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Outdoors

Every national park you can drive to from Denver (hint: there are 10!)

DENVER — From the geothermal wonders of Yellowstone to the red rock country of Utah, 10 of America’s most beautiful national parks are located within a day’s drive of Denver. Four of them are in Colorado, four in Utah, and two in Wyoming.

Rocky Mountain National Park takes visitors high into the alpine environment where trees cannot grow. Grand Teton offers some of the most impressive mountain scenery on the continent. Mesa Verde takes visitors back 800 years in time for an appreciation of ancient Pueblo civilization.

We’ve compiled descriptions and things you need to know on all 10. Time to hit the road.

COLORADO

Rocky Mountain National Park

— Driving distance: 70 miles from Denver, about 1 hour and 35 minutes by car

— Visitation in 2021: 4.43 million

— Entrance fees: $25 per vehicle (increasing to $30 on May 27), $25 per motorcycle, $15 for bicyclists and walk-ins. Reservations ($2) required May 27-Oct. 10 via recreation.gov

— Most popular attraction: Bear Lake

Despite the imposition of a timed-entry reservation system two years ago that makes it more difficult to visit, this jewel of the national park system remains one of the most compelling attractions in the Rocky Mountain West. It offers long and challenging hikes, including the 15-mile roundtrip trek to the fourteener summit of Longs Peak (elev. 14,259 feet), along with plenty of family friendly trails. Get “high” driving over Trail Ridge Road, the highest continuously paved highway in the nation, which crosses alpine tundra and the Continental Divide while topping out at 12,183 feet. The Alpine Visitors Center up there (11,796 feet) is the highest visitors center in the national park system. Nearly a third of the park’s 415 square miles is situated above timberline (11,400 feet), presenting one of the largest areas of alpine terrain in the United States.

— Hidden Gem: When it opens in the summer, consider driving the Old Fall River Road to the Alpine Visitor Center up on Trail Ridge Road. It’s a one-way dirt road that has a 15-mph speed limit with steep drop-offs and sharp switchbacks, but it’s well worth it. Return via Trail Ridge Road.

— Pro tip: Regarding the park’s two-tiered entry reservation requirements, remember reservations are not required in the Bear Lake corridor after 6 p.m., and in the rest of the park, they are not required before 9 a.m. or after 3 p.m. — John Meyer

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve

— Driving distance: 235 miles from Denver, about 3 hours and 40 minutes by car

— Visitation in 2021: 602,600

— Entrance fees: $25 per vehicle, $20 per motorcycle, $15/person for oversized vehicles with 15 or more passengers. All passes are valid for seven consecutive days. No reservations required.

— Most popular attraction: The dunes

Nestled up against the Sangre de Cristo Mountains near Alamosa lies the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, home to the tallest dunes in North America. The sand here used to be at the bottom of the now long-gone Lake Alamosa, and over time wind blew it into the base of the mountains, forming the awe-inspiring structures. Hidden Dune and Star Dune are tied as the tallest dunes on the continent, measuring 741 feet from base to summit. Both are hikable, too; the National Park Service recommends allotting at least six hours roundtrip to hike each. Because of its unique location, the park’s conditions vary widely throughout the year. From late May through June, snowmelt fills Medano Creek, which flows alongside the dunes, offering a cool respite for swimming and fishing. That also makes it a popular time for visitors, so expect crowds. In the peak summer months, the sand temperatures can reach 150 degrees Fahrenheit, making it difficult to walk on the sand. That’s the best time to check out some of the forested hikes nearby. Fall boasts milder weather and cooler sand temperatures, and the dunes typically receive their first snow in late October. The park is open year-round.

