Next week is the National Park Service's annual National Park Week, which means free entrance to all 392 parks in the national park system, plus special promotions at many of the parks: A perfect excuse, as if you need one, to explore the four national parks and six national monuments in Colorado.
Here are 10 suggestions for how to celebrate:
1. Not ready to say goodbye to ski/snowboard season? Yeah, me either. Throw your board on the roof rack and head for Great Sand Dunes National Park. You'll be using WD-40 in place of wax, and you'll be getting sand in your crack, guaranteed, but April is the best time of year for sand sliding, before it gets too dry to be worth the effort.
2. The South and North Rim roads and campgrounds at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park opened for Spring this week, creating your first and best opportunity to see the Spring snowmelt barrel its way through the canyon. The East Portal routes are still closed due to snow and many of the hiking routes in Black Canyon can be perilous at any time of the year, but the canyon is truly a sight to behold for the intrepid.
3. Visiting Mesa Verde National Park? Book one night at the Far View Motor Lodge at $99 and get the next night free (National Park Week offer valid April 22-30) - the lodge is inside the park, right next to the Visitor's Center.
4. Most of us living in Denver have been to Rocky Mountain National Park, which is why I listed the other three national parks in Colorado first. Still, it's one of our most spectacular resources, and National Park Week is a good reminder to help keep it that way. Consider taking the opportunity to volunteer at the park, make a donation to the Rocky Mountain Nature Assocation, and become a member of the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics to help protect Rocky and other national parks.
5. To celebrate Earth Day's 40th anniversary on April 22, try the 1pm ranger-guided hike at Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, near Cripple Creek: The petrified redwood forest is home to one of the most diverse fossil deposits in the world and serves as a tidy reminder that our planet's history doesn't begin - or end - with us.
6. Vermillon Basin in Northwestern, CO is not a National Monument... yet. But it's one of 14 sites President Obama is considering upgrading to National Monument status, according to a memo leaked from the Department of the Interior last month. Surrounding Vermillon Creek and framed by the Little Snake, Yampa, and Green Rivers, Vermillon Basin is chock-full of both sage grouse and ancient petroglyph art, and is also a critical migration corridor for elk, pronghorn, and mule deer. It also apparently has black gold: Will it be saved in time to prevent oil and gas development? Time for a sneak peek, either way.
7. If you have kids, check out the 4th annual National Junior Ranger Day events on Saturday, April 24, like this one, at Dinosaur National Monument. The free, year-round program is the National Parks' signature program for young visitors, and awards badges and certificates for completion of park-related activities. (The WebRangers site for kids is pretty cool, too)
7. Try the Cortez trifecta: If you're going to drive the seven and a half hours it will take you to get to the Southwest corner of the state, you might as well make the most of it. Yucca House National Monument, Hovenweep National Monument, and Canyons of the Ancients National Monument ought to do the trick.
8. On Saturday April 24, Colorado National Monument park ranger geologist Don Regan will lead a 9:00 a.m. Hike Through The Layers of Time in Monument Canyon to the 450-foot tall Independence Monument (speaking of hiking through time... Colorado National Monument celebrates its centennial anniversary later this year). Colorado National Monument has events just about every day of National Park Week, including a Springtime Galaxies tour with the Western Colorado Astronomy Club on April 17... click through for the full schedule of events.
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9. After the hike at Colorado National Monument, hit up the Outdoor Heritage Day events in Palisade with the family. Activities include nature hikes, rock climbing, fishing, and archery.
10. Buy an America The Beautiful National Parks and Federal Lands Annual Pass. For just $80, you could be celebrating National Parks Week all year long and making your way to all 392 parks in the system. If you're 62 or older, the $10 lifetime senior pass will be the best ten bucks you ever spend (according to my dad, who's been using his every chance he gets).
For more on National Parks Week, visit NPS.gov/npweek