FIND YOUR PARK
COLORADO has four incredible and unique national parks, all of which happen to be West of 105. For autumn, the temperature drops and all four open themselves up to slightly different experiences than in the summer. Leaf peepers will be happy to be able to see a whole spectrum of colors while wildlife enthusiasts will flock to the parks to try to catch, among other things, the mating call of the bull elk.
GREAT SAND DUNES NATIONAL PARKARK & PRESERVE
One of the youngest national parks in the system having been established in 2004 (although it was originally designated as a National Monument back in 1932), Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is one of the most unique parks in the entire country thanks to its 30 square miles of sand dunes, including the highest dunes in North America.
Formed by deposits from the ancient Rio Grande
River in the San Luis Valley, the park attracts a tenth of the number of visitors as Rocky Mountain National Park (with numbers dropping from around 50,000 in September to just over 10,000 in November). It is also fairly modest in terms of size at 107,341.87 acres (ranking 38th out of 60 parks; the preserve protects an additional 41,686 acres). Eagle-eyed readers will have noticed that the dune field makes up less than one fifth of the park and preserve. So what takes up the rest? Grasslands, wetlands, conifer and aspen forests, alpine lakes, and six 13,000foot mountains, that's what.
It is the dunes, however, that attract a great many people to the park to see, climb and sled down them. For a real workout (and a beautiful payoff), wake before dawn and head for High Dune on the first ridge. A round trip hike is around 2.5 miles. For a longer and more thorough examination of your cardiovascular system, head for Star Dune, the tallest in the dunefield at 755 feet. It will absolutely take it out of you but leave you with a fantastic feeling of accomplishment. Oh, and don't forget your sled to make the return journey much faster!
There is a phrase that aims to bring attention to the other face of the park - Half the Park is after Dark. And it's true. Hiking the dunes at night, particularly with a full moon, is an experience you are unlikely to experience anywhere else in the country.
In fact, the park, which is in the process of becoming Night Skies certified, often hosts events to celebrate the park after dark including amateur astronomy nights.
Another autumn spectacle at Sand Dunes is the sandhill crane migration. One of 250 bird species found in the park and preserve, 20,000 of them spend part of autumn in the valley. While the park and preserve are always open, Piñon Flats Campground inside the park closes at the end of October. Backpackers, however, have the run of the dunefield as camping is permitted anywhere (outside of the day use area). There is a limit of 20 parties in the dunefield per night; permits are free and are issued on a firstcome-first-served basis. Free ranger-led programs are offered through October.
The fourth most visited National Park in the country with almost four and a half million visitors in 2017, Rocky Mountain National Park is also Colorado's biggest (it's about 40 percent bigger than Great Sand Dunes National Park).
Established in 1915 with the Rocky Mountain National Park Act, the park was recognized by UNESCO in 1976 by designating it as one of the first World Biosphere Reserves - a designation that demonstrates a balanced relationship between people and nature.
Autumn is a good time to visit, particularly late autumn. Visitor numbers peak in July with a staggering 885,478 visitors and start to tail off as the temperature and the leaves drop. September last year saw almost 700,000 visitors but that was cut almost in half in October and half again in November with just over 140,000 visitors.
As for autumn specifically, the park has several various types of terrain at altitude, so wearing several layers of warm clothing is highly recommended - a light waterproof jacket might not be a bad idea either. Temperatures in MIDSEPTEMBER at the park's lower elevations (around 8,000 feet) have been known to range from freezing to 80 degrees Fahrenheit, which can produce everything from hail and snow to beautiful autumn days.
At the Alpine Visitor Center, at almost 12,000 feet, it isn't uncommon to see snow and hail in autumn - it is worth remembering that roads can be closed for safety purposes if snow and or hail is significant.
Be sure to bring your camera, as autumn here is spectacular with the landscape turning into a patchwork of yellows, golds, and browns as the aspens change. The sight of the nowchanged aspens “quaking” in the wind is something to behold. You may also see elk as they herd, with the bull calling to entice cows, and migratory birds as they flock in preparation for their journey south.
RMNP has plenty of camping (five campgrounds and over 500 sites), but the three that can be reserved in advance usually are, however there is still some availability for autumn at the time of writing - visit recreation.gov to check and book. The park also has two first-come-first-served campgrounds. Longs Peak Campground and Timber Creek Campground are open until September 10 and October 1 respectively.
As for what to do, there are 355 miles of hiking trails, scenic drives, 50 lakes and many streams for fishing, ranger-led programs, and horseback riding at Moraine Park Stables until September 24.
