By Erin English
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- Flexible Itineraries: Unique and adventure-packed ideas ranging from one day in the park to a week-long trip, with tips for family fun, winter adventures, and visiting all the glaciers
- The Best Hikes in Rocky: Detailed trail descriptions with mileage, elevation gains, individual trail maps, and backpacking options
- Experience the Outdoors: Hike the dramatic glacier-formed gorges to find jaw-dropping waterfalls and spot elk, moose, and bighorn sheep along the way. Join in on a summertime ranger program, snowshoe to a ghost town in the winter, or catch the annual Perseid meteor shower in August. Take an adventurous bike tour, try your hand at rock climbing or fishing, and set up camp for a night under the stars (and a spectacular sunrise, too!)
- How to Get There: Up-to-date information on gateway towns, park entrances, park fees, and tours
- Where to Stay: From campgrounds to B&Bs to the iconic Stanley Hotel, find the best spots to kick back, both inside and outside the park
- Planning Tips: When to go, what to pack, safety information, and how to avoid the crowds, with full-color photos and detailed maps throughout
- Expertise and Know-How from seasoned explorer and Rocky Mountain local Erin English
DISCOVER Rocky Mountain National Park
10 TOP EXPERIENCES
Planning Your Trip
IF YOU’RE LOOKING FOR...
ROCKY MOUNTAIN VICINITY CAMPGROUNDS
IN THE PARK
The Best of Rocky Mountain National Park
BEST IN ONE DAY
Best Day Hikes
ESCAPE THE CROWDS
Gaga for Glaciers
Rocky Mountain National Park is a world of extremes. Within one hour, visitors can find themselves soaking up the sun under bluebird skies, then frantically piling on layers as a snow squall unapologetically sweeps through.
Massive landforms capped in brilliant white rise sharply from the valley floors, drawing your gaze ever upward. In the park’s alpine tundra—above 11,000 feet (3,353 meters) in elevation—an ecosystem low to the ground is equally fascinating. Colorful, compact plants have adapted to harsh environs and are hardly ruffled, even in the presence of howling winds. Squeaky, beady-eyed pikas scurry about urgently, collecting and storing food.
Sensory delights wait around every corner: lakes glossy and lustrous, like shiny silver dollars; skin-tingling, cool sprays from tumbling waterfalls; butterscotch-scented ponderosa pine trees. The nature is intoxicating.
The park’s treasures are hardly secret. This designated wilderness area experiences an annual visitation of more than four million people. Visitors flock here for the scenic grandeur, watchable wildlife, and recreational opportunities. Spending time in this small cross section of the 3,000-mi (4,830-km) Rocky Mountain range nourishes the soul. You can’t help but experience the present moment inside the park’s boundaries.
U.S. president Woodrow Wilson formally established this protected region in 1915. The park, affectionately known as “Rocky,” enjoyed a remarkable first century.
Here’s to another wild and wonderful 100 years.
10 TOP EXPERIENCES
1 Take a Scenic Drive: View stunning landscapes and observe the transitions between montane, subalpine, and tundra ecosystems along Old Fall River Road and Trail Ridge Road.
2 Visit a Lake: Rocky’s bodies of water include remote beauties nestled among tall trees and easily accessible, lower-elevation lakes. Picnic, enjoy the sunrise, or wiggle your toes in “beach” sand.
3 Hike in the Mountains: Pull on some sturdy boots and travel along one of Rocky’s many hiking paths.
4 Join a Ranger-Led Program: From spinning yarns around the campfire to leading Junior Ranger activities for kids, Rocky’s rangers facilitate a wide variety of educational and fun experiences in the park.
5 Sleep Under the Stars: Immerse yourself in nature on a backpacking or camping trip. Gaze up at celestial bodies from the comfort of your sleeping bag and soak up the quiet.
6 Ride Horseback: Recall the romance of the Wild West on a guided horseback ride. Tours of varying lengths depart from Moraine Park Stables and Glacier Creek Stables.
