Visiting Colorado’s National Parks By RV

Apr 18, 2022 | Travel & Destinations

Visiting Colorado’s National Parks By RV

Colorado’s four national parks are a haven for RVers—here’s how to plan a trip to all of the state’s offerings.

By Robert Annis

Photo: Robert Annis

Few states embrace the RV and outdoor lifestyle like Colorado. It’s no secret why RVers flock to the state—it’s stunningly beautiful with no shortage of opportunities for adventure, including four amazing (and very different) national parks.

Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park combines incredible scenery with some of the best hiking in the country, with trails for all skill levels and abilities. 

Alberta Falls in Rocky Mountain National Park
Alberta Falls in Rocky Mountain National Park. | Photo: Robert Annis

Rocky Mountain, one of the most popular national parks, is prone to overcrowding. Even if you visit in the off-season, the park may still be packed with people. In order to combat this, a timed-entry system is in effect for 2022 during the park’s busy season between late May and mid-October. You can learn more about the process on the park’s website and apply for an entry permit through Recreation.gov.

Related NPS Changes in 2022: What You Need to Know About Timed-Entry Passes, Avoiding Crowds, and More

Highlights

Those looking for an easy hike can stroll the half-mile loop surrounding Bear Lake. In late September, the aspens surrounding the lake start to transform into golden, buttery yellows and fiery oranges, contrasting perfectly with the green pines. Best of all, the trees’ reflection on the lake is stunning.

If you’re looking to hike a bit more, consider the 6-mile trail to Alberta Falls and Mills Lake or the more difficult 6-plus miles to the Loch, Lake of Glass, and Sky Pond. Both offer gorgeous views, but the hike up to Lake of Glass and Sky Pond reaches about 11,000 feet in elevation and involves scrambling up the side of a waterfall. 

The drive along Trail Ridge Road features gorgeous scenery, but as it climbs higher and higher along the steep ridge with no guard rail, it also induces anxiety. After visiting the Alpine Visitor Center, I completed two short hikes, neither longer than a mile. Given the high elevation, it was still enough to leave me gasping for air.

How to Get There By RV

Rocky Mountain National Park has two gateway communities, Grand Lake to the west and the more popular Estes Park to the east. U.S. Route 36 passes through Estes Park, while Grand Lake is serviced by U.S. Route 34.

Where to Stay

Rocky Mountain National Park has five campgrounds—three can be reserved (Aspenglen, Glacier Basin, and Moraine Park) and two are first come, first served (Longs Peak and Timber Creek). Only Moraine Park is open year-round. 

As with most national parks, reservations are snapped up quickly. I managed to snag a cancellation site for my first night in the park; A037 is supposedly a walk-in tent site, but it was only about a 30-yard stroll from my van to the picnic table and fire ring. None of the sites offer electric or full hookups. At night, I was serenaded to sleep by bugling elks in the valley below. 

There’s no shortage of campgrounds in and around the gateway community of Estes Park. The local KOA offers plenty of level sites and ensuing amenities. Choose between dry camping and full hookups.

Other Options


Great Sand Dunes National Park

Looking to the northwest, dunes stretch out seemingly for miles; you could easily mistake it for the Sahara or another vast desert. On my blustery first day in the Great Sand Dunes National Park, the wind picked up dramatically when I reached the top of one of the lower dunes—85-mph wind gusts nearly knocked me off my feet.

Cell phone coverage throughout the park is poor, and the visitor center didn’t have WiFi. Be sure to do your research before reaching the park. And no matter how hard you try to keep everything clean, you will get sand in your RV.

Grand Sand Dunes National Park
Great Sand Dunes National Park. | Photo: Robert Annis

Highlights

Given the name of the park, it’s no wonder the sand dunes are the star of the show here. The crowds are a mix of families and young adults barreling down the dunes on sleds and hikers traversing the gritty ridges. Some of the drop-offs are quite tall and steep, and hiking back up sand dunes can be challenging. 

There are a handful of marked hiking trails in the national preserve to the northeast of the park. The 6.4-mile (out-and-back) Mosca Pass Trail starts near the visitor center and ascends about 1,600 feet to a nice viewpoint. In the spring, wildflowers are in full bloom along the trail.

If you have a four-wheel drive vehicle, take a side trip to Zapata Falls, about 3 miles south of the park. It’s a rough, 3-mile drive to the trailhead, but from there, it’s less than a mile to reach the 25-foot waterfall. 

Climbing in the dunes at Great Sand Dunes
Climbing in the dunes at Great Sand Dunes National Park. | Photo: Robert Annis

How to Get There By RV

To reach the main entrance, take U.S. Route 160 to Colorado State Highway 150 from the south or Colorado State Highway 17 to Highway 150 from the west. The national park is at the north end of Highway 150.

Where to Stay

The primary campground in the park, Pinon Flats, offers basic amenities but no hookups. You can reserve a site ahead of time (be sure to plan ahead), but I showed up thinking it would be easy to nab one of the first-come, first-served camp spots. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case—they go quick, even during the off-season. The camp store located in between loops one and two sells basic goods and locally-made bratwursts.

Located just outside the park, the Great Sand Dunes Oasis  is a convenient option for those who want hookups and an ice cream reward from the camp store after hiking. You can rent sand sleds at the office here as well.

