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10 of the Best Colorado State Parks for Avoiding National Park Crowds

Colorado Outdoor Hiking
by Jennifer Broome Sep 6, 2022

There’s a near-endless list of ways to play outdoors waiting in Colorado’s 23 million acres of public land, covering everything from prairies to mountain peaks. Travelers can paddle the day away on aquatic adventures or escape into the wilderness for a few days on a backcountry expedition in one of 42 parks in the state.

The best state parks in Colorado are as diverse as the Centennial State’s topography, scattered throughout the state’s varied landscapes. All are open year-round and managed by the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission, established way back in 1897. Colorado’s oldest state park is Lathrop State Park, opened in 1962, and the newest is Fishers Peak State Park, which opened in late 2020.

Colorado’s parks have thousands of miles of hiking and biking trails, but the best Colorado state parks have a much wider array of outdoor experiences. At the parks below, visitors can see bald eagles soar (and potentially spot moose), sleep in yurts, go fly or lure fishing, stand in a waterfall’s mist, kayak on smooth lakes, or turn up the adrenaline with wakeboarding sessions and multi-pitch rock climbing.

Map of the best Colorado state parks

With 42 state parks, deciding which are the best state parks in Colorado is a matter of opinion. But that said, the parks below are all highly rated and in some of the prettiest places in Colorado, including along the state’s world-famous Rocky Mountain ridgelines. While outdoor enthusiasts and Colorado residents will undoubtedly want to check all 42 parks off their travel lists at some point, the 10 parks below are great places for a few first visits to Colorado’s fantastic public lands.

The best state parks in Colorado

Barr Lake State Park

best state parks in colorado - barr lake

Photo: Jennifer Broome

Take binoculars to this 1,900-acre prairie reservoir near Brighton, about 30 minutes from downtown Denver. It’s one of the best Colorado state parks for spotting bald eagles, especially during winter nesting.

Boating, birding, and boardwalks sum up this state park. Visitors can fish, paddle, and boat on the northern half of the lake, and the southern half is a nature refuge with boardwalks and gazebos for wildlife viewing. Barr Lake State Park is a birding hotspot in the state, known for waterbirds, shorebirds, raptors, and songbirds; more than 350 species of birds have been seen in the park. Dawn and dusk are generally the best times to see wildlife.

Walking along the boardwalk feels more like being in South Carolina or Louisiana, save for the bald eagles soaring across massive mountain summits in the distance. The park hosts an annual Bald Eagle Festival in early February (and a birding festival in early September). Eagle viewing is best in winter, but travelers visiting on weekends between mid-May and September can ride the small “Eagle Express” trolley on a naturalist-guided tour.

The park has biking, hiking, and horseback riding on the 8.8-mile multi-use trail surrounding the lake. Parkgoers can also test their bow-and-arrow skills at the archery land, aiming at targets varying from 10 to 100 yards away.

For a high-tech outdoor adventure, go on a mission with the Agents of Discovery app for iPhone or Android. It’s an educational app with augmented reality trail “missions” at 13 of the best state parks in Colorado, including Barr Lake. Download the Agents of Discovery app and mission before getting to the park because cell service can be sketchy.

Golden Gate Canyon State Park

best state parks in colorado -golden gate

Photo: Jennifer Broome

This mountain getaway is just 30 miles west of Denver and is one of two state parks with both cabin and yurt accommodations (five cabins and two yurts). With 11 trails, each named after an animal, it’s the best Colorado state park for high-country hiking close to the Denver Metro Area, with 12,000 acres of mountains, meadows, and forested terrain.

Visitors can hike to the Panorama Point Scenic Overlook for a 100-mile view of the Continental Divide on a clear day. The park also has several hikes to pioneer homesteads, including the homestead of early settler John Frazer, whose life is often used as an example of the tough conditions experienced in the late 1800s. And near the park’s Bootleg Bottom Picnic Area is a moonshine cabin used during Prohibition in the 1920s.

For a good family hike, explore Forgotten Valley. The valley holds a ranch house dating to 1876, where travelers can relax in one of the serene setting’s porch swings or walk down to the pond to fish.

Hunting and rock climbing are permitted in the park, and winter brings cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, sledding, ice fishing, and ice skating when the park is covered with snow. And around December, the park is home to a Christmas tree cut (so get a permit in advance). The park is a great leaf-peeping destination in the fall, and it’s possible to occasionally see moose and mountain lions (but keep a safe distance from wildlife).

