In planning a Colorado vacation, Rocky Mountain National Park tops many a list for outdoor beauty and recreation. And rightly so - not only are these federal lands deservedly noted for their scenic appeal but they also happen to be located within easy stomping distance of major urban centers like Denver, Boulder and Fort Collins. However, in a state known generally for the outdoor activities on offer, it’s nonetheless worth considering some of the other, less visited national parks and monuments for fresh perspective on the variety this state has to offer.
Colorado has, in fact, three other national parks. Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, southwest of Denver, is relatively small, but featuring some seriously dramatic river canyon scenery remains popular with a contingency of hikers, climbers and campers. Upgraded in recent years from national monument status is Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, which can boast of the loftiest dunes in North America. From here it’s a long, meandering 200 mile drive west to Mesa Verde National Park. For the effort of the trip, however, you’ll get a closer look at this park’s well-preserved cliff dwellings, which have earned it listing as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Situated in the far southwestern corner of the state, this one is a fair ways off the beaten path, but if you make the trip you can also visit two of the state’s nearby national monuments, Yucca House (where there’s an unexcavated Ancestral Puebloan site) and Hovenweep, comprised of six prehistoric villages.
For history even more ancient and access to strangely alluring landscapes, you’ll definitely want to include as part of your Colorado vacation a detour up to Dinosaur National Monument in the northwest. Dinosaur bones might be the big draw but it’s worth hanging around a little longer to do a guided rafting trip along a stretch of park river.
There are two more national monuments in Colorado also worth consideration. Find plenty of prehistoric plant and insect fossils at the Florissant Fossil Beds, less than an hour’s drive west of Colorado Springs, or venture west to visit the inspiring red rock canyons of Colorado National Monument.
So pay Rocky Mountain National Park its due, sure, but then hit the trail - Colorado’s fossils, sand dunes, historic sites and river canyons await.