The Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve from afar in Colorado

12 Epic Colorado National Parks & Monuments (By a Local)

I’m a Colorado local and in this guide, I share can’t-miss things to do in the 12 best national parks in Colorado, including national monuments and historic sites. Get insights into where to stay in and around the parks, and when to visit for the best experiences. 

I go over famous parks, but also lesser-known destinations. Ever heard of Chimney Rock or the Florissant Fossil Beds? With parks scattered across the state and activities for every interest, there’s surely one on this list that will pique your interest. 

If you like this guide, bookmark my other guide to the best Colorado state parks!

Disclosure: Travel Lemming is an independent reader-supported blog. You can support us by purchasing via the affiliate links on this page, which may earn us commissions. Thank you!

12 Best National Parks in Colorado

A quick semantic note: Colorado only has four official “national parks.” But there are many more epic national monuments, trails, and sites that fall within the jurisdiction of the National Park Service. Let’s break them down, start with the best national park in Colorado:

Rocky Mountain National Park

Take the highest continuous paved road in North America and admire jaw-dropping Rocky Mountain views

Scenic view while on a camping in Moraine Park Campground
Even in summer it can be chilly here – pack lots of layers!

📍 Google Maps | 🌳 Rocky Mountain National Park Website | Cost: $30 1-Day Vehicle Pass

Rocky Mountain National Park has quintessential Colorado views! In fact, this is the most visited of the Colorado national parks, and one of the most visited national parks in the country. It’s what you picture when you think of the Rocky Mountains, alpine lakes, and roaming wildlife. 

Some of the best hikes near Denver are within this park. You’ll find options for every skill level, from the easy Coyote Valley Trail (near Grand Lake), to expert hikes like Longs Peak, one of Colorado’s 14ers

Trail Ridge Road, a key park attraction, peaks at 12,183 feet. When visiting, remember to take things slow if you’re not used to the altitude and drink plenty of water. 

Things to Do: Take a Rocky Mountain National Park tour and drive Trail Ridge Road, one of the state’s best road trips. See the Holzwarth Historic Site, walk around Sprague Lake, and visit the Moraine Park Museum. Also, explore things to do in Estes Park, like horseback riding into the national park and other fun activities.  

📅 When to Visit: Summer is the best time to visit Rocky Mountain National Park. All of the roads are open, more trails are accessible, and the weather is warmer. 

🛎️ Where to Stay: The park is home to some of the state’s best campgrounds, available by reservation. Alternatively, you can find places to stay in Estes Park (found east of the park) or Grand Lake (located to the west). 

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

Admire the awe-inspiring Black Canyon from the top at the South Rim, or from the bottom via a challenging hike

Overlooking view from the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park during autumn season

📍 Google Maps | 🌳 Black Canyon of the Gunnison Website | Cost: $30 7-Day Vehicle Pass

From the most-visited of the Colorado national parks to the least…Black Canyon of the Gunnison is much less crowded! However, it’s also a lot smaller and has fewer amenities. 

You can visit either the North Rim or South Rim (or both – it’ll take 2-3 hours to go from one to the other.) The South Rim is more popular, and has more nearby options for lodging and food. This park was also certified as an International Dark Sky Park, so it’s a great spot for stargazing.

Things to Do: Drive South Rim Road, try an easy hike like the Rim Rock Nature Trail, or for experienced hikers, trek into the inner canyon. Camping and stargazing are also ideal in this remote park. 

📅 When to Visit: Summer and early fall are the best times to visit Black Canyon of the Gunnison. 

🛎️ Where to Stay: Montrose is 20 minutes from the South Rim. You can check available hotels on Booking

Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve

See the tallest dunes in North America rise seemingly out of nowhere

The author's children wandering in Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve
It can take a long time to go a short distance when you’re dealing with sand!

📍 Google Maps | 🌳 Great Sand Dunes National Park Website | Cost: $25 7-Day Vehicle Pass

The Great Sand Dunes are striking, as these giant piles of sand rise up in front of Rocky Mountains and forested hills. The contrast between the trees and the stark dunes is pretty amazing, making it one of the truly unique national parks.

One of the weirdest, but most useful tips we got for hiking the dunes was to hike in socks! It’s easier to walk in socks than shoes that continually fill with sand, but they offer some protection for your feet (obviously not a lot, though — be careful when the surface is hot). 

Things to Do: Rent sandboards at the Oasis Store outside the park, then use them to ride the dunes. Take time to hike the dunes. If you visit in spring or early summer, enjoy splashing in the easily accessible Medano Creek. Some of the best Colorado hot springs are also located nearby. 

📅 When to Visit: Late spring to mid-fall is the best time to visit the Sand Dunes. You may want to avoid late summer, as temperatures can be hot. Also, go early in the morning to avoid the crowds!

