Colorado is renowned across the globe for its legendary ski resorts, which include Aspen, Vail, Breckenridge and Crested Butte to name just a few. It’s the perfect year-round destination for sophisticated travellers with a passion for grand landscapes, too. With the cosmopolitan city of Denver at its gateway, this iconic destination showcases an array of climates, ecosystems, terrain and wildlife, making Colorado the best state in the US for travellers who want to experience the outdoors at its most wild and free.
Boasting expansive plains and arid deserts, the bulk of Colorado is covered by the Rocky Mountains, which tower above the city of Denver, already lofty at a mile in elevation. Colorado boasts the largest mountain in the range, Mt Blue Sky, as well as a number of other 14’ers (mountains over 14,000 feet) that are a must-do for mountaineers across the United States. Hikers, climbers, mountain bikers, trail runners, kayakers, canoers, anglers and equestrians flock to Colorado to enjoy its beautiful landscape during the spring, summer and autumn, and are well rewarded for it.
Flora and fauna
Animal lovers are also well served in Colorado. The state plays host to wildlife ranging from mountain animals such as its state mammal, the Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, elk, mountain lions, black bears and beavers, as well as rattlesnakes, prairie dogs and other creatures found on the plains. For keen birdwatchers, the state is also home to a seriously impressive array of birds, including herons, bald eagles, osprey, red tail hawks, sand hill cranes, golden eagles and great horned owls. Look closely and it’s even possible to notice rare species like the boreal toad, tiger salamander, burrowing owl and even tarantula, which migrate from within the state each autumn.
Those with an interest in woodland settings will be enamoured with towering evergreen forests and trees such as the Ponderosa Pine and Douglas Fir, which can reach up to a towering 300 feet, while expansive groves counting innumerable Aspen trees can claim to be the largest single organisms in the world. Conservation and the outdoors is a thread that has been woven into the Centennial State since before its inception in 1876. It is one of the rare states to offer four national parks, each boasting its own unique identity and set of offerings, catering to both adrenaline seekers and those looking for quiet tranquillity in equal measure.
Intrigued? Read on to discover the many ways to find a slice of adventure in Colorado’s unrivalled national parks.
Colorado's national parks
Rocky Mountain National Park
Towering summits, shimmering lakes, meadows strewn with wildflowers: Rocky Mountain National Park has them all in spades. It’s also one of Colorado’s most accessible spots – at just over an hour’s drive from Denver, it’s possible to fly into the city and be in the park on the same day. The park comprises an incredible 415 square miles of rugged wilderness, and mountain lovers will be in their element here, with over 60 elevations ranging between 7,860 to 14,259 feet. Longs Peak is a bucket list spot for climbers and hikers, and the tallest in the range at 14,260 feet.
Another impressive sight, the Continental Divide is the spine of mountains that runs north to south through the park. Trail Ridge Road was completed in 1932 to cover 48 miles between Estes Park and Grand Lake. It’s the highest continuous paved road in the United States, rising to over 12,000 feet at its peak.
There’s a good chance of spotting one of more than 60 species of mammals here, which include elk, bighorn sheep and moose. For those looking for a bucket-list voyage, you can cliff camp in areas around Estes Park without any prior climbing experience. It’s accessible by two via ferrata trails – the family-friendly Peregrine Trail, and the more challenging Cloud Ladder.
There are two main entrances to the park – the east entrance in Estes Park and the lesser-trafficked west entrance by Grand Lake. The scenic Trail Ridge Road connects the two entrances.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is nestled in the west of the state, between Crested Butte and Montrose. With it being lesser known than some of the other parks in Colorado, those seeking peaceful solitude in the outdoors will potentially find it here more than anywhere else.
The Black Canyon has been carved over millions of years by the Gunnison River, which created steep cliffs in what is among the oldest rock in America. At 2,247ft in height, the Painted Wall is the tallest cliff in all of Colorado, while the off-the-beaten-path Northern Rim Road is another jaw-dropping hike. What’s more, the park offers a huge range of activities for the outdoor traveller. One of the classic means of experiencing it is by hiking down to the river bottom. There are trails for all abilities on the North and South Rim, from the tame to the adventurous. Adrenaline junkies can try their hand at the Inner Canyon, famed for its intense white-water kayaking suitable for experienced kayakers, with challenging rock climbing and difficult trekking aplenty.
The Gunnison River is equally known for its excellent trout fishing, and attracts anglers throughout the year, especially from spring to autumn. For those who prefer to explore from behind the steering wheel, there are scenic drives along the rims of the canyon walls, and in some places, right down to the river.
There aren’t any restaurants within the park, so be prepared to bring food and water before exploring.
Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve
Drive from Colorado Springs down the flats of San Luis Valley and you’ll come across something curious. Nestled at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo mountain range is a scene that could have been lifted straight out of the Sahara Desert: enormous dunes sweep upwards to magnificent heights. Great Sand Dunes National Park can lay claim to having the largest sand dunes in North America – most notably Star Dune, which stands proudly as the tallest in the country at 755 feet. Established in 1932 by Herbert Hoover as a National Monument and designated national park status in 2004, its 55 square miles include forests, tundra, wetland and, of course, monolithic sand dunes.
This lunar landscape is so otherworldly that NASA used it as a space to test its Mars Rovers. It also makes for fantastic, challenging hiking on the way up, and visitors can make the descent pass by more quickly by sandboarding or sledding down the slopes. The sand even sings, making a curious sound as it dispels air from its interior. It’s an incredible place to engage in stargazing, while visitors to the park can spend time by the beautiful, mountain-fed Medano Creek when the weather is warm.
You'll need to bring your own food here, too, and it's also worth renting sandboards before entering the park as the National Park Service does not rent sand sleds or sandboards.
Mesa Verde National Park
Mesa Verde National Park is tucked away in the far southwestern corner of the state near the Four Corners, where Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah all converge. It’s one of the few national parks that’s also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, known for its perfectly preserved Native American archaeological sites. It counts more than 5,000 Ancestral Puebloan locations and an incredible 500 cliff dwellings, the most famous of which is the sublime Cliff Palace, which can be explored seasonally on a ranger-guided tour.
While its archaeological history marks Mesa Verde out as a uniquely interesting national park, it caters to the seasoned explorer in more ways than one. The Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum is an excellent spot for visitors to expand their knowledge of the area, as is the Trail of the Ancients National Monument.
Those who want to stretch their legs can choose from an excellent array of hiking trails, including Point Lookout Trail, Petroglyph Trail and Soda Canyon Overlook. The views, which often stretch across state borders, are exquisite.
The tours of Cliff Palace are seasonal, available between May and October, which is also the case for Far View Lodge accommodation.
Put simply, in all of Colorado’s wild and beautiful natural landscapes, unforgettable experiences are guaranteed.
Find out more at colorado.com