The Best Colorado National Parks Hacks

  • 01 of 05

    Insider Tips

    Rocky Mountain National Park
    ••• Rocky Mountain National Park. Getty Images/Natalia Kochina / EyeEm

    For travelers, Colorado's got a lot going for it.

    In fact, the state continues to set records for the number of visitors, according to the Colorado Tourism Office. More than 77.7 million people visited the state in 2015. During that year, Colorado "significantly outpaced" the nation in its tourism growth, and the trend continues. 

    Colorado's got art, culture and food. In the winter, it has 25 different places to ski — some of the best in the world. And then there are the 12 national parks and monuments, making the state an outdoor paradise. 

    Colorado has more national parks than almost any other state. 

    With seeming endless acres of nature to explore, it can be hard to know where to start, so we've pulled together our best hacks on how to get the most out of Colorado's national parks. 

    We combined our firsthand experience — as Colorado natives who grew up in these national parks — with the advice of Dan Wulfman and his team at Tracks & Trails, a vacation planning...MORE service for RV camping trips in national parks. 

    Continue to 2 of 5 below.
  • 02 of 05

    Great Sand Dunes National Park

    Great Sand Dunes National Park
    ••• The Great Sand Dunes National Park. Getty Images/facebook.com/pete.lomchid

    "This park is so worth visiting, but it's out there, with few acceptable hotels or restaurants for many miles," Wulfman says. "Many visitors make the mistake of making the long drive from Denver, spending a couple of hours on the dunes during the midday heat, and leaving wondering why they bothered."

    The tips:

    • Wulfman's best bet for lodging: drive an RV down or go camping in the park. 
    • If you want to go camping, book your site at Pinon Flats Campground in advance at www.recreation.gov
    • If you have the budget for a luxury vacation, stay at Zapata Ranch, an all-inclusive buffalo ranch just minutes from the gate of the park. Or if you don't mind another hour or so drive, stay at Mill Creek Ranch at Old Cow Town — which is an unbelievable, isolated community recreated to feel like you're living in the real Wild West. 

      Book your stay at Zapata Ranch here.
       
    • Rent special sand sleds to surf down the sand. Consider it sandboarding. The park doesn't advise using...MORE old snow sleds or other things, like cardboard or skis. 
    • Pass the main parking area and proceed to the small parking lot at Point of No Return. Take the access trail through Sand Pit parking area, cross Medano Creek (no tourist hordes wading here, as they are just downstream), and ascend into the dunes. Start your summertime hike at 5 to 6 p.m., top the first ridge, and find yourself a west-facing spot to watch the sunset. Don't forget your camera (in its sand-proof case, preferably). 
    • Bring along light shoes. The sand can reach 150 degrees under some conditions. Closed-toed shoes can keep the hot sand out better than flip-flops. 
    • Don't miss the ranger-led Night Sky program. Rangers lead free guided tours and nighttime events in the amphitheater. 
    • We love making a longer trip out of Southern Colorado and hitting all of the quirky roadside attractions in the area, too. 

     

    Continue to 3 of 5 below.
  • 03 of 05

    Rocky Mountain National Park

    Rocky Mountain National Park
    ••• Dream Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park. Getty Images/Lightvision, LLC

    Rocky Mountain National Park is the most accessible park, located just minutes from the popular tourist town of Estes Park. That means food and lodging is available — although in the summertime, it can be tricky to find an available room if you haven't reserved well in advance. Estes Park hasn't traditionally been considered much of a foodie heaven (although it has plenty of taffy and pizza), but that is slowly changing. 

    The tips:

    • For starters, don't miss the easy two-mile hike to Dream, Nymph and Emerald lakes. It's one of those places that's heavily visited for good reason. 
    • Trail Ridge Road is the highest paved road in the U.S. and an amazing short journey, by any standard.
    • Herds of bighorn sheep visit the Sheep Lakes area to graze in the late spring and early summer. Keep your distance. Every fall, the majestic elk bugling is a huge tourist draw. 
    • Forest Canyon Overlook looks unexciting from the road because its terminus is hidden. Don't pass it up. This...MORE viewpoint provides spectacular vistas into some the park's remotest regions. 
    • The park offers a variety of excellent ranger programs. Check at the Visitor Center of sign up online
    • The REI Outdoor School has a partnership with Estes Park's Stanley Hotel. The hotel serves as "basecamp" for the program, which brings people on guided outings in Rocky Mountain National Park. This spans day hikes to wilderness classes.  
    • For a perfect picnic with the family, we like Hidden Valley picnic area at the east end of Trail Ridge Road. 
    • Parking in Rocky during summer high season can be a problem. Drive to your destination very early (we're talking pre-sunrise). In the popular Bear Lake area, use the shuttle system and satellite lots. Go to nps.gov/romo/planyourvisit and click on “Things To Know Before You Come” for details on shuttle bus routes. 
    Continue to 4 of 5 below.
  • 04 of 05

    Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

    Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
    ••• The Black Canyon of the Gunnison. Getty Images/beklaus

    The remoteness of Colorado's national parks is also one of the biggest challenges, says Wulfman. 

    Lodging that does exist may not be the best and it's often located away from the park. 

