Category Archives: Colorado

Rocky Mountain National Park

Overview

This truly is a National Park for all seasons.  In the summer, it is worth the extra time it takes to drive eleven miles up the unpaved curves of one-way Old Fall River Road to Alpine Visitor Center at 11,796 feet.  Elk bulls spar and bugle in the autumn, when aspen trees briefly turn the mountainsides gold.  Winter is a wonderful time for outdoor recreation if you come prepared for the cold and snow.

Highlights

Bear Lake, Dream Lake, Trail Ridge Road, Adams Falls, Ouzel Falls,

Must-Do Activity

From the famous Trail Ridge Road, you do not even have to get out of your car for amazing panoramas.  If you want to walk, the one-mile Toll Memorial Trail at Tundra Communities Trailhead is paved and flat enough to not be too strenuous at 12,000 feet in elevation.  Elk, pikas, and yellow-bellied marmots frequent the parking area around Rock Cut. 

Best Trail

If you are looking to climb straight up the side of a mountain, there are plenty of options, including popular Flattop Mountain and the strenuous climb up Longs Peak.  For a less busy trail, head to Ypsilon Lake and continue up the hillside, scrambling over boulders all the way to spectacular Spectacle Lakes.

Instagram-worthy Photo

In Grand Lake on the west side of the park, hiking or snowshoeing past Adams Falls up the East Inlet Trail is breathtaking in all seasons.

Peak Season

Summer is the busiest, but winter brings opportunities for snowshoeing.

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/romo/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

$35 per vehicle ($25 for one day) or America The Beautiful pass

Road Conditions

Almost all roads are paved; one-way Old Fall River Road is gravel and only open a few months in the summer.

Camping

There are multiple campgrounds within the park and Glacier Basin is open year round.  Several National Forests surround the park and provide opportunities for dispersed camping, although around Grand Lake it does get crowded on summer weekends.

This design we created to celebrate Rocky Mountain National Park is available on a variety of products at Cafe Press and Amazon.

Explore More – How do the winter survival strategies differ between pikas and yellow-bellied marmots?

This photo from Emerald Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park is for sale on Imagekind

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Dinosaur National Monument

Overview

As its name suggests, Dinosaur National Monument was first created in 1915 to protect an archaeological dig.  The 200-foot long wall of unexcavated fossils at Dinosaur Quarry outside Jensen, Utah is still the park’s main attraction.  A major addition of 200,000 acres was added in 1938, stretching into the neighboring state of Colorado.  More than 90% of the National Monument (click here to see where it ranks in our Top 10) is managed as wilderness and is best explored by whitewater rafting the Green and Yampa Rivers.

Highlights

Dinosaur Quarry, Harpers Corner Road, Fremont pictographs, Jones Hole Trail, whitewater rafting

Must-Do Activity

Whitewater rafting trips on the Green River can last a few hours or multiple days depending upon where you put in.  We highly recommend a three night trip starting at the Gates of Lodore with Adrift Dinosaur or one of several other outfitters.  They also offer multi-day trips down the Yampa River, which is undammed and only navigable during the spring snowmelt.  If you do not feel like getting wet, simply enjoy a quiet picnic on the shoreline at easily-accessible Split Mountain (or take a high-clearance vehicle down the rough road to scenic Echo Park).

Best Trail

The 4-mile long Jones Hole Trail is accessible to rafters on the Green River and from a fish hatchery at the end of a paved road near the Utah-Colorado border.  It provides access to Ely Creek Falls and the Deluge Shelter pictographs, which are approximately 800 to 1,400 years old.

Instagram-worthy Photo

Dinosaur Quarry may be the only mountainside in America surrounded by its own glass-enclosed, air-conditioned building.  It contains thousands of fossilized bones of giant creatures sitting in the same place they have been for the past 148-million years.  It is a completely different experience than seeing dinosaur skeletons reconstructed in a museum, although they have those, too. 

Peak Season

Spring and summer

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/dino/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

No entrance fees for the Colorado side, but $25 per vehicle to enter the Utah side to view the Dinosaur Quarry.

Road Conditions

There are many dirt roads in the National Monument, some of which are impassable when wet, so check at a visitor center before entering.  The roads to the Dinosaur Quarry, Jones Hole Trailhead, Deerlodge Park, and Harpers Corner are paved.

Camping

There are several campgrounds within the park accessible by paved or unpaved roads, as well as numerous backcountry campsites located along the Green and Yampa Rivers (plus, one on the Jones Hole Trail). 

Explore More – Who was the one-armed Civil War veteran that led the first exploration of the Green River (and named the Gates of Lodore after a poem) in 1869?

WONDON WAS HERE

Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site

Overview

Bent’s Old Fort on the Arkansas River on the prairie of eastern Colorado has been painstakingly reconstructed to its appearance of 1845.  It was originally built in 1833, long before Fort Larned and Fort Union announced the U.S. military presence on the 1,200-mile-long Santa Fe Trail.  Historical reenactors are happy to talk to visitors about the site and its famous inhabitants and visitors.

