4 Spectacular National Parks Near Denver, Colorado | The National Parks Experience (2023)

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Located at meeting point of the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains, Denver consistently ranks as one of the best cities to live in the United States.

That’s thanks to its sunny weather, great public transportation system and other services, but also to the city’s proximity to beautiful nature. Many locals spend their weekends in the mountains or out on the plains, camping, hiking, rock climbing, fishing, kayaking,…

There are several national parks near Denver. Rocky Mountain National Park, for example, lies at the city’s doorstep, while UNESCO World Heritage-listed Mesa Verde lies a bit further away, yet still within fairly easy reach.

In this post, I talk about the four Colorado national parks near Denver and share a Colorado national parks road trip itinerary.

I also briefly touch on a couple of other national parks close to Denver, but in another state, which are about half a day’s drive from the Mile High City.

4 Best National Parks Near Denver, Colorado

Contents

  • 4 Best National Parks Near Denver, Colorado
    • Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
    • Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado
    • Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado
    • Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado
  • Suggested Colorado National Parks Road Trip Itinerary
  • Other Accessible National Parks From Denver
  • Other Cities Near National Parks

Whether you’re looking for spectacular mountain landscapes, towering sand dunes, deep canyons or ancient Native American sites, you’ll find all of that and more in the four national parks in Colorado.

I’ve listed them below by distance from Denver, starting with the national park closest to Denver and finishing with the most remote.

In italics, you can see the distance and approximate driving time between Denver and each specific national park.

(Video) Every National Park in Colorado RANKED

Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Denver to Rocky Mountain National Park: 67 miles / 1.5 hours

4 Spectacular National Parks Near Denver, Colorado | The National Parks Experience (1)

If you want to visit a national park near Denver, the obvious first choice is Rocky Mountain National Park. Less than 70 miles from the city center, you can get there in no more than 1.5 hours, which makes it a great day trip option.

Comprised of 415 square miles of sensational mountain landscapes, complete with alpine lakes and aspen forests (amazing in the fall!), wildflower meadows and wildlife, Rocky Mountain National Park is an outdoor lover’s paradise. The use of superlatives is justified here.

Everyone from hikers and rock climbers to cyclists, photographers and casual road trippers will have a blast in this park. It’s easy to see why this is one of the most visited national parks in America.

4 Spectacular National Parks Near Denver, Colorado | The National Parks Experience (2)
4 Spectacular National Parks Near Denver, Colorado | The National Parks Experience (3)

Rocky Mountain National Park home to the renowned Trail Ridge Road, which climbs to an elevation of nearly 11,500 feet and is one of America’s highest paved roads.

One of the greatest national park roads in the country, it takes in most of the park’s many different ecosystems and biozones, from valley woodlands to subalpine forests and lakes to alpine tundra above the treeline.

It’s a fantastic road to explore with a car, but also extremely popular among cyclists.

Rocky Mountain National Park offers phenomenal wildlife viewing opportunities as well, thanks to its varied landscapes. Patient (or lucky) visitors might see black bear, moose, bighorn sheep, marmot or elk.

This is easily one of the best Denver national parks. Not only because it’s so close to the city, but also thanks to its many outstanding attractions.

Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado

Denver to Great Sand Dunes National Park: 238 miles / 4 hours

4 Spectacular National Parks Near Denver, Colorado | The National Parks Experience (4)

Situated in south-central Colorado, Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve protects the tallest sand dunes in North America.

(Video) Rocky Mountain National Park Vacation Travel Guide | Expedia

Exploring these mountains of sand is amazing fun, especially when you rent a sand board or sled. There are also a few great hiking trails in the area, while children and dogs enjoy playing in the bubbling water of Medano Creek.

The sand dunes are the obvious highlight in this fun park, but there’s more to it than that.

It also encompasses a large expanse of grasslands, wetlands, conifer and aspen forests, shimmering lakes and even alpine tundra high up in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

4 Spectacular National Parks Near Denver, Colorado | The National Parks Experience (5)
4 Spectacular National Parks Near Denver, Colorado | The National Parks Experience (6)

Since Great Sand Dunes National Park, arguably my favorite Colorado national park, is about 4 hours from Denver, I highly recommend spending the night there.

You can set up camp at the scenic Piñon Flats Campground, which overlooks the dune field and is one of my favorite national park campgrounds. Half of the beauty of this park occurs at night.

