Your 2023 Tour of Colorado's National Parks - Native Campervans
Your 2023 Tour of Colorado’s National Parks
If you’re a national park nut like us or you’re interested in seeing the great wonders of Colorado, we’ve put together a six-day tour through Colorado’s majestic national parks. This route will take you from our Denver campervan rental office through the tremendous peaks of RMNP, the vast canyon of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, the ancient cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde, and finally the enormous Great Sand Dunes. Buckle up!
Day 1 | Denver to Rocky Mountain National Park
Distance: 70 miles Time: 1 hr 30 min
Let’s get on the road and hit the first of Colorado’s National Parks in our six-day CONP tour! We’re not sure why Rocky Mountain National Park isn’t considered one of the great wonders of the world. In our opinion, the views rival that of the Grand Canyon!
Rocky Mountain NP is home to majestic mountain views, wildlife, and the highest paved road in the United States – the Trail Ridge Road. It is considered the high-country playground of the West with 300 miles of hiking and backpacking trails that culminate in picturesque mountain lake views. I don’t know about you, but I have heart eyes right now.
Before you head to your campsite or find your dispersed camping spot for the night, make some stops at the Safeway and Rocky Mountain Discount Liquor to stock up on food and drinks.
Once you’ve gotten your supplies for the evening, get a feel for RMNP with a drive on Trail Ridge Road. Trail Ridge Road is 48 miles of peaks, forests, elk, bighorn sheep, and overall incredible views. The road reaches a startling 12,183 ft as you cross over the Continental Divide to Milner Pass. You’re going to have to pick your jaw up off the floor at least a few times on this drive.
After your drive through literal heaven (I mean you do get up pretty high at some points) head to your camp spot for the evening and relax. You’re on the vacation of your dreams after all!
If you’re into amenity-rich campgrounds, book a spot at the Moraine Park Campground (closed for renovations in the summer of 2023). It’s located on the east side of the park. You’ll wake up to views of RMNP’s historic ponderosa pine forest. Make sure to book in advance because this is the park’s most popular campground. The best part, aside from the showers that is, is that the park features a free shuttle to Bear Lake and Estes Park.
If you’re more of a dispersed camper, we have some inside information on killer dispersed camping spots within RMNP.
Here are our top three recommendations for dispersed camping spots:
The best spots are about 4 or 5 miles down County Highway. This is a truly dispersed spot; there are no trashcans or water available. You can purchase water from Stillwater State Park or Dump for $5.00.
Allenspark spots are view-rich with awesome vistas of the forest and mountains surrounding RMNP. There are no toilets at this spot, plan accordingly. A little birdy told us that small firepits are available, though!
Colorado Route 47
To get to this camp spot head south on CR 47 off 36. You’ll see numerous gravel road pull-offs. Head down these gravel pull-offs for an isolated camping experience. Firepits are available for you to use, but make sure you check fire bans before you go.
Native Campervan Tip: The Rocky Mountain NP system just instituted a permit program that requires reservations from May 28 – October 11 to enter the park. Don’t spend hours driving to the park and waiting in line only to get turned away at the guard tower!
Cockadoodle-do! There probably aren’t any roosters out here, you get the idea – it’s time to get up! We’re headed to Black Canyon of the Gunnison NP today. But first, we’re going to get a little taste of RMNP trails before we go. It’s early; start your coffee, lace up your hiking shoes, and hop in the van. We’re headed to the Bear Lake Parking Lot for the Nymph, Dream & Emerald Lake’s trail. This trail is a quick 3.6 mile roundabout with mountaintop lake views that you really can’t miss.
When you’ve reached the van, do a little stretch. We have about five hours to another one of Colorado’s National Parks. We’re headed to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park!
DAY 2 | RMNP to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park National Park
Distance: 280 miles Time: 5 hrs
If you’ve never been to Black Canyon, you’re in for a surprise. The Park is known for its steep-walled gorge carved by the Gunnison River. Hiking trails adorn the north and south ridge, this park is abundant with natural beauty and recreational activities. It offers scenic drives to hundreds of miles of hiking trails, even rock climbing, and kayaking within the canyon. There is something for everyone at Black Canyon.
The North Rim Campground is more remote than the South Rim. Be careful though, the last 7 miles into the North Rim Campground are unpaved; water and vault toilets are available. The South Rim is more populated, but still offers great views of the park and direct access to hiking trails. The South Rim also features drinking water and vault toilets.