Roxborough State Park

best state parks in colorado roxborough

Photo: Adam Springer/Shutterstock

Roxborough is the best of the state parks in Colorado for dramatic red-rock formations like Colorado’s famed Red Rocks, about a 45-minute drive southwest of Denver. The park’s jagged, million-year-old sandstone monoliths are the same formation as the iconic amphitheater.

This is Colorado’s first state park to achieve the Leave No Trace Gold Standard from the Center for Outdoor Ethics, and guests can sit in on monthly Leave No Trace table talks to learn more about the seven principles of recreating responsibly.

Roxborough is also a Colorado Natural Area, a National Natural Landmark, and an Audubon Society Important Bird Area. Because of these designations and the fragile ecosystem across the park’s 4,000 acres, pets, rock climbing, and camping are not allowed, and biking is restricted to main roads. The park also has guided naturalist activities, including meditative walks, photography workshops, and moonlight hikes.

Mueller State Park

best state parks in colorado tree at mueller

Photo: Richard G Smith/Shutterstock

In the shadow of iconic Pikes Peak are more than 5,000 acres of forest, meadows, and massive granite rock formations in Mueller State Park. Visitors can stay in one of three log cabins, but for the best view of the Continental Divide, book a spot in the campground.

This is one of the best state parks in Colorado for birders and wildlife watchers as it is home to black bears and mountain lions, plus more than 100 species of birds. So the odds are excellent for spotting something for travelers with a keen eye.

In July and August, Mueller State Park is bursting with a colorful palette as wildflowers dot the mountain meadows, and year-round, it’s a great park for fun after dark. The Colorado Springs Astronomical Society regularly hosts star parties at the park, open to the public. Be sure to dress warmly and try to arrive before dark as headlights can make it hard for attendees’ eyes to adjust to the darkness.

Lory State Park

Lory state park colorado

Photo: Nature’s Charm/Shutterstock

This small-but-mighty state park is just a 15-minute drive from downtown Fort Collins. It’s just under 2,600 acres, but it’s a foothills gem in the northern Front Range with 26 miles of biking, horseback riding, and hiking trails. Some trails, like popular Arthur’s Rock, are designated as hiking-only, so check the map in advance if planning to bike. The Arthur’s Rock trail goes through pine forests and across sloping meadows before reaching a rock outcropping with a stunning view of Horsetooth Reservoir, Fort Collins, and plains to the east.

In addition to the 20-plus miles of bike trails, mountain bikers should check out the Corral Center Mountain Bike Park, with close to 70,000 square feet of skills areas, pump tracks, jumps, drops, and more. Bouldering and rock climbing are also allowed throughout the park; climbers should pick up a route guide from the park visitor center. And non-motorized paddlers can launch personal watercraft from several coves on the Horsetooth Reservoir, but motorized watercraft aren’t allowed.

State Forest State Park

Moose are this Colorado park’s claim to fame as it’s a high-country haven surrounded by forest in northern Colorado. It covers 71,000 acres of diverse landscapes, including glacial-carved cirques, endless meadows, and sand dunes. With an estimated moose population of around 600, it’s considered the best of the state parks in Colorado for spotting the gangly mammal.

Because it’s so large, it’s a great place to find solitude in nature, especially along the west side of the Medicine Bow Mountains and the northern end of the Never Summer Range. In summer and fall, the park is open for hiking, biking, and riding four-wheel vehicles. Some of the park’s best hikes lead to Agnes, Kelly, and Clear alpine lakes, the trails for all of which showcase the geological beauty of the park’s craggy landscape. Be aware when visiting in the fall that the park is a sought-after hunting destination.

Since the park is a little more remote than most, it’s a great place to spend the night. State Forest State Park has four campgrounds, cabins, and yurts, but designated dispersed and backcountry camping is also allowed. Travelers who don’t have their own gear for sports like geocaching, snowshoeing, or fishing can rent everything they need at the Moose Visitor Center, though Never Summer Nordic manages the yurt rentals.

Pearl Lake State Park

best state parks in colorado pearl lake aspens

Photo: Teri Virbickis/Shutterstock

North of Steamboat Springs at the base of Farwell Mountain in Routt National Forest is pristine Pearl Lake State Park. It’s known for wakeless water and is one of the best state parks in Colorado for kayak camping trips along the shoreline. Of course, it’s also a good spot for a picnic and a few hours of low-tech lake fun as there’s no cell service.