Great Sand Dunes is an official International Dark Sky Park and one of America’s best national parks for stargazing. On a moonless night, the Milky Way dominates the night sky.

A full moon, however, is amazing, too, and allows for an unforgettable moonlit walk in the dunes.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado

Denver to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park: 252 miles / 5 hours

4 Spectacular National Parks Near Denver, Colorado | The National Parks Experience (7)

One of the most underrated U.S. national parks, Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is the best national park in Colorado if you’re after extraordinary canyon landscapes.

Situated in western Colorado, about 250 miles west of Denver, this relatively small park encompasses one of America’s most remarkable natural attractions.

It contains 12 miles of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison River, the most dramatic and deepest section of the canyon.

(Video) BEST NATIONAL PARKS IN COLORADO & Travel Tips

Although it’s by no means the deepest canyon in the U.S. (that’s Hells Canyon in Idaho and Oregon), the Black Canyon is one of the steepest. In fact, it’s narrowest point is The Narrows, only 40 feet wide at the river, while the canyon walls rise up over 1,500 feet on both sides.

This is exactly how the Black Canyon got its name: it’s so steep and narrow that some sections receive less than an hour of sunlight per day.

4 Spectacular National Parks Near Denver, Colorado | The National Parks Experience (8)
4 Spectacular National Parks Near Denver, Colorado | The National Parks Experience (9)

Duane Vandenbusche, an authority on western Colorado history, said about the canyon:

Several canyons of the American West are longer and some are deeper, but none combines the depth, sheerness, narrowness, darkness, and dread of the Black Canyon.

Things to do in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park include everything from hiking and horseback riding to scenic drives, whitewater rafting and kayaking, and stargazing.

Just like Great Sand Dunes National Park above, this is also an International Dark Sky Park.

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

Denver to Mesa Verde National Park: 417 miles / 7.5 hours

4 Spectacular National Parks Near Denver, Colorado | The National Parks Experience (10)

Of all national parks of Colorado, Mesa Verde National Park is by the furthest from Denver. In fact, I almost didn’t include it in this list of national parks near Denver because it’s really not that close to the city.

However, since it’s one of the four Colorado national parks, and an amazing one at that, it would be silly to leave it out.

Located in southwestern corner of the state, on the Colorado Plateau, you’ll need the bigger part of a day to get here from Denver, but that doesn’t need to be an issue.

Actually, it offers the perfect opportunity for a Colorado road trip. No one’s ever complained about that!

(Video) Top 10 Things To Do In Estes Park Colorado

On the way, you’ll pass closely by Great Sand Dunes National Park, too, so I definitely recommend stopping there. (See the suggested itinerary below.)

4 Spectacular National Parks Near Denver, Colorado | The National Parks Experience (11)
4 Spectacular National Parks Near Denver, Colorado | The National Parks Experience (12)

At Mesa Verde, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, you can see dozens of ancient Native American heritage sites, including several impressive cliff dwellings.

The park is home to almost 5,000 known archaeological sites, including some of the best preserved Ancestral Puebloans sites in the U.S. and fascinating rock art sites.

This is one of very few U.S. national parks that were established to protect a historic site rather than a natural landscape or ecosystem.

Naturally, it’s those amazingly preserved ruins that steal the show here. You can see many of them on two scenic loop drives at Chapin Mesa, as well as go on guided tours of famous cliff dwellings like Cliff Palace, Long House or Balcony House.

Suggested Colorado National Parks Road Trip Itinerary

If you’d like to hit all four national parks in Colorado in one go, you’re in luck.

There’s a nice loop you can do, starting in Denver and circling all the way around southwestern Colorado. The following itinerary is in a clockwise direction, going south, west, north and then back east.

  • Denver to Great Sand Dunes National Park: 238 miles / 4 hours
  • Great Sand Dunes National Park to Mesa Verde National Park: 202 miles / 4 hours
  • Mesa Verde National Park to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park: 154 miles / 3 hours
  • Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park to Rocky Mountain National Park: 290 miles / 6 hours

I recommend spending at least one day and one night in each park, but preferably more if you have time.

Rocky Mountain deserves a minimum of two full days, while the other three national parks near Denver can be explored in one jam-packed day and night.

I’d count on about 9-10 days for this Colorado national parks road trip.

For an overview and map of all National Park Service sites in Colorado, I’d like to refer to the NPS website.

