Colorado National Parks: Spring
FIND YOUR PARK
COLORADO’s four national parks are all incredible and unique in their own ways. Although winter is a magical time at all four parks, spring is when the parks, and all the life that resides within them, returns. The snow at last begins to melt as temperatures rise and the parks take on another personality.
GREAT SAND DUNES NATIONAL PARK & PRESERVE
One of the youngest and most unique national parks in the system, Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve has 30 square miles of sand dunes, including the tallest dunes in North America as well as grasslands, wetlands, conifer and aspen forests, alpine lakes, and six 13,000-foot mountains. The park attracts a somewhat modest number of visitors in early spring (see right).
As for what to do, climbing the dunes is a must, and spring offers a great opportunity to do that thanks to lower temperatures (in summer the sand can get extremely hot during the day). High Dune on the first ridge is a 2.5-mile round trip that will take around two hours. Star Dune is the tallest in the dunefield at 755 feet and will take closer to five hours. Two sand wheelchairs are available for loan at the Visitor Center, one designed for adults and one for children.
Twice a year - in spring and autumn - the San Luis Valley plays host to a spectacular sandhill crane migration. One of 250 bird species found in the park and preserve, over 20,000 cranes spend part of their spring and fall each year in this valley. They typically
begin to arrive in the San Luis Valley in early February before renewing their bond with their mate through a courtship ritual that includes dancing, bowing, chortling, and throwing tufts of grass in the air. They leave again by late March for the northern U.S. and Canada. While hundreds of cranes feed and roost in wetlands within the boundaries of the national park, this area is currently not accessible to the general public. There are several other areas nearby that offer great viewing opportunities including Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge and San Luis Lakes State Wildlife Area. Read more on page 14.
Medano Creek is a popular seasonal creek that begins flowing through the park by late April. It reaches peak flow in late May or early June. This means, however, that weekends at this time are extremely crowded. Plan to visit on weekdays at this time of year for a more pleasant experience.
And while nighttime can still be chilly, especially in early spring, hiking the dunes at night, particularly with a full moon, is an experience you are unlikely to experience anywhere else in the country.
SPRING VISITORS* March: 26,422 April: 20,934 May: 63,998
SPRING HIGHLIGHTS Medano Creek
CAMPING Spring is a great time to camp at Sand Dunes. Piñon Flats Campground reopens April 1. Camping is permitted anywhere in the dunefield (outside of the day use area) but you need a permit.
MORE INFO nps.gov/grsa
ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK
Spring is stunning at Rocky Mountain National Park. Migrant bird species return, elk and sheep give birth and begin moving toward their summer ranges, and streams begin to swell with the melting snow.
However, spring at Rocky isn’t all frolicking in the sunshine. Lower elevations can bring warm and sunny days but at the same time higher elevation parts of the park can be frigid with plenty of snow (in fact, some of the biggest snowstorms of the year at Rocky happen in March, April and even May), so plan accordingly, particularly if you are planning on exploring different areas of the park. Those warm days at lower elevation are when the aspens, one of the park’s signature species, begin blooming and later in April wildflowers begin blooming at lower elevations.
These variable weather conditions also mean that trail conditions in the park vary from day to day and you can easily experience more than one season in the same day.
With 355 miles of hiking trails that range from flat lakeside strolls to steep mountain peak climbs, RMNP literally has something for everyone.
As for particular hikes, Mills Lake is a 2.8- mile hike that starts at the Glacier Gorge Junction trailhead. With an elevation gain of 700 feet, this shouldn’t prove too difficult for those with relatively good fitness levels. The hike is particularly noteworthy thanks to the view of Longs Peak and the Keyboard of the Winds from Mills Lake. Alberta Falls is another very popular hike. At just 0.6 miles and with a couple of hundred feet of elevation gain, this hike affords views of Glacier Creek pouring down over the falls. This one also starts at the Glacier Gorge Junction trailhead.
Interested in a longer hike? Ask for a hiking brochure at entrance stations, visitor centers or at staffed trailheads.
Be sure to check trail conditions online or at a visitor center. RMNP has seven different visitor centers. Some are open year round (and even then have reduced hours for part of the year) but others are only open seasonally.
RMNP also offers Ranger-led programs throughout spring including Snowshoe Ecology Walks, Winter Wonders and the Junior Ranger Program.
SPRING VISITORS* March: 156,514 April: 152,045 May: 306,483
SPRING HIGHLIGHTS The reopening of Trail Ridge Road. The highest continuous paved road in the United States, reaches an elevation of 12,183 feet.