Anglers can fly and lure fish for native cutthroat trout and grayling, and hikers will enjoy the dazzling display of quaking golden aspens come fall. Winter calls for snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, or ice fishing, likely with few other guests around. The park has 36 campsites that close in winter, but the two lakeview yurts are open year-round (and require a minimum two-night stay from May through October). It’s an excellent state park to combine with a Steamboat Lake State Park visit, especially on a day trip to see fall colors along ultra-scenic Highway 129 in late September or early October.

Steamboat Lake State Park

Head north from Pearl Lake to much the larger Steamboat Lake State Park to visit two of the best state parks in Colorado on one trip. The scenic lake has stellar views of Hahns Peak and the Park Range from its position at 8,100 feet above sea level.

There are seven miles of trails for hikers and bikers (which connect to a trail system in abutting and Routt National Forest), but the star of the park is the lake. Motorboats, jet skis, sailboats, and hand-powered crafts are all allowed on the 1,100-acre lake from spring to fall. Wildlife also love the area; visitors can often spot deer and elk. But it’s also possible to glimpse sandhill cranes, bald eagles, ospreys, bears, and foxes.

Fall colors are stunning in the park, and during winter, there’s a nordic ski touring center with groomed trails for cross-country skiers. Snowshoers are also welcome, though there are no on-site rentals.

Campground reservations are highly sought after on summer weekends, so book well in advance.

Rifle Falls State Park

A 70-foot-high triple waterfall is the star attraction in this state park near Rifle, especially as it’s one of the most accessible falls in Colorado.

The spectacular setting of the thunderous falls surrounded by moss-covered rocks and lush foliage draws in photographers and movie crews from around the world. It’s a small state park with only three hiking trails, but there’s a lot to see. Parkgoers can meander through a lush riparian habitat along East Rifle Creek to an overview at the top of the falls or fish for trout in the creek; the Rifle Falls Fish Hatchery is just a mile from the falls.

Adventurous types can explore caves in the limestone cliffs behind the falls off the park’s Coyote Trail. It’s best to book camping as far in advance as possible as there are only 13 drive-in and seven walk-in campsites.

Navajo State Park

This is one of the best state parks in Colorado for watersports as the spectacular setting in Southwest Colorado is often dubbed “Colorado’s Lake Powell.”

Navajo Reservoir is near Durango and extends 20 miles south into New Mexico. So with 150 miles of shoreline and 15,000 surface acres of water, the park is a house-boater or motorboater’s dream. On land, visitors can camp under the starry skies in primitive tent sites or at full-service hookup spots. There are also three two-bedroom log cabins available for overnight stays.

Colorado wildlife abounds at this park, and the Sambrito Wetlands are a prime area for seeing muskrats, river otters, jackrabbits, and other wildlife. In the rivers, anglers can expect to find crappie, trout, bluegill, catfish, northern pike, and large-mouth and small-mouth bass. The park does get more than 300,000 visitors a year, making it a major recreational area in southwestern Colorado, but because of the park’s large size, it’s easy to find solitude on the water.

Visitors can rent pontoon boats or paddleboards from Two Rivers Marina, and inspection for invasive species is required before launching personal watercraft. The boat ramp is closed from December through February, but Navajo Reservoir typically doesn’t freeze, making for excellent bald eagle viewing in the winter.

Camping in Colorado state parks

best colorado state parks camping red tent in aspens

Photo: Suzie Dundas

There are more than 4,000 campsites available in the Colorado state parks system for travelers who want to sleep under the stars, as well as seven state parks with cabins and six with yurts. But since there are only 40 cabins and ten yurts available, guests will want to reserve ahead of time through CPW’s camping reservations website. Reservations are required at all Colorado state parks at all times, except for seasonal first-come, first-served sites at Pearl Lake, Steamboat Lake, and Yampa River state parks.

Colorado state park passes and permits

dad and two kids fishing in the best colorado state parks

All anglers will need fishing permits within Colorado state parks. Photo: Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission/Wayne D. Lewis

Visitors need a pass to visit any of the state parks in Colorado. Daily vehicle park passes range from $9 to $11 and annual park passes range from $80 to $120, with some discounts available. Starting in 2023, Colorado residents can get a $29 “Keep Colorado Wild Pass” that includes a park vehicle pass.

There are also regulations for anglers, hunters, and boaters. Many of the streams around the best state parks in Colorado are designated as “Gold Medal Waters,” meaning they offer the best fishing in the state – so anglers flock to Colorado. But anglers will need a fishing license before casting their lines.

Hunting licenses are also required and boaters must undergo a boat inspection and get an ANS Stamp for any towed or motorized watercraft to prevent the spread of aquatic nuisance species.

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