(Video) Rocky Mountain National Park Scenic Drive!

Other Accessible National Parks From Denver

In addition to the four national parks in Colorado, there are two other national parks that are reachable from Denver in a reasonable period of time. Both are just across the border in Utah, near Moab.

Arches National Park, home to the world’s densest collection of natural rock arches, is a gorgeous park, while nearby Canyonlands National Park will blow you away with its spectacular canyon landscapes.

Both Arches and Canyonlands are best visited together, since they’re only 30 minutes from one another. You can camp there or spend a few nights in Moab.

  • Denver to Arches National Park: 351 miles / 6 hours
  • Denver to Canyonlands National Park: 363 miles / 6 hours

Other Cities Near National Parks

  • 7 National Parks Near Los Angeles, California
  • 3 National Parks Near Miami, Florida
  • 11 Best State and National Parks Near Las Vegas
  • 9 Best Nature Day Trips from Portland, Oregon
  • 11 Amazing National Parks Near San Francisco
  • 6 National Parks Near San Diego, California
  • 13 Epic National Parks and Monuments Near Salt Lake City, Utah
  • 10 Must-Visit National Parks Near Chicago, Illinois
  • 7 Closest National Parks to Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota

FAQs

What are Colorado's 4 national parks? ›

Colorado's four National Parks — Rocky Mountain, Mesa Verde, Great Sand Dunes and Black Canyon of the Gunnison — are home to some of the world's most wondrous and diverse scenery.

What is the most visited national park in Colorado? ›

The top five most-visited national parks were Great Smoky Mountains with 14.1 million visitors, Zion with 5 million, Yellowstone with 4.9 million, Grand Canyon with 4.5 million and Rocky Mountain National Park.

How many days do you need for Colorado national parks? ›

There is a lot to see and do in Colorado, and if you want to visit all four national parks, ideally you need at least 10 days.

What is the prettiest park in Colorado? ›

12 Best National Parks & Monuments in Colorado
  1. Rocky Mountain National Park[SEE MAP]
  2. Great Sand Dunes National Park[SEE MAP] ...
  3. Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park[SEE MAP] ...
  4. Mesa Verde National Park[SEE MAP] ...
  5. Colorado National Monument[SEE MAP] ...
  6. Dinosaur National Monument[SEE MAP] ...
  7. Eldorado Canyon State Park[SEE MAP] ...
17 Jan 2022

How far is Arches National Park from Denver? ›

Arches National Park is 350 miles from Denver.

What is the most popular park in Colorado? ›

So it's no surprise that Rocky Mountain National Park is the most visited park in the state, but Colorado is home to much more than the Rocky Mountains.

Is Great Sand Dunes National Park worth it? ›

The Sand Dunes are a bit off the beaten track, and not easy to just "drop by", but totally worth it. Rent a sand sled from the Oasis shop, about 4 miles prior to the entrance. Not much else is nearby so bring food, snacks, and anything else you might need - plan ahead and you'll enjoy the day!

How is the drive from Denver to Rocky Mountain National Park? ›

We recommend that you take the famous scenic Peak to Peak Highway. For that, take I-70 west of Denver, followed by State Highway 119 to Nederland, and from there roads #72 and #7 to Estes Park. The drive from Denver to Estes Park via Peak to Peak Hwy is about 95 miles, 2-2.5 hours without any stops.

When should I visit Colorado national parks? ›

The best time to visit the Colorado national parks is in the summer and early fall, when all of the scenic drives and hiking trails are open. The summer months are the busiest months to visit the national parks, but with warm temperatures and great weather, this is also one of the best times to go hiking.

What is the #1 national park? ›

1. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. The nation's first national park, established in 1872, has so many iconic features it's almost impossible to list them all.

What's the prettiest national park in the US? ›

Yosemite National Park

Without a doubt, Yosemite is one of the best national parks in the USA to visit. With its iconic landmarks such as Half Dome and El Capitan, its beautiful valley, and long list of hiking trails, this is a park that should go at the top of your list.

What's the best time of year to visit Colorado? ›

Typically speaking, April and May and then October through mid-December will be your least crowded months in Colorado, as visitors often aim for the warmth and accessibility of summer or the powdery snow of winter.

Can you do Garden of the Gods and Pikes Peak in one day? ›

Yes you can visit both Garden of the Gods Park and Pikes Peak in one day. The trip up Pikes Peak via the Cog Railway or the Pikes Peak highway takes approx. 3 hours round trip.