— Hidden gem: Alpine lakes, Lower Sand Creek Lake and Upper Sand Creek Lake

— Pro tip: While there is hiking and camping in Great Sand Dunes, one of the best ways to experience the terrain is sandboarding and sand sledding. The park does not rent gear, but several shops outside its boundaries do, including Great Sand Dunes Oasis store, SpinDrift Sandboard Rentals, and Kristi Mountain Sports, among others. Call ahead to ensure they have some in stock. — Tiney Ricciardi

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

— Driving distance: 260 miles from Denver, about 4 hours and 50 minutes by car

— Visitation in 2021: 309,000

— Entrance fee: $30 per vehicle, $25 per motorcycle, $15 per person on bike or foot. All passes are valid for seven consecutive days. No reservations required.

— Most popular attraction: The Painted Wall

Maybe you’ve seen pictures of the Black Canyon and its most popular natural attraction, The Painted Wall, but it’s impossible to understand the incredible depth and sheer magnitude of the cliff faces, which plummet up to 2,722 feet, without seeing them in person. The Gunnison River’s average descent is 43 feet per mile throughout the national park but reaches up to 200-plus feet per mile in some places, causing the massive gash in the Earth known as the Black Canyon. That’s why it features some of the oldest exposed rock and craggiest spires in the country. Visitors access the park from one of two entrances: the South Rim, which is an easy trip from Gunnison or Montrose, and the more remote North Rim. Looking over either one into the canyon will both take your breath away and make your knees shake. In the summer, the Black Canyon is a magnet for advanced rock climbers and kayakers, but you don’t need to be a pro to enjoy hiking, camping, fishing or the scenic rim drives. If you plan to go down into the canyon to the river, however, you do need a permit. The good news: They’re free.

— Hidden gem: East Portal, which has a steep and winding paved road that allows drivers to access the Gunnison River. To get there, use the South Rim entrance of the park.

— Pro tip: There’s nothing connecting the Black Canyon’s North and South rims, so to visit both you must go around the canyon. Because it’s more accessible, the South Rim is a popular day-tripping area. The North Rim is the quieter side and you can still see landmarks like The Painted Wall. At 309,000 visitors in 2021, it’s still the least visited national park in Colorado, so you won’t experience crowds like Rocky Mountain National Park. — Tiney Ricciardi

Mesa Verde

— Driving distance: 370 miles from Denver, about 6 hours and 40 minutes by car

— Visitation in 2021: 548,000

— Entrance fees: $30 per vehicle, $25 per motorcycle, $15 per person on bike or foot. All passes are valid for seven consecutive days. No reservations required.

— Most popular attraction: The Cliff Palace

The other parks on this list are best known for their timeless landscapes, geological features and magnificent views. To be sure, Mesa Verde has beautiful topography, but this is a park where the most profound aspect of the experience is the spiritual connection the visitor forms with the ancient Pueblo people who built beautiful cliff dwellings here centuries ago. One feels the spirit of their industry, ingenuity and even their worship. Guided tours allow visitors close-up views of the Cliff Palace, the largest cliff dwelling in North America built between 1190 and 1280 A.D., and others. No wonder Mesa Verde has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. Prices for guided tours vary and must be paid in addition to the park entry fee. Tour reservations are available two weeks in advance via recreation.gov.

— Hidden Gem: Wetherill Mesa is closed to motor vehicles, so you can visit ancestral sites there on foot or by bike.

— Pro tip: Plan ahead, reserve a cliff dwellings tour in advance, and bring comfortable shoes. — John Meyer

UTAH

Arches

— Driving distance: 350 miles from Denver, about 5 hours and 25 minutes by car

— Visitation in 2021: 1.8 million

— Entrance fees: $30 per vehicle, $25 per motorcycle, $15 per person on bike or foot. All passes are valid for seven consecutive days. Reservations ($2) required through recreation.gov

— Most popular attraction: Delicate Arch

The red sandstone formations in this park just outside of Moab represent the world’s most dense concentration of natural stone arches, numbering more than 2,000. The largest is Delicate Arch, with an archway that is 46 feet high and 32 feet wide. The arches were formed when erosion sculpted rock walls into shapes known as “fins,” where holes later formed. The park also has many massive red rock walls and monoliths that are stunning in size and beauty, especially the areas known as Park Avenue and the Courthouse Towers. New this year, Arches has gone to a timed-entry reservation system via recreation.gov to eliminate traffic congestion, overuse of facilities and overcrowding on trails. Park officials say the goal isn’t to reduce visitation but to spread it throughout the day.

