Quick Guide to Colorado National Parks

Colorado's four National Parks — Rocky Mountain, Mesa Verde, Great Sand Dunes and Black Canyon of the Gunnison — are home to some of the world's most wondrous and diverse scenery.

By: Colorado.com Staff Writer
Updated: March 21, 2024

No matter your interests, you’re sure to find awe-inspiring wonder in one of Colorado’s national parks. Spread across the state’s diverse terrain, each holds its own dramatically distinct qualities that can’t be found at any other. From scenic drives along sky-high roads and sand-dune surfing to geographical marvels and prehistoric preservation, you’ll find plenty of unique activities to captivate your heart and mind in these national parks.

A Quick Look at Each National Park in Colorado

1. Rocky Mountain National Park

As a tribute to the grandeur of the Rocky Mountains between Estes Park and Grand Lake, this park encompasses the pure and natural beauty of the region. With high-mountain lakes and streams, towering peaks of more than 14,000 feet, thick evergreen forests and thousands of acres home to wildlife, this national park is a nature lover's paradise. And with so much to see and do within its 415-square-mile boundaries, there’s no wonder its popularity endures.

Pro tip: The National Park Service implements a timed entry service from the end of May through mid- to late October for visitors to feel a more remote experience and preserve the land. Purchase your Rocky Mountain National Park timed entry permit in advance to make sure you don't miss out on the magic.

Convenient lodging is available in the picturesque gateway communities of Estes Park and Grand Lake, or extend your stay at the infamous park itself and enjoy the amenities and programs at the park’s park's campgrounds.

What You Can't Miss
Open from Memorial Day to late autumn, Trail Ridge Road — topping out at 12,183 feet — is the highest continuous paved road in the United States. Get an unforgettable look at the top of the Rockies while taking this one-of-a-kind drive. Check out an itinerary for exploring Rocky Mountain National Park

Accessibility Highlights
Explore accessible trails in Rocky Mountain National Park, where you’ll find breathtaking views of the Continental Divide, mesmerizing waterfalls, wildflower-strewn routes and more. And as of 2022, you can also reserve an all-terrain wheelchair to experience even more of the park's renowned beauty. (Call Estes Park Mountain Shop for reservations.) Learn more about accessibility in Rocky Mountain National Park

2. Mesa Verde National Park

Mesa Verde National Park, located in southwest Colorado near Cortez, is home to some of the most unique Ancestral Puebloan dwellings in the world. Well-preserved and well-studied, these dwellings have been inspiring interest in this ancient culture for more than 100 years.

Tucked securely into cliff walls, the adobe-constructed homes are a novel sight to visitors who crane their necks skyward to see them. On Mesa Verde tours, ladders give guided groups access to the cliff structures, and park rangers offer glimpses into the daily lives of Ancestral Puebloans.

What You Can't Miss
Participate in a one-hour, ranger-led walking tour of Cliff Palace, the largest cliff dwelling in North America and home to multiple living enclaves and buildings. Operating May through October, you can expect to do a bit of mild climbing and walking, as the route first descends roughly 100 feet over uneven steps and ascends a series of eight-foot ladders to access the site. Meander the sandstone dwellings and religious and ceremonial sites that have been preserved for more than 700 years while learning about what life was like for this native community. Read a Mesa Verde National Park itinerary

Accessibility Highlights
You’ll find a wide range of accessible features at Mesa Verde National Park, from scenic overlooks to tactile exhibits at Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum. Learn more about accessibility in Mesa Verde National Park

3. Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve

Nowhere else in the United States do mountains of sand stand higher than in the Rocky Mountains at Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado. The tallest dune towers 750 feet high at an elevation of 8,700 feet above sea level. The entire dune field itself, located near the town of Alamosa, encompasses 30 square miles within the 150,000-acre park. Surf the sands or hike the surrounding trails and plan to spend the night — this International Dark Sky Park offers pristine stargazing opportunities.

Aside from the dunes, you'll find a four-wheel-driving trail along the challenging Medano Pass Primitive Road — an off-road route that crosses Medano Creek and stretches roughly 25 miles from within the park to the town of Gardner. In May and June, the creek is typically at its highest flow, providing the perfect way to cool off from a day spent in the hot sands.

What You Can't Miss
Regardless of the season, park visitors on skis, snowboards and sleds carve their way down the dunes much like they would on the famous Colorado ski slopes. If you want to give it a try, just look for the steepest part of any dune, point yourself down it, and let gravity work its magic. Read 2 Days in the San Luis Valley & Great Sand Dunes National Park

Accessibility Highlights
The park offers a limited number of sand wheelchairs with balloon wheels for loan so you can venture out into the dunes. (They're easiest to use with the help of a friend to push you or on the wet, firm sand along Medano Creek, which runs each April through June.) Call ahead to reserve the chairs. Learn more about accessibility at Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve

4. Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

Sheer black walls plummet up to 2,700 feet on this 53-mile stretch of narrow gorge near Montrose, which reveal millions of years of natural history. Since its documented European discovery in the 1700s, the gorge has been renowned for its dramatic scenery and recreational opportunities.  Hike or drive along the outer rim for dramatic views of the steep cliffs, or explore the inner canyon — carved from the earth by the Gunnison River over the course of 2 million years — by way of challenging trails, rock climbing or kayaking.

The Denver and Rio Grande narrow gauge railroad once traversed the upper reaches of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison that plunges into the Rockies. And while trains no longer journey through the canyon, you can learn all about their harrowing journey at the park’s Cimarron Canyon Rail Exhibit.

What You Can't Miss
This national park provides an array of outdoor activities, which means there is truly something for everyone. Auto touring, wildlife viewing, camping, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, fishing, hiking, horseback riding, kayaking and stargazing are just the beginning of your many options. Check out a 3-day itinerary for the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park area

Accessibility Highlights
Here you’ll find accessible camping sites (reserve ahead of time) and restaurants, as well as numerous scenic overlooks — one of the major draws of this park. Learn more about accessibility at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

Want More?

Find 17 of the best things to do in Colorado

Explore our nine national monuments and three national historic areas   

Check out magic moments on Colorado's public lands

Learn about winter activities in Colorado's state and national parks 

Find fun facts about Colorado's national parks


Black Canyon photo courtesy of the National Park Service/Lisa Lynch; Great Sand Dunes photo courtesy of the National Park Service.