How long does it take to drive through Rocky Mountain National Park? ›

You can drive from one end of Rocky Mountain National Park to the other in about 2 hours if you don't make any stops.

How many days do you need for Rocky Mountain National Park? ›

Ideally, plan on spending at least three days in Rocky Mountain National Park. This gives you enough time to drive Alpine Ridge Road, Old Fall River Road, and hike a few of the trails. If you are an avid hiker, I recommend spending five or more days in Rocky Mountain National Park.

How far are the Rockies from Denver? ›

Rocky Mountain National Park: 1.5 Hours

The entrance for Rocky Mountain National Park sits only 66 miles from the great city of Denver, and an hour and a half drive is a small price to pay for one of the most beautiful parks in the country.

What state has most national parks? ›

California has the most with nine, followed by Alaska with eight, Utah with five, and Colorado with four.

What is the best time of year to visit Arches National Park? ›

The best time to visit Arches National Park is April through May and September through October, when daytime temperatures average about 60 to 80 degrees. In the summer, temperatures can exceed 100 degrees, which can make exploring the park's trails very uncomfortable.

Can you drive through arches? ›

Yes, you can drive through Arches National Park and easily see some of the most spectacular scenery. That's what makes it one of the most popular National Parks in the USA. The Scenic Arches Drive is a heavily-trafficked 22-mile paved road with many great viewpoints and spectacular stops along the way.

How long does it take to get from Denver to Arches National Park? ›

The direct drive from Denver to Arches National Park is 360 mi (580 km), and should have a drive time of 5 hrs 59 mins in normal traffic.

What is the most scenic route from Denver to Yellowstone? ›

Route 1 has the advantage of driving past the Shoshone National Forest and passing between the Grand Teton National Park and the Bridger-Teton National Forest on the way to Yellowstone. Along with the drive around Jackson Lake, this has got to be one of the most stunning drives in the United States.

How much time do you need to see Yellowstone National Park? ›

You should plan to spend at least 2 to 3 days in Yellowstone National Park. Two days gives you enough time to see the most popular destinations. Adding a third day gives you time to explore some less visited and off-the-beaten-path attractions.

Is there a train from Denver to Yellowstone National Park? ›

Trains from Denver to Yellowstone National Park

Take the opportunity to travel to Yellowstone National Park by train, which leaves Denver Union Station and arrives at Salt Lake City Amtrak Station. The railroad connecting two cities is about 967 miles. The trip takes 27 hours.

What is the biggest park in Colorado? ›

Lake Agnes at State Forest State Park, the biggest state park in Colorado.

How far is Mesa Verde cliff dwellings from Denver? ›

How far is it from Denver to Mesa Verde National Park? The distance between Denver and Mesa Verde National Park is 257 miles. The road distance is 382.7 miles.

How many days do you need in Great Sand Dunes National Park? ›

Why 3 Days Is the Bare Minimum You Should Stay In and Around Great Sand Dunes National Park.

Do you need reservations for Great Sand Dunes? ›

Open 24/7 year round! There are no limitations or reservations to visit, but there is currently limited capacity in the visitor center.

How should I dress for sand dunes? ›

Bring a hat, gloves, wool socks, and a warm jacket for the night year round, because temperatures can drop. For sun and sand protection, pack a sun hat, sun gloves, sunglasses, long-sleeve shirt with UPF sun protection, and a bandana or lightweight face and neck cover like a Buff or Discrete neck buff.

Do you have to pay to drive through Rocky Mountain National Park? ›

A valid entrance fee or park pass is always required to enter Rocky Mountain National Park, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. This includes, but is not exclusive to, Lumpy Ridge, Lily Lake, Longs Peak, Wild Basin, East Inlet, and North Inlet.

How long does it take to drive from Denver to the Rocky Mountains? ›

How long is the drive from Denver, CO to Rocky Mountain National Park? The total driving time is 1 hour, 50 minutes.

What is the most scenic drive in Colorado? ›

San Juan Skyway: Perhaps the most beautiful scenic drive in Colorado, the San Juan Skyway is a harrowing journey more than 100 miles long that summits mountain passes and hangs from cliffs in the San Juan Mountains.

What city is closest to Rocky Mountain National Park? ›

The closest town near Rocky Mountain National Park is Estes Park, less than 5 miles from the Beaver Meadows entrance.

