COLORADO’S NATIONAL PARKS: THE ULTIMATE SUMMER VACATION ROAD TRIP

When you think of Colorado, you think Rocky Mountains, right? What about Colorado’s own “Grand Canyon”? What about boarding or sledding… down massive dunes of sand? Or, what about cliff dwellings from Pueblo people that are over 700 years old?

Colorado’s mountains are great. Don’t get me wrong. But Colorado has so much more to offer than just its spectacular mountains.

In the era of COVID-19, we are all looking for more ways to get outside. For summer vacation, especially, people are looking for destinations that don’t require being indoors or in large crowds. There’s not a much better way to do this than visiting our National Parks.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

  1. Rocky Mountain National Park
  2. Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
  3. Mesa Verde National Park
  4. Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
  5. The Ultimate Summer Road Trip: The Loop
  6. Annual National Parks Pass
  7. Recommended Gear

ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK

If your summer vacation bucket list includes fresh mountain air and memorable scenery, look no further than Rocky Mountain National Park.

little girl walking playing in Alpine Tundra in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Exploring the Alpine Tundra, Rocky Mountain National Park
THINGS TO DO

Rocky Mountain National Park truly offers a “Rocky Mountain high.” For the absolute easiest way to climb to 12,000 feet elevation, all you need to do is drive along Trail Ridge Road through the park. No hiking or mountain climbing required.

The best way to see what Rocky Mountain National Park has to offer is to follow Trail Ridge Road all the way from Estes Park to Grand Lake. The drive takes about 1.5 hours, but plan for plenty of extra time for pitstops. There are many designated pull-off areas along the drive so you have many opportunity to take in those spectacular views of the Rockies.

Keep a lookout for wildlife as they are plentiful. Moose, elk, mule deer, marmots and mountain goats are all possible friends you will see along the way. If you see several cars pulled over along the road, chances are there is something interesting to be seen. Don’t be afraid to pull over and check it out. Just be sure to keep a safe distance from any animals and follow any directions from park rangers to keep both you and the animals safe.

HIKING

One of the most popular hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park is the Bear Lake Loop. It is less than a mile long and is an easy enough trail for kids with very little elevation gain. The trail loops around Bear Lake and you’ll find some beautiful mountain reflections on the surface of the water. Expect to find a bit of a crowd at this trail. The parking lot at the trailhead is often full but the Park offers shuttle services from other parking lots. Look for Park signage for more information.

If you’re up for a tougher hike, continue from Bear Lake to Emerald Lake. Along the way, you will pass Nymph Lake and Dream Lake before reaching Emerald Lake. This destination is well-worth the extra effort. This hike is a total distance of about 3.2 miles and is rated as moderate. It is a do-able hike for kids, so long as your child can handle the distance with a little elevation gain.

My favorite hike in the Park is Gem Lake. This hike offers lots of really interesting rock structures along with panoramic views of Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park. You’re also sure to meet a few chipmunk friends around the lake. (Beware: they will literally crawl on you to get any food you may be eating. We thought it was fun and comical, but it’s not for everyone.) This hike is rated as moderate at about 3.4 miles long and some decent elevation gain which is steep in spots. This hike may be tough for children, but it is possible. Our 4-year-old has some hiking experience and is a pretty tough and persevering child and was able to do this hike with few complaints.

family and baby hiking around Bear Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Bear Lake Loop
Little girl with sun hat at Emerald Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Emerald Lake
Family and little girl on a rock lookout over Rocky Mountain National Park, hiking Gem Lake Trail, Colorado
Gem Lake Trail
WHERE TO STAY

Whether you choose a hotel or a vacation rental, Estes Park offers the most convenient location to the Park. The Stanley Hotel is a mix of a beautiful, historic hotel with pop culture. Opened in 1909 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, you’ll find the Stanley to be charming and classic. The Stanley was the inspiration for Stephen King’s novel “The Shining” and you’ll find a few references to the book and movie throughout the hotel. If you’re a fan of “Dumb and Dumber,” the Stanley may look a little familiar as it was a filming location for some of the movie scenes. The hotel bar is one such scene and the “we landed on the moon!” newspaper article still hangs on the wall.

WEATHER

Even in the summer, be prepared for weather of any sort. Even some snow. Yes, seriously. When we were visiting in June 2020, we experienced a snow and hail storm. This is not typical summer weather, but you will find cooler temperatures year-round at the higher elevations in the Park. Be sure to pack a jacket for the drive!

FEES AND RESERVATIONS

The daily pass for a standard vehicle is $25. Starting in 2020, the Park started requiring reservations for each day you plan to access the Park. Make sure you book your reservation as early as possible to ensure your entry to the Park.

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BLACK CANYON OF THE GUNNISON NATIONAL PARK

Nicknamed “Colorado’s Grand Canyon”, Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park should be on your list of road trip destinations. At the Park, you’ll find “some of the steepest cliffs, oldest rock and craggiest spires in North America.”

