Federal lands preserve and promote around a third of Colorado’s land. They’re usually open to the public year-round, sometimes for free, sometimes for a fee. Each offers outstanding recreation and sightseeing.
Types of Federal Lands in Colorado
Colorado’s federal lands are managed by a number of government organizations, ranging from the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Most are open year-round for public use, some charging an entry fee or other facility fees like camping.
National Parks in Colorado
Four of Colorado’s biggest gems are preserved in national parks. These signature sites have to be on your local bucket list, as they all offer something unique, from high alpine tundra and steep canyons to cliff dwellings and sand dunes.
National Monuments in Colorado
These eight monuments preserve natural and man-made landmarks. Generally, national monuments have fewer restrictions than national parks, they are therefore much more pet friendly. Most offer camping opportunities and various other chances for outdoor recreation.
National Recreation Areas in Colorado
The two national recreation areas are home to the largest bodies of water in the state, Blue Mesa Reservoir, and Lake Granby. Both are a haven for water sports, permitting all types of boating and fishing. Each park has more than one marina for boat rentals.
National Forests in Colorado
Twelve national forests cover millions of acres throughout the Colorado Rocky Mountains, eleven of which are entirely located within the state. The twelve is the Manti-La Sal National Forest, which spreads into Utah for its majority. They are found across the state, west of the plains. Year-round outdoor recreation is featured in these free federal lands, from fishing and camping to snowmobiling and Nordic skiing.
National Grasslands in Colorado
Two national grasslands preserve Colorado’s natural prairie landscape. Each is located on the plains in the eastern part of the state. You can camp, hike, bike, and discover native wildlife at both the Comanche and Pawnee grasslands.
National Wildlife Refuges in Colorado
There are eight national wildlife refuges in Colorado, whose sole mission is to preserve the natural landscapes used for feeding, resting, and breeding local and migratory wildlife. The U.S. has 560 wildlife refuges in the National Wildlife Refuge System.
National Conservation Areas in Colorado
Three national conservation areas are located on Colorado’s Western Slope. They preserve in a variety of habitats for the enjoyment of present and future generations. Common recreation within their limits includes hiking, mountain biking, and rock climbing.
National Wilderness Areas in Colorado
There are 42 national wilderness areas, set aside to preserve and showcase nature. They are spread throughout the Colorado Rockies, offering outdoor recreation year-round. Some are remote and difficult to access, others are quite popular with visitors.
National Historic Sites in Colorado
There are three national historic sites in the state, all located in the southeastern plains. These protected areas are declared of national historic significance in the United States. Both of them were an important part of Colorado’s early past.
National Historic Trails in Colorado
The state’s three national historic trails pass through a variety of land, some public, some private. Each of the three crosses more than one state, with the longest being the Santa Fe Trail, which covers 900 miles from Missouri to New Mexico.
National Scenic Trails in Colorado
The sole national scenic trail in Colorado runs 3,100 miles from the Canadian border to Mexico. Crossing through the heart of the Rocky Mountains, the Continental Divide Trail covers 800 miles of its stunning, alpine route within the Centennial State.
National Recreation Trails in Colorado
Currently, there are over thirty federally-designated national recreation trails in Colorado, however more are declared each year in the U.S. Two of them reside within the Rocky Mountain Arsenal NWR. They were all declared NRTs because of their outstanding quality.
Featured Federal Lands
Colorado’s picturesque scenic landscape and proximity to an abundance of outdoor activities make camping here a…
Guide to Federal Lands in Colorado
Encompassing almost a million square miles, more than 618 million acres and over a quarter of the U.S. land base, federal public lands are owned equally by all Americans. And Colorado has its fair share, so enjoy!
America’s federal public lands: ‘These Lands Are Your Lands’
With four national parks, eight national monuments, two national recreation areas, eleven national forests, two national grasslands, forty-two national wilderness areas, three national conservation areas, and eight national wildlife areas, on top of B.L.M. land and various other federal lands, there’s plenty of space for everyone.
Most federal lands are free to use, such as national forests or BLM land. There are certain developed areas, such as national parks or recreation areas within a national forest, which charge an entry fee. At the national park, your entrance is good for seven consecutive days, but only at that park.
Valid for one year, an $80 Interagency Annual Pass grants you admission to all federal areas that charge an entry or day-use fee. This is the best option for road trippers looking to see a bunch of parks during their cross-state/cross-country journey. You can pick it up online or at the first big park you come to, however, they aren’t available at small day-use areas, so plan accordingly.
Nationally designated areas
Federal land is divided into several categories, each similar, yet distinct in its purpose and regulations. All the individual areas were designated at different dates throughout Colorado’s history, with one similar goal in mind: to protect the landscape for generations to come. With so many national areas, it can be difficult distinguishing the point of each and what they offer.
