Three people hiking at Rocky Mountain National Park near Denver, CO.

City Guide / Denver

Top 8 Must-Visit National Parks Close to Denver, CO

By Felicia Brower | Jun 23, 2022

One perk of choosing Denver, Colorado, as your home base is that you’re surrounded by the unparalleled natural beauty of the west. While there are a ton of state parks and places to hike near Denver, there are several scenic national parks within a day’s drive from Denver. These popular destinations have something for everyone, including adventurers, outdoor enthusiasts, and casual admirers of nature.

Whether you want to go on a quick day trip to Rocky Mountain National Park or spend a few days exploring a national park (or two!) in another nearby state, here are eight amazing national parks close to Denver, including:

  1. Rocky Mountain National Park
  2. Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
  3. Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
  4. Arches National Park
  5. Canyonlands National Park
  6. Badlands National Park
  7. Mesa Verde National Park
  8. Grand Teton National Park

Let’s get started!

1. Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

The last evening sunshine hits Longs Peak and The Crags above Gem Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park, Estes Park, Colorado

Distance from Denver: 64 miles
Estimated drive time: 90 minutes

With more than 265,800 acres of incredible mountain environments, Rocky Mountain National Park lets visitors hike to pristine alpine lakes, trek through sprawling meadows filled with wildflowers, or admire some of Colorado’s most breathtaking peaks.

There are more than 350 miles of hiking trails varying in difficulty throughout Rocky Mountain National Park that offer stunning views and chances to see bighorn sheep, elk, and other wildlife in their natural habitats. This extremely popular park is the closest one to Denver.

Tips from a local: Rocky Mountain National Park is currently under a reservation timed-entry system, so plan your trip well in advance.

2. Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, Colorado

Great Sand Dunes National Park Colorado at Sunset

Distance from Denver: 235 miles
Estimated drive time: 3 hours 45 minutes

See a reminder of Colorado’s aquatic past during a visit to the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, home to the tallest dunes in North America. Learn all about the surrounding landscapes and how the park came to be at a free daily Ranger program before cooling off at the beach at Medano Creek, testing your skills at sand sledding, or hiking through a nearby forest for a mind-boggling view of the towering sand dunes surrounded by deserts and mountain terrain.

Stay overnight at this International Dark Sky Park to see the Milky Way with your own eyes, or walk the illuminated dunes on a full moon.

3. Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado

Steep granite cliffs of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison with the two dragons and the mysterious Gunnison River cutting through the rock in the valley, Colorado, USA.

Miles from Denver: 255 miles
Estimated drive time: 4 hours 50 minutes

At Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, you’ll find steep vertical rock cliffs carved over millions of years by the Gunnison River. There are trails for all abilities on the South Rim and North Rim and scenic driving routes that take you along the rim and down to the Gunnison River, where you’ll find renowned trout fishing.

You’re free to hike, kayak, and climb in the canyon, but you will need to obtain a free Wilderness Use Permit before you head out. If you visit the park in the winter, the South Rim drive is groomed for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing.

4. Arches National Park, Utah

Beautiful Sunset Image taken at Arches National Park in Utah

Miles from Denver: 358 miles
Estimated drive time: 5 hours 35 minutes

The stunning red rock formations at Arches National Park draw visitors from all over the world. While you can hike, camp, backpack, rock climb, and ride horses at Arches, there’s also a spectacular 18-mile scenic drive that takes you by many of the park’s thousands of natural stone arches, balanced boulders, pinnacles, spires, and incredibly colorful views.

Reservations are required from April through October, so plan ahead if you want to visit the park during peak season.

5. Canyonlands National Park, Utah

UT, Canyonlands National Park, The Needle Rock spires and grabens at Chester Park

Distance from Denver: 362 miles
Estimated drive time: 5 hours 36 minutes

Four districts make up Canyonlands National Park: Island in the Sky, The Needles, The Maze, and the rivers themselves. While all of them offer spectacular views of the canyons and buttes carved by the Green and Colorado rivers, they each have their own distinct features so you can boat, fish, hike, climb, camp, and take in the sights.

Because there are no roads that directly connect the districts and it takes two to six hours to travel between them, it’s recommended that you check out the itineraries suggested by the National Park Service (NPS) and plan to spend an extra day or two exploring all of them independently.

6. Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Badlands National Park in South Dakota

Distance from Denver: 371 miles
Estimated drive time: 6 hours

Despite the name, you’ll have a great trip in Badlands National Park. Named after what the Lakota people have historically called the area, Badlands is known for its rugged beauty and rich trove of fossil beds. At the NPS Fossil Preparation Lab, visitors can ask paleontologists and other park staff working on the fossils questions about their discoveries.

The park has an Open Hike Policy, which means you are allowed to explore parts of the park’s 244,000 acres off-trail. Check out the Sage Creek Wilderness area, social trails, and climbable formations, but exercise caution, as rescue services are not easily available.

7. Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

Cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde National Parks, Colorado, USA

Distance from Denver: 371 miles
Estimated drive time: 6 hours 43 minutes

The famed cliff dwellings built by the ancestral Pueblo people make Mesa Verde National Park one of the most recognizable national parks close to Denver, CO. The park offers a chance to see well-preserved history firsthand, and you can find more than a thousand species of wildlife here, including some that can’t be found anywhere else on Earth. As the 100th International Dark Sky Park, it’s also a superb place to stargaze and get an idea of what the people who built these miraculous communities saw when they looked up more than 700 years ago.

All of Mesa Verde is sacred to 26 tribes. As such, it is illegal to hike off-trail, and all cultural and natural resources must remain where you find them.

8. Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

Schwabacher landing in early morning with its reflection. Grand Teton national park, WY

Distance from Denver: 479 miles
Estimated drive time: 7 hours 43 minutes

With an elevation of more than 7,000 feet above the valley of Jackson Hole, the Teton Range is one of the most extraordinary natural skylines in the country. Hikers will love the 200 miles of trails that take you through the Grand Teton National Park‘s stunning mountain forests, breathtaking alpine lakes, calming scenic meadows, and rushing streams.

If you’re looking for water-based activities, the Snake River and lakes in the park offer exceptional fly-fishing, wildlife views, boating, and even a few rapids.

Tips for visiting national parks near Denver, CO

To visit these parks, you’ll need to buy an America the Beautiful – National Parks & Federal Recreational Lands Annual Pass in advance or a seven-day Private Vehicle pass, Motorcycle pass, or Individual pass at the park entrance, which allows you to enter that specific national park as many times as you’d like for the next seven days. Keep an eye on the National Park Service calendars for fee-free days where you can visit your favorite national parks without needing a pass.

Before heading out to any park, check their website for seasonal or wildlife closures that might affect your trip. Always respect the environment and follow Leave No Trace principles during your visit. Preserve the delicate ecosystems by staying on the trail, keep wildlife wild by maintaining safe distances and disposing of trash properly (sorry, no bison selfies!), and practice good outdoor etiquette to ensure that everyone at the park has an enjoyable time.

Looking to move to Denver?

If you’re looking for the perfect home base to explore the natural beauty of the U.S., look no further than Denver. Landing’s fully furnished apartments and flexible lease terms make it easy to pick Denver, Colorado as your gateway to adventure.

Whether you’re only here for a brief time or plan on staying a while, living with Landing gives you the freedom to explore everything the Mile High City and beyond have to offer. Learn more about what a Landing membership can do for you today!

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About the author

Felicia Brower

Felicia Brower is a Denver-based freelance writer. She loves exploring the great state of Colorado and is always on the hunt for the next weird, wild, and wonderful adventure.