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Colorado National Parks Road Trip

The Best Colorado National Parks Road Trip | 4 Parks in 6 Days

Colorado’s four national parks are scattered across the state, and feature a diverse number of sights and splendor to explore. From mountains and canyons to ancient ruins and sand dunes, this state has some amazing wonders. Visiting all four national parks makes for a good road trip ranging from 4-12 days, depending on how long you want to stay at each national park. Here’s my overview for the best Colorado National Parks Road Trip. You won’t regret taking the time for this adventure!

Table of Contents

The Colorado National Parks Road Trip Fast Facts

Colorado National Parks Road Trip

The Adventure Begins in Denver, Colorado

This Colorado National Parks Road Trip begins in Denver. You can fly in to Denver International Airport, take a train to Union Station, or drive to town. From here, your journey stars with a long drive south to Great Sand Dunes National Park.I recommend stopping along the way in Colorado Springs to visit the Garden of the Gods, and enjoy the views of Pikes Peak and Mount Evans, two 14ers, along the way. You’ll pass Banca Peak in the south as you approach the park. There are many opportunities for camping and lodging along the way too.

First Stop: Great Sand Dunes National Park

First on the Colorado National Parks road trip is Great Sand Dunes National Park, home to the largest dune-field in the United States. These spectacular sand mountains reach nearly 1,000 feet high, framed by snow-capped peaks in the distance. At night, you’re treated to world-renowned views of the starry night sky thanks to the lack of cities for hundreds of miles in all directions. There are also numerous trails for exploring the mountainous backcountry beyond the dunes.

My Favorite Trails to Hike

Camping & Lodging

In Park: There is one official campground in the park, Piñon Flats Campground, but I recommend signing up for a backcountry permit so you can camp right out on the sand dunes. It’s an incredible experience – and because the sand is always shifting, you can camp anywhere within the backcountry area! This is my favorite camping opportunity along this Colorado National Parks road trip.

Nearby: You can camp for free in dispersed camping on nearby Bureau of Land Management and National Forest land. There are also motels and private campgrounds in Alamosa, the nearest major town to the Park.

Other Things to Do

Driving to Mesa Verde National Park

Leaving from the Sand Dunes, you now get the pleasure of driving through southern Colorado and the San Juan range. You’ll pass through numerous small towns that are great to explore, including Pagosa Springs and Durango. This 3.5 hour drive is easy to accomplish in a single day, providing plenty of time to stop along the way and see some of the many sights. Mesa Verde is known for its plentiful camping opportunities, so it’s possible to arrive there late in the evening and camp right within the park itself.

Second: Mesa Verde National Park

Mesa Verde, which means ‘Green Table’ in spanish, is one of the few national parks that protects cultural areas of significance. It’s the second stop on this Colorado National Parks road trip. The area includes numerous Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings in a highly preserved state. Dating back more than 800 years, these massive pueblos were built into alcoves for defense high off the ground, including a multi-story building called “Cliff Palace.” The park is an archeological treasure, taking you back in time to 12th century Colorado.

My Favorite Trails to Hike

Camping & Lodging

In Park: The Morefield Campground within the park has more than 260 spots, along with convenience stores, gas station, grocery store and showers. It rarely fills, but you should still make a reservation to be certain. It’s the best place to camp within the park itself on this Colorado National Parks road trip.

Nearby: There is free dispersed camping along Madden Peak Road in the National Forest about 15 miles from Mesa Verde National Park.

Other Things to Do

Driving to Black Canyon of the Gunnison

After Mesa Verde, head north and cut through the San Juans to head towards the Gunnison region. This is the shortest drive of the trip, and it works out well as you have enough time to stop by Telluride if you have time. It’s a great mountain town with shopping, hiking and food you can’t miss. Colorado’s tallest waterfall is located just up the valley as well. Since the drive takes only 2 hours, 55 minutes, you’ve got plenty of time to explore the San Juans before you leave them behind.

Third: Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

Deep in western Colorado, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison isn’t the easiest national park to get to, which makes it the least popular of Colorado’s four parks. However, once you arrive, you’ll find that extremely hard to believe. This canyon is one of the narrowest and deepest in the country, with amazing vistas and viewpoints along its length to explore with awe and wonder. You can also hike down to the canyon bottom for river rafting, camping, and more. This gem is well worth a visit.

My Favorite Trails to Hike

Camping & Lodging

In Park: There are three campgrounds: The North Rim, South Rim, and East Portal campgrounds, all of which require reservations. These campsites fill more quickly than any other along the Colorado National Parks road trip. You can also get a permit to backpack into the backcountry.

Nearby: There is National Forest and BLM land within an hour drive you can dispersed camp at. There are airbnb’s, motels and hotels in Montrose nearby.

Other Things to Do

Driving to Rocky Mountain National Park

The last leg of the Colorado national parks road trip takes you through the heart of the rockies. It’s a solid 5 and a half hour drive, and there’s a lot to see along the way. If you have time, I recommend making this last drive over two days you can spend a night in Buena Vista, Leadville or Silverthorne. There are old mines to visit, beautiful mountains, hot springs and more. Eventually, you’ll reach the final destination on our Colorado national park road trip.

Fourth: Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park is the final stop on our agenda, just a 2 hour drive from the Denver region where our road trip began. It’s the state’s most famous National Park, and with good reason. You can drive across the continental divide, take a hike to an alpine lake, climb a lofty mountain summit, and much more. The wildlife here includes mountain lions, deer, bear, elk, bobcats, marmots, pikas, eagles and more. Visit during July for spectacular wildflower booms in the park’s many meadows. It’s a great last stop for our Colorado National Parks road trip.

My Favorite Trails to Hike

Camping & Lodging

In Park: The park includes multiple campgrounds, most of which require reservations many months in advance. The Longs Peak campground is first-come, first-serve. 

Nearby: There are National Forest dispersed camping areas both east and west of the National Park  There are also multiple private campgrounds, motels and hotels in Estes Park, Colorado. Consider an Airbnb in Grand Lake or Estes Park as well.

Read my guide to camping in Rocky Mountain National Park

Other Things to Do at Rocky Mountain National Park

The Colorado National Parks Road Trip: A Review

Colorado’s four national parks are an amazing collection of natural and archeological splendor. Spending a week to visit them all is an amazing adventure with hundreds of options to customize and personalize your Colorado National Parks road trip as you see fit. If you decide to take this road trip, please share a comment below on what worked well and what you enjoyed most on the road! Safe travels on the road and on the trail.

Alex Derr, Founder of The Next Summit

Alex Derr is an Eagle Scout, climber, and environmental policy expert located in Denver, Colorado. He created The Next Summit to help others stay safe exploring the mountains and advocate to preserve the peaks for the future. Follow him on Linkedin or Twitter or click here to contact him.

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In 2018, I watched in disbelief as dozens of people hiked into a storm on Longs Peak, unaware of the extreme danger. Soon after, I started The Next Summit to educate and empower the public to safely and responsibly explore America's mountains.

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