On November 29, 1864, in the middle of the Civil War, a tragedy played out on this spot where Chief Black Kettle and 700 other American Indians were peacefully spending the winter in accordance with the 1861 Treaty of Fort Wise. A surprise attack led by Colonel John Chivington killed between 165 and 200 Cheyenne and Arapaho, primarily women, children, and the elderly. The site is held sacred by the Cheyenne and Arapaho, so is only viewable from an overlook above the cottonwood-lined creek. It serves as an important reminder of the terrible acts people can undertake when they dehumanize their fellow men.
Memorial, trail, overlook
Authorized in 2000 upon the discovery of two grisly letters describing the gruesome event, Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site opened to the public in 2007. It is located in a remote section of the eastern Colorado plains, down a long dirt road, but it does have a small visitor center in a trailer staffed by the National Park Service (NPS). Near the parking lot you will find posted the letters written by Captain Soule and Lieutenant Cramer, whose units refused to fire during the massacre. Be warned that the description of the mutilation of the bodies is painful to read and not suitable for children.
There is a 0.8-mile self-guided walking trail with a few interpretive signs. There is also a 600-mile Sand Creek Massacre Trail designated on highways between here and the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming.
We took this photo from the overlook of the 1864 Cheyenne and Arapaho camp in November nearly 153 years after the massacre.
Yucca House National Monument was established in 1919 outside Cortez, Colorado. It is not far from Mesa Verde National Park, which has information about the National Monument at its visitor center on Highway 160. The 34-acre site protects an unexcavated pueblo abandoned around 1300, so there is very little to see above ground. The fact that there is public access at all is thanks to the ranching family that allows visitors to park in what is basically their driveway.
Unexcavated pueblo, Canyons of the Ancients National Monument visitor center
Unless you aim to visit every unit in the National Park Service (NPS) system, you are better off spending your time taking an extra tour or hike at Mesa Verde National Park. There are no facilities and there is not much to see at Yucca House, but there are many interesting Ancestral Puebloan ruins within nearby Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, which is run by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). They have a large visitor center in Dolores, Colorado where you can get directions to archaeological sites, such as Painted Hand Pueblo.
Sand Canyon Trail lies within Canyons of the Ancients National Monument and its southern trailhead is located just off paved County Road G. The trail provides access to numerous archaeological sites; just remember to leave everything where you found it.
The most interesting unexcavated pueblo we have visited is Posi-Ouinge, which is accessible by a short trail from Ojo Caliente Hot Springs Resort in New Mexico. The ground there is littered with thousands of pot shards, many with painted designs still visible.
We wanted to demonstrate how our new guidebook (A Park to Yourself: Finding Adventure in America’s National Parks) is different from this website, so we are providing a sample chapter for Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. Here is a link to the Raven About The Parks blog post on the park.
The holidays are coming up, so order A Park to Yourself now on Amazon!
39. Rocky Mountain National Park
4,590,493 visitors in 2018
This truly is a National Park for
all seasons. In the summer, it is worth
the extra time it takes to drive 11 miles up the unpaved curves of one-way Old
Fall River Road to Alpine Visitor Center at 11,796 feet, then back down Trail
Ridge Road. Elk bulls spar and bugle in
the autumn, when aspen trees briefly turn the mountainsides gold. Winter is a wonderful time for outdoor
recreation here if you are prepared for the icy conditions, even on a short
1.6-mile trip up to Gem Lake just outside of Estes Park, Colorado.
Peak Visitation Months
July (20%) August (18%) June (16%)
Bear Lake Trailhead, Alluvial Fan,
Alpine Visitor Center, Longs Peak
Worth The Crowds
Bear Lake Trailhead is the busiest
area in the park. Its huge parking lot
fills up early year round, but a hiker shuttle is available during the
summer. While the trail starts above
9,000 feet elevation, it is only 1.1 miles with a steady ascent up to stunning
Dream Lake ringed by jagged peaks. From
there, you can continue on to Emerald Lake or take the long loop around to Lake
Haiyaha and Alberta Falls. Even in the
winter, these trails are generally packed enough that snowshoes are not
A Park To Yourself
The western side of the park is
generally less busy throughout the year, but even less so in the winter when it
is cut off after Trail Ridge Road closes each October. Snowshoeing past Adams Falls up the East
Inlet valley is breathtaking when the snow sparkles in the sun and the river
gurgles deep under foot. There are
majestic mountain views once the forest opens up into a spectacular
meadow. Better yet, there is never a fee
required to park at the East Inlet or North Inlet Trailheads.