CAMPING Moraine Park campground is open all year. All 77 winter sites are first come first served. Park dump stations are closed. Other sites open later in the season.
MORE INFO nps.gov/romo
MESA VERDE NATIONAL PARK
Unique in the park system, Mesa Verde National Park offers a look into the lives of the Ancestral Pueblo people who made this area their home for over 700 years from 550 AD.
Protecting nearly 5,000 known archaeological sites, including 600 cliff dwellings. Mesa Verde, along with sites in the Four Corners area, have allowed archaeologists to compile the story of one of the most significant chapters in the story of ancient America.
Spring is a great time to visit Mesa Verde as warmer temperatures make it much more pleasant to explore the park, whether on guided tours or on your own.
While Spruce Tree House remains closed for the foreseeable future due to continued safety concerns relating to rockfalls, overlooks near the museum offer superb views of the cliff dwelling. Balcony House, however, is open for tours. The one-hour tour involves climbing a 32-foot ladder to enter the site. You will also crawl through a 12-foot long
by 18-inch wide tunnel, and climb 60 feet up an exposed cliff face using two 10- to 12-foot ladders and a series of stone steps. Tours of Balcony House are by ticket only and take place in spring from April 15. Tour times vary.
Away from organized tours, Mesa Verde offers the chance to explore on your own. There are exhibits at the visitor center and Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum that provide insights into the lives of the Ancestral Pueblo, and for something a bit more active, the Petroglyph Point Trail, a 2.4-mile moderately strenuous trail that leads to a large petroglyph panel, begins near the museum.
Twelve miles from Far View Lodge (the only lodging inside the park) is Wetherill Mesa and Long House cliff dwelling. The five-mile Long House Loop, which can be explored by foot or on bicycle, offers the chance to see several cliff dwelling overlooks. Tickets for a twohour ranger-guided tour of Long House can be purchased at the visitor center. Wetherill Mesa will open April 29 or as soon as weather and road conditions permit.
VISITORS* March: 21,336 April: 35,099 May: 65,855
SPRING HIGHLIGHTS Wildflowers that begin to bloom later in the season
SPRING TIPS The popular Spruce Tree House is closed due to safety issues so tour Balcony House instead
CAMPING The campgrounds inside the park are closed between November and April.
MORE INFO nps.gov/meve
BLACK CANYON OF THE GUNNISON NATIONAL PARK
One of the smaller parks in the system, the Black Canyon nevertheless packs a lot in.
Elevation in the park ranges from 5,400 feet at the bottom of the canyon to 8,775 feet on Signal Hill and as such the flora and fauna are varied. The rims of the canyon are dominated by scrub oak and pinyon and juniper forests as well as some high-desert sagebrush while the north-facing slopes have Douglas fir and Colorado blue spruce. Down in the canyon and near the river it is a different story with deciduous trees and shrubs.
Spring and summer rains bring most of the park’s annual precipitation, so always check the weather before you venture there, but unless it is particularly heavy, you will be able to find somewhere to hike. Rock climbing and kayaking are also available but both pursuits require a significant level of expertise and experience. As an International Dark Sky Park there are numerous viewing opportunities, both self-guided and as part of programs organized by the park.
While the park is at the mercy of the elements, at least when it comes to when roads open and close, at some point in spring road cyclists will take on the challenge of the five-mile, 2,000-foot ascent to the entrance gate (around mid-April you can continue on into the park and along the six beautiful miles of South Rim Road to its terminus where Warner Point Nature Trail starts).
Spring in “the Black” also offers opportunities to fish certified Gold Medal and Wild Trout waters. The easiest access to the Gunnison River is via East Portal Road which is extremely steep (15% grades) with hairpin curves. Vehicles with an overall length (including trailer) greater than 22 feet are prohibited. East Portal Road also leads to the location of the start of Gunnison Tunnel, a technological marvel of its day. The nearby East Portal Campground is technically located within Curecanti National Recreation Area, but is adjacent to Black Canyon.
The North Rim of the Black Canyon is much less visited and offers a different experience. It is accessed via North Rim Road (which is itself accessed from CO Hwy 92 at Crawford) which is closed in winter and reopens in spring when weather and road conditions allow.
SPRING VISITORS* March: 7,687 April: 11,728 May: 48,554
SPRING HIGHLIGHTS Budding trees and greenery of all kinds
SPRING TIPS Early spring is great for snowshoeing while later spring is great for hiking. Call ahead to see which shoes to bring!
CAMPING All of the campsites open in spring at some point. Call or visit the park’s website to check when exactly that is.
MORE INFO nps.gov/blca