National Parks


The Rocky Mountain State

Colorado is located in the western part of the USA at the far western edge of the Great Plains of the vast Mississippi River Basin that covers the entire center of the North American Continent. The eastern third of the state is predominately high plains with vast grasslands and farms, meandering rivers and isolated mesas. It lies at an altitude of 1.000 meters (3,000 feet) to 1.600 meters (5,000 feet). The Western two-thirds of the state are entirely covered by the great cordillera of the rugged Rocky Mountains rising up to 4.600 meters (14,000 feet).

The line of demarcation between the two parts of this rectangular state is formed by a distinct wall of mountains running north to south. The easternmost ridge of the mountains is known as The Front Range. The major population centers or Denver, Colorado Springs, Fort Collins, Pueblo and Boulder are all located along the western fringe of the high plains within the shadow of this Front Range of mountains.

The Cities of Colorado

Denver is the largest city and the state capitol of Colorado. It is located just east of the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains. Its western suburbs climb into the foothills while its eastern suburbs sprawl across the edge of the high plains. It is often called “The Mile-High City” as its altitude is exactly one US mile high (5,280 feet, 1.08 meters). The city was founded as a gold mining town in 1858, and with the advent of the railroad, it quickly became a major western mercantile center and a cattle shipping depot.

Today, it is a large ethnically diverse city with many varied neighborhoods and a large Hispanic community. Denver International Airport is a major hub for many flights heading across the United States and to other international destinations. It is the primary gateway to the Rocky Mountain ski resorts and to the many vacation destinations in the state.

Colorado Springs lies just 60 miles (97 km) south of Denver and is situated 10 miles east of Pike’s Peak. This lonely sentinel mountain rises to 14,115 feet. (4.302 meters), and its often snow-topped peak is clearly visible from nearly 100 miles across the high plains to the east. Today, you can drive or take the cog-wheel train up to the top of Pike’s Peak from Colorado Springs. The city is a bit smaller than Denver and a bit more approachable. It serves as a gateway to the Southern Rocky Mountains and their ski resorts.

Boulder is a much smaller city situated only 25 miles (42 km) northwest of Denver at the very base of the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains. It is a very clean, environmentally-conscious community and home to the Main Campus of the University of Colorado. Fort Collins and Pueblo are also located along the Front Range to the north and to the south of Denver and Colorado Springs. Grand Junction, located nearly 250 miles west of Denver is the only major Colorado population center not situated along the Front Range. It is a farming and ranching community located on the Colorado High Plateau at the western approaches to the Rocky Mountains, and is considered one of the premier mountain biking areas in the USA.

The Climate in Colorado

The High plains of the eastern third of the state are in the rain shadow of the Front Range and therefore receive minimal rainfall in summer and minimal snowfall in the winter. The high altitude shields them from much summer heat. Therefore, the major cities along the shadow of the Front Range enjoy a pleasant mild summer and a winter that is seldom severe.

The mountains of the western two thirds of the state receive much more precipitation. That usually occurs as afternoon thunderstorms in the summer months and plentiful snowfalls during the winter. At the higher altitudes, the snow usually falls as a fine powder, that ski aficionados have named “champagne powder”.

Mountain Bikers in the Rockies © Ben Blankenburg
The Rocky Mountains' natural scenery and endless outdoor activities attract many people to Colorado.

Activities in Colorado

Winter activities include skiing, snowboarding, snowmobile exploration and other winter sports at the many world-famous ski resorts in Colorado. Most of these resorts are located in the heart of the Rocky Mountains west of the Front Range. Vail, Copper Mountain, Beaver Creek, Aspen, Winter Park and several other resorts are within a two-hour drive from Denver. Steamboat Springs, Telluride, Crested Butte, Silverton and Monarch are a bit further, but are all accessible from Denver International Airport via car, bus or commuter airplane.

Summer activities include sightseeing in the beautiful mountains, mountain climbing, wilderness hiking, camping, horseback riding, mountain biking, fishing and whitewater rafting. There are several wonderful National Parks in Colorado:

Rocky Mountain National Park is located, northwest of Boulder in the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains. It sits astride the Continental Divide and contains over 1.000 square km (over 400 square miles) of beautiful mountain scenery. You can drive through the park and over the pass at 3.713 meters (12,183 feet) to the heavily forested west side and possibly see wild moose, elks, caribou and other animals. There are many public campgrounds within the park.

Great Sand Dunes National Park is located in the Sangre de Christo Mountains, part of the Rocky Mountain Cordillera located in southwestern Colorado approximately 400 km (240 miles) southwest of Denver. This unique geological landscape includes the highest sand dunes in North America up to 240 meters (750 feet) high. It also includes mountain peaks over 4.000 meters (13,000 feet) tall. This is a great place to explore the diverse geological environments of the Rocky Mountains.

Mesa Verde National Park is located in the southwestern corner of Colorado and is the largest archeological preserve in the world. It contains over 5,000 archeological sites including 600 cliff dwellings of the now-extinct Anasazi peoples.

Colorado also contains several other national parks, a number of state parks and numerous national forests and wilderness areas. Most are open for wilderness camping and exploration.

Best Time to visit Colorado

For skiing and winter activities, the best time to visit is from December until April. That is when most of the ski resorts are open and the snow conditions are optimal. For Summer activities, May until October is best.

Written by: Mike Leco
Top Photo Credit: © J.C. Leacock / Colorado Tourism Office
Photo Description: A Colorado rancher keeps an eye on a herd of cows as clouds roll across the Rocky Mountains.