National parks may be “America’s best idea,” but state parks became Colorado’s best — and arguably most popular — places to escape during the pandemic.
“I’ve been saying that when all the lights went out, nature shined a light for us in our time of need,” says Bridget Kochel, statewide public information officer for Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW), which manages the state parks system. “The outdoors stayed open, and that gave us hope and something to do. We’ve been so lucky to have these endless opportunities right here in Colorado.”
By the end of 2020, more than 19.4 million visitors got out there in the 42 state parks, up from 14.9 million in 2019. So far this year, the numbers have dropped closer to 2019 levels, with a little over 4.6 million reported from January through May (by May 31 in 2019, close to 4.3 million had visited, while 2020 saw over 5.5 million), but Kochel says that visitations are expected to climb back up over the next few months.
“What we’re hearing is that once people who weren’t big outdoors types got outside in 2020, they realized that they really like spending time outside,” Kochel says. “And so they continued into this year, and we expect this to be another very busy summer.”
There's something for just about everyone at Colorado's 42 state parks. If you're interested in specific pursuits, here are ten you might want to try:
Biking: State Forest State Park
East of Walden at the edge of the Medicine Bow Mountains, the aptly named State Forest features 130 miles of bikeable terrain — from flat stretches that cover a few miles to gonzo rides that gain 2,300 vertical feet for a full day of fun, and much of it through acres and acres of gorgeous, old-growth lodgepole pine, Douglas fir and aspen. Cool off at one of several alpine lakes, and for an extra challenge, most of the thirteen geocaching sites here are also accessible by bike. Keep your eyes peeled as you move around: As the website for this park puts it, “Moose is our claim to fame.” It’s not kidding, as hundreds of the magnificent beasts have made this their primary residence.
Highline Lake State Park
Highline sits near Loma in the Grand Valley and comprises two lakes that keep boaters and anglers happy — one for motors, one wakeless — but the birds don’t seem to care either way, as more than 200 species flock to both. Designated an Important Bird Area by the Audubon Society, Highline is home to enough fowl to warrant bringing the binoculars even if you’re not on your Big Year. Among others, look for the vermilion flycatcher, a rarity on the Western Slope, as well as snow geese, white swans, pelicans, blue herons, osprey, bald and golden eagles, sandhill cranes, loons, loggerhead shrikes and Cooper’s hawks. Pick up a bird checklist at the entrance for extra credit, and be sure to check in on the owl boxes.
Boating: Navajo State Park
The uniquely situated Navajo Park calls both Colorado and New Mexico home, which makes it an ideal stop going to or from either state. It’s also a welcome cooling-off haven in what is otherwise a pretty hot landscape, where boating enthusiasts can rent a 20- or 30-foot pontoon boat and all the necessary gear at the full-service, on-site Two Rivers Marina to tool around on the 15,000 surface acres of Navajo Lake. You can always bring your own boat and, if you hold registrations in both states, sail from shore to shore. The large campground makes it easy to stay the night — or many — and paddleboarders are also happy here.
Fishing: Elkhead Reservoir State Park
All but five of the 42 parks offer fishing, from Gold Medal River sections to alpine lakes sporting hidden coves for intrepid boaters. Elkhead Reservoir, less than an hour’s drive west of Steamboat Springs, offers not only an abundance of trout, but also the feisty smallmouth bass and the lure-snatching northern pike. Catching the latter two on this tranquil, four-mile-long, high-desert lake isn’t just a good time, though; it’s a public service, because when these fish make a run for it to the Yampa River, they eat up a lot of precious endangered fish. Plan to stay on the water for the spectacular sunsets, which you can see from the waterfront sites at the quiet Bears Ears campground.
Golfing: Lathrop State Park
Walsenburg Golf Course is the only golf course at a Colorado state park, and how cool is that? Very, especially considering the crazy-good views — including the Sangre de Cristos and the Spanish Peaks — at this public course that shares its entrance with Lathrop, halfway between Pueblo and Trinidad, and the super-cheap green fees ($18 for nine holes; $30 to do it twice) for a 65.7-rated (101 slope) good time. Pushcart and club rentals for $5, women’s tees, mini golf and a family-friendly eatery on site that serves breakfast all day (get the green chile-smothered burrito) make this setup even more appealing, and after you’re done whacking the little white balls, Lathrop’s two lakes for fishing and boating (also with superlative vistas) await.
Castlewood Canyon State Park
A perennial hiking favorite and a good choice for families, the easily navigated Castlewood Canyon on 2,636 acres of Black Forest land near Franktown offers short (as short as half a mile) and much longer trail options, with many of them crisscrossing to form full-day loops. The Front Range, including Pikes Peak, is visible from nearly everywhere in the park, and Cherry Creek runs through it, including past an 1890s dam that’s fun to explore. The 1.8-mile Inner Canyon Loop is an easy trek, taking you from low in the ponderosa and pinyon pine forest to canyon overlooks with mountain views.
Mueller State Park
All of Colorado’s state parks are exceedingly photogenic, but we picked Mueller, west of Colorado Springs, for Best State Park Scenery in the Best of Denver 2020, and that choice remains solid for the park’s panoramic views of Pikes Peak, miles of aspens and evergreens, springs burbling into wildflower-quilted meadows, and granite rock outcroppings spread all over its 5,000-plus acres. Elk frequently wander across this exquisite expanse, visitors spot the occasional black bear, and the only thing more abundant than the mule deer are the photographers hunched over their tripods, trying to capture it all.
Rock Climbing: Lory State Park
Most rock climbers head to Eldorado Canyon, and for good reason: It’s one of the country’s top climbing destinations. But Lory’s Arthur’s Rock shouldn’t be missed, either, mainly for its bouldering emphasis (more than 60 percent of the 94 climbs are boulder climbs, V2-V10, with the majority at V3-7), with the rest split between trad and sport and a tiny number of top-ropers, most in the 5.8 to 5.12b range. The rock is largely granite and famously fingery, requiring deft footwork and attention to technique; also know that the south-facing cliffs mean searing-hot sun in the summer. A few routes feature bolted protection and rappel anchors (some are mixed). The mountain biking and hiking at this foothills locale just west of Fort Collins are excellent, too.
Spelunking: Rifle Falls State Park
Most visitors make a beeline to the namesake falls, a 70-foot triple waterfall whose moisture turns the surrounding foliage into a veritable tropical jungle. Situated northeast of the town of Rifle, the park also sports two limestone caves below the falls embedded in the cliffs, just off the Coyote Trail. The caves are easily navigated, and their nooks and crannies are popular with kids (arm them with flashlights, though, because although these are safe, relatively open caves, they get darker as you go along). The connected Fish Hatchery, accessible via the Bobcat Trail, is another family favorite, a chance to see the rainbow, brown and cutthroat trout you’ll also spy in the creek that flows through the falls and into the plunge pool — perfect for splashing around — at the base of the caves.
Jackson Lake State Park
One of our eternal top picks for Best Place to Get Wet in the summer, Jackson Lake’s tree-lined sandy sections and soft, sandy bottom make this park a solid choice for a day at the beach. Take your floatie out into the water and while away the day watching water- and jet-skiers tool around this 1,910-acre body of water, a reservoir built in 1902 using the South Platte River to irrigate crops east of Greeley. No lifeguards, but the swimming areas are in the no-wake zones on the west and south shores, where the water is shallow and thus pretty toasty come August.
For more information on the 42 Colorado State Parks, visit cpw.state.co.us.