Colorado National Parks explorer tour

Colorado has four National Parks, all of them magnificent and each of them very different in terms of their terrain and the natural marvels and activities they have to offer. We’ve looked at the highlights of each.

Colorado National Parks explorer tour

Rocky Mountain National Park

About a 90-minute drive from Denver, the most famous of Colorado’s parks is an eye-popping, gorgeous place of soaring mountains, high-altitude lakes and streams, dense evergreen forests, glittering waterfalls and fabulous wildlife, including majestic elk. Whatever you do, don’t miss Trail Ridge Road, the highest continuous paved highway in the United States and a designated national scenic byway.

The gateway to the park is the town of Estes Park – a great base camp for those looking for outdoors adventures in Colorado, from hiking, cycling, rock climbing, paddle-boarding, rafting, horse-riding and fishing to snowshoeing, sledding, ice climbing and backcountry skiing. Note that as Rocky Mountain is the most popular of the Colorado National Parks, there’s a timed-entry permit system in place in the high season, from May to October.

Great Sand Dunes National Park

Four hours or so from Denver and 229, this park has the highest dunes in North America – the highest measuring 200 metres at an altitude of more than 2650m - set against the breathtaking backdrop of snow-capped mountains. We love the fact that you can sand-surf here (using skis, snowboards or sleds, or sand wheelchairs with balloon wheels), but there’s also hiking on the trails that surround the sand field and stargazing in the International Dark Sky Park. Perhaps our favourite thing to do here, however,  is follow the four-wheel driving trail along the Medano Pass Primitive Road, taking you off-road across Medano Creek.

Mesa Verde National Park  

One for the history lovers among us, this lovely swathe of land in southwestern Colorado, near Cortez (7.5 hours from Denver), has some off the most unique and well-preserved Ancestral Puebloan (Anasazi ) dwellings in the world - UNESCO-listed adobe-constructed homes tucked up high within the cliff walls. They’re accessed by ladders during guided tours with park rangers who give fascinating insights into this ancient Native American culture that was centred on the area where Colorado intersects with Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

The highlight of the park is a tour of Cliff Palace, North America’s biggest cliff dwelling, with several sandstone buildings, living enclaves and religious and ceremonial sites. The Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum is also a must-visit for some historical background and the chance to put it all in context via interactive exhibits.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

It’s millions of years of geological history that are on display at this narrow gorge close to Montrose (about seven hours from Denver), with dramatic sheer black walls rising up more than 800m. The cliffs are visible by hiking or driving along the outer rim of the canyon, but you can also experience the inner canyon, which was carved out of the terrain by the Gunnison River over a duration of two million years — via hiking trails, rock climbing and kayaking. Other outdoor activities, varying by season, include stargazing, horse-riding, fishing, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.

Also worth seeking out within the park’s confines is the Cimarron Canyon Rail Exhibit, charting the harrowing journeys that were endured aboard the Denver & Rio Grande narrow gauge railroad, which once crossed the upper reaches of the canyon.

To book your Colorado holiday including time in one or more of the National Parks, call your Travel Counsellor today.

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