7 Experience Autumn: Schedule a trip for September or October, when the leaves are turning and the elk are bugling.
8 Watch Wildlife: Observe (from a safe distance) animals eating, bugling, sleeping, mating, and caring for their young.
9 Embark on a Winter Adventure: Enjoy views of snowcapped peaks from the comfort of your vehicle or get your blood pumping with a saucer ride down Rocky’s Hidden Valley sledding hill.
10 Explore the Tundra: Visit the largest expanse of tundra in the lower 48. Discover tiny flowers that thrive above the tree line, and witness pikas gathering food for winter.
Planning Your Trip
Where to Go
Bear Lake and the East Side
Bear Lake is the most heavily visited region in the park, and understandably so. Glacial cirques, wildflower-filled meadows, and sparkling lakes pack a scenic punch, and Moraine Park features one of the most picturesque mountain views in the entire park. Bear Lake, Sprague Lake, and Alberta Falls are easily accessible, family-friendly destinations, and many other scenic hiking trails beg to be explored. The area is home to three campgrounds, two visitor centers, the Moraine Park Discovery Center, and two horse stables. The gateway town of Estes Park is a short car ride away.
Longs Peak and Wild Basin
From many locations inside and outside of the park, visitors are able to see Longs Peak rising majestically from the earth, cresting at 14,259 feet (4,346 meters). The most popular route to the top of this towering spectacle starts from the busy Longs Peak Trailhead on the east side. Climbers start their grueling 10- to 15-hour trek here in the early hours of the morning and often camp at the park’s Longs Peak Campground. Shorter (yet still challenging) hiking trails in the vicinity lead to Estes Cone and Chasm Lake. A few miles up the road from the Longs Peak turnoff is Lily Lake, a great location for bird-watching and spotting wildflowers. Wild Basin is a paradise for hikers, who are richly rewarded with stunning views of gushing waterfalls and serene lakes.
Trail Ridge Road
On summer days, traffic rumbles along at a nearly constant pace on Trail Ridge Road. As the only vehicle thoroughfare that spans the east and west sides of the park, this road is notable for being the highest continuous road in the United States. Milner Pass—one of the many pullouts along the road—is the easiest place in the park to stand on the Continental Divide. Visitors are fascinated by the creatures and plants of the alpine tundra and flock to the Tundra Communities Trail to get their fill. At 11,796 feet (3,595 meters), the Alpine Visitor Center is a popular rest stop and the highest national park visitor center. Old Fall River Road, which intersects Trail Ridge Road at the visitor center, was the first road built in the park and is heavily traveled in the summer.
Water and wide-open spaces are the main attractions in the Kawuneeche Valley, which—compared with the east side of the park—is less congested with people and therefore much quieter. The west side’s many meadows are prime places to enjoy a moment of solitude and watch for wildlife, especially elk and moose. The legendary Colorado River snakes its way through the valley and is a big draw for fly-fishing aficionados. One campground, Timber Creek, can be found here, and two of the best family-friendly hikes in the park are located off Highway 34/Trail Ridge Road: Holzwarth Historic Site and Coyote Valley Trail. Downtown Grand Lake is a few miles away from the Kawuneeche Visitor Center.
Lumpy Ridge and the Mummy Range
Hiking trails around Lumpy Ridge are usually the first to thaw out in the springtime, and they lead to pretty destinations such as Gem Lake and Bridal Veil Falls. Lumpy Ridge is a rock climber’s dream and has many bumpy geologic features—with names like Twin Owls and Pear Buttress—to scale. Along the Black Canyon Trail and the greater Lumpy Ridge Loop, running is especially popular. In the Mummy Range, humans have blazed only a few trails to the area’s lakes, which are located miles away from any form of civilization. Mirror Lake and Little Yellowstone are key attractions in the northwestern corner of the park. U.S. Forest Service campgrounds Long Draw and Grandview—located outside the park—accommodate overnight visitors to this remote region.