🛎️ Where to Stay: You can camp in the park, where you get amazing views of the dunes right from your campsite. You can also find hotels in Alamosa, about a thirty minute drive away. 

Mesa Verde National Park

See the ingenuity of the Ancestral Pueblo people in designing their cliff dwellings

View of cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde National Park

📍 Google Maps | 🌳 Mesa Verde National Park Website | Cost: $30/Summer, $20/Winter 7-Day Vehicle Pass

Mesa Verde National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Colorado national park. It features beautiful landscapes and cliff dwellings of the Ancestral Pueblo people. You can visit several well-preserved cliff dwellings to see the ways people adapted to the harsh Colorado environment. 

There are also cultural dances, National Park Service ranger talks, and other demonstrations at the park. Mesa Verde is also an International Dark Sky Park, so you can spend time gazing at the heavens.

Things to Do: Explore the Visitor Center and drive Cliff Palace Road to get an overview of the cliff dwellings. You can also reserve tickets for a cliff dwelling tour led by the National Park Service.

📅 When to Visit: Spring and fall are the best times to visit the park. 

🛎️ Where to Stay: You can camp inside Mesa Verde National Park or book hotels in Cortez, a town located 15 minutes from the park entrance.

Colorado National Monument

See this stark, colorful landscape in western Colorado

A dead tree at the Colorado National Monument

📍 Google Maps | 🌳 Colorado National Monument Website | Cost: $25 7-Day Vehicle Pass

Visiting the Colorado National Monument is one of the best things to do in Grand Junction! The stunning scenery features cliffs, red rocks, and impressive rock formations you’ll enjoy exploring. In fact, it looks exactly like the stereotypical Wild West. Watch for wildlife including eagles and bighorn sheep as you explore the hiking trails and mountain biking tracks here. 

Things to Do: Hike around Monument Canyon and drive Rim Rock Drive — or try cycling Rim Rock Drive for a bigger challenge. 

📅 When to Visit: Spring and fall are the best times to visit this national monument. If you visit in summer, try to go early in the morning or late in the afternoon to avoid the heat.

🛎️ Where to Stay: Nearby, you’ll find several places to stay in Grand Junction

Dinosaur National Monument

See dinosaur fossils and petroglyphs while hiking and rafting at this park on the Colorado-Utah border 

View of petroglyphs in Dinosaur National Monument

📍 Google Maps | 🌳 Dinosaur National Monument Website | Cost: $25 7-Day Vehicle Pass

You can see about 1,500 dinosaur bones at the Quarry Exhibit Hall at this monument, and they’ll even let you touch a few! Learn about all the different dinos that once roamed Colorado and Utah, and enjoy hiking and rafting on the nearby Green River. You’ll also find several scenic drives in this park including Harpers Corner Road and Yampa Bench Road. 

Things to Do: Visit the Quarry Exhibit Hall to learn about dinosaurs. Take a scenic drive, raft the Green River, or hike the Fossil Discovery Trail. 

📅 When to Visit: Late spring and fall are good times to visit the national monument. Temperatures are usually warm by then, but you’ll miss the heat and crowds of summer.

🛎️ Where to Stay: Just across the border, you’ll find nearby hotels in Vernal, UT. 

Chimney Rock National Monument

Check out one of the largest Pueblo II communities in southwest Colorado

The Chimney Rock National Monument under the clear blue sky

📍 Google Maps | 🌳 Chimney Rock National Monument Website | Cost: $20 5-Day Vehicle Pass

Chimney Rock is in the San Juan National Forest, between Pagosa Springs and Durango. The park is day-use only, and is open from May 15 – September 20. You can join the daily walking tour of the ancient sites, or take your own self-guided tour. Chimney Rock is the park’s main attraction, and sits at 7,000 feet of elevation. 

Things to Do: Tour archeological sites, take the ½ mile long Overlook Trail, and browse the visitor center and gift shop to find some unique Colorado themed gifts.

📅 When to Visit: Visit from late spring until early fall, as the park is closed the rest of the year.

🛎️ Where to Stay: You can stay in Pagosa Springs or book cozy cabins in Bayfield.

Curecanti National Recreation Area

Fish, boat, and hike along the Gunnison River

Clear blue sky over the Curecanti National Recreation Area

📍 Google Maps | 🌳 Curecanti National Recreation Area Website | Cost: Free

The Curecanti National Recreation Area is made up of three reservoirs along the Gunnison River. Here, you’ll find multiple hiking trails, fishing spots, and bird watching opportunities. There are ranger-led talks and scenic drives you can do as well. 

Things to Do: Take a boat tour from Morrow Point Reservoir into the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, hike one of the trails, or fish for trout, salmon, and perch.

📅 When to Visit: Summer is the best time to visit, but the park is open year-round. There’s ice-fishing in winter and hunting in-season. 

🛎️ Where to Stay: Several hotels in Gunnison are located nearby. 

Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site

A sobering reminder of a horrific event

View from the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site
(photo: Jacob Boomsma/Shutterstock)

📍 Google Maps | 🌳 Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site Website | Cost: Free

In the midst of the Civil War farther east, the U.S. Army attacked a peaceful encampment of Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians in southeast Colorado. They killed around 230 people total, including women, children, and elderly Native Americans. This historic site tells the stories of those Native Americans who were pursuing peace and looks at the events leading up to the attack.

The site is open Thursday through Monday from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm, and is closed on Tuesday and Wednesday. Access to the site is via an 8-mile dirt road. 

Things to Do: Listen to an interpretive talk from a ranger, walk the Bluff Trail, and pay your respects at the Repatriation Area.

📅 When to Visit: Spring and fall are the best times to visit, as the summer can get hot and winter can be cold and snowy. 

🛎️ Where to Stay: Eads, Colorado hotels are the closest available to the site.

Old Spanish National Historic Trail

Follow part of the circuitous trade route from Santa Fe to LA, by way of Colorado

Clear blue sky over the Fort Garland Museum
Fort Garland Museum, Colorado (photo: Nicola_K_photos / Shutterstock)

📍 Google Maps | 🌳 Old Spanish National Historic Trail Website | Cost: Free

New Mexican traders once brought their merchandise from Santa Fe to Los Angeles. They followed a route that went as far north as Grand Junction before heading through Utah and into Southern California. You can hike much of this trail today, which ends in the oldest part of Los Angeles. 

Things to Do: Hike portions of the trail in Colorado, stopping at the Fort Garland Museum, the San Luis Valley Museum in Alamosa, and the northern Fort Uncompahgre Interpretive Center. There are also sites along the trail where you can get your trail passport stamped. 

📅 When to Visit: Hike in late spring, early summer, or early fall. Depending on where you are on the trail, temperatures can get hot in summer, and just about all of Colorado is affected by snow in winter.

🛎️ Where to Stay: You can find lodging in Alamosa and hotels in Gunnison, among other towns along the trail. 

Browns Canyon National Monument

Experience rugged wilderness along the Arkansas River

People rafting at the Browns Canyon National Monument
(photo: Traveller70 / Shutterstock)

📍 Google Maps | 🌳 Browns Canyon National Monument Website | Cost: Free

Getting to Browns Canyon National Monument requires driving unpaved roads. This makes it one of the less visited, less crowded wilderness areas. You’ll find plenty of hiking, but the monument is really known and loved for its whitewater rafting on the Arkansas River.

Things to Do: Take a rafting tour, hike from the Ruby Mountain Trailhead, or fish in the river.

📅 When to Visit: June is the month with the highest water levels for rafting, and summer is the best time to visit the monument.

🛎️ Where to Stay: You can find lodging in Buena Vista and places to stay in Leadville. There are lots of Buena Vista activities and things to do in Leadville as well. 

Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument

See petrified tree stumps and learn about Colorado’s geologic history

View of two kids at the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument
There are petrified trees to investigate throughout the area!

📍 Google Maps | 🌳 Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument Website | Cost:  $10 per adult (16 years or older) for 7-Day Visitor Pass, Credit Cards Only

To understand the Fossil Beds, you’ll want to start at the Visitor Center for an overview of the geologic history of the area. You can then see several enormous petrified tree stumps throughout the national monument. The Hornbek Homestead is a short drive away, where a single mom of four fought gender stereotypes and claimed a homestead in the 1870s.

Things to Do: Watch the film and see exhibits, walk the Geologic Trail, and visit the Hornbek Homestead.

📅 When to Visit: Late spring, early summer, and early fall are the best times to visit. Late summer can get hot.

🛎️ Where to Stay: Colorado Springs is just under an hour away. You’ll find lots of places to stay and things to do in Colorado Springs.

FAQs About Colorado National Parks

How many national parks are there in Colorado?

There are four national parks in Colorado. They are Rocky Mountain National Park, Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Mesa Verde National Park, and the Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve. 

What is the most visited national park in Colorado?

The most visited national park in Colorado is Rocky Mountain National Park. In fact, it was the fifth-most visited of all the national parks in the U.S. in 2021.

How many days do you need at Rocky Mountain National Park?

You need two to three days at Rocky Mountain National Park. Visiting is one of the best things to do in Colorado given its abundance of activities. If you’re a serious hiker and want to climb Longs Peak or do other backcountry treks, you may want to allow even more time.

Is Great Sand Dunes national park worth it?

Great Sand Dunes National Park is worth it. It’s home to the tallest sand dunes in North America, and visitors can climb them for amazing views, or sandboard down for fun. The beach where Medano Creek flows seasonally is also a key attraction. 

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The national parks in Colorado are some of the best parts about this state! Whether you hit all the Colorado national parks on an epic 10-day road trip, or plan several shorter trips, each is worth a visit. Safe travels! 

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