Highlights

Reconstructed fort, film, living history

Must-Do Activity

The “old fort” was originally built with the financial backing of the two Bent brothers from St. Louis and a Taos trader named Ceran St. Vrain.  It was a huge success, bringing a period of peace to warring tribes on the Great Plains, particularly after William Bent married a Cheyenne woman.  Things changed once Texas was annexed by the U.S. in 1845 and the military moved in, spurring a move to Bent’s New Fort 38 miles downstream.  

Best Trail

The parking lot is less than a half-mile walk from the fort, yet we found that approaching on foot added to the historic experience, as did speaking with the reenactors roaming inside.  Closer handicap parking is available.  Another trail leads to the banks of the Arkansas River on a 1.75-mile loop.

Instagram-worthy Photo

In 1975, the adobe fort was reconstructed on its original foundation in southeast Colorado based on drawings by Lieutenant James Abert, a topographical engineer stationed here in 1845 and 1846. 

Peak Season

Summer, but watch for afternoon thunderstorms.

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/beol/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

$3 per adult except $5 during June 8-9 Santa Fe Trail Encampment, September 15 Hispanic Heritage Day, October 20 Native American Heritage Day, and the December 7-8 Traditional Holiday Celebration. America the Beautiful pass accepted, too.

Road Conditions

All roads paved, although they can be closed due to spring floods on the Arkansas River.

Camping

There are private campgrounds in nearby La Junta, Colorado and a public one run by the Corps of Engineers at John Martin Reservoir (27 miles east on Highway 50).

Explore More – What combination of factors led William Bent to burn the original fort and build a new one 38 miles down the Arkansas River?

Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument

Overview

Like John Day Fossil Beds in Oregon, this area in central Colorado protects a geologically significant window into the past.  Here the fossils are 34-million years old, buried by volcanic debris and lake sediments, with species that do not look that different from plants and animals we see today. 

Highlights

Museum, Ponderosa Loop, Petrified Forest Loop, Big Stump, Hornbek Homestead

Must-Do Activity

A variety of butterflies, birds, leaves, and flowers are nicely displayed in the visitor center.  Our favorite was the bloom of Florissantia speirii, an extinct member of the cocoa family that grew at this site when the climate was much warmer and wetter.  After exploring the museum, head outside on the wheelchair-accessible Ponderosa Loop or hike some of the monument’s 14 miles of trails.

Best Trail

Take a walk on the Ponderosa or Petrified Forest Loops to see excavated stumps of massive redwood trees, fossilized in place with beautifully colored minerals replacing the original organic compounds.  You can even see annual growth rings preserved in the petrified wood.  If you have not experienced the massive dimensions of coast redwoods in California, these stumps will make you want to visit those living trees in person.

Instagram-worthy Photo

On your walk through the ponderosa pine forest, you may spot an Abert’s squirrel, a species known for its long ear tufts.  Also watch for elk.

Peak Season

Summer due to high elevation

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/flfo/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

$10 per adult or America The Beautiful pass

Road Conditions

The main roads are paved, but Upper Twin Rock Road is not.

Camping

None within the National Monument, but there are several campgrounds in the surrounding Pike National Forest, as well as dispersed camping opportunities.

Explore More – At the bottom of Ancient Lake Florissant, the microlayers of fine volcanic ash and clay formed what type of sedimentary rock?

Mesa Verde National Park

Overview

The impressive and numerous (around 600) cliff dwellings here were built by Ancestral Puebloans 600 to 800 years ago before their abandonment.  After a day or two at Mesa Verde, you will understand why since 1906 it has remained the only “National Park” dedicated to preserving an archaeological site.

Highlights

Chapin Museum, Spruce Tree House, Petroglyph Point Trail, Cliff Palace, Step House, annual open house with luminaria

Must-Do Activity

Purchase tickets for guided tours of the ruins at the shiny new visitor center off Highway 160 before driving 20 miles to Long House, Cliff Palace, or Balcony House (the best tour for families).   Leave time to explore Chapin Mesa Museum first, where a high-quality film introduces the history of the region.  When it finally reopens years after a rock fall, you can then take a quick but steep hike to Spruce Tree House, accessible without a paid tour, where you have the opportunity to climb down a ladder into the dim interior of a reconstructed kiva. 

Best Trail

After driving to the less-trafficked Weatherill Mesa, bike or walk the paved road to Nordenskold No. 16 Trailhead, numerous pit-houses, and Step House Loop Trail. 

Instagram-worthy Photo

We think Square Tower House is the most photogenic ruins in the park and can be viewed from an overlook off Mesa Top Loop Road.  In summer 2018, we made reservations for a special guided tour of only 10 people to enter these ruins.

Peak Season

Summer, but it can get hot with little shade atop the mesas.

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/meve/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

$20 per vehicle or America The Beautiful pass

Road Conditions

All roads paved, but some are closed in winter when tours are not offered.

Camping

Morefield Campground has more than 400 campsites atop the mesa; 15 with full RV hookups.  No backcountry camping is allowed.


This design we created to celebrate Mesa Verde National Park is available on a variety of products at Cafe Press and Amazon.

Explore More – What month does the NPS host an evening open house with thousands of candle luminaria, free food, and live music?