On the east side of Rocky, Estes Park is the busiest gateway town, featuring many hotels, lodges, campgrounds, restaurants, and shops. Visitors destined for the national park are sometimes sidetracked here for days by all of the activities available, including an aerial tramway, golf, and boating on Lake Estes. On the west side, the town of Grand Lake is known for its namesake body of water, a quaint boardwalk lined with shops, and the Rocky Mountain Repertory Theatre. Lodging and dining options are also plentiful in Grand Lake. South of Grand Lake, in the Arapaho National Recreation Area, visitors enjoy boating, fishing, camping, and osprey viewing.
When to Go
High Season (mid-June-early Oct.)
In the summer, lakes sparkle in the sunshine, birds belt out tunes, colorful blooms carpet meadows, and torrents of water spill forth from waterfalls. Visitors are awestruck by the beauty of the park in the warm months. The full length of Trail Ridge Road is open, and Old Fall River Road typically opens around the Fourth of July. The upshot about summer is that everyone else has the same idea as you to come at this glorious time of year. Parking lots can be crowded and the lines long to board the park’s free shuttles. The trails are busy, and vigilance is needed to snag a picnic table or a first-come, first-served campsite. To experience solitude on a summer hike, heed this advice: The earlier you go, the farther you go, and the higher you go, the fewer people you will see. A mass exodus of cars from the park usually occurs around 3pm-4pm every day in the summer, so sticking around on a clear evening to hike or sightsee has its advantages.
To enjoy a peaceful experience in the early fall, plan a weekday visit rather than a weekend getaway. Park administrators have conducted research that shows weekend visitation in September is 50 percent greater than visitation on weekdays. In the summer, mornings are often sunny, with afternoon thunderstorms typical. In the early fall, the daytime temperature ranges from warm to cool, and rain showers happen less frequently.
Mid-Season (early Oct.-Nov.)
Trails are still busy with hikers this time of year, and the elk rut—which starts in early September and lasts until mid-October—is a huge attraction for tourists. Shutterbugs delight in foliage that changes from verdant green to a brilliant palette of gold, red, and orange. Autumn unfolds on the west side of the park slightly earlier than on the east side. Sometime around mid-October, Trail Ridge Road and the Alpine Visitor Center close until the following summer season. Old Fall River Road typically closes by early October. Other features around the park shut down in stages after the summer rush, including the Junior Ranger Headquarters in Hidden Valley (Aug.); Longs Peak, Aspenglen, Glacier Basin, and Timber Creek campgrounds (Sept.); and the free shuttle bus system (mid-Oct.). Moraine Park Campground (year-round) regularly fills on fall weekends. In late October or November, when foot traffic is slowing, some business owners in Grand Lake and Estes Park temporarily shut their doors until the snowy season arrives. Pack a sweater, a warm hat, and snow clothes during this time of year; you might need them all.
Low Season (Dec.-mid-June)
There is no better season than winter in which to find peacefulness in Rocky. Visit during this time of year and you will find near-empty parking lots, quiet roads, trails with untracked snow, and wildlife still romping about. A handful of smaller roads are closed off—along with Trail Ridge Road and Old Fall River Road—but the main traffic arteries are open. Hidden Valley’s sledding hill opens up for family fun, and ranger-led programs change focus to winter topics. Popular recreational activities include cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. In Grand Lake, some restaurants, businesses, and lodges stay closed all winter. In both gateway towns, numerous establishments shut their doors briefly in early spring, when trails have turned to slush and mud, and when business is consequently slow. On the plus side, at hotels that stay open year-round, lodging prices are often more reasonable in the off-season than they are in the busy season. Pasqueflowers can make their first appearance as early as March, and numerous wild animals emerge from hibernation about the same time. Around early May, visitation starts to pick up from a slow trickle to a steady stream, but it is still possible to sit in deep contemplation by a thawing river without being disturbed by anyone. Many people are eager to get on the trails at this point but are stymied by lingering snow and variable weather conditions. On Memorial Day, the barriers come down for the closed-off portion of Trail Ridge Road, barring any late-season snowstorms.
Be prepared for snow and cold temperatures in the winter; the west side of the park sees considerably more snow than the east side. In the spring, the weather can be sunny one day and snowing the next; your suitcase should contain short-sleeve shirts and a thick winter jacket as options.
