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Colorado is home to some of the world’s most breathtaking scenery, and it also boasts some impressive ruins and ancient fossils. Much of it is protected within the state’s national parks and monuments, including these eight fabulous places. Whether you live in the Rocky Mountain State or you’re planning a visit, be sure to put at least some of these on your must-experience list.
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Rocky Mountain National Park is Colorado’s most well-known, filled with soaring peaks that stretch more than 12,000 feet into the nearly always bright blue skies. With over 350 miles of trails winding through, you’ll have endless options for exploring the mountain summits and rocky tundra, waterfalls and alpine lakes, including everything from short treks to multi-day hikes. A scenic drive on Trail Ridge Road brings many of its highlights, including the entire sweep of the Rockies in every direction. Whether you’re out on the trail or the road, keep an eye out for wildlife like elk, moose, bighorn sheep, marmots, deer and more.
Great Sand Dunes National Park, nestled between the San Juan Mountains and the Sangre de Cristo desert, is home to North America’s tallest dunes, some of which rise more than 700 feet. Not only is the scenery amazing, but visitors can enjoy a wealth of outdoor adventures, including unique activities like sand sledding and sandboarding. Four wheeling is popular here too, with the 22-mile Medano Pass Road a great backcountry experience crossing soft sands and creek beds.
Located in the Four Corners area of Colorado where the state meets up with New Mexico, Utah and Arizona, Mesa Verde National Park offers a fascinating experience, retracing the ancient footsteps of ancestral Puebloans who once lived in its cliff dwellings. UNESCO listed, it’s home to some of the most well-preserved archaeological sites in the entire country, with over 4,500 found within the park boundaries. Cliff Palace is especially impressive, with around 150 once residing here in its 150 rooms and 23 kivas. The Balcony House with its 40 well-preserved rooms, kivas and plazas provide a tribute to those who built and occupied the site in the 13th century.
While this park doesn’t get near the hype that Rocky Mountain does, it’s a true hidden treasure. A deep gorge carved by the Gunnison River, the canyon walls dramatically plunge nearly 2,000 feet – in fact, they’re so tall that the bottom receives little sunlight. It’s hard not to be overwhelmed as you stare down into its depths. Trails and roads that wind along the south and north rims provide breathtaking views of the remarkable drops as well as the striated Painted Wall cliff. Wildlife is abundant here too, with the opportunity to spot everything from elk and mule deer to golden eagles. It’s a fabulous place for stargazing as well thanks to the lack of light pollution.
Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument is a wonderful place to go for a tranquil hike, with relatively few visitors here even during the peak summer months. It also reveals a lot about prehistoric life in the state and its fossils. There are thousands of detailed fossils of insects, plants and even massive petrified redwoods stumps, up to 14 feet wide. The giant trees grew here more than 34 million years ago along an ancient river valley near present-day Florissant. The 1.1-mile Petrified Forest Loop will bring you to see many of the impressively large stumps that still remain. Visitors can also hike trails that wind past outcrops of weathered Pikes Peak granite, meadows and alpine forest, as well as visit a pioneer’s homestead.
Dinosaur National Monument straddles the border between Colorado and Utah at the confluence of the Green and Yampa Rivers. There are visitor centers on both sides, including the Canyon Visitor center near the town of Dinosaur, a gateway to the monument’s mountains and river canyons. The Quarry Visitor Center near Jensen, Utah is the gateway to Quarry Exhibit Hall and the world-famous wall of dinosaur bones. Carnegie Quarry is an internationally-renowned site with nearly 1,500 visible dinosaur fossils and multiple interactive exhibits, while the surrounding land features many petroglyphs for a unique glimpse into early cultures. There are miles and miles of hiking trails and river rafting is possible too.
Chimney Rock is a mostly undiscovered gem, an off-the-beaten-path archaeological site covering seven square miles that sits near the edge of the San Juan Mountain Range in southwestern Colorado. Here you can follow the footsteps of ancestral Puebloans from the Chaco Canyon along primitive pathways that haven’t changed over the past thousand years. Along the way, you’ll see all sorts of archaeological artifacts and structures, including some 200 ancient homes and ceremonial buildings. Some have even been excavated and can be explored, including the Chacoan-style Great House Pueblo, Great Kiva, Pit House and Multi-Family Dwelling.
Hovenweep National Monument protects six prehistoric, Puebloan-era villages that are dotted over a 20-mile expanse of rugged canyons and mesas along the Colorado and Utah border. Nomadic Paleoindians used this area for centuries, visiting the Cajon Mesa to gather food and hunt for game. By around 900 AD people began to settle, living here year-round, and by the late 13th-century, Hovenweep was home to a population of more than 2,500. It hosts a visitor center to help you make the most of your visit, with sites accessed by car on both paved and unpaved roads, although getting out on foot is the best way to explore them.