Exploring Colorado's Lesser-Known State Parks

September 4, 2018

Did you know that today is National Wildlife Day? Well, what better way to pay homage to Colorado's majestic outdoor playground and its various inhabitants than to explore one (or more) of our 41 state parks? The parks represent a commitment made by the citizens of Colorado more than 50 years ago to set aside treasured places where people of all ages can enjoy the outdoors, learn about our state's natural heritage, and be inspired to preserve and protect its resources and wildlife for generations to come. Oh, and by the way: Colorado's state park system happens to be manned by Colorado Parks and Wildlife, a PERA employer (#humblebrag). We're betting that you've already frequented some of the more popular parks like Chatfield, Cherry Creek, and Golden Gate Canyon, but what about the lesser-known gems below? All the breathtaking scenery with none of the crowds!

Cheyenne Mountain State Park
Located in Colorado Springs, this 2,701-acre former ranch offers plenty of opportunities for visitors to explore, hike, bike, camp, and picnic. There are 21 miles of easy to moderate hiking and biking trails that lead from prairie grasslands through a stunning foothills transition zone of Gambel oak and ponderosa pine/Douglas fir. The "Trail's End" Visitor Center offers boundless resources, educational exhibits, souvenir and refreshment shopping, and relaxation by its stone fireplace and wall of windows. And let's not forget the bountiful wildlife throughout the park, including coyotes, foxes, deer, elk, black bears, bobcats, and prairie dogs, as well as golden eagles, wild turkeys, and red-tailed hawks (to name just a few of the 100+ bird species that call the park home).

John Martin Reservoir State Park (a.k.a. "The Sapphire on the Plains")
The treasure of water on the dry Eastern Plains...that's what draws birds, wildlife, and visitors to John Martin Reservoir State Park, located in the town of Hasty in southeast Colorado. Built along the Arkansas River, the reservoir boasts nearly 400 documented species of birds for ample birdwatching (including least tearns and piping plovers, two federally-protected species that nest here in the spring and summer). If birdwatching isn't your thing, don't worry: the park also offers fishing, boating, swimming, water skiing, and wind-water sports of all kinds.

Lathrop State Park
Lathrop became Colorado’s first state park in 1962, but its historical significance stretches back much farther than that; it offers panoramic views of the Spanish Peaks, which once served as prominent landmarks for Native Americans, settlers, trappers, and explorers. Its two lakes, Martin Lake and Horseshoe Lake, are stocked with trout, catfish, muskie, bass, walleye, bluegill, and crappie and provide great fishing. Martin Lake's warm temperatures make it perfect for swimming (as well as jet and water skiing, powerboating, and sailing), while Horseshoe Lake's wakeless designation means it's ideal for canoeing, kayaking, and other low-speed boating activities. Not interested in the water? Lathrop happens to be the only state park to feature a nine-hole golf course.

Rifle Falls State Park
Rifle Falls’ 70-foot, triple waterfall is located just 14 miles north of the town of Rifle. With its crashing water, dripping moss, lush vegetation, and mysterious limestone caves, it's truly a magnificent thing to behold—no wonder Sunset magazine has named it one of the "10 Best Waterfalls" in the West. With its unique and beautiful setting, the park has attracted photographers and movie crews from around the country, and its Mountain Mist Amphitheater is a popular venue for weddings and special events. Three hiking trails run along East Rifle Creek through lush riparian habitat to a view from the top of the falls, the caves beyond, and on to the Rifle Falls Fish Hatchery. Not surprisingly, the park is very popular in the summer, so be sure to plan ahead and get there early.  

Vega State Park
This park is located on the northeast edge of Grand Mesa at an elevation of 8,000 feet. It's open year-round for birdwatching, hiking, ice fishing, cross-country skiing, and with its meadows and surrounding slopes of aspens, the park is also a great destination for leaf peeping (which is almost here!). The park offers easy access to hundreds of miles of trails through Grand Mesa National Forest, as well as four campgrounds with 113 sites (including campsites with electrical). If "glamping" is more your style, there five cozy, year-round cabins available as well.

This just a small sampling of the diverse beauty that Colorado's state parks have to offer; be sure to take a gander at the full menu here (courtesy of the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Department).

Do you know of another hidden gem in the Colorado state park system? If so, share the details in the comments below!