Colorado’s Top 5 Most Incredible Natural Wonders

Colorado is one of the most magical states in America. Its epic mountains and 300 sunny days per year make it a paradise for the outdoorsy type, while the great beer (200+ breweries!), delicious cuisine (Smashburger anyone?) and plenty of Colorado vacation rentals to choose from, not only promise, but also deliver tons of fun and adventures to remember.

Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park, easily the most popular of the state’s national parks in terms of visitor numbers, is also the most spectacular. Photos of its magnificent snowcapped peaks have graced so many calendars and coffee-table books, people often envision Rocky Mountain National Park when they think of Colorado.

Snow-covered peaks stand over the lush valleys and shimmering alpine lakes that cover the 415 square miles of Rocky Mountain National Park. But what really sets the park apart is its variety of distinct ecological zones. As you rise and descend in altitude, the landscape of the park changes dramatically. The park is also home to bighorn sheep, which have become its unofficial mascots.

This is also one of the best places to camp in the state. And since it can get very crowded, especially in summer, I recommend you go in late September or early October.

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve

Just 35 miles northeast of Alamosa, is Colorado’s fourth and newest national park.  Far from any sea or major desert, this 39-square-mile expanse of sand seems incongruous here.

The dunes are the tallest on the continent, piled nearly 750 feet high against the western edge of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The dunes were created over thousands of years by southwesterly winds blowing across the valley. They formed when streams of water from melting glaciers carried rocks, gravel, and silt down from the mountains.

Walk the easy half a mile self-guided nature trail that begins at the visitor center. If you want more of a challenge, hike the dunes. You can get to the top of a 750-foot dune and back in about 90 minutes. Those who make it all the way to the top are rewarded with spectacular views of the dunes and the surrounding mountains.

Maroon Bells

There are practically unlimited opportunities for hiking and backpacking in the Crested Butte area. But some of the best are in the Maroon Bells, accessible from a trailhead at Gothic, above Mt. Crested Butte, where you can hike to Aspen if properly motivated.

The two sheer, pyramidal peaks called Maroon Bells, 10 miles west of Aspen, are probably two of the most photographed mountains in the Rockies.

With a number of fourteeners, including the namesake Maroon Bells, this is one of the most scenic mountainscapes in the West. A vision of glaciated rock and lush greenery, the trails here are popular with backpackers, but there are plenty of good day hikes as well.

Garden of the Gods

There’s nothing like a sunrise at the Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs, with its fantastic and sometimes fanciful red-sandstone formations sculpted by wind and water over hundreds of thousands of years. It’s worth spending some foot power to get away from the crowds on one of the park’s many trails, to listen to the wind and imagine the gods cavorting among the formations.

One of the West’s unique geological sites, the 1,300-acre Garden of the Gods is a giant rock garden composed of spectacular red sandstone formations sculpted by rain and the wind over millions of years. 

The park has a number of hiking trails, that offer great scenery and an opportunity to get away from the crowds. Many trails are also open to horseback riding and mountain biking.

Mesa Verde National Park

Mesa Verde is the largest archaeological preserve in the United States, with some 4,000 known sites dating from 600 to 1300 AD. The earliest known inhabitants of Mesa Verde built subterranean pit houses on the mesa tops.

During the 13th century, they moved into shallow caves and constructed complex cliff dwellings. Although it was a massive construction project, these homes were only occupied for about a century. Their residents left in about 1300 for reasons as yet undetermined.

The area was little known until ranchers Charles and Richard Wetherill chanced upon it in 1888. Looting of artifacts followed their discovery until a Denver newspaper reporter’s stories aroused national interest in protecting the site.

The 52,000-acre site was declared a national park in 1906. It’s the only U.S. national park devoted entirely to the works of humans.

Photos by Steven Bratman & USFWS Mountain-Prairie under Flickr Creative Commons