When you think of visiting Colorado, you probably think of the Rocky Mountains and the Mile High City. But there’s even more natural beauty to explore in our home state.
Did you know that there are four National Parks in Colorado, with each of them offering their own unique landscape? It’s hard to say which is the best National Park in Colorado, so our guide takes you to all of them!
From towering sand dunes to deep canyons and ancient cliff dwellings to alpine lakes, we put together a road trip itinerary that will take you through all of Colorado’s National Parks. We even threw in two bonus National Monuments in case you still have some exploring left in you.
Note: For all the parks mentioned below, be sure to check on the current state of openings and closures on the National Park Service site. With the phased reopening of National Parks across the country, some sections or services at each park may be closed. Be sure to check the individual park’s websites for current conditions, as they are changing frequently.
Stop 1: Denver
Start by picking up your compact RV, campervan, or Jeep camper at Overland Discovery in Denver. You’ll get an orientation for your vehicle, and helpful tips for a successful adventure.
Be sure to stock up on plenty of groceries, snacks, and drinking water before heading into the wilderness!
Stop 2: Rocky Mountain National Park
Drive Time: 1.5 hours, 68 miles from Denver
Highlight: Alpine lake views
Fun Fact: Trail Ridge Road is the highest paved road in any National Park at 12,183ft
Overlander Tip: There are no hookup sites within the park, so plan accordingly.
From Denver, you’ll drive through the gateway town of Estes Park on your way to Rocky Mountain National Park. Located 3.5 miles from the eastern entrance to the park, the town of Estes Park is home to the infamous Stanley Hotel, which inspired Stephen King’s book The Shining.
You can stop by Estes Park Mountain Shop for outdoor gear rentals and even a small climbing gym. Their bargain basement has some great deals if you forgot something at home, or are surprised by the changing weather at high elevation.
PREPARE FOR HIGH ELEVATION DRIVING
Many roads within the park are steep and winding, so be prepared for strong winds and changing weather.
If you’re driving one of our compact RVs, be sure to use the many available pull-outs to let other drivers pass and take in the views safely while stopped in designated areas. RVs are allowed on all roads in the park except for Old Fall River Road, where vehicles longer than 25 feet and trailers are prohibited.
Along the drive, keep your eyes peeled for wildlife such as elk, bighorn sheep, pikas, marmots, and even bears!
HIKING IN RMPNP
If you’re up for a bit of hiking in Colorado, don’t miss the beautiful alpine lakes throughout the park. Start at Bear Lake, where you might catch the reflection of Hallett Peak in the early morning. From there, you can explore Nymph Lake and the famously beautiful Dream Lake.
You’ll start at over 9,000 feet, and will be rewarded along the way with incredible views of Longs Peak. This is a popular trail, and during peak season you may want to make use of the park’s free shuttle service rather than look for parking at the Bear Lake Trailhead.
Be sure to keep the high elevation of Rocky Mountain National Park in mind when planning any outdoor activities, like hiking or biking.
With Trail Ridge Road crossing the park at a staggering 12,183 feet, and the summit of Longs Peak towering at 14,000 feet, you’re sure to feel the difference in altitude — especially if you’re used to living at sea level.
Allow yourself time to get acclimated to the altitude, and be sure to stay hydrated.
RV HOOKUPS IN RMNP
There are no full hook-up campsites in Rocky Mountain National Park, but there are dry campsites available. Be sure to reserve a campsite ahead of time if you plan to stay in the park.
Bonus Location: Colorado National Monument
Drive Time: 4.25 hours, 228 miles from the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park
Leaving the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park, head toward Grand Junction. Along the way you’ll pass through Glenwood Springs, where you can recharge from your alpine adventures with a soak in the hot springs.
The landscape here changes drastically from mountain peaks and high alpine lakes to desert and red rocks iconic to the American Southwest. Drive (or bike!) the 23-mile scenic road along Rim Rock Drive through Colorado National Monument, overlooking dramatic red rock formations and canyons. If it reminds you of other National Parks like Bryce Canyon, Arches, and the Grand Canyon, that’s because they’re all part of the greater Colorado Plateau, giving them noticeable geological similarities.
