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.

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.

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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

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

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.

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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

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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.

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.

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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

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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!

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.

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

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