lake hike in the book, and for good reason. This hanging valley off Glacier Gorge is truly a magical place, but the approach is dfficult at best. A nine mile round trip jaunt from the Glacier Gorge Trailhead on Bear Lake Road the last mile to the lakes leaves the main trail at an easily missed turnoff before climbing an extremely steep slope. If you are unable to find the turn off do not feel bad about continuing on the main trail to Black Lake, a spectacular lake in its own right. 
  • Longs Peak via the Keyhole Route. A classic 16-mile route allowing you to conquer this 14,259 ft (4,346 m) peak, the roof of Rocky Mountain National Park. This hike requires an early start from the Longs Peak Trailhead (head south on Route 7 from Estes Park), early as in 4AM. The last portion of the ascent crosses high above glacier gorge and will either permanently cure, or reinforce, your fear of heights. However, this section is not as dangerous as it seems. The largest danger manifests itself through the unprepared hikers who throng to this trail and have no business being on the mountain. 

Insane hikes

  • Continental Traverse. This hike begins at the Milner Pass Trailhead and continues from there along the continental divide before descending via the Flattop Mountain Trailhead to Bear Lake Trailhead 20 miles (32 km) later. You must be in prime physical condition, be completely acclimated, start at an absurdly early hour, and have extremely good luck as far as weather goes in order to make this work. If you can make this work you will see some areas of the park which very few people get to see, but if weather forces you off the ridge get ready for a long slog to the Kewaunchee Valley to get out. 
  • 3 McHenrys Peak. (Trailhead is shuttle bus accessible.) Climb up past Black Lake in Glacier Gorge and past where the trail ends. Go higher and even higher past Frozen Lake. Climb over Stone Man’s Pass, which except for a few weeks in late August requires crampons. Then continue up the mountain over extremely exposed class three climbing. That is McHenrys Peak. This 13,327 ft (4,062 m) peak is the most difficult non technical (and that’s pushing it) peak in the park. However, this 16-mile hike is considered a gem to those with the wherewithal to complete it, unlocking some of the most spectacular views in the Front Range.  
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Basic Facts about Rocky Mountain National Park

History

Evidence of Native American peoples visiting the park date back almost 10,000 years, mainly from the Ute and Arapaho communities. Several expeditions visited the area in the early to mid-19th century, including one by Joel Estes in 1859 after which he and his family established a homestead that would soon become Estes Park, the resort town on the east side of the park. After a small mining rush on the western side of the park in the early 1880s, a 14-year-old boy by the name of Enos Mills moved to the area and began to extensively document the region’s geography and ecology through essays and books. He began to lobby Congress to establish a national park in the area surrounding Longs Peak, a mountain he had climbed over 40 times by himself. On January 26, 1915, President Woodrow Wilson signed a bill that established the creation of Rocky Mountain National Park. The 1930s brought a building boom to the park during the Great Depression, during which time the Trail Ridge Road was constructed through the park, which remains today the highest continuous stretch of highway in the United States.

Landscape

Rocky Mountain National Park sits on the Continental Divide, separating the park into two distinct regions. The eastern and more developed side of the park is dominated by striking valleys and cirques that were formed through heavy glaciation and is a good starting point for first-time visitors. The western side of the park is wetter, is heavily forested and is less developed, but still contains excellent trekking and backcountry opportunities. Most areas of the park sit well above 9,000 ft (2,700 m) with mountains along the Continental Divide topping off at above 12,000 feet. The 13,000-foot Mummy Range rests on the northern side of Rocky Mountain National Park with two roads skirting long it’s southern edges; a one-way, dirt road that winds up the Fall River called the Old Fall River Road; and a section of Highway 34 known as the Trail Ridge Road. The Never Summer Mountains sit on the western side of the park and consist of 10 distinct peaks, all rising well over 12,000 feet, and contain the headwaters for the Colorado River. One of the most dominating features in the southeast area of the park is Longs Peak at 14,259 feet, which is surrounded on all sides by several peaks well about 13,000 feet, including Mt. Meeker, Mount Lady Washington, and Storm Peak.

