Road trip, anyone? Get out of town and into nature for National Park Week | SteamboatToday.com

Road trip, anyone? Get out of town and into nature for National Park Week

Heather Balogh Rochfort
The Denver Post
Wildflowers bask in the sun below snowy peaks in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Scott Franz

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — If you’re reading this, you’re one of the few people remaining in Steamboat Springs during spring break. You can either enjoy the silence and abundance of parking downtown, or you can hit the road and be a tourist in your own state.

National Park Week runs through Sunday, April 28, so pack the sunscreen, set the GPS and head toward one of Colorado’s four national parks.

Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain was the third most-visited park in the nation in 2018, according to the National Park Service, with nearly 4.6 million visitors. Get away from the tour buses and get a glimpse of the solitude and high-Alpine scenery that make Rocky truly iconic.

Load up an overnight pack with your backpacking gear and head to the west side of the park and the quieter Grand Lake Entrance Station. From here, find the East Inlet Trailhead on Grand Lake and prepare for 24 hours of solitude, beauty and communing with Mother Nature.

The trail to Lake Vernal and then Spirit Lake (15.8 miles round trip) is not incredibly difficult for its steepness or technical chops, but it is double-digit mileage if you opt for the whole thing. But even those who want a beautiful day hike will find something on this trail as it is littered with waterfalls and large wildlife, including moose. Along the way, hikers will spy Adams Falls, named for Jay E. Adams, an early settler in the area, before arriving at Lone Pine Lake and then Lake Vernal.

For the adventurous, Lake Vernal isn’t the end of the road. From there, catch the trail (unofficial yet somewhat maintained) to Spirit Lake about one-half mile away. Spirit is rarely visited, so you won’t have to share some of the best rugged Alpine views around.

Note: Overnight camping requires a Wilderness Camping Reservation Request. Get one online at pay.gov/public/form/start/68498987 or in person at either of the two Wilderness Offices at Beaver Meadows Visitor Center or Kawuneeche Visitor Center.

Read more at DenverPost.com.

If you go

Rocky Mountain National Park

  • Founded: Jan. 26, 1915
  • Size: 265,769 acres
  • Visitors in 2018: 4.59 million
  • Drive time: 1 hour, 45 minutes
  • Directions: Take U.S. Highway 40 east to Granby. Turn left onto U.S. Highway 34. 
  • Cost: $25 for a one-day vehicle pass or $35 for a seven-day vehicle pass.
  • More information: nps.gov/romo
After a night of storms, the dunes shine as clouds start to break up.
Scott Franz

Great Sand Dunes National Park

Tucked away against the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountain Range is a Colorado secret that feels otherworldly. Great Sand Dunes sees significantly fewer visitors than Rocky Mountain. This means you can practically guarantee peace and quiet as you explore the massive sand dunes and all their wind-swept glory.

There aren’t any trails in Great Sand Dunes National Park since there is no way to maintain a set path. Instead, backpackers are instructed to hike outside of the day-use area, or far enough away that they cannot see the visitor center. For most, this is roughly 1 1/2 hours of hiking, and it is tougher than it looks.

Climbing up and down the slippery dunes can sometimes feel like an exercise in futility, but the sweat equity is worth the stunning views while you pitch your tent in the sand.

If you’re lucky, a saturated sunset will kick off an evening of the most brilliant star gazing you’ve ever experienced. With minimal light pollution and utter solitude, campers will marvel at the multitude of shooting stars and glistening orbs dotting the inky black sky.

Read more at DenverPost.com.

If you go

Great Sand Dunes National Park

  • Founded: March 17, 1932
  • Size: 35,528 acres
  • Visitors in 2018: 442,905
  • Drive time: 4 hours, 45 minutes
  • Directions: Take U.S. Highway 40 east to Kremmling and Colorado Highway 9 to Silverthorne. Take Interstate 70 west to Copper Mountain and Colo. 91 to Leadville and Colo. 24 to Buena Vista. Then follow U.S. 285 to its intersection with Colo. 17 and follow signs to the park.
  • Cost: $25 for a one-day vehicle pass or $35 for a seven-day vehicle pass.
  • More information: nps.gov/grsa
Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde National Park.
Stock photo

Mesa Verde National Park

Mesa Verde is the lone Colorado park (and UNESCO World Heritage Site) highlighting manmade structures. Sited in the Four Corners region in the southwestern quadrant of the state, Mesa Verde is home to 5,000 archaeological sites including 600 cliff dwellings hidden in the steep walls of the tree-covered mesa. These sites are some of the best-preserved dwellings in the United States, according to the Park Service.

