This Summer, Look Beyond National Parks and Explore Colorado National Forests Instead

This article was produced in partnership with Colorado Tourism

With summer finally here, now’s the time to embrace the great outdoors. Lucky for everyone, Colorado is home to 11 national forests and two national grasslands, together totaling an impressive 14.5 million acres. At the following eight standouts, you’ll have plenty of room to explore—whether by car, bike, or on foot—as these forests are relatively undiscovered, compared to America’s national parks.

Rockies in the background of San Juan National Forest
San Juan National Forest Wiki Commons

1. Trek the Most Rugged Rockies in San Juan National Forest

Southwestern Colorado is beloved by locals for its Old West feel, complete with remnants of the state’s mining past and its enduring love for outdoor adventure. Drive scenic byways, or ride a 140-year-old steam powered locomotive through San Juan National Forest‘s wildflower pastures and past majestic peaks before hitting the trail for a multi-day backpacking trip in the famed Needle Mountains near the town of Silverton, where you’ll find craggy peaks, high alpine lakes, and few fellow hikers.

Rio Grande National Forest
Rio Grande National Forest Courtesy Image

2. Enjoy Quiet Casting in Rio Grande National Forest

Next door to the San Juan National Forest lies the open river country of the Rio Grande National Forest— the perfect cool-down excursion after a few sweaty days in the backcountry. Early to midsummer is the best time to fly-fish the waters of the Upper Rio Grande. Head to the town of South Fork (population 351), a low-key base for angling tips and a bite to eat.

Man standing next to dinosaur fossil in Comanche National Grassland
Comanche National Grassland WikiCommons

3. Walk With Dinosaurs at Comanche National Grassland

Continue east across the southern side of the state toward the town of La Junta—across the Continental Divide—and you’ll find Comanche National Grassland. As the landscape gives way from mountain to wide-open rolling hills and shallow river canyons, fellow travelers become more scarce. The largest site of dinosaur tracks in the continent lies in Picket Wire Canyonlands, where a hike along the Purgatoire River leads to stunning evidence of Colorado’s Jurassic past.

Pawnee National Grassland
Courtesy Image

4. Sleep Under the Stars at Pawnee National Grassland

Northeastern Colorado’s Pawnee National Grassland features unparalleled open sky and an abundance of space to take in nature, where your companions are wildflowers, pronghorn, and the uninhibited wonder of the night sky. There’s little light pollution in this 193,000 acre prairie, an hour’s drive east of Fort Collins, so the stars stretch across the horizon in all directions. Plan your trip during a new moon for the full effect.

Big Thompson River

5. Fish Postcard-Perfect Streams in Roosevelt National Forest

Encompassing everything from the eastern foothills of the Continental Divide to glaciers and vast stretches of pristine wilderness, the Roosevelt National Forest holds a lifetime of adventures. Rig up your fly rod and hit the Big Thompson River—the “Big T” as locals call it—where you’ll enjoy as many beautiful, rocky canyons to explore as hearty trout to catch. With more than enough land to go around, you won’t have to worry about bumping elbows with fellow anglers—nor anyone calling your bluff on that catch of the day.

Mount Elbert

6. Reach Great Heights in San Isabel National Forest

Colorado is home to more 14ers—14,000-foot peaks—than any other state, with a staggering 58 in its borders. At 14,440 feet, Mount Elbert is the highest, but it’s an approachable summit even if you’re not an expert mountaineer. There are several routes up the mountain depending on your skill level, but whichever you take, be sure to summit before noon so you have plenty of daylight to make it down. After, hit nearby historic mountain town Leadville for a well-earned cold one.

Mountain biking in Crested Butte, Colorado
Arina P Habich / Shutterstock

7. Let It Ride in Gunnison National Forest

Southwest of Leadville lies yet another mountain paradise village: Crested Butte. It’s nestled within Gunnison National Forest. Home to every alpine activity on the menu, mountain biking is perhaps the top draw in the summer and fall. The town features more than 700 miles of trails that alternate between wildflower meadows and exposed cliff drops. The 401 Trail is a favorite spot, complete with a ghost town, painful climb, and harrowing descent.

Unaweep Tabeguache Scenic Byway

8. White-Knuckle the Unaweep Tabeguache Scenic Byway in Uncompahgre National Forest

Driving likely isn’t the first activity that springs to mind when you think of Colorado, but the state is home to 26 Scenic and Historic Byways. The off-the-beaten path Unaweep Tabeguache Scenic Byway in the southwest is a bucket-list route. Sandstone walls smoothed out over a millennia of erosion and the winding Dolores River Canyon are highlights in some of the wildest, most pristine Bureau of Land Management terrain in the country. Don’t miss the historic Hanging Flume Overlook outside Naturita. For off-road adventures this area is the perfect jump-off point for the epic 160-mile Rimrocker Trail and the Aspen-lined Divide Forks Cutoff hiking trail. For a restful stop, pop into Camp V for an unforgettable night’s stay in a vintage Airstream trailer, glamping tent, or cozy lodge.

These stunning public lands offer endless opportunities for outdoor enthusiasts of all styles. Just be sure to check with state and local governments for the latest advisories before hitting the road. (Visit directly for special offers and the latest openings and public health guidelines in Colorado.) Be safe and have fun! That’s the number one (and two) rule this summer.

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