Colorado’s National Parks and Monuments

National Park Service logoAs you plan your summer travels, you may be interested in visiting some of the National Parks and other sites designated for preservation by the National Park Service (NPS). Colorado currently has sixteen sites – what the NPS refers to as parks – in the system, although it is possible another could be added, because earlier this month Governor Polis sent a letter to the NPS requesting designation of the Granada War Relocation Center. Also known as Camp Amache, this site in rural Prowers County was one of ten internment camps set up by the federal government to forcibly relocate Japanese Americans during World War II.

Not all designated sites are National Parks, the NPS’s highest unit of designation. Other units in the National Park System include National Monuments, National Historic Sites, National Recreation Areas, and more. Colorado’s sixteen designated parks are as follows; here you’ll also find a list of resources available from our library that you can access to learn about these special places. Titles not available online can be checked out from the library by requesting them through Prospector or interlibrary loan.

National Parks

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National ParkDesignated a National Park in 1999, Black Canyon of the Gunnison is known for its “deep, steep and narrow” canyon walls. The awe-inspiring cliffs make the park a popular destination for hikers, campers, and rock climbers.

Learn about Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park:

Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve

Great Sand Dunes National Park & PreserveThis unique landscape highlights North America’s tallest sand dunes, set against the backdrop of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. Designated a National Monument in 1932, Great Sand Dunes was elevated to National Park status in 2004.

Learn about Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve:

Mesa Verde National Park

Mesa Verde National ParkThe first National Park to be designated in Colorado, Mesa Verde was established in 1906. “This land, inhabited by Ancestral Pueblo people from approximately A.D. 600 to A.D. 1300, included the most complete and extensive concentration of prehistoric cliff dwellings in the United States.” Designation as a National Park protects the cliff dwellings and artifacts that tell the story of this ancient culture.

Learn about Mesa Verde National Park:

  • The Anasazi of Mesa Verde and the Four Corners (University Press of Colorado)
  • Ancient Piñon-Juniper Woodlands: A Natural History of Mesa Verde Country (University Press of Colorado)
  • Citizen’s Guide to Colorado’s Water Heritage (Colorado Foundation for Water Education; includes the article “Harvesting Water: Ancient Puebloan Reservoirs of Mesa Verde.”)
  • Mesa Verde (Colorado Virtual Library)
  • Mesa Verde National Park (Colorado Encyclopedia)
  • Mesa Verde National Park: Shadows of the Centuries (University Press of Colorado)

Rocky Mountain National Park

Emerald Lake, Rocky Mountain National ParkColorado’s second National Park, Rocky Mountain was designated in 1915. It’s known for some of the most incredible scenery in the state, as well as a great place for wildlife watching. Rocky Mountain National Park offers over 300 miles of hiking trails and the famous Trail Ridge Road.

Learn about Rocky Mountain National Park:

  • America’s Switzerland: Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park, the Growth Years (University Press of Colorado)
  • Discover Colorado: Colorado’s Scenic and Historic Byways (Colorado Scenic and Historic Byways Commission)
  • Enos Mills: Citizen of Nature (University Press of Colorado)
  • Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park (Colorado Virtual Library)
  • Frederick Chapin’s Colorado: The Peaks About Estes Park, and Other Writings (University Press of Colorado)
  • Hiking Circuits in Rocky Mountain National Park (University Press of Colorado)
  • Recreation Benefits of Water Quality: Rocky Mountain National Park (Colorado State University)
  • Rocky Mountain Mammals: A Handbook of Mammals of Rocky Mountain National Park and Vicinity (University Press of Colorado)
  • Rocky Mountain National Park (Colorado Encyclopedia)
  • Rocky Mountain National Park: A History (University Press of Colorado)
  • Rocky Mountain National Park Colorado (streaming video) (Colorado Office of Economic Development & International Trade)
  • Rocky Mountain National Park Multiple Property Listing (Colorado Historical Society)
  • Rocky Times in Rocky Mountain National Park: An Unnatural History (University Press of Colorado)
  • This Blue Hollow: Estes Park, the Early Years, 1859-1915 (University Press of Colorado)

National Monuments

Colorado National Monument

Colorado National MonumentLocated in Colorado’s Western Slope, Colorado National Monument features canyons, mesas, and rock formations. It’s a popular spot for camping and wildlife watching. Colorado National Monument was established in 1911.

