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The Ultimate Guide to Visiting National Parks Near Denver

Today marks the official start of National Park Week, an annual celebration that started in 1991 to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the National Park Service. But what does this mean for you? From April 20 – 28, visitors will enjoy free entrance to any national park on the first day, plus additional events and programming throughout the week.

Whether you plan to stay close to home and visit one of our four National Parks in Colorado, or are planning an epic road trip to nearby states, the editors at 303 Magazine have you covered with our ultimate guide to visiting national parks near(ish) Denver. Find everything from where to go and where to stay from our travel editor and foodie tips from our food editor to a custom road trip playlist from our music editor and fashion tips from our fashion editor for a comfortable journey. 

Hit the road this week or save for later, we hope this helps inspire you to visit some of the country’s most beautiful landscapes.

Colorado

Rocky Mountain National Park

rocky mountain national park, national parks near denver

Rocky Mountain National Park. Photo by 303 photographer, Kiddest Metaferia.

Where: nearest town Estes Park and Grand Lake

The lowdown: We all know it and love it, so much so, that Rocky Mountain National Park is ranked as the 5th most visited park in the United States, according to the National Park’s latest report. Whether you are looking to climb Long’s Peak, the park’s highest point at 14,259 ft., or stick to gentler paths along Bear Lake, there is hiking available for all skill levels.

Or hit the road and ascend into the clouds with a drive along Trail Ridge Road (check for opening/closing dates) for some of the best views in the park. Also known for its herds of elk, Rocky Mountain National Park is great for wildlife viewing. 

Estes Park, known as the gateway to the Rocky Mountains, is the nearest town for travelers to find a place to stay, eat and play. Be sure to check out the newest hotel in Estes Park; Trailborn Rocky Mountains.

Distance from Denver: Of all the national parks near Denver, Rocky Mountain NP is the closest. There are four entrances to the park, three reside on the east side, near Estes Park. The driving distance from Denver to Estes Park is 73 miles. The fourth entrance to the park is located on the west side near Grand Lake. The driving distance from Denver to Grand Lake is 145 miles.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison

black canyon of the gunnison national park

Hiking in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. Photo by Jessica Hughes

Where: nearest town Montrose

The lowdown: One of Colorado’s least visited parks, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is a remote destination for travelers. The park protects an awe-inspiring gorge carved through solid granite rock by the Gunnison River. The canyon plunges vertically for over 2,700 feet in some sections, claiming the steepest cliffs in North America.

At its deepest point, the Black Canyon measures about 1,700 feet from rim to river, yet, at its narrowest point, it is only 40 feet wide. The canyon’s steep walls and dark metamorphic rock create an immense depth and ruggedness that give it its name — Black Canyon.

Because the park is a bit more rugged and remote, there are limited hiking options, but still plenty to do. Rock climbing is a popular activity within the canyon. Fishing the Gunnison River is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. As a Dark Sky Certified Park, it’s one of the best places in Colorado for stargazing. If you choose to hike down into the canyon, read here for a first-hand story about how challenging this can be.

Or if you choose to just take in the sites from above, drive the South Rim Road (paved) or North Rim Road (unpaved) for scenic views and vistas. Be sure to stop at the Painted Wall Overlook — the canyon’s tallest cliff and most iconic.

Distance from Denver: There are two park entrances; the North and South Rim. The South Rim is near the town of Montrose, driving distance from Denver is 298 miles. There is a campground located at the south entrance or you can stay in town. A great place to stay in one of the tiny homes at Cedar Creek RV park.

The North Rim entrance is 11 miles from the nearest town of Crawford. The North entrance has limited services and is a bit quieter and remote. Dispersed camping is available here.

Great Sand Dunes National Park

Great Sand Dunes National Park

Great Sand Dunes National Park. Photo by Jessica Hughes.

Where: San Luis Valley, nearest town Alamosa

The lowdown: Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is home to the tallest sand dunes in North America. Located in the San Luis Valley in southern Colorado, the dunes can reach up to 750 feet in height at their highest point.

The dune field covers about 30 square miles within the park’s boundaries. While beautiful to look at, the dunes are also great for exploring. Hike along the rolling dunes, sled or board down, or simply sleep amongst the stars at the Pinon Flats Campground. The remoteness of Great Sand Dunes, paired with its high elevation of over 8,000 feet, offers incredible night skies ideal for stargazing. 

In May, the park’s uber-popular, Medano Creek, creates a beach-like experience when the creek floods and creates a sandy shore that is popular for splashing and creek-wading. The “spring surge” of water flow can create waves up to 20 feet, making it popular amongst boogie boarders.

