City Guide / Denver

8 Must-Visit National Parks Near Denver

By Landing | Feb 28, 2024
Three people hiking at Rocky Mountain National Park near Denver, CO.

Colorado’s unparalleled natural wonders are reason enough to spend a season in the state. And with Denver as a home base, you have access to some of the best parks the U.S. has to offer.

There are no national parks in Denver, but some are right in the city’s backyard — ranging from 90 minutes to seven hours away. You’ll find endless places to hike near Denver, not to mention swim, climb, and camp. There’s truly something for everyone, from easy hikes to more adventurous, steeper trails.

Here’s Landing’s guide to the best national parks near Denver. Take the car or rent one to enjoy quick day trips and weekend getaways at parks driving distance from this thriving city.

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

While a subjective claim, Rocky Mountain National Park might be the best national park in the state. It’s certainly the most famed national park near Denver, with more than 265,800 acres of mountain views — including the visually stunning 14,259-foot Longs Peak.

Explore more than 350 miles of trails of varying difficulty if you’re feeling adventurous. And if cruising is more appealing, take the car from Denver. Rocky Mountain National Park has plenty of scenic drives, including ones that cover the Continental Divide, or arrive at the high-altitude Alpine Visitor Center — complete with a gift shop. Add a trip on the Mount Blue Sky Scenic Byway (formerly Mount Evans) to your schedule and enjoy panoramic views from the comfort of your car.

How To Get to Rocky Mountain National Park

So, where is Rocky Mountain National Park? The park is so large that there’s no straight answer. From Denver, you’d likely start by taking the 1-70 West or Highway 36. The former will take you through the town of Grand Lake on the West and the latter through Estes Park on the East. The Estes Park entrance is your best bet if you’re headed to Fall River or Moraine Park.

Top 3 Activities

  • Take the scenic Trail Ridge Road (not open in winter) 
  • Schedule a guided tour to get the most out of the visit 
  • Get a free park education at the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center

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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

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is home to the tallest sand mounds in North America and boasts a stunning mountain-scape backdrop, making it one of the most unique national parks in Colorado. Sled the dunes or take in the view from the surrounding forests. 

Don’t forget to bring your camping gear and stay overnight at this International Dark Sky Park, where no artificial light interferes with the natural glow of the Milky Way or the moon. Make a warm drink and watch the stars shine.

How To Get to Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve

Depending on what Denver neighborhood you leave from, you have a choice of routes: driving south on I-25 to Walsenburg, west on U.S. 160, or north on State Highway 150. You could also take the scenic drive that connects U.S. 285 south to State Highway 17 south and County Lane 6 east.

Top 3 Activities

  • Learn about the park and its landscapes from a park ranger 
  • Take a dip at Medano Creek 
  • Try sand sledding

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

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is known for its steep vertical rock cliffs carved over millions of years by the Gunnison River. A hiker’s paradise, Black Canyon is home to trails for trekkers of all abilities on its South and North Rims. You can also drive the park, following one of its scenic routes and taking in views of the river. 

Plan your visit correctly by obtaining a free Wilderness Use Permit, which you’ll need before entering the park to hike, ski, or adventure however you please. 

How To Get to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park 

There are several ways to get to this popular Denver national park, including taking I-70 most of the way. That said, you’ll want to use a GPS to plan a route on the day of your visit because some of the smaller roads near the park might be closed.

Top 3 Activities

  • Try fishing 
  • Drive South Rim Road
  • Check out the Painted Wall

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

Don’t stop at exploring Colorado national parks. Nearby states have plenty to offer — especially Utah. Arches National Park is a spectacular red-rock wonderland just a drive away. Hike, camp, or ride a horse through the Arches or explore the park by car on an 18-mile scenic drive. If you have time, spend the night in the charming town of Moab, which features inviting cafes, unique shopping, and quirky taverns.

Visiting the park requires reservations from April through October, so plan ahead if you want to visit the park during peak season.

How To Get to Arches National Park

The route to Arches National Park is a straight shot down I-70, making it one of the easiest-to-access national parks near Denver, Colorado. 