This Park is more off the beaten path and is one of the least visited National Parks; nonetheless, the Canyon is impressive as can be and definitely worth a visit.

Man and baby far away at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, rocky cliffs, craggy spires, Colorado
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
THINGS TO DO

Visiting the Park requires you to choose between exploring the North Rim or the South Rim. The two rims are not connected by a bridge, so, to see both sides, you would have to drive around the canyon. Both rims offer a unique experience.

The South Rim is more developed than the North with paved roads, fenced-off overlooks and a visitor center. It offers better views of the Painted Wall. You may prefer this rim for its convenience and for a slightly safer visit with children.

The North Rim is the more rugged of the rims and the road is closed to vehicles in the winter. Here, you will find better views of the narrowest part of the Canyon. You may prefer this rim if you prefer a quieter, more isolated experience.

Visitors to the Park will enjoy simply driving through the Park and checking out the designated viewpoints. The views alone will make the day worthwhile. The deep canyon exudes adventure, so you’ll feel adventurous just being there.

Mom and baby looking out at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, rocky cliffs, craggy spires, Colorado
Views from the South Rim
Baby at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Forest, pointing and smiling, with Juniper tree and mountains in the background, Colorado
Juniper Tree on the South Rim
WHERE TO STAY

Montrose is the closest city to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. It is home to the MTJ airport and is a good jumping off point for other great Colorado destinations. You’ll find several chain stores, restaurants and hotels along the main road through town.

WEATHER

Summer weather at the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is typically quite warm during the day. Parts of the Canyon get very little sunlight throughout the day, but, along the rims, the sun is strong. Be prepared for sun exposure with sufficient sunscreen and hats. With it’s very low humidity, Colorado is very dry to begin with. Add in the strong sunshine, and you’re definitely gong to need a good deal of water.

FEES

The daily pass for a standard vehicle is $30.

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MESA VERDE NATIONAL PARK

Whether you’re a history buff or not, you’re sure to be impressed by Mesa Verde National Park. Unlike many other National Parks, this park is designed to protect archeological sites rather than nature. Nonetheless, the nature in the Park is interesting in and of itself.

The Park protects 600 cliff dwellings of Ancestral Pueblo people who lived there over 700 years ago. Some dwellings can be seen from the road and viewpoints, but others will need to be explored on foot.

Mesa Verde National Park is fascinating for adults and kids alike. Kids will find it interesting to walk (and climb or crawl!) in the 700+ year old homes built into the sides of cliffs. If visiting with children, keep a close eye (and maybe a hold) on them. There are steep drop-offs all over the Park, along with ladders (big ladders) to climb.

Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde National Park, the largest and most famous cliff dwelling of the Ancestral Pueblo people, Colorado
THINGS TO DO

Driving through the Park, you will find marked dwellings and viewpoints. For a more informative and interesting visit, tours are recommended. Tours are open to people of all ages, but children must be able to walk trails and climb ladders on their own without difficulty. The tour tickets go on sale 14 days in advance. Grab your tour tickets as soon as they become available as they do sell out. All tours must be booked online.

Man climbing ladder in a kiva at Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado
Going down into a kiva at Cliff Palace

Woman climbing steep cliff on tour of Balcony House in Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado
Climbing back up from Balcony House
WHERE TO STAY

Durango is approximately 35 minutes from the Park entrance. It is a cute town with several unique restaurants and shops. We stayed at the Rochester Hotel in downtown Durango. Honestly, when my husband told me that each of the rooms had its own Western movie theme, I thought the hotel would be cheesy and tacky. It’s not. The Western theme stems from the many Westerns that were filmed in the area. The pictures displayed throughout the hotel showcase Durango’s role in film history.

Prepare yourself for quite a bit of driving to visit Mesa Verde National Park. Once you reach the Park entrance, the first dwelling is still another 21 miles away. And that 21 miles is along a winding road that takes about 45 minutes to traverse.

WEATHER

Summer weather at Mesa Verde National Park is generally hot, sunny and dry. Afternoon thunderstorms are common in the summer. Be prepared for the heat and sun exposure with plenty of sunscreen and water. Especially for any little ones, a hat is key.

FEES

Depending on the time of year, the entry fee is $20-30 for a standard vehicle.

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GREAT SAND DUNES NATIONAL PARK AND PRESERVE

For the most adventurous, Instagram-worthy Colorado National Park, look no further than the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. Just getting to the Park is an adventure. The Park is in a very remote area with very little other civilization around. It’s quite a long drive from most anywhere you may be traveling from.

But. Is it worthwhile?? Heck yes.