National Parks (NP) – These designate the highest honors for Colorado’s federal lands. Within the four national parks, there are canyons, sand dunes, alpine tundra, and archeological areas. Dogs are generally not permitted on established trails, making them not the best choice for a hike with your best friend. Pets are welcome in paved areas, campgrounds, and around visitor centers. Hunting, mining, and consumptive activities are not allowed.
National Monuments (NM) – Eight historic sites and geological areas are designated as national monuments. Often time, national monuments aren’t quite significant or popular enough to become national parks. However, this means fewer regulations, which is great for dog lovers. Pets are usually welcome on most trails.
National Recreation Areas (NRA) – These parks are significant in their role for outdoor recreation. Both of Colorado’s national recreation areas are centered around large reservoirs for water-based sports. Most of the country’s NRAs are also located near lakes or in large open spaces within urban areas where such land is precious.
National Forests (NF) – Mostly wooded and forested that are collectively owned by the American people. The widest variety of recreation can be enjoyed in these forests year-round. You can typically camp there for up to two weeks before having to move spots as free, dispersed campsites, or stay as long as the season allows as paid campgrounds.
National Grasslands (NG) – They are large regions consisting of mostly prairie land. Comanche is in the southeastern plains and Pawnee is in the northeastern plain. National grasslands are a type of federally protected U.S. land authorized by Title III of the Bankhead–Jones Farm Tenant Act of 1937.
National Wildlife Refuges (NWR) – The United States Fish and Wildlife Service manages the National Wildlife Refuge System. These lands and water are set aside in order to protect fish, wildlife and plants. Several of them contain scarce marshland that is invaluable to both native wildlife and migratory birds.
National Conservation Areas (NCA) – Simliar to the other federally-protected lands, national conservation areas are also classified as such in order to preserve. They are managed by the Bureau of Land Management under the National Landscape Conservation System. All three of Colorado’s NCA’s are found on the Western Slope in or south of Grand Junction.
National Wilderness Areas (NWA) – Unlike national parks and forests, wilderness areas are left undeveloped. They allow visitors to experience the backcountry in its natural condition. The National Wilderness Preservation System coordinates recreation within areas, which are then overseen by various government organizations, usually the USFS and BLM.
National Historic Sites (NHS) – These sites are compelling in American history. National historic sites generally contain a single momentous feature that directly contributed to its subject. Bent’s Old Fort in La Junta was an invaluable trading post along the Santa Fe Trail. The Sand Creek Massacre site was home to an 8 hour event that forever altered the Great Plains.
National Historic Trails (NHT) – Part of the National Trails System, Colorado’s national historic trails are all declared as such for their historical contribution. They aim to protect the trail and surrounding areas. All three trails were used as transportation by foot, wagon and horse, before becoming obsolete with the railroad and eventually cars.
National Scenic Trails (NST) – These special trails have particular natural beauty. The National Trails System Act of 1968 (Public Law 90-543) authorized the system of national scenic trails, along with national historic trails and national recreation trails. The Continental Divide Trail is the single NST in the state.
National Recreation Trails (NRT) – Through designation by the National Trails System Act of 1968, these trails are included as part of United State’s national system of trails. They range in length and difficulty, however they all are day hikes. Some are short, easy walks, others summit mountaintops.
Various government organizations oversee different areas
A number of federal groups are responsible for managing different national parks, conservation areas, wildernesses, etc. Some split duties within the same area. Below are the governmental organizations you’ll find running the show in Colorado:
Bureau of Land Management (BLM) – In addition to the areas managed by the USFS, a lot of federal land is run by the BLM. They oversee 8.3 million acres of BLM public lands. BLM lands provide endless recreation and open space. They manage three national conservation areas, five wilderness areas, two national trails, and the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument.
Borough of Land Management land tends to fall on the outskirts of the national forests, notably in the far western slope. Although you will find it mixed in here and there throughout the Rocky Mountains.
Like national forests, it’s also federally owned and governed, and is open to the public for use, usually year round depending on the site. Because of its often remote, rural location, BLM land tends to be laxer on recreation permitted.
National Park Service (NPS) – Yellowstone was the first national park, established on March 1, 1872, by Congress. By 1916 there were 35 national parks and monuments. That year President Woodrow Wilson signed an act creating the NPS. This “Organic Act” reads:
This “Organic Act” states that “the Service thus established shall promote and regulate the use of the Federal areas known as national parks, monuments and reservations…by such means and measures as conform to the fundamental purpose of the said parks, monuments and reservations, which purpose is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) – The USFWS manages fishing and hunting throughout the country. They set rules, guidelines, and season dates. In addition to this management, they also oversee some federal land, including the national wildlife refuges.
U.S. Forest Service (USFS) – The USFS manages the bulk of Colorado’s public land, most notably its stunning national forests.
U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) – The USDA is the government department responsible for overseeing federal laws related to farming, forestry, and food.
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