Distance from Denver: The driving distance from Denver is 235 miles. The closest town is Alamosa (30 minutes from the park), which offers a few places to stay. Camping is the most popular overnight option when visiting the park. Be sure to check out the newest camping options from Ramble. 

Mesa Verde National Park

mesa verde national park

Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde National Park. Photo by Jessica Hughes.

Where: nearest town Cortez

The lowdown: Mesa Verde National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site located in southwest Colorado near the town of Cortez. It preserves one of the largest and most well-preserved Ancestral Puebloan archaeological sites in the U.S.

The park protects nearly 5,000 known archeological sites, including 600 cliff dwellings carved into the canyon walls and mesa overhangs by the Ancestral Pueblo people who inhabited the area between 600 and 1300 CE. These dwellings, built under alcoves in the canyon walls, are some of the most notable and well-preserved examples of Puebloan civilization in North America.

Enjoy hiking and scenic drives, or take a tour of one of the cliff dwellings including the Cliff Palace, Balcony House, Square Tower House, and Spruce Tree House. The Cliff Palace is the largest dwelling with over 150 rooms and 23 kivas.

Beyond the archeological wonders, Mesa Verde’s remote location provides the perfect backdrop for stargazing. Winding through pinyon-juniper forests and meadows with incredible panoramic vistas overlooking the Four Corners region, the park features over 30 hiking trails for exploration.

Distance from Denver: The driving distance from Denver to Cortez is 380 miles.  There is one hotel inside the park, Fair View Lodge, plus camping options. 

Utah

Arches National Park

Arches national park

Double Arch at Arches National Park. Photo by Jessica Hughes.

Where: closest town Moab

The lowdown: Crossing the state line into Moab, Utah, you’ll find Arches National Park. Known for its 2,000+ natural sandstone arches, hundreds of soaring pinnacles, fins and balanced rocks, it is the world’s densest concentration of natural stone arches.

The park spans 76,679 acres of high desert landscape littered with these geologic formations. Some of the most famous arches include the Delicate Arch (featured on Utah’s license plates), Landscape Arch (one of the longest) and Double Arch.

With its high elevation around 5,000 feet, the park offers incredible panoramic views along many of its hiking trails. Popular hikes include the 3-mile round trip to Delicate Arch, the Landscape Arch trail, Devils Garden Primitive Loop and Broken Arch.

Spring and fall are great times to go as it gets very hot in summer. Also note, the park gets very crowded, so they operate on a reservation system. 

Distance from Denver: The driving distance from Denver to Moab is 355 miles. While there are plenty of hotels to choose from in Moab, camping is a popular choice as well as several glamping options, including Under Canvas.

Tip: While in Moab, be sure to also add on Canyonlands National Park, Utah’s least visited National Park known for its canyon views and famous whitewater. 

Bryce Canyon National Park

Bryce canyon national park, national parks close to Denver

Horseback riding with Canyon Rides at Bryce Canyon National Park. Photo by Jessica Hughes

Where: closest town Tropic and Panguitch, Utah

The lowdown: Less crowded and a bit more remote than Arches National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park is one of the more unique destinations on our list. Bryce Canyon consists of large natural amphitheaters with thousands of multi-colored rock pinnacles called “hoodoos.” These formations cover the canyon’s landscape as far as the eye can see. 

Sunset or sunrise is the best time to experience the rock’s colorful red hue along popular trails such as Queens Garden and Sunset Point to Sunrise Point. Or see the trails like the area’s first explorers did by way of horseback. Sign up for a guided horseback ride with Canyon Tours, the only outfitters operating inside the park.

Make the most out of your trip and stay at Under Canvas Bryce Canyon. Located 20 minutes from the park, a stay here puts you in the heart of Bryce Canyon Country with easy access to Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument.  

Distance from Denver: The driving distance from Denver to Bryce Canyon is 540 miles, roughly 8.5 hours. 

Tip: If you make the drive, be sure to leave time to visit Capitol Reef National Park. Depending on the route you take to visit these national parks near Denver, you’ll drive right through the middle of the park on your way to Bryce Canyon. 

Zion National Park

Zion National Park

Zion National Park. Photo by 303 Magazine photographer, Maya Boustany.

Where: nearest town Springdale, UT

The lowdown: Located 108 miles southwest of Bryce Canyon, Zion National Park is a striking contrast to its neighboring national park. Its massive sandstone cliffs, sculpted by millions of years of erosion, make it one of the most scenic canyon areas in the U.S.

