Colorado’s four national parks are home to some of the world’s most wondrous and diverse scenery. There are also several nationally designated sites to explore, including Colorado National Monument and Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument. Each spot on this list has a lot to offer in terms of scenery and recreation, and they all represent the beauty and heart of The Centennial State. Whether you’re staying in a comfy Colorado vacation rental, sleeping under the stars, or renting a unique lookout tower, you and your family are sure to have a fun and memorable vacation.
1. Rocky Mountain National Park
This park encompasses the pure and natural beauty of Colorado between Estes Park and Grand Lake. It’s a picturesque example of the Rockies with high-mountain lakes and streams, peaks more than 14,000 feet, thick evergreen forests, and thousands of acres of wildlife. There’s so much to see and do in this 415-square mile park, but don’t miss Trail Ridge Road, the highest continuous paved road in the United States. You’ll get an amazing view of the Rockies at 12,183 feet along with a memorable, one-of-a-kind drive.
2. Mesa Verde National Park
Mesa Verde National Park is located in southwest Colorado near Cortez and is home to some of the most unique Ancestral Puebloan dwellings in the world. These well-preserved adobe-constructed homes are tucked securely into the cliff walls. Take a Mesa Verde tour to gain access to the cliff dwellings by ladder. We recommend the one-hour walking tour of Cliff Palace, the largest cliff dwelling and home to multiple living enclaves and buildings. The route descends roughly 100 feet over uneven steps and ascends a series of eight-foot ladders to access the site, so be prepared for mild climbing and walking.
3. Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
The tallest sand dune in Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is an impressive 750 feet high at an elevation of 8,700 feet above sea level. Within the 150,000-acre park, you’ll also find great opportunities for hiking and four-wheel driving along the Medano Pass, an off-road route that stretches roughly 25 miles from within the park to the town of Gardner. Missed ski season? No matter what time of year you visit this park, you can carve the dunes just like the slopes.
4. Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
This 53-mile stretch of the narrow gorge near Montrose reveals millions of years of natural history. The gorge was discovered in the 1700s and has been renowned for its dramatic scenery. Sheer black walls plummet up to 2,700 feet. There’s also a wide array of outdoor activities like auto touring, wildlife viewing, camping, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, fishing, hiking, horseback riding, kayaking, and stargazing. Visit the informative railroad museum to learn about the trail that once traversed the mouth of this fissure, and catch ranger talks throughout the park.
5. Colorado National Monument
The Colorado National Monument is actually named after the river, not the state. Located near Grand Junction, near the Utah border, this area is surrounded by impressive multicolored rocks and towering monoliths. Get the most out of your visit by driving the twists and turns of Rim Rock Drive. Keep your eyes peeled for bighorn sheep and soaring eagles! If you’re not staying in a vacation rental in nearby Grand Junction, there’s also an 80-site campground.
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6. Curecanti National Recreation Area
The Curecanti National Recreation Area is a series of three reservoirs along the Gunnison River. It’s a great destination for water sports and is best known for its salmon and trout fishing. There are also plenty of opportunities for hiking, boating, camping, and bird watching. The best way to enjoy the upper Black Canyon? Join a park ranger for a leisurely 1.5-hour boat tour.
7. Dinosaur National Monument
The kids will love this one! You can see over 1,500 fossils exposed on the cliff face inside the Quarry Exhibit Hall. There’s also plenty more to explore. The mountains, desert, and rivers support an array of wildlife, and you can see petroglyphs as well as remnants from homesteaders and outlaws.
8. Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument
Want even more fossils? Head to Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument. It’s one of the richest and most diverse fossil deposits in the world. See prehistoric Colorado through 14-foot redwood stumps and thousands of details fossils of insects and plants. Get your kids involved in the Junior Ranger Program, explore the 15 miles of trails, or check out the schedule for ranger guided programs.
9. Hovenweep National Monument
Hovenweep was once home to over 2,500 people and now includes six prehistoric villages that were built between A.D. 1200 and 1300. Here, you can explore a variety of structures, including multi-story towers perched on canyon rims and balanced on boulders. The towers at Hovenweep are similar in architecture to masonry and pottery styles. Since these ancestral Puebloans had a sedentary farming culture, you can also see the terraces they created on the hillsides.
10. San Juan National Forest
Covering 1.8 million acres in the southwestern corner of Colorado is San Juan National Forest. The San Juan Skyway is the perfect way to start exploring the area. This 232-mile loops is one of the most scenic drives in America and is open year-round. Also, check out the Jersey Jim Lookout Tower which you can even rent for one or two night stays.
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