Little girl on a sand board in Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, Colorado
THINGS TO DO

The most iconic activity at the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is boarding and sledding down the sand dunes. NOTE: the Park does NOT rent the boards or sleds. You must rent them before entering the Park. For some rental options: check out the National Park recommendations. We rented a sled from Oasis, which is the rental location closest to the Park. We had no issues and everyone was very pleasant to work with.

Doing anything at the Sand Dunes takes a lot of exertion. Climbing up any mound of sand is two steps forward and one step back. Hiking up the sand dunes is no joke. The dunes also play tricks with your eyes and you will find lots of false summits hiking up.

Man and little girl riding a sand board in Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, Colorado
Woman and little girl with a sand board in Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, Colorado
TIPS & TRICKS

Plan to visit in the morning. Mid-day temperatures in the summer can be in the 90s. Plus, the sun reflects off the sand making you feel every bit of the harsh sun. The sun also heats up the sand throughout the day and can make the sand unbearably hot.

To get to the dunes from the parking lot, you have to cross Medano Creek on foot. There is no bridge or other way to get there besides crossing the creek. The water flow of the Creek varies. When we visited, the Creek was flowing like a very, very shallow stream. For your visit, check the current conditions online so you can be prepared.

Don’t try to use your own snowboard or sled or a plastic saucer. The Park advises that these do not work on the sand. I personally witnessed a family trying to use their own plastic saucer on the dunes and it just did not work.

Don’t go barefoot on the dunes. The sun heats up the sand and makes the surface very hot. We wore our hiking shoes on the dunes and they worked well.

Prepare to get sandy. Really, really sandy. Expect sand in your shoes, in your socks and even between your toes. Pack extra water if you plan to wash off some of the sand before climbing back in the car.

WHERE TO STAY

For the closest lodging to the Park, check out the Great Sand Dunes Lodge. You may prefer the Lodge if you are wanting to be in the Park really early or really late in the day and do not want to drive very far at that time of day. This may be especially useful to photographers going for a sunrise or sunset shot.

The next closest option for lodging is in Alamosa. It’s a fairly small town but they do have several different hotels from major chains.

Lastly, my favorite place to stay for visiting the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is Salida. Even though it is a 1.5 hour drive from the Park, Salida offers more than just a place to lay your head. Salida is a quaint town along the Arkansas River with lots of restaurants and shops. This is a great area for rafting or otherwise enjoying the river.

WEATHER

In the summer, you will need to plan ahead in order to beat the heat at the Dunes. Prepare for a hot, dry day and dress accordingly. Pack the Colorado summer essentials: sunscreen, hats, sun shirts, and plenty of water.

FEES

The Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve has one of the most interesting fee policies of the National Parks. First, the Park is open 24/7 year-round so you are welcome to come and go at whatever hour you choose any day of the year. There is a $25 fee for a standard vehicle, but “fees are charged only when the entrance station is open in the spring, summer, and fall seasons or when the visitor center is open in the winter season.”

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THE ULTIMATE SUMMER ROAD TRIP

Now, for the ultimate summer road trip, I present to you the Colorado National Park Loop, which covers all 4 of Colorado’s National Parks.

It is a big loop, but Colorado has incredible scenery to make any long drive worthwhile. Wouldn’t this be the perfect opportunity to give RV-ing a try?? If you don’t own one, there are plenty of rental options, including an “Airbnb” or “VRBO” style RV rental.

Rent Your RV Now!

Search for an RV to rent

I would plan 2 weeks to drive the whole Loop. You will definitely want to chart out some other stops along the way as there are so many other awesome spots to visit along or near the Loop.

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ANNUAL NATIONAL PARKS PASS

Rather than paying for each park individually, the National Park Service sells an annual pass. The pass is good for one year and covers your entrance to all the National Parks along with the Federal Recreation Lands. The pass will cover the entrance fee for your whole vehicle (non-commercial) and up to 4 adults at sites with per person fees.

Note: You must buy the pass online and you must have the physical pass with you to use it. An email confirmation or receipt will not suffice.

Technically you can even share the pass between your family and another family as the pass is permitted to have 2 owners. You will not be able to use it simultaneously, however, since you have to present the physical pass for entry.

The annual pass costs $80, so it will likely save you money if you plan to visit at least 3 National Parks during the year. To purchase, click here.

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RECOMMENDED GEAR

HIKING

SUN PROTECTION

MEMORABILIA

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4 thoughts on “COLORADO’S NATIONAL PARKS: THE ULTIMATE SUMMER VACATION ROAD TRIP

  1. I love this! Thank you for the recommendations. I’ve been wanting to go back to Colorado for a while now. We will definitely check out these stops when we get a chance to head back out there. I think the kids will love the Great Sand Dunes!

  2. You’re so welcome! Colorado has my heart. 🙂 The Great Sand Dunes are seriously awesome. They’re a hassle to get to, but so special and memorable. ❤️

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