Top 3 Activities

  • Go on a 4×4 adventure
  • Check out the famed Devil’s Garden rock formations 
  • See the iconic Delicate Arch
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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

Canyonlands National Park contains four districts: Island in the Sky, The Needles, The Maze, and the Green and Colorado Rivers. All offer spectacular views of canyons and buttes carved by the running water, and visitors will find plenty to do — fish, hike, or simply see the sights.  

Don’t expect to see the Canyonlands in one day. Crossing certain parts of the park can take up to six hours, so plan accordingly. Check out itineraries suggested by the National Park Service (NPS) for a more comfortable trip. 

How To Get to Canyonlands National Park

Take I-70 from Denver or add Canyonlands to a Utah road trip adventure that includes Arches National Park, too. The two parks are only 30 minutes away from each other. 

Top 3 Activities

  • Go horseback riding
  • Bike through the park 
  • Try whitewater rafting

6. Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Badlands National Park in South Dakota

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

If you want to explore far outside Colorado National Parks, try Badlands National Park, which takes its name from the Lakota people’s description of this rugged, fossil-rich area. Visitors can learn more about what’s beneath the park’s surface from the paleontologists at the NPS Fossil Preparation Lab. 

The park has an Open Hike Policy, which means you can explore its 244,000 acres off-trail. But exercise caution. Rescue missions are difficult and expensive.

How To Get to Badlands National Park

From Denver, you can go through either Wyoming or Nebraska to get to the Badlands. While the drive is slated at around six hours, it can take up to eight, depending on the route. 

Top 3 Activities

  • Visit the paleontology lab
  • Camp to enjoy the mindblowing sunrises and sunsets
  • Explore the park by car on the Badlands Loop Road

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 Pueblo people make Mesa Verde National Park one of the most unique national monuments in the country’s Southwest. Explore history and thousands of wildlife species, including unique fauna found nowhere else. Plan to camp because Mesa Verde is another International Dark Sky Park, making it an excellent place to stargaze.

Mesa Verde is sacred to 26 tribes. As such, it’s illegal to hike off-trail, and you must leave all cultural and natural elements where you find them. Dogs are only allowed on paved areas and campground roads.

How To Get to Mesa Verde National Park

There are countless ways to get to Mesa Verde from Denver, the shortest of which is via U.S. Highway 285 south and U.S. 160 west. 

Top 3 Activities 

  • Tour the cliff dwellings 
  • Visit the Mesa Verde Museum 
  • View the petroglyphs

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

Grand Teton National Park is home to one of the country’s most extraordinary natural skylines and hundreds of miles of trails that weave through forests and past alpine lakes. The park houses part of the massive Snake River, so if watersports or fishing is your thing, a visit to the Grand Tetons is worth the nearly eight-hour drive from Denver.

How To Get to Grand Teton National Park

Find Grand Teton National Park by driving up U.S. 287 north or flying into the Jackson Hole airport.

Top 3 Activities

  • Go whitewater rafting on the Snake River
  • Take the Jenny Lake Trail
  • Spot wildlife on the Moose Pond Trail

4 Tips for Visiting National Parks Near Denver, CO

Ready to jump in the car and get your adventure on? Take the following tips with you and ensure the smoothest trip possible:

  1. Read up on passes before you go: For many of the parks on this list, you’ll need an America the Beautiful – National Parks & Federal Recreational Lands Annual Pass or Private Vehicle, Motorcycle, or Individual passes. Once you have one, you’ll be able to enter a specific national park as often as you’d like over seven days. 
  2. Try to go for free: Check National Park Service calendars for fee-free days and save on your visit. 
  3. Stay up on closures: Don’t let a road or park closure ruin your trip. Before heading to any park, check its website for seasonal, wildlife, or route closures.
  4. Be respectful: Honor these stunning environments by following Leave No Trace principles. Stay on the trail, don’t bug the wildlife, and dispose of your trash properly. 

Looking to Move to Denver?

If you’re looking for a home base for exploring the natural beauty of the U.S., look no further than Denver. Its bustling neighborhoods — from Washington Park to Ruby Hill — offer a perfect balance between city life and park access.

Landing’s fully furnished apartments and flexible lease terms make finding a temporary home in Denver, Colorado easy. You’ll have the freedom to explore the country on your own terms. Learn more about memberships and take the next step on your grand adventure.