Stop 3: Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Drive Time: 2 hours, 87 miles from Colorado National Monument
Highlights: Views of the Painted Wall
Fun Fact: Certified as an International Dark Sky Park
Overlander Tip: North Rim is more remote, with fewer established campsites
Forged by the Gunnison River over 2 million years, Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park features sheer 2,700-foot walls of black rock. Black Canyon has a North and South Rim that appear close together (as the crow flies), but it takes 2 hours to drive from one rim to the other.
East Portal Road is the steep (16% grade) road that winds down into the canyon itself and the Gunnison river. Vehicles longer than 22 feet aren’t permitted to attempt this road. Our campervans are 20 feet long, which means you could attempt this drive if you’re feeling adventurous!
Driving the South Rim Scenic Drive from Tomichi Point to High Point will ensure that the 12 scenic pullouts (with short walks to viewpoints) will be on the right side, making it easier for RVs and large vehicles to make use of each pullout.
If you don’t have time for all 12, be sure to stop for a memorable view of Mother Nature’s artwork at the Painted Wall.
HIKING IN BLACK CANYON OF THE GUNNISON NATIONAL PARK
If you’re looking for a family-friendly hike, head over to Warner Point Trail. It’s a 1.5 mile round trip hike with only 150 feet of elevation gain along the South Rim. Even though this is an easy hike, the scenery is still spectacular. You’ll get dramatic views of the canyon, Gunnison River, and the West Elk Mountains along the way.
Warner Point Trail is located at the end of South Rim Drive at High Point Overlook.
And if you’re ready for a different perspective, but aren’t ready to venture deep into the inner canyon, Oak Flat Loop Trail might be the hike for you! This hike is 2 miles roundtrip and has a slightly higher elevation gain of 400 feet. You’ll hike among the trees and encounter a few narrow paths and steep drop-off that will make you feel as if you’re deeper in the canyon.
Oak Flat Loop trail begins at the Visitors Center on the South Rim.
And if you’re up for some extreme adventure, explore the depths of Black Canyon of the Gunnison by hiking or climbing the inner canyon. Note, this requires a wilderness permit and lots of preparation.
RV HOOK UPS IN BLACK CANYON
The South Rim is more developed and popular, and has a year-round Colorado camping ground with 23 electric hookup sites. The North Rim is more remote and has fewer amenities, but is known for its dramatic views.
There are no hookup sites in the smaller campground on the North Rim side, which has only 13 sites total.
Stop 4: Mesa Verde National Park
Drive Time: 3 hours 45 minutes, 176 miles from Black Canyon of the Gunnison (South Rim)
Highlights: The Cliff Palace
Fun Fact: There are over 4,000 archaeological sites throughout the park
Mesa Verde National Park was established in 1906 to preserve the stunning archaeological sites built by the Pueblo people who lived there from 600 to 1300CE.
The park contains over 4,000 archaeological sites, the most famous of which are the beautifully preserved cliff dwellings carved into the sandstone cliffs.
The Cliff Palace is the largest known cliff dwelling on the continent. The Cliff Palace Loop is the park’s must-see route, but it requires a guided tour led by a ranger. Right now, ranger tours are not being offered due to COVID-19.
Be sure to check the park’s website before visiting to see which features may be closed. Even if you’re unable to take a tour of the cliff dwellings, you can view them by driving the 6-mile Mesa Top Loop Road and checking out the overlooks.
HIKING IN MESA VERDE NATIONAL PARK
If you want to stretch your legs on a hike, try the 2.4-mile Petroglyph Point loop to get an up-close look at ancient petroglyphs, and take in beautiful views along the way.
This is a moderate hike with a narrow rocky trail and some scrambling up a large stone staircase. Keep in mind that summer weather can be hot with little shade, so be prepared with sun protection and plenty of water.
RV HOOKUPS IN MESA VERDE
There are 15 full hookup RV sites available at the Morefield Campground within the park, be sure to reserve one ahead of time if you plan to stay in the park.