Around Memorial Day each year, all
48 miles of Trail Ridge Road open to vehicles.
Its high point is at 12,183 feet, the highest elevation reached by a
fully-paved road in the United States.
For much of its length, jagged black mountaintops lined in pure white
snow surround the visitor on all sides.
Our favorite view is looking southwest towards the Gorge Lakes and Mount
Ida from the overlooks at Rock Cut or Forest Canyon parking areas.
Scott’s Favorite Trail
Starting at the small parking lot
at Poudre Lake, it is a steady climb five miles one-way to Mount Ida at 12,880
feet. After a mile, it is less a trail
and more following cairns along the Continental Divide. Needless to say, above timberline there are
first-class views of surrounding mountains.
Elk and bighorn sheep are commonly spotted on the route. From the top you look down on the colorful
Gorge Lakes and far across to Trail Ridge Road.
Tiff’s Favorite Trail
The Dunraven Trailhead is in
Roosevelt National Forest, northeast of Estes Park. From there a trail drops to the canyon bottom
then follows the North Fork of the Big Thompson River 4.4 miles before it
enters the National Park, and backpack camping is allowed without a permit
along this length. The views open up on
the Mummy Range before the trail ends around Lost Lake. You can continue to explore the other lakes
past there, but overnight stays in this area require a permit from the National
Bonus Winter Trail
In the winter months, the road off
Highway 7 to Wild Basin shuts down, but it is still plowed for those entering
on foot. Adding the two mile road length
to any hiking distance makes it about eight miles roundtrip to Calypso
Cascades, which continues to flow beneath the snow and ice. Snowshoes are recommended as this trail sees
much less use than those around Bear Lake.
There are multiple campgrounds
within the park, but only Glacier Basin is open year round. Several National Forests surround the park
and provide opportunities for dispersed camping, although near Grand Lake it
does get crowded during the summer.
Backpacking permits are required and
designated sites are reservable, including on the Continental Divide National
Scenic Trail. You must still pay the
National Park entry fee, but there is no additional charge to get a permit to
park at the Bowen/Baker Trailhead and camp in the Never Summer Wilderness
outside the park boundaries.
Most of the park roads are paved and
the two-mile long dirt road to Wild Basin Trailhead is well-maintained. A hiker shuttle operates from Beaver Meadows
Visitor Center in the summer. Old Fall
River Road typically does not open until July, but this 11-mile long one-way
dirt road makes a great loop when connected with Trail Ridge Road (open late-May
Nearby Public Lands
There are no National Park Service
units near this park, but it does border Arapaho National Recreation Area on
the west side. If you are flying in or
out of Denver International Airport, a short detour from Interstate 70 takes
you to Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge, which contains bison,
white-tailed deer, pronghorns, prairie dogs, and other animals.
Estes Park is the gateway town to
the eastern portion of the park. There
are often elk grazing in its neighborhoods and golf courses. While there, we recommend the ghost tour of
the Stanley Hotel, which inspired Stephen King’s The Shining.
In the summer, most of the elk
herds head to high elevation, but other times of year they walk through the
town of Estes Park and congregate near the eastern entrance stations. Rock Cut is a great spot to watch the spastic
wanderings of yellow-bellied marmots and American pikas. Mule deer are found throughout the park, but
moose are more common on the west side.
We commonly see bighorn sheep on Highway 34 through Big Thompson Canyon,
but have never spotted one within the park, even at Sheep Lakes where they come
to lick salt.
We never thought we would have an entire National Park campground to ourselves, but that is exactly what we found at Timber Creek one beautiful March weekend. The ranger could not recall the last campers they had stayed there and it took some work to excavate a site from almost three feet of snow, but it was worth it. Sitting around the campfire that night, the silence was palpable until abruptly pierced by the eerie cries of coyotes that echoed up the valley. Snow camping is not for the faint of heart, but with proper planning we were well prepared for the 15°F temperatures that met us in the morning. On a clear day, the winter scenery in the Rocky Mountains is unsurpassed.
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.
Bear Lake, Dream Lake, Trail Ridge Road, Adams Falls, Ouzel
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.
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.
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.
Summer is the busiest, but winter brings opportunities for
$35 per vehicle ($25 for one day) or America The Beautiful pass
Almost all roads are paved; one-way Old Fall River Road is
gravel and only open a few months in the summer.
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.
Explore More – How do the winter survival strategies differ between pikas and yellow-bellied marmots?
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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.
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).
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.
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.
No entrance fees for the Colorado side, but $25 per vehicle to enter the Utah side to view the Dinosaur Quarry.
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.
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?