The park’s most prominent feature is Zion Canyon, which stretches about 15 miles long and reaches depths of up to half a mile at points. The Virgin River carves its way through the main canyon, creating hanging gardens, emerald pools and waterfalls along its path. Popular hikes include the strenuous Angels Landing trail with jaw-dropping drop-offs, the Narrows wading hike through the river itself, and the relatively easy walks to Emerald Pools and Weeping Rock.

Distance from Denver: The driving distance from Denver is 597 miles, not the closest on our list of national parks near Denver, but totally worth it! If you are driving this far from Denver, definitely make it a National Parks road trip and visit all five of Utah’s parks along the way!

Wyoming

Yellowstone National Park

yellowstone national park, national parks near denver

Yellowstone National Park.

Where: multiple entrance locations in Wyoming and Montana

The lowdown: Probably the most iconic national park, Yellowstone National Park is the country’s first national park and one of the largest. Spanning 3,472 square miles across Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, the park offers much to explore.

Yellowstone sits atop a volcanic hot spot, giving rise to its world-renowned geothermal features. This includes over 10,000 hydrothermal sites like hot springs, mud pots, fumaroles and geysers – most notably Old Faithful which erupts around 20 times per day. The park’s geysers are the largest concentration on Earth.

In addition to its thermals, Yellowstone boasts other natural features like the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River, Yellowstone Lake (one of the largest high-altitude lakes in North America), numerous rivers, canyons and waterfalls.

As for wildlife, Yellowstone is one of the last remaining intact ecosystems in the contiguous U.S. Best known for its bison herds, the park is also home to grizzly bears, wolves, elk, pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep and more. 

There is a lot to see and for first-time visitors, it helps to have a guide. Use Yellowstone Vacations for your lodging, tours, rentals and activities.

Distance from Denver: There are five entrances to this large park. But the south entrance is your best bet if you are driving from Denver and plan to visit the Grand Tetons during your road trip. 

Grand Teton National Park

Grand Teton National Park, national parks near Denver

Grand Teton National Park. Photo by Grand Teton National Park Facebook.

Where: nearest town Jackson Hole

The lowdown: Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming is best known for its dramatic peaks of the Teton Range, which rise abruptly from the valleys and sagebrush flats with elevations over 13,000 feet. Located just seven south of Yellowstone National Park (south entrance), the Tetons provide one of the most photogenic and iconic mountain landscapes.

The centerpiece of the park is the Cathedral Group – a collection of razor-sharp granite spires that include Grand Teton (13,770 feet), the highest point. Many of the jagged peaks still hold active glaciers that feed alpine lakes and rivers below.

Dominating the eastern portion of the park are the glacially-carved lakes of Jackson and Jenny Lakes, which reflect perfect mirror images of the Teton summits. Hiking trails weave around and through these lakes, offering stunning vantage points.

Distance from Denver: Driving distance from Denver is 479 miles, with the nearest town being Jackson Hole. Its proximity to Yellowstone also makes it ideal to combine visits to both parks.

Montana

Glacier National Park 

Where: nearest major towns Kalispell, Whitefish and Columbia Falls

The lowdown: Glacier National Park is a paradise of alpine meadows, active glaciers, carved valleys, deep forests, waterfalls, and spectacular lakes. A favorite among hikers, Glacier National Park features over 700 miles of trails for all skill levels.

Or, embark on a scenic bike ride along the renowned Going-to-the-Sun Road, to take in panoramic views of Glacier’s mountains and valleys. If you aren’t much of a biker, take a scenic ride in the iconic Red Jammer Buses. At the base of Big Mountain, you’ll find the vibrant resort town of Whitefish, Montana, or for a little less expensive and less-crowded option, opt to stay in nearby Kalispell. 

Distance from Denver: Driving from Denver to Glacier National Park is quite a haul at 918 miles, but direct flights from Denver to Kalispell, MT get you to the park with a two-hour direct flight and a 45-minute drive from town to the park.

What to Pack for your National Parks Road Trip

Grab the essentials

  • If you really want to geek out about visiting National Parks, then be sure to bring along the National Parks water bottle from Wandery Outdoors. Place a national park sticker each time you visit and start your countdown to touring every national park.
  • Get the newest BUFF neck gator from their National Park series. With UPF 50, these soft, stretchy and seamless BUFFs pair well with any outdoor activity. 
  • A good pair of hiking boots. Check out the Lowa lightweight Renegade Mid boot, great for day hikes and light backpacking.
  • Day hiking pack — check out fjallraven’s newest backpack, the Kanken Outlong. It’s their popular Kanken backpack reimagined with the adventurer in mind.
  • And before you leave, be sure to protect your gear and clothing with Nikwax. Waterproof and protect your things because you never know what you might encounter on the open road.