Stop 5: Great Sand Dunes National Park
Drive Time: 4.5 hours, 223 miles
Highlights: The tallest dune in North America, Star Dune
Fun Fact: The park is open 24 hours, so be sure to stay into the evening for stargazing
Overlander Tip: Take your Jeep camper on the Medano Pass 4WD road
While Star Wars’ sand planet of Jakku was actually filmed in the Liwa Dunes of Abu Dhabi, you’ll feel like you’ve been transported to another planet when you immerse yourself in the sand dunes of Great Sand Dunes National Park.
The 30 square mile dune field features 700-foot sand dunes set against the backdrop of 14,000-foot peaks in the Sangre de Cristo mountains. There are no designated trails through the dunes, so you’re free to blaze your own.
With a backcountry permit you can camp in the sand, Bedouin-style.
If you’ve rented a Jeep camper from Overland Discovery, this park is a great place to put the 4-wheel drive to work. There is a designated 4WD road, Medano Pass, which will take you up steep mountain passes, past alpine lakes, and possibly even snow.
Hike around or just enjoy the adventurous drive. Primitive campsites are available on a first come, first served basis, too.
HIKING IN GREAT SAND DUNES NATIONAL PARK
Make sure your wandering takes you to High Dune, which at 699 feet appears to be the tallest dune, but in fact its base is set higher than the rest.The tallest dune in the park (and on the continent) is Star Dune — an astounding 750 feet from base to crest.
From High Dune, hike 2.5 miles to reach Star Dune. This is some of the best hiking in Colorado, as hiking in sand is a unique experience that is not to be missed, and you can debate whether shoes or bare feet are the best equipment for the job. Or give sand sledding or sandboarding a try!
Tip: Sandboards or sand sleds are not available for rent inside Great Sand Dunes National Park. Be sure to rent sand gear before you head into the park. You can rent from the Oasis Store, which is only 4 miles from the visitors center.
While the sandy landscape may bring to mind scorching deserts, the park is actually quite high in elevation and can be cold, windy, and even snowy depending on the season.
The lowest point of the park is 7,520 feet, and the highest point is 13,604 feet. There is a seasonal creek, Medano Creek, that runs through the park in late spring and early summer.
The park is open 24/7 year-round, so be sure to stick around to soak in the stars. Sleeping under the unspoiled night sky is sure to restore you after a long day of hiking through the sand at high altitude.
RV HOOKUPS IN GREAT SAND DUNES
In addition to the option of sleeping in the dunes, Great Sand Dunes National Park has one Colorado camping area, open April through October. The site does allow RVs, but has no hookups. As always, be sure to make campground reservations in advance.
Bonus Location: Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument
Drive Time: 3.5 hours, 203 miles using I-25 along the way back to Denver
On the way back to Denver after exploring the Great Sand Dunes, stop at the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument to check another National Monument site off your bucket list. Here you’ll find one of the richest fossil deposits in the world, including petrified redwood and insect and plant fossils.
Stop 6: Back Home to Denver
Drive Time: 2 hours, 104 miles on I-25
It can be a shock to return to civilization after adventuring in the wild for so many days. On the other hand, it might be a treat to get back into the city, where you can soak up some of Denver’s incredible dining and entertainment scene before you leave.
Return your rental campervan, compact RV, or Jeep camper to Overland Discovery, and reflect on the amazing sites you’ve discovered. We know you’ll leave with incredible memories of your time exploring Colorado’s National Parks.
One more note: Weather is ever-changing in Colorado. The temperatures and landscapes are vastly different in the arid southwest and at the top of the treeline on a 13er or 14er.
As such, this itinerary can be reversed if needed according to the season of your visit. You can either start with Rocky Mountain National Park only 1.5 hours outside of Denver, or drive 3.5 hours south to Great Sand Dunes National Park, rounding out your road trip with Black Canyon of the Gunnison and Mesa Verde National Parks.
Renting a Jeep camper, compact RV, or Colorado campervan from Overland Discovery is a fantastic way to explore all four National Parks, while bringing your accommodations along with you.
Overland Discovery provides fully equipped options for every kind of adventure, so that you can focus on enjoying the open road and spectacular views ahead. With convenient pick up and drop off in Denver, you can begin and end the road trip with Overland Discovery.