Find Your Park: An Insider’s Look At Colorado’s National Parks
This is a great year to visit one of our state’s National Parks. After all, the National Parks Service is celebrating their 100th birthday on August 25, so why not celebrate by visiting one of Colorado’s four National Parks this summer?
Great Sand Dunes National Park
I’ve been to Great Sand Dunes National Park several times and early in the summer is the best time to go because Medano Creek will still be running rapidly through the dunes. Later in the year it becomes just a trickle.
This place is surreal. On our first camping trip there, as we arrived in the dark, a meteoroid fell to earth, lighting up the world around us for a few seconds. Therefore my first glimpse of this park was by the light of a meteor.
We also had a bear visit our campsite on one occasion and I saw my first Great Horned Owl at Great Sand Dunes National Park, so we have lots of great memories of this park.
The sand dunes at this park are the tallest dunes in North America and there are loads of activities to do here including sandboarding and sand sledding, free ranger programs, hiking, photography and more. When you go, don’t miss Zapata Falls. Located on BLM land just outside the park, this waterfall provides a respite from the hot summer sun.
Where to stay: You can camp inside the park or at an area campground. Alamosa is also close by and offers many lodging options. As well, the Sand Dunes Swimming Pool & Hot Springs in Hooper, offers camping and lodging.
Mesa Verde National Park
Whereas Great Sand Dunes National Park has an otherworldly feel, Mesa Verde feels like visiting another time – a very ancient time.
Mesa Verde is under visited by Coloradans and that’s a shame because the park is fascinating on so many levels; architecturally, historically and geologically. An individual could spend a lifetime studying this place, and some do.
The park offers a glimpse into the lives of the Ancestral Pueblo who made this area their home for from AD 600 to 1300. There are 5,000 known archeological sites in the park as well as 600 cliff dwellings, and these sites are some of the most notable and well preserved in the United States.
The ancient people who settled here lived a very different life; much of it vertical as they climbed up and down from their elaborate cliff homes. You can do the same when you visit and I highly recommend booking a guided tour of Balcony House.
Visit Mesa Verde Country is a great resource for those planning to explore this area of Colorado.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
We visited the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park for the first time in fall 2015, and it did not disappoint. In fact, it seriously impressed us. The scenery is staggering – literally. I felt a little wobbly at certain overlooks.
The birds soar below you at this National Park, which doesn’t happen in very many other places. We arrived at the park early in the morning and managed to hike two different trails before noon. I’ve written extensively about our visit here.
The history of the canyon is fascinating and I encourage you to chat with the knowledgeable park rangers at the Visitors Center.
Where to stay: Montrose is just 20 miles away and offers an array of hotels and a friendly downtown.
Rocky Mountain National Park
This is the most well-known and most visited National Park in Colorado. My favorite time to visit the park is in early July when the wildflowers are at their peak. Heading over Trail Ridge Road on our way to a wedding in Grand Lake several summers ago, I kept screaming for Ryan to pull over so that I could photograph wildflowers.
Visitors could spend an entire day in the park photographing the vast variety of wildflowers. See some photos I took here.
Of course, most people visit this park to see the wildlife, which is also plentiful. Our most exciting sighting was a large coyote that ran in front of our car high up on Trail Ridge Road. Elk can be seen just about everywhere in the park – if you’re after moose, you’ll have better luck on the west side of RMNP closer to Grand Lake.
For a listing of all of Colorado’s National Parks, State Parks and historic sites visit www.nps.gov/state/co/index.htm.
This article also appearing in Summer in Berthoud, a Berthoud Weekly Surveyor publication.