Other Options


Mesa Verde National Park

Of Colorado’s national parks, I was the most surprised by Mesa Verde. It was eye-opening to walk around the ancient Pueblo cliff dwellings and learn more about the culture and history. And while these 1,000-year-old structures are undoubtedly the star of this show, the surrounding mountains are nearly as stunning. Also check out the nearby Canyon of the Ancients National Monument.

Ancient Pueblo cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde National Park
Ancient Pueblo cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde National Park. | Photo: Robert Annis

Highlights

Petroglyph Point is a must-do, 2.5-mile-long trail if you’re physically able. The park categorizes the hike as strenuous, but there was only one spot that I considered a bit difficult, and a pair of hikers could easily help each other up the rocks. Keep an eye out for petroglyphs along the trails. It’s no longer possible to get up close to the cliff dwellings at Spruce House because of falling-rock hazards. At the end of a steep 1-mile path, Step House on Wetherill Mesa is typically the one cliff dwelling you can see without being on a guided tour. 

If the hikes seem a bit too strenuous for you, take the 6-mile self-guided Mesa Top Loop Road tour, leading to 12 archeological sites and viewpoints of the famous Cliff Palace. This loop can get busy during peak visitation hours, but it’s full of interesting history.

How to Get There By RV

Located just off U.S. Route 160, the main entrance to Mesa Verde winds up a steep, narrow road. The first night I entered the park, falling snow and sleet made it even more nerve-racking and treacherous. Those with a Class A RV should note that there’s a tunnel between mileposts four and five with a height restriction of 20.5 feet.

Be aware that trailers are not allowed in certain sections of Mesa Verde, including the steep, curvy road to Wetherill Mesa. The road is limited to vehicles weighing less than 8,000 pounds and shorter than 25 feet. If you’re not planning to camp, there’s a parking lot near the entrance station where trucks can unload trailers.

Where to Stay

Located inside the park, Morefield Campground offers 267 sites, 15 of which have full hookups. A nearby camp store and coin-operated laundromat are welcome amenities. Cell phone coverage is mostly non-existent. Morefield is closed from mid-October to mid-April and has reduced services for its first and last 2 weeks.

Located less than a mile from the national park entrance, Mesa Verde RV Resort has well-spaced sites, a heated pool, and two hot tubs. 

Other Options


Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

After facing a long line to enter Rocky Mountain National Park, I was surprised that I was able to drive right into Black Canyon of the Gunnison. With so many national parks located within a couple of hundred miles, it felt overlooked. 

Compared to the more famous Grand Canyon in Arizona, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison is steeper and darker. If you suffer from vertigo or have a fear of heights, you will want to plan your visit accordingly. The canyon separates the park into two distinct halves. The south side is home to nearly all of the facilities and amenities, while the north side offers nice views, but is only accessible by a gravel road.

The Black Canyon of the Gunnison in the national park
The Black Canyon of the Gunnison in the national park. | Photo: Robert Annis

Highlights

If you’re up for a challenge, the Gunnison Route takes you down to the bottom of the canyon. It’s not a trail, per se, more of a steep, 1-mile scramble down, then back up an established route. 

I completed a few short hikes, including the 1.5-mile Rim Rock Trail and Exclamation Point, which is an easy, 3-mile walk through pinion pines that leads to a sweeping view of the canyon.

Paddling the Gunnison River at the bottom of the canyon is recommended only for the most experienced kayakers, instead, the Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area nearby has plenty of rafting opportunities for everyday adventurers. If you prefer drier activities, there are more than 100 miles of trails open to mountain bikes, off-road motorcycles, horses, snowmobiles, and more. 

How to Get There By RV

The most commonly used south rim entrance is located about 7 miles north on Highway 347 from U.S. Route 50, east of Montrose, Colorado. To get to the north rim, take Highway 92, before turning west on Black Canyon Road, about 3 miles south of Crawford, Colorado. The last 7 miles to the entrance are gravel. There’s no bridge across the canyon, so plan on driving up to 3 hours to get from one rim to the other. Be aware the north rim is closed to vehicles in the winter. 

Where to Stay

Each rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison has its own campground. The South Rim  Campground has 88 sites, about a quarter of which have hookups, while the north rim has only 13 primitive sites and a maximum vehicle and trailer length of 22 feet.

Located close to the park, the Black Canyon Bureau of Land Management area has plenty of open space for RVs. Try to find a spot close to the entrance; the deeper you go, the more likely you are to need four-wheel drive. This is a free site with no amenities. 

Other Options

CampgroundsColoradoNational ParksRoad TripsRV Travel

Robert Annis

After spending nearly a decade as a reporter for The Indianapolis Star, Robert Annis became an award-winning outdoor-travel journalist. Over the years, Robert's byline has appeared in numerous publications and websites, including Outside, National Geographic Traveler, Afar, Men's Journal, Lonely Planet, and more. If you’re looking for Robert, chances are you'll find him either pedaling the backroads and trails of the Midwest on his bicycle or hunched over his laptop in an airport bar, frantically trying to make his next deadline.

Keep Up with the Pack

Sign up for emails from Togo RV