Adventure Travel

The hidden state parks of Colorado

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navajo lake colorado

Image: wunderground

The hidden state parks of Colorado

Colorado’s state parks are often overlooked due to the impressiveness of the national parks in the region. While smaller and more locals-only, the state parks of Colorado are equally as exciting and beautiful. Many parks are close to your favorite ski towns and mountain villages, where the natural splendor of the Rockies are never underestimated.

Whether you’re in the mood for a quick day trip to the lake or an overnighter in the woods, Colorado has a state park for you to enjoy. From the desert to a tropical oasis, you’ll never think of Colorado the same way again after experiencing some of these places!

Navajo State Park

As Colorado’s version of the family-favorite Lake Powell, Navajo State Park features a 15,600 acre reservoir that provides not only an incredible recreation value, but also serves as the Navajo Indian Irrigation Project. Located southeast of Durango and southwest of Pagosa Springs on the New Mexico border, Navajo Lake is the perfect place to spend a weekend boating on the water, camping, hiking, and fishing. To experience Navajo State Park as a day trip, there are several great trails to explore by foot or mountain bike. The longest trail, Windsurf Beach Trail, extends along an old railroad grade before reaching a primitive campground. At the Windsurf primitive campground, it’s easy to hop onto the Piedra Trail, which has more challenging uphill sections to navigate.

Weekend trips are enjoyed in many ways at Navajo State Park. With 118 sites, there’s little chance of overcrowding, so you’re practically guaranteed to have a peaceful experience. For a back-to-basics experience, try one of 19 first-come, first-serve primitive sites throughout the park. And if you’re in the mood for a bit of luxury, you’re in luck! Navajo State Park has three brand new two bedroom cabins available to rent. These include many of the conveniences of home, such as electricity, showers, dishwashers, and refrigerators.

Paonia State Park

Paonia State Park

Image: Shutterstock/Linda Armstrong

Somewhat of a hidden gem for travelers to Colorado, Paonia State Park is a great getaway for nature-lovers of any age. Nestled in between the Gunnison and Grand Mesa National Forests, Paonia State Park is not only convenient to get to (from Glenwood Springs in the north and Delta in the west), but it’s also full of exceptional recreational activities to participate in. A few favorites are jet skiing and water skiing along the narrow reservoir, camping in one of 15 primitive sites, and hunting (permit required.) During the winter months, the water is often dried up, which allows for optimal freeform cross country skiing experiences. Please note that there aren’t any formal trails marked, so be prepared to choose your own adventure!

To find Paonia State Park, head east on 92 from Delta and continue north on 133. The reservoir will be on your right. From Glenwood Springs, drive south on 82 and continue onto 133 in Carbondale.

Roxborough State Park

Red sandstone cliffs with green forest below

Image: Shutterstock/EdgeOfReason

Conveniently located just outside of Denver, Roxborough State Park is a wonderland of geological features. Hundreds of red rock formations, scattered throughout the park, are the shining element of any trip to Roxborough. They’re accessed via a network of trails for every level of hiker. In fact, great views can be seen only 100 yards from the visitor’s center! Simply follow signs for the Fountain Valley Overlook, where features such as Lyons Formation, Dakota Hogback, and Fountain Formation are all within view. Wildlife viewing and bird watching is a favorite activity within the park, as it is a designated Important Bird Area.

Getting to Roxborough State Park is extremely easy from Denver. Simply travel south on 121 until you reach Rampart Range Road, where you will continue south. At the intersection with Roxborough Park Road, turn right (west) and drive until you see the park entrance!

Stagecoach

Known as a year-round destination near Steamboat Springs, Stagecoach State Park is a premiere spot to experience everything the area has to offer. Locals enjoy the park for it’s wonderful scenery and lake, where boating, fishing, hiking, and camping are permitted. Beautiful alpine hills line Stagecoach Reservoir’s shores, providing exemplary views and hiking trails. Around 8 miles of trails line the water and dip into the rolling grasslands. Lakefront campsites are in abundance, as well, which give visitors a serene break from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Biking is also permitted within the park, so don’t forget to load up your mountain bike! And during the winter, the gently graded trails make for optimal snowshoeing and cross country skiing paths.

Stagecoach State Park can be reached by traveling south on 40 from Steamboat Springs. At the split, continue south on 131 until you reach 14. Turn left (south) for several miles before finding the reservoir.

Rifle Falls

Colorado Waterfall

Image: Shutterstock/Stephanie Coffman

Perhaps one of the most photographed state parks in Colorado, Rifle Falls State Park has attracted tourists and film companies for decades due to its lush vegetation and diverse ecological environment. The greenery is unlike anywhere else nearby because it’s kept moist by the iconic cascading waterfall within the park. Many adventurers are drawn to Rifle Falls for it’s mysterious caves set behind the flowing water. Spelunkers and cave explorers are drawn to the area from all over the world! In fact, people even use the setting as a backdrop for weddings and other important events due to it’s truly beautiful scenery. Hiking around the park is fairly easy because of it’s simple 70 foot elevation gain, but hikers are welcome to choose the trail they’re most comfortable on. A favorite, Coyote Trail is ADA compliant all the way to the base of Rifle Falls, so visitors of an ability and experience are welcome to enjoy the dense, tropical greenery. Camping overnight is a great weekend activity, as well, with Rifle Falls State Park’s series of RV-friendly and tent-only campsites.

To reach Rifle Falls State Park, head north on 13 from Rifle. Turn right (east) on 325 and travel until you reach the park! From Glenwood Springs, drive west on I-70 and turn right (north) on 245. Continue straight on 226 until you reach 325, where you will head north.

James M. Robb Colorado River

Lake at James M. Robb - Colorado River State Park

Image: Shutterstock/Patrick Jennings

One park, five unique recreation areas. James M. Robb Colorado River State Park near Fruita is the epitome of summer fun, with it’s access to hiking trails, biking trails, lakes, and campsites. The park is split up into five distinct “pearls” (a phrase coined by James M. Robb himself): Island Acres, Corn Lake, Colorado River Wildlife Area, Connected Lakes, and Fruita. Because the sections are split, access to any of them is really simple from Grand Junction. Whether you live on the east or west of town, a section of James M. Robb Colorado River State Park is within a couple miles of you! If you’re interested in hiking, you’ll want to check out Connected Lakes for its six mile stretch of paved and natural surface trails. Fruita and Island Acres are especially recommended for camping, as they have have sites with full hookups and coin operated showers. Island Acres even has stocked fishing ponds and a swimming hole complete with a sandy beach!

Mandy Burkholder is a travel, adventure, and outdoor writer who honed her craft in the foothills of the La Plata Mountains of Southwest Colorado. After a stint in the Swiss Alps, she now resides in Tennessee. Follow her on twitter — @mandyburkhold3r