After you settle into your camp spot, let’s loosen up those legs with a short hike. Exclamation point hike is an easy 2.9 mile out and back trail. This is the perfect hike to get your first glimpses of the park up close. Once you’ve shaken out your legs and got the blood pumping, head back to camp and make some dinner. You’ve already seen how amazing Colorado’s national parks are and we’ve got more headed your way!
DAY 3 | Black Canyon Day
You have so much to choose from for your full day in Black Canyon! If you’re chasing views, we suggest the Green Mountain Summit via North Vista Trail. It’s a 6.5-mile out-and-back trail located on the north rim of the canyon with amazing views of the park at the summit. You’ll catch all the best views the park has to offer.
If you’re a little tired (we’ve sent you on almost 10 miles of hikes so far, so no shame!) take a scenic drive on the North Rim Road. This is a 2–3-hour leisurely tour of some of the greatest sights in the park. You can also drive to the Gunnison River by taking East Portal Road. East Portal Road may be a little more stressful of a drive because of the 16% grade hills and hairpin curves. East Portal Road takes you through the Curecanti National Recreation Area which is great for an afternoon picnic!
Water lovers can head to Gunnison River for fishing. If you’re an expert kayaker, the Gunnison River is a great challenge. If you’re looking for a more relaxed afternoon, you can still hand at the riverbank. Although the water is too cold to swim or wade in, you can still hang by the river and beat the heat.
When you’re done for the day, drive 10 miles down the road to High Alpine Brewing Company. High Alpine has some of the best local craft brews in the area. We hear the pizza is exceptional! Box up your leftovers and maybe take a growler to go. You’re off to Mesa Verde NP tomorrow morning.
DAY 4 | Black Canyon of the Gunnison NP to Mesa Verde National Park
Distance: 153 miles Time: 3 hrs
Get up early and get on the road, we’ve got some things to see in Mesa Verde National Park! Mesa Verde is rich with history; you will get a glimpse into a time gone by. Cliff dwellings built during the late 1190s by the Ancestral Puebloans adorn the park. There is truly nowhere like Mesa Verde NP.
If you’re a history buff, take one of the many tours through the ancient city. Rather, if you want to see it from above, then take the Cliff Dwelling tour. If you want a more up close and personal look at the city, then take the Balcony House or Long House tour. Both tours allow you to explore the ancient cliff city. You can book your tickets at recreation.gov. Book in advance because tours are limited for summer 2021.
What about hiking?
If you still have a hiking bug, then try out one of the many trails in Mesa Verde Park. Looking for views? Try Point Lookout Trail. It is a 2-mile switchback trail up the side of Point Lookout. You’ll get sweeping valley views at the top! A more adventurous option is the Petroglyph Point Trail or Knife Edge Trail. Both trails are a little over two miles. The Petroglyph Point Trail takes you past a petroglyph panel and up a stone staircase, you’ll return to the trailhead through an easy forest loop.
End your day with a delicious dinner and drinks at the Metate Room Restaurant. The restaurant sits atop the Far View Lodge and offers fresh fish, wild game, and local organic produce with a contemporary Southwestern flare. Watch the sunset over the Mese Verde Canyons as you prepare for one more exciting stop tomorrow.
DAY 5 | Mesa Verde NP to Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
Distance: 200 miles Time: 4 hrs
We’re off to see the sand dunes, the tallest dunes in the world! I hope that reminded you of the popular Wizard of Oz song. I won’t repeat it for you here, but get going down your own yellow brick road that is US-160 E.
Let’s spice it up and leave our hiking boots in the van because we’re going to go sandboarding! Rent a sandboard or sand sled from the Oasis Store located 4 miles from the Great Sand Dunes Visitor Center.
After a few rides down the dunes head over to the Rabbit Hole Ranch and set up camp! The Rabbit Hole Ranch is a dispersed campsite with awesome high alpine desert views.
We know you’re tired after 20+ miles of hiking in a week, so head over to the Hooper Hot Springs for a little soak. Hooper Hot Springs offers a retro oasis complete with naturally heated pools and some adult beverages. You just got to see Colorado’s national parks and now it’s time to relax under the stars, it’s your last night of vacation after all.
DAY 6 | Great Sand Dunes National Park to Denver, CO
Distance: 220 miles Time: 4 hrs
Alright Happy Campervanners, shake off those weary legs and hit the road back to Denver. We recommend scheduling a massage in your home city after this whirlwind vacation! We can’t wait to hear how you enjoyed your trip to Colorado’s National Parks, and we look forward to seeing you for the next one!