    "Finding decent food is a real challenge. RV camping is the perfect solution to visiting these wonderful, less-visited parks," Wulfman says. "An RV allows visitors to spend the night right in the heart of the park, prepare their own meals, sleep in familiar beds and walk to the main attractions."

    The Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is especially wild. Plan before you set out. 

    The tips:

    • Join a ranger-led program. Because of this park's relative lack of infrastructure, letting a ranger show you around is an especially wise choice. Check the park's calendar for offerings. 
    • Hiking to the bottom of the canyon is spectacular if you are prepared for the challenge. Talk to a ranger at the South Rim Visitor Center for details. An easier option is to take the two-mile Oak...MORE Flat Trail from the visitor center to an overlook of the South Rim and a peek into the spectacular canyon below. 
    • For a more secluded experience, travel the unpaved North Rim Road from the east end of the park, stopping at the six canyon overlooks.  
    • If you are still hungry for adventure, explore East Portal Road. Be prepared for steep 16 percent grades and tight switchback turns. No vehicles over 22 feet are allowed.
    • On foot isn't the only way to explore this crazy canyon. Visitors can also go camping, hiking, kayaking, skiing and more. 
    • The South Rim Road spans seven miles of multiple viewpoints, one more breathtaking than the next. Chasm View and Painted Wall View are must-sees. 
    Continue to 5 of 5 below.
  • 05 of 05

    Mesa Verde National Park

    Mesa Verde National Park
    ••• A peek into a kiva at Mesa Verde National Park. Getty Images/Karen Van Atta /EyeEm

    Mesa Verde isn't a park to see in one day. It's a seven-plus hour from Denver, but the history and beauty of this site keeps visitors coming back year after year. You'll enjoy it more if you take enough time and get active on your feet once you arrive. 

    "Driving in and out of Mesa Verde in one day doesn’t leave time to see much," says Wulfman. "Just reaching the heart of the park involves a slow, winding, 21-mile drive that takes nearly an hour, and you will want to take time to enjoy the spectacular panoramic views from the pull-offs along the way."

    He recommends spending at least one night in the park for the best experience.

    Mesa Verde is especially popular among families.

    The tips:

    • Get oriented. Your first stop should be at the beautiful, new Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center, just off Highway 160 as you enter the park. Rangers will help you plan your stay. Don’t forget to purchase tickets for tours of Cliff Palace, Balcony House or Long House here. You...MORE must have tickets to visit these sites, and they sell out quickly, so be prepared to book your tour(s) for the following day. (No online purchases.)
    • Get a great overview in the 700 Years Tour, a professionally-guided, half-day coach tour of some of the park’s main attractions. You get a chronological overview of the park’s history, from the partially excavated ruins along Mesa Loop Road that dating back to A.D. 600 to spectacular Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde’s largest cliff dwelling, built in the 13th century. Best of all, you can make reservations online  for this one before leaving home.
    • Visiting one or more of the major cliff dwellings will be the highlight of your visit. If you plan to visit Cliff Palace on the coach tour, buy tickets at the Visitor Center for Balcony House and/or Long House. Tours run all day, last one to two hours, and can be moderately challenging with ladders up to 30 feet tall. You will also have to climb through some narrow tunnels.
    • Beat the rush. If you happen to visit on one of the days that the Balcony House Sunrise Tour is offered (and if you are a very early riser), your small group of 24 people can have the place to yourself. Book online in advance. Otherwise, try to book your normal tours early in the day to beat both the heat and the crowds.
    • Spruce Tree House closed. This ruin, formerly the most easily accessible major dwelling in the park, is closed indefinitely. Rocks broke loose above the ruin last August and the overhanging rocks are still unstable. You can still see the structure from overlooks near the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum. The museum is excellent, the Spruce Tree Terrace Cafe offers a lovely, shady place to have lunch and the gift shop here is the best in the park.
    • The only lodging inside the park is the Far View Lodge. This is an older facility and the rooms are compact, but it was recently updated and the views into four states from your perch atop the mesa are spectacular. Splurge on a deluxe view room for the most stunning vistas. Still, Far View Lodge is sparse. Even deluxe rooms have tiny bathrooms and little extra space. 

      Book your room at the Far View Lodge here.
       
    • As a bonus, the lodge is located within walking distance to the best restaurant in the park, The Metate Room. This is the only place you can get a real, sit-down meal. Request a table on the rooftop patio as the sun sets. 
    • If you prefer to sleep under the stars, whether you are tent or RV camping, Morefield Campground is a great basecamp for your Mesa Verde visit. The skies are incredibly dark here, so spend some time in your camp chair looking up before you turn in.
    • Get off the beaten path. If your visit to the four-corners region didn’t already include petroglyphs (ancient rock art formed by pecking on the rock’s surface with a stone tool), take the 2.4-mile hike that begins at Spruce Tree House and offers views of Spruce and Navajo canyons.
    • Join a ranger at Morefield Amphitheater for an evening campfire talk covering a range of interesting topics related to the park’s natural history.
    • Make it worth the drive. Combine your Mesa Verde trip with other scenic destinations in Utah and Colorado. Tracks & Trails organizes 10-day RV tours that include Mesa Verde and other parks.
    • For a quieter, even more remote experience, visit Hovenweep National Monument, about 70 miles from Mesa Verde. Hovenweep allows pets on the trails.