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3 Less-Visited Colorado National Parks, Conquered In A Grand Swing

Avoid the crowds and find some peace

By Joe Guay - Dispatches From the Guay Life!!Published 24 days ago 6 min read
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Great Sand Dunes National Park | Photo by the author

You’ve heard of Arches and Zion National Parks in Utah?

They’re great, but crowded.

Popular.

I’m the weirdo who's off exploring Utah's lesser-known Capitol Reef National Park instead.

The Grand Canyon, sure, it’s a must-see. But I’m holding out for the more obscure, harder-to-reach North Rim.

Some might say I’m deliberately contrarian.

Nope, Zion and the Grand Canyon are fantastic. Yosemite is dynamite. Sequoia National Park and the Redwood parks? Amazing. But have you been to Lassen Volcanic National Park in California’s remote northeast corner? Magical.

With all of this in mind, my partner Eddie and I made the commitment to see three of Colorado’s harder-to-reach national parks all in one clip —

  1. Great Sand Dunes
  2. Mesa Verde
  3. Black Canyon of the Gunnison

Mesa Verde is the best known of the three, with multiple cliff dwellings accessible via wooden ladders. I became aware of the other two during my years devouring Sunset Magazine, my go-to for affordable American West travel inspiration.

Visitors rest atop the sand at Great Sand Dunes National Park | Photo by author

Great Sand Dunes looked like something from another continent. I couldn’t believe it was in America, let alone in southern Colorado. And Black Canyon of the Gunnison? Only die-hard national park enthusiasts even knew it existed.

But alas, the journeys just sat there, the articles remaining dogeared and highlighted, not acted upon, for a good seven to eight years.

The reason? All three parks are a haul from major airports.

Great Sand Dunes is a 3.5 hour drive from Denver on a good-traffic day, and about the same distance from Albuquerque. Santa Fe and Colorado Springs are both closer but involve more expensive airports. Mesa Verde is a four-hour drive from Albuquerque and six hours from either Salt Lake City or Denver. Black Canyon, kind of closer to Denver, but no direct route through the Rocky Mountains.

So, puffing out our chests, it was decided — if we were going to see one, we were going to see all three at the same time.

A sister-in-law living in Colorado Springs provided our springboard starting point, so I designed a massive circular journey.

Our too-ambitious route also included New Mexico | Photo by the author

The Route

Colorado Springs to Great Sand Dunes.

Then a side jaunt to Taos and Albuquerque.

Next, a drive through Native American monuments to Mesa Verde. On to Durango, Silverton and Ouray, followed by Black Canyon of the Gunnison and a final drive across mid-Colorado.

It was nuts, it was ambitious, but it was time.

Great Sand Dunes National Park

A wildflower field outside of Great Sand Dunes | Photo by the author

Wait, are we in the Sahara? Somehow transported to Algeria?

There’s a ton of sand here.

But it’s not just sand. Depending on the time of year there are wildflowers, a flowing creek at the base of the dunes, and what I deemed “Heidi-like” mountain views surrounding this freak of nature that makes your brain itch a bit. How is it here?

The mountainous dunes rise 750 feet. There are no trails because… it’s sand. The top of the crest was calling our names and we were virile men ready to scale great heights.

Those of you who’ve gone jogging in sand know we were kidding ourselves.

It was beautiful, but whew, it was work. Being Colorado, we’d forgotten about the 7,500-ft starting elevation at the base of the dunes. There was some panting and plodding.

All smiles as I take in the views up top | Photo by Ed Forsyth

But it was worth it. We got to ride a sand board down like gleeful kids.

What is sand boarding? No, it’s not “snowboarding on sand.” In fact, you don’t stand up. Instead you plop down like on a snow sled then whisk down the face of the dunes. We loved it, but only rode down two or three times. It’s not like there’s a ski lift just waiting for you at the bottom.

Sand boards can be rented right outside the park entrance — certainly worth it for the memories.

Two visitors look at sand boards while a third rides the dunes | Photo by the author\

My lone sand board after the fun ride down | Photo by the author

Eddie walking through the stream as we returned to the car | Photo by the author

If we ever return we’ll be aiming for early summer, when the main stream through the park isn’t just a trickle but is actively flowing, giving visitors a chance to wade and float in the refreshing water at the base of this unique place — giant sand dunes in one direction, European-looking mountains on the other. Bliss!

Continuing along our loop, we headed into New Mexico to visit friends and see some favorite southwestern haunts in Taos, Santa Fe and Albuquerque. But soon it was back to our quest — those quieter Colorado National Parks.

