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America's Best Idea

Among Colorado’s impressive outdoor spaces are four great national parks: Rocky Mountain, Great Sand Dunes, Black Canyon of the Gunnison, and Mesa Verde. After paying park admission (usually $15 per person for a multiple-day pass), there are lots of activities that don’t cost a penny, and each park has unique attractions (learn more at nps.gov).

Rocky Mountain National Park

In addition to stunning scenery and dramatic drives, there is abundant wildlife-watching, and you’ll see birds galore. Many folks head there each fall to see the giant herds of elk in both nearby Estes Park and the park itself. Wildflowers also proliferate at certain times of the summer.

The park features more than 50 lakes and streams for fishing, so you might apply for a Colorado fishing license and try your hand at angling.

Great Sand Dunes National Park

Arguably the best time to visit is May and early June when Medano Creek is running. Snowmelt warms up as it hits the hot sand and the “waves” are perfect for kids to surf with their inflatables—makes great wading, too.

The dunes themselves offer fairly strenuous hiking, and some people even rent sand skis and surfboards in nearby Gunnison. (Regular snow toys don’t work very well.) This time of year, try to visit on weekdays as weekends get pretty busy.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison

A scenic drive takes you to numerous overlooks that are perfect for photographers and artists. Birding is great here, and so is the wildlife-watching—you’ll spot everything from lizards to black bears. Most of the larger wildlife can be seen around dawn and dusk.

And, although the roaring Gunnison River and the steep canyon walls beckon to kayakers and rock climbers, only experts should tackle this canyon.

Mesa Verde National Park

It’s all about the ruins here. You can take a ranger-guided tour or do some exploring on your own, but be sure to begin with the film at the visitor’s center.

Because of its remoteness, if you’re not staying in the park, perhaps pack a picnic lunch. There are facilities in the park, but you may not be near one of them when you’re hungry.

Also because of its location, the sky here is perfect for stargazing. In fact, you could say it’s—well, stellar.


FREE! things to do

Once you’re in, free activities abound.

Watch a film at the visitor center

In recent years, these have become works of art, professionally filmed and narrated. They’re delightful introductions to each park.

Visit the museum

Just about every park now has a museum that provides a great guide to things you’ll see and giving the historical perspective.

Ranger programs

These can provide an evening’s entertainment. They may have live performers (such as Indian dancers) or talks by experts (maybe about snakes or bats).


Parks can be perfect bird-watching sanctuaries. Bring a good pair of binoculars and a bird identification book.


Colorado’s indigenous wildlife—from ground squirrels to bighorn sheep—are found throughout the parks. Rangers and park brochures can tell you when, where, and how to see them.


Where better? Without the interference of the urban glow, the skies are darker than they are just about anywhere, which means you can really see the stars.


Walking is free, and trails are well marked, rated for difficulty, and carefully maintained.


Check on the rules of the road, but if you BYOB—bring your own bike—this activity is free. Rides range from easy to strenuous.

Art and photography

There’s something beautiful or interesting almost anywhere you look. See if you can come up with a shot worth framing—or at least something you’d post on your Facebook page. Or try your hand at drawing or painting.


Really, how often do you get to sit in a spectacular setting and just enjoy the scenery—and the silence?

Surviving in the Wild

Dozens of times every year, the nightly news tells us yet another hiker or climber has gone missing in Colorado.

“Most of the time, it’s preventable,” says Cody Wigner, assistant area wildlife manager with Colorado Parks and Wildlife. The major cause, he says, is “lack of planning and communication—not telling other people where they are going, how long they’ll be gone, or when they’ll be back.”

Checking the weather and knowing exactly where you plan to hike and what route you’ll take helps. Cell phone service can be hit or miss in the high country, but some (not all) GPS tracking devices work quite well, Wigner says. If you do get lost, stop. Stay calm and stay where you are, he advises.

And it’s a good idea to pack a small survival kit. “Things you need are shelter, signal, and fire,” Wigner says. “Pack cotton balls, petroleum jelly, and a fire-starter tool. A fire keeps you warm and also serves as a signal. A large heavy-duty plastic trash bag will give you some shelter and keep you dry.”

Most lost hikers are found the next day, he says. A couple of snacks and an extra bottle of water usually will suffice for rations.

“Hypothermia is a big issue,” he adds. “Dress in layers so you can regulate body temperature and not sweat. Synthetic materials are much better than cotton because they wick moisture away from skin, but cotton stays wet forever.”