Can you drive through Rocky Mountain National Park? ›

Rocky Mountain National Park has the highest paved roads in any national park in the United States, with Trail Ridge Road (Hwy 34) cresting at 12,183 feet above sea level. This is the highest continuously paved road in North America. Be prepared for varying conditions when driving on Trail Ridge Road.

What is the most visited national park in the world? ›

Great Smoky Mountains NP

Which US national park should I visit? ›

Our top must-see national parks in the US are: Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona. Glacier National Park, Montana. Yosemite National Park, California.

What is the most visited state park in the US? ›

Hearst San Simeon State Historical Monument, California

It's no surprise that California has the most visited state park system in America.

What is the 2 oldest national park? ›

Known for being home to the General Sherman Tree, the largest tree in the world by volume, the Sequoia National Park is the second oldest national park in the U.S. The park is located in the southern Sierra Nevada east of Visalia, California, and it's south of and contiguous with Kings Canyon Park.

What is the smallest national park? ›

Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas

Hot Springs is the smallest of the 61 national parks in the country. The Arkansas park is so small -- just 5,550 acres -- that it could fit into Wrangell-St.

Where is the largest national park in the US? ›

Biggest of Them All

The uncontested heavyweight champion of the National Park System is Alaska's Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve.

What is the famous park in Colorado? ›

Rocky Mountain National Park

Tucked into the heart of Colorado's Front Range, Rocky Mountain National Park spans more than 400 square miles of breathtaking mountain scenery. This national park is considered by many to be the crown jewel of the American Rockies and it's no wonder why.

How many Colorado state parks are there? ›

Plan Your Next Adventure at a Colorado State Park!

Colorado's 42 state parks are as diverse as the state itself, and they offer something for everyone.

How many national parks are there? ›

The National Park System encompasses 423 national park sites in the United States. They span across more than 84 million acres, with parks in each state and extending into the territories, including parks in Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, American Samoa, and Guam.

Which state has most national parks? ›

California has the most with nine, followed by Alaska with eight, Utah with five, and Colorado with four.

Is Great Sand Dunes National Park worth it? ›

The Sand Dunes are a bit off the beaten track, and not easy to just "drop by", but totally worth it. Rent a sand sled from the Oasis shop, about 4 miles prior to the entrance. Not much else is nearby so bring food, snacks, and anything else you might need - plan ahead and you'll enjoy the day!

When should I visit Colorado national parks? ›

The best time to visit the Colorado national parks is in the summer and early fall, when all of the scenic drives and hiking trails are open. The summer months are the busiest months to visit the national parks, but with warm temperatures and great weather, this is also one of the best times to go hiking.

How many days do you need in Rocky Mountain National Park? ›

Ideally, plan on spending at least three days in Rocky Mountain National Park. This gives you enough time to drive Alpine Ridge Road, Old Fall River Road, and hike a few of the trails. If you are an avid hiker, I recommend spending five or more days in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Are Colorado state parks free? ›

Park Passes

All Colorado State Parks have entrance fees. All vehicles are required to have an entrance pass and some parks have walk-in fees. Centennial Park Passes purchased in 2020 will be accepted at Colorado state parks through the end of February 2021.

What is an Aspen Leaf pass? ›

Aspen Leaf Passes are available to all Colorado residents 64 or older and allow unlimited access to all Colorado State Parks. ​The Aspen Leaf pass has the added bonus of discounted camping (a $3 discount per night) on Primitive, Basic, Electric, and Full Hookup sites, Sunday through Thursday, excluding holidays.

What is the smallest national park in the US? ›

Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas

Hot Springs is the smallest of the 61 national parks in the country. The Arkansas park is so small -- just 5,550 acres -- that it could fit into Wrangell-St. Elias National Park nearly 2,400 times.

What 5 states have no national parks? ›

The list of states with no U.S. national park are: Alabama, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachuesetts, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Wisconsin.

What is the largest national park in the United States? ›

Biggest of Them All

The uncontested heavyweight champion of the National Park System is Alaska's Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve.

What's the least visited national park? ›

Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve in Alaska is the least-visited US national park.

Which state doesn't have a national park? ›

Delaware is the only state in the country that does not have anational park, national monument, national historic site or anyother unit of the National Park Service.

Which national park is in two states? ›

Death Valley National Park straddles the California-Nevada border. Which of the following is on the Nevada side of the park? 6.

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