Another fantastically unique national park West of 105, Mesa Verde National Park was established in 1906 to preserve and interpret the archaeological heritage of the Ancestral Pueblo people who made it their home for over 700 years, from 600 to 1300 CE.
The 52,485-acre park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is home to nearly 5,000 sites of archaeological interest including 600 incredible cliff dwellings.
Spruce Tree House, the third largest and best preserved cliff dwelling in the park, is unfortunately closed to the public for the foreseeable future after a 2015 rock fall, but it can still be enjoyed from an overlook near the museum.
Balcony House, a mediumsized cliff dwelling with 40 rooms and a 32-foot entrance ladder, can be seen on by ranger-guided tours only. Tickets for the one-hour tour are available at the Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center until October 21. Elsewhere is Cliff Palace. Said to have contained 150 rooms and 23 kivas with a population of around 100 people, Cliff Palace is a exceptionally large dwelling that is thought to have been a social and administrative site that was probably used for special ceremonies.
There is camping inside the park at Morefield Campground. The campground has 267 sites and rarely fills. A nice bonus is that several of the park's best hikes leave from Morefield. Morefield also has a full service “village” that has a café, a gas station, an RV dumping station, coin-operated laundry, complimentary showers, a gift shop, and a grocery store. The campground and village are fully open until October 17, while limited off-season camping is available from October 18 to November 2.
For slightly more upmarket lodging there is Far View Lodge. Rooms offer amazing and unobstructed views of the park and are perfect for wildlife watching and stargazing. Far View Lodge closes on October 24.
Activities inside the park include observing wildlife - deer, coyotes, cottontail rabbits, and jackrabbits (your chances of spotting these animals are higher between Far View and the headquarters area. If you do get lucky enough to spot a mountain lion or bear be sure to fill out a wildlife sighting card.
Minimal light pollution in the area allows for virtually unobstructed viewing of the night skies. The locations recommended for stargazing in the park include Far
View Lodge, Morefield Campground and Montezuma or Mancos Overlooks.
(See page 24 for more on stargazing West of 105.)
BLACK CANYON OF THE GUNNISON
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is, relatively speaking, practically unvisited, with just over 300,000 visitors in 2017. However, it is worth remembering that at just 30,780.76 acres, it is also one of the smallest parks in the system (there are just six smaller), so it may not feel as quiet as the numbers suggest. It is also a relatively young park having been redesignated from a national monument (first established in 1933) to a national park in 1999.
The park, so named because the steep canyon walls allow, in parts, a scant amount of sunlight in, contains the deepest and most dramatic section of the canyon, but it continues upstream into Curecanti National Recreation Area and downstream into Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area - both wonderful areas in their own right.
Aside from just staring in awe, there are over 200 archaeological sites to explore in the park, many of which show evidence of Ute Native American presence. The park also attracts rock climbers and kayakers, but both the climbs and the rapids are difficult and are best left to those with the technical savvy to make it in and out safely. On top of the South Rim, however, there's a small bouldering playground called Marmot Rocks.
National parks preserve some of the darkest skies in the country, but the Black Canyon isn't most parks. Designated, nay ordained, as an International Dark Sky Park in September 2015, the park does everything possible to make it is dark as possible including using only artificial lighting necessary for safety, using motion detectors to limit the light needed within restrooms and other areas, and ensuring all outdoor lighting devices use low-energy, low-impact bulbs with shields that direct light to the ground. The designation means it offers unrivaled night sky viewing opportunities (see page 24 for more details on stargazing West of 105).
Open to visitors year round, summer has historically been the most popular time to visit but cooler temperatures make early autumn the best time of year to visit.
When making plans to visit the park, you'll need to decide which side you would like to see as the park has two entrances which are not connected to each other. The North Rim (closest to the town of Crawford) appeals to those looking for smaller crowds, however the South Rim (closest to the town of Montrose), sees the most visitors (and for good reason) and this is where the visitor center is located.
The paved road leading from Highway 50 to the South
Rim entrance to the park is widely popular among road cyclists and now is the perfect time to take on the five-mile ride to the top (be prepared for a tough time as you gain almost 1,000 feet in those five miles). Once you make it to the entrance it's a relatively easy ride to High Point - the terminus of Rim Drive Road.
Photos (this page): Matthew Inden / Miles; (opposite page): Cole Davis
Photos (this page): Brittany Panter / Period Comms; (opposite page): Skyline Drone Services LLC / Mesa Park Vineyards