Food for the Road

No road trip is complete without the snacks, packed lunches and sweet treats on the way there. Most everyone can agree that packaged food is half the battle while traveling, so before leaving the Front Range grab some of these local picks for any roadside munchies – plus some extras to check out at the National Parks.

Colorado

Photo courtesy of Curtis Park Deli on Facebook

Curtis Park Deli

Where: Various locations

The lowdown: A hidden gem in Denver – Curtis Park Deli serves up some of Denver’s favorite sandwiches. Opt for its signature Curtis sandwich with Corned beef, sauerkraut, swiss cheese and house-made thousand island – or the Park with fried egg, prosciutto, white cheddar cheese and house-made butter. To stay alert on the road take one of its many coffee options like the Americano or latte for the journey ahead.

Snarf’s Sandwiches 

Where: Various locations 

The lowdown: When traveling, you can’t go wrong with a Denver favorite – Snarf’s. It has all you need for sandwich goods. Stop by before heading out to grab one of its signature sandwiches like the Italian, the Farmer – or from its April special – chicken bacon ranch

Golden Banh Mi

Where: 2648 S Parker Rd., Aurora

The lowdown: This highly rated banh mi is not one you want to miss on your way out of town. Golden Banh Mi creates sandwiches that are sure to curb your hunger for the miles ahead. It has everything from crispy pork belly, katsu chicken, lemongrass tofu sandwiches, and more. Stay energized during your drive with their signature Vietnamese coffee or Thai tea

Sweetgreen

Where: Various locations

The lowdown: Not looking for crumbs to fall into your lap while traveling? Try one of Sweetgreen’s house-made salads and bowls made from locally sourced, fresh ingredients. Quench your tastebuds with one of its many combinations such as the miso salmon bowl, el lote bowl, or kale caesar salad. Take one of Sweetgreen’s signature iced teas for a refreshing drink as you munch away. 

Chop Shop

Where: Various locations

The lowdown: Teeming with everything from sandwiches to steaks to salads, Chop Shop has everything you might need for the miles ahead. Order online and pick up any of their dishes such as crispy chicken tenders, roasted sirloin French dip or super chop salad with baby kale, mixed greens, avocado, quinoa, Adzuki Beans, spiced pecans, egg, tomato, Champagne vinaigrette and Togarashi seasoning. Finish off with a sweet treat for the road with its chocolate chip brownie or fried cheesecake chimichanga.

Utah

Photo courtesy of Bit & Spur on Facebook

Bit & Spur

Where: 1212 Zion Park Blvd., Springdale

The lowdown: Located next to Zion National Park, Bit & Spur has been serving up southwestern fare since the 1950s and continues its community-based approach ever since. Try its sweet potato tamales, chile verde pot pie or any of its taco and enchilada combos and more.

Oscar’s Cafe

Where: 948 Zion Park Blvd., Springdale

The lowdown: Known for having delicious Tex-Mex-inspired cuisine, Oscar’s Cafe is sure to satisfy your craving after a long hike at the park. Try any of its dishes ranging from breakfast to dinner like its pork verde breakfast burrito, sweet potato burrito or garlic burger – which includes a half-pound patty.

Wyoming

Photo courtesy of Dornan’s on Facebook

Dornan’s

Where: 12170 Dornans Rd., Moose

The lowdown: Almost 100 years in business, Dornan’s is the perfect place for a meal with a view. It is located in the heart of Teton National Park and offers a spectacular view of the mountains while offering up various food options such as pizzas, sandwiches, salads and more within their four established shops: Dornan’s Chuckwagon, Pizza & Pasta Co, Trading Post & Deli and Wine Shop. It is important to note that Dornan’s Chuckwagon is only open from June – September, while all other options are year-round.

Running Bear Pancake House

Where: 538 Madison Ave., West Yellowstone

The lowdown: A beloved breakfast staple located in West Yellowstone – Running Bear serves up housemade pancakes, crepes, omelets and baked goods – for a home away from home feeling. Try its pancake sandwich or trout and eggs with hash, toast and jelly. It also serves lunch, and even boxed lunches for hiking or getting back on the road.