— Hidden Gem: Corona Arch, which is located just outside of the park, requires a 3-mile hike and is free to visit.

— Pro tip: If you’re visiting Arches, take a side trip to nearby Dead Horse Point State Park. The panoramic view from the point, 2,000 feet above the snaking Colorado River, is reminiscent of the Grand Canyon. In fact, the final scene in Thelma and Louise, supposedly set in the Grand Canyon, was shot here. — John Meyer

Canyonlands

— Driving distance: 365 miles from Denver, about 5 hours and 40 minutes by car

— Visitation in 2021: 911,600

— Entrance fees: $30 per vehicle, $25 per motorcycle, $15 per person on bike or foot. All passes are valid for seven consecutive days. No reservations required.

— Most popular attraction: Mesa Arch

Canyonlands is located where the Colorado River and Green River meet, forming two deep canyons southwest of Moab. The Island in the Sky mesa, which looms 1,000 feet over the surrounding landscape, is a great place for a scenic drive. Another area, called The Needles, features towering sandstone pinnacles and a large network of trails. Just below the confluence of the Colorado and the Green is Cataract Canyon, a world-class stretch of whitewater. This is the largest of Utah’s five national parks and is a magnet for four-wheeling and mountain biking.

— Hidden Gem: A short hike on the Aztec Butte trail accesses two archeological sites.

— Pro tip: The fastest way to Moab is by taking Interstate 70 west for 325 miles to U.S. 191. A slower but more scenic route exits Interstate 70 about 30 miles earlier, near Cisco, and follows Utah 128, which has been designated a Utah Scenic Byway. Much of that route passes through a stunning canyon along the Colorado River. — John Meyer

Capitol Reef National Park

— Driving distance: 430 miles from Denver, about 6 hours and 35 minutes by car

— Visitation in 2021: 1.4 million

— Entrance fee: $20 per vehicle, $15 per motorcycle, $10 person on bike or foot. All passes are valid for seven consecutive days. No reservation required.

— Most popular attractions: Hickman Natural Bridge, the Grand Wash

The first thing you need to know about Capitol Reef National Park is how it was created. The Waterpocket Fold, a so-called geological wrinkle or warp in the Earth’s crust, spans 100 miles through south-central Utah creating this unique landscape of domed Navajo Sandstone structures and steep, rocky cliffs that give Capitol Reef its name. The park is a massive 243,000-plus acres, meaning there’s plenty to explore from the Cathedral Valley up north to the Waterpocket District down south and all the canyons and creeks areas in between. The Fruita Historic District, centrally located near the visitors center, offers orchards where visitors can pick apples, cherries, peaches, plums and more (for a fee) as well as ancient petroglyphs and pioneer-era buildings where they can snack on some history.

— Hidden gem: Cathedral Valley driving loop tour, which spans 58 miles through bentonite hills, sandstone monoliths and endless rugged backcountry. A high-clearance, AWD vehicle is recommended.

— Pro tip: Because of the weather here, spring and fall are the most popular times of the year to visit. To avoid crowds, visit the north or south areas of the park, which are more remote. — Tiney Ricciardi

Bryce Canyon National Park

— Driving distance: 540 miles from Denver, about 8 hours and 40 minutes by car

— Visitation in 2021: 2.1 million

— Entrance fee: $35 per vehicle, $30 per motorcycle, $20 per person on bike or foot. All passes are valid for seven consecutive days. No reservations required.