We headed north toward Colorado’s southwestern corner, appreciating awesome rock formations near Shiprock as we journeyed to Mesa Verde.

Cool rock formations in northwestern New Mexico | Photo by the author

Mesa Verde National Park

Eddie taking in one of the cliff dwellings | Photo by the author

In this special place it’s all about the wide-open space atop mesas and in cliff dwellings and there are a total of 4,500 archeological sites in the park. In a word, Mesa Verde is vast and involves a lot of driving — the main cliff dwellings are a good 40-minute drive from the park’s only entrance.

So, don’t grumble; take it in.

With the wind in our hair, we imagined the Ancestral Pueblo people experiencing the majesty of this open space daily, navigating the open fissures, knowing the places to find shade, to claim water. We were taken by the light, the open skies and the mix of dusty trees and orange earth.

Sadly the most popular areas like the Cliff Palace and Balcony House loops were closed for road refurbishments. Oh well, that made any decision-making easier.

To Step House and Long House areas it is!

Waving for mom | Photo by Ed Forsyth

Oh, how I gasped when the first cliff dwelling came into sight. They’re a lot larger than I imagined - not just a cave for a family, but a village for dozens of people.

We appreciated the well-placed park rangers to keep visitors safe, to answer questions and to stop any daredevil risky behavior.

We ascended a few ladders and ahhh, the views looking out from the caves and kivas brought home the foresight and wise planning these natives took in protecting their tribes from the elements and from invaders.

The view of the surroundings from within a cliff dwelling | Photo by the author

The ladders to enter certain Mesa Verde dwellings | Photo by the author

Tbe steep curve of the carved out dwellings | Photo by the author

There absolutely are spirits here, and we enjoyed communing with them.

Our continuing quest took us to Durango, Colorado for the night. The next morning we participated in a bucket-list item — riding the Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad.

A hard-to-believe view from the back open-air car on the train ride | Photo by the author

Who knew this section of Colorado was so beautiful? I always imagined the mountains of this state one way — perhaps granite, like Yosemite. But my eyes were opened to Colorado’s variety, for sure.

After all those mountain views, and after a zig-zagging drive to Ouray, the “Switzerland of the US,” we were off to our final stop, the most obscure of our Colorado parks.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

Eddie taking in the green Gunnison River in the canyon | Photo by the author

More decisions. Just like a visit to the Grand Canyon, visitors need to choose — are you going to the North Rim or the South Rim? Because apart from how the crow flies, it’s a good 2.5-hour drive between the two.

But unlike the Grand Canyon, in this corner of Colorado you’d have no clue, zero warning that there’s a gigantic hole in the earth nearby. Imagine being a settler in a wagon and coming upon this unexpected and vast canyon with no way around. Bummer!

We opted for the South Rim as it was closer to our already-long-enough route. The Rim Road provides easy drives to multiple overlooks and cliff-wall viewing locations. Each time we got out of the car to approach a lookout I thought, “Okay, we can’t be overwhelmed yet again,” but I was wrong. Ooooh wow, was exclaimed from our lips, over and over.

Consider our breath adequately taken away.

A geology lesson found in the towering cliff faces | Photo by the author

A somewhat scary viewpoint at Black Canyon | Photo by the author

The Canyon is named Black due to the part of the canyon where the north and south rim are so close (but with no bridge between them) that down in the gorge there are only 33 minutes of direct sun hitting the ground per day, with some areas being deeper than the chasms of the Grand Canyon.

But oh, foiled again! The lone road down into the depths of the canyon was closed. Oh how I wanted to gaze up upon the rock faces, how I wanted to stand by the green Gunnison River and imagine life below the rim.

But alas, we may just have to return.

We’d done it! We’d taken in the three less-visited parks in mighty Colorado.

More Colorado scenery on our return drive to Colorado Springs | Photo by author

The grand darling of the state is Rocky Mountain National Park, north of Denver, attracting close to five million people a year.

We’ll have to plan a visit there when we’re ready to face the crowds.

Are you ready to have some national parks all to yourself? To see true night skies in total darkness, with stargazing that’ll knock your socks off? Here are a few more to consider.

Great Basin National Park, Nevada

Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

Big Bend National Park, Texas

It takes some determination, some planning and a willingness to road-trip, but your soul, oh, your soul will be rewarded.

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About the Creator

Joe Guay - Dispatches From the Guay Life!!

Joe Guay is a recovering people-pleaser who writes on Travel, Showbiz, LGBTQ life, humor and the general inanities of life. He aims to be "the poor man's" David Sedaris. You're welcome!

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