Watching Wildlife at Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park has been a big wildlife viewing destination since it was founded at the turn of the 20th century. With herds of elk numbering between 600 and 800 in the winter, about 350 bighorn sheep, mule deer, and moose calling the park home, it’s no surprise that the park’s number one activity is wildlife viewing. In any given year, about three million people will travel to Rocky Mountain National Park to get their exposure to some of the continent’s most magnificent animals. If you’re considering this adventure for yourself, know that you are not alone.

Rocky Mountain National Park is home to 60 other species of mammals, more than 280 bird species, six amphibians, including the endangered boreal toad, one reptile, 11 species of fish, and countless insects.

Rocky Mountain National Park’s Most Watched Animals

Elk: among the largest and most abundant wild animals in Rocky Mountain National Park. As many at 3,200 elk are scattered throughout the park during the summer and fall months, with 600-800 elk spending winter in the park.

Bighorn Sheep: Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep are the largest wild sheep in North America. Muscular males can weigh over 300 pounds and stand over three feet tall at the shoulder. Females are roughly half this size. Bighorn sheep are gray/brown to dark brown in color with white patches on their rump, muzzle and back of legs. Winter coats are thick, double-layered and may be lighter in color. Bighorn sheep shed these heavy coats in the summer.

Moose: Moose are the largest members of the deer family. On average, an adult moose stands between five and seven feet high at the shoulder. Large males can weigh as much as 1,500 pounds while females are roughly three-quarters of this size. Both sexes have chocolate-brown fur, a humped shoulder, a bulbous nose and a ball of skin, called a “bell,” that hangs from their neck.

Mountain Lions: Mountain Lions are the largest predators currently in Rocky Mountain National Park. They are also known as pumas, cougars and panthers. They vary in size and weight, with males reaching up to 200 pounds and eight feet in length (one-third of their length is the tail). Females are typically smaller.

Bears: Only the black bear is known to exist in Rocky Mountain National Park. Its northern cousin, the grizzly bear, is no longer found in Colorado. Black bears make a point to avoid humans, so they are not often seen.

Coyotes: small, dog-like scavengers, the coyote, can be seen around the Rocky Mountain National Park. They most commonly inhabit areas of the alpine, montane, and wetland habitats both in the day and evening hours. Coyotes can be heard calling to one another in the evening.

Foxes: are usually together in pairs or small groups, and while rare for visitors to see, sanctuaries like Rocky Mountain National Park allow foxes to roam undisturbed.

Mule Deer: Mule deer are a popular animal in the Rocky Mountain National Park. Named for their large ears that resemble that of a mule, they can weigh from 100 to 300 pounds. Found in lower elevations and open area, mule deer are relatively friendly and skittish.

Viewing Locations

  • Meadows: all meadows within the Rocky Mountain National Park will have some elk grazing at a distance. They are particularly fond of where the meadow meets the forest.
  • Sheep Lakes: bighorn sheep
  • Colorado River: moose, otters
  • Kawuneeche Valley: moose
  • Trail Ridge: marmots, pikas, eagles, prairie falcons, Steller’s jays, clark’s nutcrackers
  • Old Fall River: marmots, pikas

When Should You Go?

With the Rocky Mountain National Park, there are always wildlife viewing opportunities. Elk can be seen at any time, and are especially prevalent during the fall or mating season. They will spend much of their time above the tree-line during the summer, moving to lower elevations during the colder months. For bighorn sheep, their most popular viewing period is from May through mid-August. They go deeper into the mountains during the fall and winter seasons.

Mule deer are most commonly found at lower elevations in open areas during the warmer months.

At the end of the day, every time of year is a good time to go to the Rocky Mountain National Park. Animals are most commonly viewed during the fall, winter, and sprig seasons, since the animals will move to lower elevations, including towns, for food and warmth. September and October are the best months for viewing elk; October and November are the best months for viewing mule deer, November and December are the best months to see bighorn rams challenging each other; January and February are the best months to see large groups of animals settling in the valley for the colder months; and march, April, and may are great months to see newborn calves, fawns, and lambs introduced to the Rocky Mountains.

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