Montana

Photo courtesy of Tupelo Grille on Facebook

Great Bear Cafe

Where: 105 Hungry Horse Blvd., Hungry Horse

The lowdown: Surrounded by mountains, Great Bear Cafe’s made-from-scratch fare is sure to help savor your cravings. Take in the views with any of its breakfast, lunch or dinner options. Some favorites include the elk burger, breakfast burrito and chicken sandwich. For a sweet treat, finish off with its huckleberry cream cheese scone drizzled with vanilla frosting.

Tupelo Grille

Where: 17 Central Ave, Whitefish

The lowdown: Known for its thoughtfully prepared Southern cuisine, Tupelo Grille serves up signature dishes alongside an award-winning wine list. Some of its top dishes include elk meatloaf, low-country shrimp & grits and fried chicken & dumplings. Aside from its savory dishes, Tupelo also serves up delicious bread pudding that is sure to satisfy your sweet tooth.

Best Wardrobe For the Road & All Activities:

Road trips can be exhausting — especially when confined in a small space for hours. That’s why it’s imperative to dress comfy. Not only will comfort provide you with the ability to endure the lengthy car ride but putting on a cute outfit will help you feel refreshed and ready to take on any adventure.

With that being said, here’s a list of places to shop for adventure and road trip clothes.

The Mayfair Group

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Where: Visit their website here

Cost: $35-130

The lowdown: The Mayfair Group is a women-owned business that started in 2017. The founder, Sam Abrahart, wanted to create a safe space where people could feel loved and understood — it’s why the matching sweatsuits are covered in positive affirmations. Since its initial launch, The Mayfair Group has changed the trajectory of the way sweatpants are worn and has been noticed by countless celebrities like Bella and Gigi Hadid, Kendall Jenner, Justin Bieber and has been featured in publications like Vogue and Elle. Needless to say, these matching sets will not only leave you adjusting your attitude but will provide the perfect amount of comfort for a long journey.

Be A Good Person

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Where: 1360 27th St, Denver, CO 80205 or online

Cost: $10-$30

The lowdown: Since 2015, Be A Good Person (BAGP) has swept the city of Denver. Their mission is to share the power of positivity through the most basic concept — Be A Good Person. Between partnering with the Broncos and Lululemon while also supporting the local community, BAGP truly is more than just a brand it’s a lifestyle. Their quality leggings, hoodies, graphic tees, bags and hats are a perfect road trip essential. As you travel the Mid-West, by just wearing a simple t-shirt, you’ll be helping to spread the word, and be a good person.

Alo

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Where: Cherry Creek Shopping Center – 3000 E 1st Ave #282, Denver, CO 80206 or online

Cost: $58-$138

The lowdown: Alo began in Los Angeles in 2007 to help connect people to yoga. They describe themselves as the only line that actually elevates yoga practice and to the fashion fashion-forward person is the perfect street brand that’s comfortable, contemporary and not just for the mat. With this in mind, the yoga-inspired brand has a variety of both men’s and women’s styles in numerous colors, meaning there really is something for everyone. It’s because of that, materials are stretchy yet pliable — perfect for sitting in the car for hours.

Edikted

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Where: Visit their website here

Cost: $15-$60

The lowdown: Edikted is a Gen-Z-oriented fashion brand heavily influenced by pop culture, technology and style. Inspired by top streetwear looks, modern-day muses and runway trends, the clothes are not only made from quality material but won’t cost a lot. Between the variety of styles, funny phrases and colors wearing an Edikted set or tee will certainly make you feel like you’re ready to take on any adventure while also still looking fashionable.

Tunes to Keep You Moving

We at 303 Magazine understand that music is a key component when hitting the road to visit these national parks near Denver. The road stretching out in front of you can seem daunting at times, but the right soundtrack can ease anxiety, keep energy high, and add a great deal of much-needed fun to the experience. In order to make your next trip to one or many of this beautiful country’s national parks as enjoyable as possible, we put together a playlist filled with tunes to keep you going.

In it, you’ll find songs about the open highway, songs about love, about that which keeps people moving forward. Some of the songs are timeless classics, such as “The Road Goes On Forever” by The Highwaymen and “This Must Be the Place” by Talking Heads. Others are newer, such as “American Dreaming” By Sierra Ferrell and “The Tower” by Future Islands. Some songs are funny, to laugh along to with whoever’s joining you on your trip, like “Touching Yourself” by The Japanese House. There are songs like “Whiskey” by Trampled by Turtles that are more introspective, perfect for the quiet moments after the sun has set and there are still many miles to go. But each song reflects the journeys we each take in this life, whether those journeys are internal or physical. 

So try to make yourself as comfortable as you can, focus on the road, and turn the radio up. You’ll get there soon.