While we couldn’t put everything on this list, here’s what we’ve picked as the top 10 breathtaking natural wonders in Colorado.
Drive up a winding mountain road to 12,183 ft above sea level for incredible views of the Rocky Mountains. The park protects a range of habitat from low wetlands to high alpine tundra providing plenty of wildlife viewing. Other than winter, any season you visit will have its own natural beauty. Spring and summer produce beautiful alpine flowers and in the fall the aspens turn yellow and the elk rut.
You can see plenty of the park via the road up and over the mountains, but there are also plenty short hikes throughout the park. Hikes range in difficulty and length so there is something suitable for everyone.
Located in Colorado Springs south of Denver is that natural wonder of Garden of the Gods. Three hundred-foot towers and fins carved out in the fragile sandstone create a dramatic landscape fit for the gods. The park represents an ecological boundary between the plains and the mountains. A diverse number of plants and animals are able call the park home.
The park is a great place for outdoor recreation. Numerous trails provide great hiking, road and mountain biking and horseback riding around the park. Rock climbing is allowed in the park, although special permits are required due to the delicate nature of the rock.
Although not truly a natural wonder, the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde are amazing in their own right. Ancestral Puebloan people settled the area over 700 years ago, from 600 to 1300 AD utilizing the mesa tops and eventually moving down into the cliff dwellings. Although many of the mesa top dwellings have over time eroded away, the cliff dwellings have stayed protected. Built in alcoves, the cliff dwelling structures are protected by rain and other erosion.
To see the cliff dwellings, Mesa Verde National Park offers guided ranger tours. This helps protect fragile archeological sites and inform visitors of the natural history of the site. Tours do fill up and sell out, especially on busy weekends, so it’s best to get to the park early. There are also many great hikes though out the park and self-guided tours on the mesa top.
Along the southern Colorado border lies the beautiful town of Pagosa Springs named for the numerous sulfur springs in the area. Pah gosah is the Ute name for the hot sulfur pool which translates to “smelly water” or “healing water” depending on who you ask. The town is home to the world’s deepest geothermal hot spring. The 144-degree Fahrenheit pool is used to heat a few soaking pools in town.
A combination of high alpine desert and the Rocky Mountains creates a mild climate and 300 days of sunshine. Since the climate is surprisingly mild for being in the southwest, summer is not a bad time to visit. Popular summer time activities include hiking, road and mountain biking, fishing and rafting.
Located in the northwest corner is the forgotten gem of the Gates of Lodore. At the northern most part of Dinosaur National Monument, the gates are where the Green River flows into the Canyon of Lodore for the next 18 miles. This is a popular spot of rafters to put in, as well as a campground right at the gates next to the river. If you’re looking to get away from the crowds, Gates of Lodore and Browns Park in Colorado’s northwest corner is a great place to check out.
If you’re headed west of I-70, you’ll drive through Glenwood Canyon along the Colorado River. This deep canyon has walls up to 1300 feet tall in some areas and runs for 16 miles. A well-maintained bike path runs along the river through the canyon which is a great way to see the canyon and river for the day. Trails into smaller side canyons that empty into the Colorado River can also be explored.
The trail head for Hanging Lake is accessed in Glenwood Canyon. Climb 1000 vertical feet over 1.6 miles to the lake suspended in the cliffs above. This hike offers breathtaking views of Glenwood Canyon from the cliff side.
The Maroon Bells may be one of the most recognizable photographed places in Colorado. Two 14,000 foot mountains tower above a glacial valley and Maroon Lake. From the lake, you can hike up to the base of the Maroon Bells.
A great time to visit the Maroon Bells is in the fall when the aspen turn yellow. Since this is such a popular spot, it is best to visit the bells on a weekday to avoid weekend crowds. Pictures of the Maroon Bells reflected in the lake come out much better without a bunch of people standing around. There are a limited number of cars allowed up to the lake so it is best to utilized Aspen’s bus service to get yourself there and back.
On the other side of Aspen to the east lies Independence Pass. The pass goes up 12,095 ft above sea level featuring breathtaking views of the Sawatch Range and Mount Elbert. This is the second highest through road in North America, after the Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park. The pass does close for the winter, although exact open and closing dates vary, so plan accordingly if you want to drive over the pass. The road has numerous pullouts and overlooks so that drivers can enjoy the views of the alpine tundra. Independence Pass and Maroon Bells are two great destinations to link into one trip.
Also in the Sawatch Range is Mount Elbert, the highest peak in Colorado at 14,440 ft above sea level and the second highest in the lower 48 (behind Mt Whitney at 14,505 ft). The hike to the top via the Northeast ridge trail is relatively easy and safe in terms of terrain. The trail is 9 miles round trip with 4700 ft elevation gain; that averages out to about 1000 ft gained per mile. Make sure you are acclimated before attempting to hike to 14,000 ft above sea level. Check the weather to avoid potential storms and lightning danger.
Home to North Americas tallest sand dunes at 750 ft tall, Great Sand Dunes National Park is a natural wonder of Colorado. What make this national park different than others is there are no trails. Since sand is constantly shifting and moving trails, visitors can hike anywhere within the 30-square-mile dune field. Sandboard and sandsleddng are popular activities in the park and rentals are available for boarding and sledding down the soft dunes. Summer visitors are cautioned about playing in the sand, as sand temperatures can reach 150 degrees Fahrenheit in the sun.