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  • Rocky Mountain National Park offers plenty of adrenaline-fueled adventures with dramatic scenery and some of the best hiking.
  • Mesa Verde National Park offers history, well-preserved Pueblo dwellings, and fewer crowds in a tranquil setting.
  • Comparing the two parks, Rocky Mountain is perfect for outdoor activities, while Mesa Verde is ideal for history lovers.

The entire state of Colorado is made for outdoor adventurers. Majestic mountains perfect for summer hiking and winter skiing, raging rivers for whitewater rafting, and steep cliffs for adrenaline-fueled climbing – Colorado has it all. Colorado’s crown jewel and the perfect showcase for these outdoor elements is Rocky Mountain National Park.

Rocky Mountain was the fifth most visited national park in the US, leaving other giants like Yosemite and Olympic National Parks behind. The park’s proximity to the capital city of Denver makes it very accessible. With some of the best hiking trails near Denver, there are many reasons to explore Rocky Mountain National Park.

But what if Colorado had more to offer than just breathtaking views? Mesa Verde National Park may not have the breathtaking mountain views, but this underrated Colorado national park protects something just as valuable: immaculately preserved Pueblo dwellings that represent thousands of years of Colorado history.

When it comes to Colorado’s two most different national parks, it can be difficult to decide which is a better fit. Here are the highlights of both Colorado national parks and why the “less scenic” Mesa Verde is worth a second look.


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What makes Rocky Mountain National Park so great

The Rocky Mountains are all about adrenaline-fueled adventures, especially on the hiking trails

Rocky Mountain National Park is a must-see. The region offers some of Colorado’s most spectacular scenery, a rarity in a state with so many views.

In the summer, Rocky Mountain National Park is teeming with hikers who roam through the forests, up the mountains, and around the lakes, enjoying the alpine surroundings. In total, Rocky Mountain National Park has 216 hiking trails, including some of the top-rated trails in the United States (according to AllTrails).

Many hikers come to the Rocky Mountains specifically to try out the variety of challenging hikes. Rocky Mountain National Park is home to some of the most dangerous hiking trails in the country due to its high elevation and slick mountain terrain.

The hikes to Emerald Lake and Sky Pond are moderately difficult but are rated nearly perfect thanks to their exceptional views. Other challenging trails, such as the hike to Lone Pine Lake along the East Inlet Trail, offer full-day trips into the Rocky Mountains with alternating forest and lake views.

Less intensive hikers will also find what they are looking for in Rocky Mountain National Park, with easy hiking trails such as the Alberta Falls Trail and the Adams Falls Trail, which showcase the beauty of the Rocky Mountains in no more than three kilometers.

Of course, the 4.2 million people who visit Rocky Mountain National Park don’t just go hiking. They also come for fishing, boating, hiking, skiing and snowboarding. With year-round activities, the Rocky Mountains are well-visited even in the coldest winter months.

Rocky Mountain National Park’s versatility is one of its greatest strengths. The numerous scenic views and opportunities to escape into nature make it the best choice for those seeking a classic outdoor adventure.


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What makes Mesa Verde National Park so great

Mesa Verde is full of history and accessible views in the quiet southwest corner of Colorado

Describing Mesa Verde National Park as the “least beautiful” in Colorado may be true in the traditional sense, but it’s certainly not the whole truth. Mesa Verde National Park is located in the southwestern corner of Colorado and its landscape is much more reminiscent of nearby Utah and Arizona. Consequently, the typical mile-high views are nowhere to be found.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot to do in Mesa Verde National Park. Mesa Verde is home to a variety of Native American structures, some of which are carved directly into the rock walls. While these structures are quite different from those found in the Rocky Mountains, they still have a lot of beauty to offer.

Not only are the orange-red cliffs themselves unexpectedly picturesque, but the shapely houses and community buildings are awe-inspiring, to say the least.

The realization that these buildings were built by hand long before European pioneers began to make their mark on the land. The realization of how much work has been put into this area, now protected by a national park, is beautiful in its own way.

To enter the buildings and cliff area, guests must take a guided tour led by park rangers. This helps limit crowds and protect the sensitive area. Those who do not take the guided tour can still take a hike through the desert and experience an often-forgotten side of Colorado.

Tours cost $8 per person, with proceeds going to support the park and the rangers who educate guests about the unique area. It seems the additional tour fees have been a major deterrent, with only half a million guests making their way to Mesa Verde in 2023.

Those who dare to take this route can enjoy highlights such as the Cliff Palace and the Balcony House, some of the park’s most famous buildings.

Of course, it’s Colorado if you can’t do a little hiking. Even a historically focused park like Mesa Verde offers a number of highly rated hikes. Trails like the Petroglyph Point Trail and Mesa Verde Point Lookout Trail are much shorter than the hiking and trekking trails in the Rocky Mountains. They still manage to make quite an impression and are highly rated thanks to their scenic views and unusual scenery.

Why choose Mesa Verde over Rocky Mountain?

Hikers will always like Rocky Mountain best, but history buffs and crowd haters may prefer Mesa Verde

Given that the parks have almost nothing in common, the question arises: Which national park in Colorado is the best?

If the goal of the trip is hiking or major outdoor activities, Rocky Mountain National Park is unbeatable. The large park with a great variety of landscapes makes it easy for even four million people to find their own piece of paradise, be it at the lakes or in the forests.

Mesa Verde National Park may not be as well known for its hiking trails, but it has a beauty all its own. Historically significant structures, well preserved by the arid desert and protective cliffs, stand out against the sandstone of southern Colorado. With that in mind, there are several reasons to visit Mesa Verde National Park instead of Rocky Mountain National Park.

Perfect for history lovers

For national park visitors interested in history and culture, Mesa Verde is probably a better choice, with its interactive tours that stimulate curious minds who want to ask specific questions about the region.

Mesa Verde’s focus is a little different than most national parks, as it focuses on man-made structures, allowing travelers to explore a variety of interests in an affordable outdoor setting.

Lower physical demands

Mesa Verde is also a better choice for less physically able guests. Many of the areas are visible from overlooks or from the roads, so travelers with physical limitations who may not be able to hike can still enjoy the most beautiful part of this national park.

For those who enjoy hiking, over 50% of the 21 trails in Mesa Verde are rated easy, compared to only 14% of the 216 trails in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Beginner hikers will probably feel much more comfortable in Mesa Verde, as it offers shorter and flatter trails.

Smaller crowds

The third reason to consider Mesa Verde is the significantly lower number of visitors. Rocky Mountain National Park had eight times as many guests as Mesa Verde in 2023. What does that look like on site? Parks like Rocky Mountain can have 10,000 to 15,000 guests in the park on a single day during peak season.

In comparison, Mesa Verde does not have as many guests per week, even in the peak season months. Additional visitor management due to the cliff dwelling reserves ensures that each guest has a quality experience where they can ask questions and enjoy the views they hope to see during their visit.


7 underrated alternatives to Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado

Avoid the crowds of Rocky Mountain National Park and enjoy beautiful scenery and thrills in equal measure at these underrated state parks in Colorado!

Rocky Mountain National Park may be Colorado’s pride and joy, but it’s rivaled by the state’s “most unsightly” national park, Mesa Verde National Park. Easy hikes, historic buildings and guided tours in the hot desert of the southwest offer a completely different experience than the high mountain ranges of the Rocky Mountains.

With only a fraction of the number of visitors, Mesa Verde National Park may be the perfect alternative to the famous Rocky Mountain National Park.

Have you visited Mesa Verde National Park? Let us know in the comments!

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