— Most popular attractions: The Bryce Amphitheater, Thor’s Hammer

With nearly 36,000 acres of desert landscape, Utah’s Bryce Canyon National Park and its famous hoodoos are something of a showcase for how our natural world evolves over time. Hoodoos are irregularly shaped rock spires formed as softer rock gradually erodes away, a process that still happens there to this day. While hoodoos are found all over the planet, the Bryce Amphitheater boasts the greatest concentration of these natural structures anywhere in the world. Experience them from viewpoints along the park’s main 18-mile thoroughfare, or hike and camp among them by venturing down into the canyon. Because the park resides at a high altitude (from 6,620 to 9,115 feet in elevation), the area is prone to snow during the winter months, so if you plan to hike then, bring snowshoes.

— Hidden gem: Mossy Cave Trail, which leads to a waterfall.

— Pro tip: If you’ve traveled all the way to Bryce Canyon National Park, you’re only an hour-and-change from Zion National Park. Don’t miss your opportunity to hit both in one trip. — Tiney Ricciardi

WYOMING

Grand Teton

— Driving distance: 480 miles from Denver, about 7 hours and 45 minutes by car

— Visitation in 2021: 3.88 million

— Entrance fees: $35 per vehicle, $30 per motorcycle, $20 per person on bike or foot. All passes are valid for seven consecutive days. No reservations required.

— Most popular attraction: Jenny Lake

The Grand Teton and the cluster of peaks around it are staggering to behold. The Grand looms more than 7,000 feet over the Snake River valley, and the steepness of those jagged peaks is stunning. Bring your hiking boots because you’ll want to explore some of the amazing trails there. Take the shuttle boat across Jenny Lake to hike in Cascade Canyon, which offers views you won’t believe. Other great options for strong hikers start at Lupine Meadows where you can take the Garnet Canyon trail or a nearby trail to Surprise Lake and Amphitheater Lake. After you’re worn out from a day or two of challenging hiking, consider renting a bike — or an e-bike — and ride Teton Park Road or nearby bike paths, admiring the views of peaks soaring above you to the west. You can even ride to the park from the town of Jackson via a bike path (13 miles). Bear in mind (yes, that’s a pun) that the park is home to grizzlies and black bears. Consult the park’s website to learn what to do if you encounter one.

— Hidden gem: Within the park boundaries, slightly off the beaten path, is the Chapel of the Transfiguration, a log cabin built in 1925. Visitors entering the chapel discover a picture window behind the altar perfectly frames the Tetons.

— Pro tip: To save a little on lodging costs and avoid hordes of tourists in Jackson, consider staying in Victor, Idaho. It’s a 45-minute drive over Teton Pass to the park, but it’s a gorgeous commute. — John Meyer

Yellowstone

— Driving distance: 510 miles from Denver, about 8 hours and 25 minutes by car

— Visitation in 2021: 4.86 million

— Entrance fees: $35 per vehicle, $30 per motorcycle, $20 per person on bike or foot. All passes are valid for seven consecutive days. No reservations required.

— Most popular attraction: Old Faithful geyser

America’s oldest national park is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year. The main attractions are hot springs, geysers, travertine limestone terraces, steam vents and hot mud springs that give Yellowstone the world’s largest group of hydrothermal features. Old Faithful is the most famous, of course, but there are many others. Our favorite spot is the Grand Prismatic Spring, the largest hot spring in the nation, where 160-degree water emerges from deep within the earth. Stunning blue at the center with steam rising above, the edges radiate vivid shades of red, orange, yellow and green. Another do-not-miss spot: the Travertine Terraces at Mammoth Hot Springs, just south of the Montana border. Parts of Yellowstone are home to bison herds, so keep your eyes open for them but do not approach.

— Hidden gem: A short hike of about 4.5 miles (roundtrip) leads to Fairy Falls, a 200-foot waterfall that is one of the most beautiful in the park. On the way there, you get a view of Grand Prismatic Spring from an overlook. There are also a couple of small, interesting geysers just north of the falls.

— Pro tip: If you want to photograph Old Faithful, make sure you aren’t downwind; otherwise the water falling from the eruption will obscure your view of the water rising from it. — John Meyer

News Group, Inc. Visit at denverpost.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

This story was originally published May 19, 2022 5:30 AM.

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