Learn about Colorado National Monument:

Dinosaur National Monument

Petroglyphs at Dinosaur National MonumentAt the far western edge of the state, and extending into Utah, is Dinosaur National Monument – so named because of the many dinosaur fossils that have been found here, with over 1,500 of them on view. This desert landscape is also known for Native American petroglyphs (rock art), and for outdoor recreation such as camping and river rafting. Dinosaur National Monument was designated in 1915 and expanded in 1938.

Learn about Dinosaur National Monument:.

Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument

Fossils at Florissant Fossil Beds National MonumentWhat was Colorado like millions of years ago? It would have looked very different than it does today – and we know this because of the many plant, animal, and insect fossils that have been found near Florissant, in Teller County. Huge petrified redwood stumps are among Florissant Fossil Beds’ best-known features. The National Monument, established in 1969, also offers many good places to go hiking.

Learn about Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument:

Hovenweep and Yucca House National Monuments

These two National Monument feature the history of Ancestral Puebloans in the Four Corners region. At Hovenweep, visitors can view ruins of dwellings constructed more than 700 years ago. The area is also known for hiking, and is a prime stargazing spot. Hovenweep was established in 1923 and is located on the Colorado-Utah border. Yucca House is located in Montezuma County, closer to Mesa Verde National Park. Yucca House is one of the state’s largest archaeological sites, but also preserves many natural resources, as well. It was designated a National Monument in 1919.

Learn about Hovenweep and Yucca House National Monuments:

Colorado also has three additional National Monuments that are not part of the NPS system: Brown’s Canyon (managed by the Bureau of Land Management and the US Forest Service), Canyons of the Ancients (managed by the Bureau of Land Management), and Chimney Rock (managed by the US Forest Service).

National Historic Sites

Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site

Bent's Old Fort National Historic SiteLocated near La Junta, this site is a reconstruction of an 1840s trading post on the Santa Fe Trail. Visitors can learn what life was like for the three cultures – white, Hispano, and Native American – that converged here during the fur trade era.

Learn about Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site:

Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site

This is a site filled with sadness, as it memorializes the approximately 200 Cheyenne and Arapho Indians who were massacred here by the 1st and 3rd Colorado Volunteer Cavalry on November 29, 1864. The location was designated a National Historic Site in 2007.

Learn about the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site:

National Historic Trails

California National Historic Trail

Emigrants who traveled westward to California in the mid-1800s followed this trail, a small portion of which ran through what is now the very northeastern corner of Colorado. The NPS-designated trail runs through ten states and is over 5,000 miles long. It was designated a National Historic Trail in 1992.

Learn about the California National Historic Trail:

Old Spanish National Historic Trail

Another multi-state trail, this one runs through six states in the American Southwest. In Colorado, it runs through two routes in the southwestern part of the state. The trail was used by early New Mexican traders traveling between Santa Fe, NM and Los Angeles, CA beginning in 1829. However, the area had first been explored by Dominguez & Escalante in 1776. The trail was designated by the NPS in 2002.

Learn about the Old Spanish National Historic Trail:

Pony Express National Historic Trail

The legendary Pony Express was the route used to carry mail across the western U.S. in 1860 and 1861, before the coming of the telegraph. This trail runs through eight western states, and like the California Trail, only passed through a small area in Colorado’s northeastern corner. It was designated a National Historic Trail in 1992.

Learn about the Pony Express National Historic Trail:

Santa Fe National Historic Trail

map of the Santa Fe TrailIn use primarily between the years 1820 and 1881, the Santa Fe Trail began in Missouri and ran through Kansas and south into today’s Oklahoma panhandle and southwestern Colorado to reach its destination, Santa Fe, New Mexico. Originally a Native American trade route, it was later used by fur traders, missionaries, and emigrants, and also played a role in the Spanish-American War of 1848. The Santa Fe Trail was designated by the NPS in 1987.

Learn about the Santa Fe National Historic Trail:

National Recreation Areas

Curecanti National Recreation Area

Located near the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, the Curecanti National Recreation Area includes three reservoirs along the Gunnison River. The area is popular for fishing and boating as well as for its hiking trails and campgrounds. Curecanti National Recreation Area was established in 1965.

Learn about Curecanti National Recreation Area:

Colorado has one additional National Recreation Area, but it is not part of the NPS system. Rather, the Arapaho National Recreation Area is administered by the United States Forest Service.

For more information on Colorado’s National Parks, Monuments, and other designated sites, visit the National Park Service website. History Colorado’s Office of Archaeology and Historic Preservation has also put together a webpage with resources on Colorado’s nationally designated sites. Finally, search the State Publications Library’s online catalog for more publications.


All photos courtesy National Park Service