While cliff dwellings like Balcony House and Cliff Palace may seem like the most exotic sites, there is plenty more to see in Mesa Verde. Head back to the Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum, where you will find the trailhead for Petroglyph Point Trail. From there, set out on this 2.4-mile round-trip hike that steeply descends before gradually climbing back up to the petroglyph panel. Here you can see a number of petroglyphs carved into the rock. Complete the loop as it climbs up a stone staircase before leveling out and returning back to the museum.

Before heading home, hop back into your car and finish your weekend with a scenic drive on the Mesa Top Loop Road. This 6-mile driving tour showcases 12 sites and includes surface dwellings and viewpoints of various cliff dwellings. Cliff House is a marvel to see it from afar and truly grasp its immense size.

Read more at DenverPost.com.

If you go

Mesa Verde National Park

  • Founded: June 29, 1906
  • Size: 52,485 acres
  • Visitors in 2018: 563,420
  • Drive time: 7 hours
  • Directions: Take U.S. Highway 40 west to Craig. Turn left onto Colorado Highway 13 to Rifle. Take Interstate 70 west to the Clifton exit. Turn left onto Colo. 141 and left onto U.S. 50 east to Montrose. Take U.S. 550 south to Ridgeway, Colo. 62 to Telluride, Colo. 145 to Cortez, and U.S. 160 to the park.
  • Cost: $25 for a one-day vehicle pass or $35 for a seven-day vehicle pass.
  • More information: nps.gov/meve
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Katie Berning

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

At just over 300,000 visitors in 2018, Black Canyon of the Gunnison is certainly one of the quieter parks that you will visit, which is great: You may have this gem all to yourself. Located near Montrose, Black Canyon’s Precambrian rock is nearly 2 million years old, according to colorado.com, and is named the Black Canyon because its walls are frequently darkened with shadows.

Visitors can choose between the north and south rim, but if you only have a weekend, I recommend sticking to the South Rim. It’s easier to access, and you can spend your time soaking in the scenery rather than sitting in a car.

After popping by the South Rim Visitor Center to collect trail maps and chat with rangers, head to the very end of South Rim Road, where you will find the trailhead. The Warner Point Nature Trail is only 1 1/2 miles round trip with moderate undulation, so you will have plenty of time to read the plethora of park signage along the route. Thirteen trail markers include descriptions of local trees and scenic vistas, and the information provided is truly enjoyable. While not as dramatic as the endpoint view, hikers will certainly enjoy pleasant panoramas of the West Elk Mountains to the north and the San Juan Mountains to the south. As for that final 270-degree view? I’d argue it is one of the finest views of the Black Canyon and Gunnison River that can be found in the park.

After returning from the Warner Point Nature Trail, hop in your car and head back a few miles on the South Rim Road for sunset. The aptly named Sunset View is the westernmost viewpoint along the road, and it has a parking lot with picnic tables and restrooms, making it a great spot to stop for an evening picnic.

Read more at DenverPost.com.

If you go

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

  • Founded: Oct. 21, 1999
  • Size: 30,750 acres
  • Visitors in 2018: 308,962
  • Drive time: 4 hours, 20 minutes
  • Directions: Take Colorado Highway 131 south to Wolcott and head west on Interstate 70 to exit 116. Head south on Colo. 133 to Paonia and then Colo. 92 to Crawford.
  • Cost: $25 for a one-day vehicle pass or $35 for a seven-day vehicle pass.
  • More information: nps.gov/blca

Read more about Colorado’s national parks at DenverPost.com.


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