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5 Tips for Visiting Colorado's National Parks

Colorado is home to four national parks, each of which is completely different from the others. In southwestern Colorado, close the Four Corners, Mesa Verde National Park contains 600 Anasazi cliff dwellings in addition to several thousand other archaeological sites. On the edge of the northern Colorado town of Estes Park, Rocky Mountain National Park offers access to Rocky Mountain wilderness with craggy peaks, alpine meadows, and abundant wildlife. In southern Colorado, Great Sand Dunes National Park lives up to its name with towering dunes (the tallest in North America) surrounded by mountains. Black Canyon of the Gunnison features steep, rocky canyon walls rising sharply from the banks of the Gunnison River.

Map of Colorado's Parks & Monuments

Each park offers numerous opportunities to explore in addition to other activities from hikes and guided tours to camping, fishing, viewing wildlife, and even scenic drives. With so many options, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and miss out on some amazing experiences. The following tips will help you make the most of your time in Colorado’s national Parks.

1. Plan Ahead

Black Canyon of the Gunnison
National Park
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National ParkPlanning is key to enjoying your experience in any of Colorado’s parks. Once you’ve decided where you want to go, be sure to consider the following:

Decide when to visit

Hours and seasons can vary considerably with Rocky Mountain National Park open 24 hours a day every day of the year while Black Canyon of the Gunnison is only open during the day from April to November. Even if you are able to visit your park of choice at any time, you’ll want to consider whether you’ll be experiencing the park at the best time of year from your needs, whether that means deep snow or summer heat.

Research how to travel to/ through the park

Most of Colorado’s park are a distance from airports and cities, so it’s important to figure out how you are going to get there, whether that means driving from your home state, renting a car, or reviewing public transportation options. Once you’ve figured out how to get there, be sure to review the park’s restrictions. While you’ll have some vehicle access, you may discover that you need to hike to get to many areas.

Make a list of can’t-miss stops

As you read up on your destination, put together a list of attractions that you want to visit. This will help you figure out where to stay, what to bring, and how much time you’ll need. It’ll also make planning your itinerary easier, as you’ll be able to group visits to attractions that are close together.

2. Decide on your focus

Balcony House, Mesa Verde National Park
Balcony House at Mesa Verde National ParkColorado’s national parks range in size from 48 square miles up to 415 square miles, and with so much to explore, it’s helpful to pick one aspect of the park to focus on. Perhaps you want to escape into the wilderness for a few days or maybe you want to learn about the history of the area. Once you’ve decided which aspect of the park you plan to focus on, you’ll have a much easier time deciding which attractions are most important to you.


A visit to each national park’s website will give you an overview of park history, from indigenous peoples and early settlers of the area to the history of the park itself. Be sure to also check on the hours for the visitor center, to learn more of the park’s history once you arrive.


Hiking, biking, camping, fishing, rock climbing, and more – Colorado’s parks offer endless opportunities for adventure. Be sure to check what is permitted in the specific park you’re visiting as you make your plans.


A national park in Colorado might just be the best place to see wildlife. Elk, moose, deer, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, foxes, coyotes, wolves, bears, and numerous birds are just a few of the animals you might see during your visit. Research some of the best wildlife viewing spots before you go, and consider bringing binoculars.


If you’re not sure what you want to focus on, hunting down the best scenery in Colorado is a pretty good place to start. Each park has well-known locations that offer stunning photo opportunities.

3. Figure out how much time you’ll need

Great Sand Dunes National Park
Great Sand Dunes National ParkIf you had the time, you could probably spend a month in each of the national parks in Colorado and still not run out of things to do, so be sure to carefully consider how much time you will have. Whether you’re putting together a multi-day backcountry hiking trip or a single day visit, you’re going to have to tailor your to-do list to fit your timeframe.

Travel time

Before you start filling each day with activities and sightseeing, remember that you have to budget time to get to the national park. Flying, driving, checking in at a hotel – all of it will take some time before you get to your first attraction. Budget time on both ends of your trip, then look at how much time you have to work with.


If you’re planning to spend several days at one of the Colorado national parks, you’ll need to figure out where you’re going to stay each night. Options abound, from car camping and backcountry camping within the parks to hotels, motels, and bed and breakfasts down the road. Consider what makes the most sense for your schedule and how much traveling you’ll end up doing at the start and end of each day.

Time on-site

Once you’ve settled on your overall itinerary, look at how to be most efficient with your time in the park. Group visits to attractions that are close together so you don’t end up spending half the day traveling, and consider which activities will take an entire day versus those that will require a short visit.

4. Dress for the conditions

Hallett Peak & Flattop Mountain
Rocky Mountain National Park
Rocky Mountain National Park and Longs PeakColorado’s climate varies dramatically from one part of the state to another, and it varies even more from month to month and from season to season. This is just as true of the national parks around the state. Don’t assume that fall in southwestern Colorado will be the same as summer in northern Colorado and keep in mind that winter can frequently mean snow.

Check typical conditions for the time of year

As you are planning your trip, be sure to research what kind of weather conditions are typical for the area and time of year that you will be visiting. In addition to temperature, review precipitation and cloud cover, and plan accordingly. Keep in mind that much of Colorado has a desert climate with cool nights even on the warmest days and little humidity.

Check current conditions day-of

Even if you checked the weather forecast two days ago, it’s probably changed. Be sure to check conditions right before you head out the door in the morning and adjust accordingly. You may find out that rogue rain cloud has headed your way, and you’ll be glad you grabbed an umbrella or a waterproof jacket.

Bring a couple extra layers

No matter what the forecast says and no matter how warm it seems, it never hurts to have an extra layer on hand, especially in the spring and the fall when temperatures can vary dramatically over the course of a day. If you are comfortable in shorts and a tee shirt, consider grabbing a long sleeve tee or a sweatshirt in case the weather shifts, and if you are wearing a coat, consider bring a hat and gloves.

5. Pack the basics

No matter how quick you think your excursion is going to be, it never hurts to bring along some essentials. Plus, it will give you some added flexibility if you stumble across an amazing location that wasn’t in your original plans. Even if you stay on schedule for the entirely of your trip, having some basics will give you added peace of mind and make your stay more comfortable.


Between the high elevations of Colorado’s parks and the dry climate, you’ll probably find yourself consuming a lot more water than you anticipated. Plus, having water stashed in the car means you can go for the impromptu hike that you discover and can’t resist checking out.


If there’s one thing that is consistent across all of four the national parks in Colorado, it’s the endless photo opportunities. Make sure you keep your battery charged and consider packing an extra memory card so you’re ready for the elk that wanders through your campsite or the unexpected scenic overlook.


Colorado has abundant sunshine for most of the year and the higher elevation means that those rays are strong. Consider going a bit higher with the spf than you do at home and apply several times throughout the day.

Money for access fees

Entrance fees for a single day typically run between $3 and $15 with multi-day and season pass options available. A few fee free days occur throughout the year, but be sure to have some money on hand so you don’t get stuck turning around at the last minute.

With these tips and a little planning, you'll have an experience to remember for a lifetime in one of Colorado's incredible national parks.


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