5 Things to Know Before Road-Tripping to Southern Colorado’s Three National Parks

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5 Things to Know Before Road-Tripping to Southern Colorado’s Three National Parks

“Get Out There” is a column for itchy footed humans written by Paste contributor Blake Snow. Although different now, travel is better than ever. Today we tour the three National Parks found in Southern Colorado. 

Gorgeous black canyons, the tallest sand dunes on the continent, and America’s “Petra”: That’s the draw of Colorado’s three southern National Parks, which are within three to four hours of each other by car. To see for ourselves, my crew and I recently drove to all three parks in a short but concentrated week of sightseeing. Here are five things we learned from the Colorado experience

90% of the roads are gorgeous.

Thanks to record snowfall, the high mile scenery this year was especially green and smothered in wildflowers. I don’t know if we just got lucky, but the giant cumulus clouds that gather over the Rockies were some of the biggest I’ve ever seen. Although Southern Utah’s parks are arguably more iconic and distinct, the drives in between Southern Colorado’s parks are definitely more diverse, if not inspiring. 

Black Canyon National Park is a looker.

As the state’s least visited park, not many people know about Black Canyon. That’s a shame. At 2250 feet tall, its canyons are the third tallest in the country (after California and Utah) and are as black as they are dramatic, giving off some serious Lord of The Rings vibes. We gawked at them and the roaring Gunnison river up close from the aptly named Exclamation Point, before finishing at Garlic Mike’s tasty Italian restaurant (as seen on the Food Channel). 

The Great Sand Dunes were the most fun.

Colorado Great Sand Dunes

Welcome to the tallest sand dunes in North America, which you can see from at least 100 miles away. Although this park is small, it soars as the ideal spot for sand boarding (what a blast!), photography, day hiking, and rinsing off in the lovable Medano creek at the base of the 750 feet tall dunes. ProTip: You really only need a single day and night here (two nights was too much). But the food was fantastic, especially at top-rated Emma’s Southwestern, Smoothy’s Juice Bar, and The Thai House

Mesa Verde’s “700 Year Tour” is a star. 

If Black Canyon is the biggest and Great Sand Dunes the funnest, then Mesa Verde is the most profound of Southern Colorado’s trifecta. The moment I stepped inside Cliff Palace (reservations required), I was in awe of what the Pueblo peoples built here, and how hundreds of them dwelled here until 1300, when their resources finally gave out. It’s basically the American equivalent of Petra and right there with Rocky Mountain as Colorado’s greatest National Park. 

Lodging is limited—book responsibly.

As with the other remote areas, lodging in Southwest Colorado is a little hit and miss. We had a great time in the adorable and impressively updated Island Acres Motel near Black Canyon and were well taken care of at Far View Lodge inside Mesa Verde. But we were underwhelmed by Rustic Rook Resort near The Great Sand Dunes. Although billed as a “glamping” resort, only 15% of the tents have en suite toilets and showers—the rest share portable bathrooms that are cramped and sandy. With the right expectations, however, there’s still a lot to like about the cozy tents and front seat views of the dunes.

BONUS: The Wolf Creek Valley Overlook and nearby Treasure Falls en route between The Great Sand Dunes and Mesa Verde are absolutely stunning and not-to-be missed. All in all, our National Park trifecta was worth the effort and a shining example of “Colorful Colorado.”

Blake Snow contributes to fancy publications and Fortune 500 companies as a bodacious writer-for-hire and frequent travel columnist. He lives in Provo, Utah with his adolescent family and two dogs.

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