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As a young girl growing up, I spent a lot of time in an 18 wheeler traversing the country with my dad and mom. From a young age, travel became an innate part of me, road trips in particular. I remember the feeling on every trip when we’d hit Oklahoma, that feeling that we were headed west. We also took at least a couple of trips in our car, visiting national parks all along the way. That young girl grew up, married a man who loves to explore just as much as she, and together we had 3 boys who are growing up learning to explore the world around them.
While we’ve visited a few of the more popular national parks, there are 3 that stand out in my memories as a little more off the beaten path. They’re not as widely talked about, but they offer so much incredible beauty, history, and adventure. Coincidentally, all 3 happen to be in southern Colorado. As you make travel plans for the year ahead, don’t forget about these 3 parks. They’re well worth adding to your travel itinerary.
1. Great Sand Dunes National Park
There may not be another park that offers quite so much diversity in both nature and wildlife as Great Sand Dunes National Park. The dunes are the highest in North America, reaching as high as 750 feet. They cross a span of about 19,000 acres. Nothing can prepare you for the awe-inspiring view of these wind-blown but very tall sand dunes with a majestic mountain range rising up behind. It’s breathtaking. I’d never felt as much like an ant as I did trying to climb those beautiful sandy dunes. And when you see other people in the distance, the immense size of the dunes becomes very real.
The wonderful thing is there’s something for every member of your family in this park. Camping is available, whether you enjoy campground camping or getting a bit more off the beaten path on Medano Pass Primitive Road (4-wheel drive only). Splash in the creek, ride the dunes on sand sleds, go fishing, and view the beautiful night sky so full of stars. Hike the dunes or hike into the forest covered mountains.
2. Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
I’ll be honest. Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park made me feel like the Grand Canyon made me feel. I wanted to hang onto my boys for dear life. You don’t expect to see what you’ll see the first time you walk up onto the rim of this amazing canyon. But when you do, it’ll take your breath away. The Gunnison River flows through the bottom of this very steep, rocky, craggy canyon with its sheer rock walls.
Driving along either of the rims (or down to the river) provides for several stops along the way with different views of the canyon. You can also hike the rim.While we weren’t there at night, I can only imagine what the stars must be like. Fishing, rock climbing, and kayaking are also popular activities, although rock climbing and kayaking here are for the more experienced adventurers. You’ll understand why when you witness that powerful river surging through the canyon.Watch for wildlife because you may just have an opportunity to see a marmot (one of my personal favorites), bighorn sheep, elk, a mountain lion, black bears, golden eagles, the peregrine falcon, and so many more beautiful creatures.
3. Mesa Verde National Park
This is one park I wish we’d had more time to explore. The history and the stories Mesa Verde holds are amazing. It is a bit more crowded than the other parks, and I do recommend getting there early so you can book tours of the cliff dwellings.
There are more than 600 cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde; it was home to the Pueblo people for over 700 years. The Visitor Center is a must stop destination with your family before you actually drive into the park. You’ll be able to walk through exhibits and learn more about the park and the people who lived there. This is also where you reserve your tickets for the tours. Cliff dwellings include Cliff Palace, Balcony House, Long House, Step House, and Spruce Tree house. Spruce Tree House looks to be closed for some time due to rock falls. Other activities include hiking, stargazing, camping, cross-country skiing, and more.
Never Stop Exploring Our National Parks (Including Off the Beaten Path National Parks)
Our national parks are a heritage for us to preserve and protect. They’re just waiting to be explored by your family and my family, adults and kids alike. While I love a good theme park, I’m so passionate about showing our kids more of what this country has to offer in terms of natural beauty, the wildest of wildlife, the tallest mountains, and the deepest valleys. We live in an amazing land, America the Beautiful, as the song says. I pray our boys will grow up not only with a respect for this beautiful land we call home. I pray they’ll grow up with a love for this country and all the natural wonders it holds, both off the beaten path and on.