The 3 Best National Parks To Visit in Colorado
The National Park Service celebrated its centennial this year, prompting Americans nationwide to revisit the key nature refuges that define our land. Each individual park possesses a history as colorful and diverse as the environment itself.
Hiking in Rocky Mountain
Take, for instance, Rocky Mountain National Park, the jewel of Colorado (and one of the oldest national parks in the vault). Established in 1914, Rocky Mountain National Park was singled out for its exquisite high-elevation ecosystems and dazzling wilderness, including two-mile high snowy peaks, thundering rivers, and elk-trodden forest.
Consider the range of all that scenery: a third of the total land mass (415 square miles, to be exact) is alpine tundra, a seemingly barren wilderness zone where only the hardiest plants can survive. Here, you’ll find a striking assortment of species like cushion plants (tiny moss-like clumps), Alpine forget-me-nots, rainbow-hued lichen, and Alpine sunflowers (bright yellow and vivid, they’re like a shorter version of their sea-level cousins).
If you’re looking to enjoy the Rockies from the comfort of your car, you can cover plenty of ground winding along the hypnotic Trail Ridge Road. Known as the highest continuous paved road in the United States, it ascends steeply through tundra, blanketed each May with swathes of pink, blue, and white wildflowers.
On the way up, you’ll pass enchanting forests with herds of elk and moose. As you approach the peak, pull up to an overlook. The elevation offers an unparalleled view, with outlines of the surrounding Rocky peaks, as well as sections of Front Range cities like Denver and Boulder, and even parts of Wyoming. (Keep in mind: the road remains closed from the onset of winter until Memorial Day.)
Surfing in Great Sand Dunes
For something a little more unusual, a well-timed trip to Great Sand Dunes National Park promises one thing most landlocked states can’t: a day at the beach. That’s because during spring, water from the Medano Creek flows down through the San Luis Valley and the park’s iconic desert peaks, creating a temporary lake—with actual “waves” caused by surging water—is formed. Locals like to set up lounge chairs and beach blankets, while the more daring surf North America’s tallest sand dunes with snow boards.
Rock Climbing in Black Canyon of the Gunnison
With Colorado being the source of some pretty important river systems (the Spanish word colorado references the red-colored silt in the Colorado River), it’s no surprise that water played an important role in its formation. Take Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, one of the geological wonders of the state. The park centers around a series of deep gorges—similar to the Grand Canyon—that were carved over the course of two million years by the flowing Gunnison River. Today, the “vertical wilderness” can be hiked through a system of challenging canyon trails. Though if descending into a steep, narrow ravine sounds more anxiety-inducing than exhilarating, don’t lose heart: hiking can also be done along the top of the rugged, high-desert rim.
Visitors checking out the Black Canyon of the Gunnison will also find ample opportunities for trout fishing, kayaking, and rock climbing. Here, expert climbers can tackle the tallest vertical wall in the entire state—The Painted Wall—which reaches a height of 2,250-feet. More moderate courses can be found on the North and South Chasm Walls.