Before You Go
Park Fees and Passes
A one-day pass for an automobile is $25; for a seven-day pass, the fee is $35. Individuals traveling by motorcycle or moped pay $25 for a one-day entrance pass and $30 for a seven-day pass. Bicyclists and pedestrians pay a $15 fee for a one-day visit and $20 for seven days of entry. Visitors can pay admission fees by cash, credit card, or check at park entrance stations (cash and credit card are preferred). An electronic payment option for one- and seven-day park passes is available online (www.nps.gov/romo).
A Rocky Mountain National Park Annual Pass costs $70 and can be purchased in person at any entrance station or online (www.pay.gov). The pass grants one year of unlimited entry to the park for up to two people. Entrance station staff will ask you to present a photo ID every time you enter the park with your card.
The America the Beautiful Pass series grants holders access to Rocky, the Arapaho National Recreation Area, and more than 2,000 additional federal recreation sites. The America the Beautiful National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Annual Pass is $80 and the best deal for anyone planning to tour multiple national parks and/or monuments in one calendar year. Purchase your pass at any park entrance station or online at https://store.usgs.gov.
Each year, the park announces a short list of Fee Free Days. These days typically include Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in January; the first day of National Park Week in April; the National Park Service’s anniversary in August; National Public Lands Day in September; and Veterans Day in November. However, special events during any given year can dictate a slightly different list.
Any individual 16 years of age and older who wishes to fish in the park must carry a valid Colorado fishing license. Permits can be obtained through the Colorado Parks and Wildlife (800/244-5613, www.cpw.state.co.us [URL inactive]).
There are three main entrances to the park:
Beaver Meadows Entrance Station (Hwy. 36): This busy entrance station is located on the east side, 2.7 mi (4.3 km) from downtown Estes Park, and is central to many park areas.
Fall River Entrance Station (Hwy. 34): Located on the east side, this entrance provides easy access to Trail Ridge Road, Old Fall River Road, and Aspenglen Campground.
Grand Lake Entrance Station (Hwy. 34): Located 1.8 mi (2.9 km) north of Grand Lake, this station serves the Kawuneeche Valley on the west side of the park.
There are no lodges inside the park. If you’re here, you’re camping. Estes Park (on the east side) and Grand Lake (on the west side) are your best bets for indoor accommodations.
Reservations (877/444-6777, www.recreation.gov) are accepted at Aspenglen, Glacier Basin (both summer only), and Moraine Park Campgrounds (open year-round) up to six months in advance. Timber Creek and Longs Peak Campgrounds (both summer only) are first come, first served. In late fall, winter, and early spring, Moraine Park Campground is first come, first served.
Wilderness campers are required to carry a wilderness permit, which is acquired in person at one of the park’s wilderness offices. In order to obtain a permit, you first need to reserve your campsite. For wilderness camping dates that fall May 1-October 31, reservation requests can be made online (www.pay.gov) or in person at a park wilderness office March 1-October 28. Campsite reservations must be made at least three days in advance, and a $30 Wilderness Administrative Fee must be paid for any reservation made for this time period.
For camping dates November 1-April 30, reservations can be made by phone (970/586-1242) or in person at a wilderness office October 1-April 30. On the east side of the park, a wilderness office is located next to the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center; on the west side of the park, a wilderness office is located inside the Kawuneeche Visitor Center. In the winter, it is also possible to self-register for backcountry camping at certain locations.
In the Park
Two visitor centers serve the east side of the park: Beaver Meadows Visitor Center (1000 Hwy. 36, 970/586-1206) is the park’s headquarters and the closest visitor center to downtown Estes Park, and Fall River Visitor Center (3450 Fall River Rd., 970/586-1206) is 4 mi (6.4 km) north of downtown Estes Park. The Alpine Visitor Center (970/586-1206) is located at the junction of Old Fall River Road and Trail Ridge Road inside Rocky. The west side is served by one information hub: the Kawuneeche Visitor Center (16018 Hwy. 34, 970/627-3471).
Where to Stay
In the early 20th century, numerous guest lodges graced Rocky Mountain National Park, but today, in-park accommodations are limited to the park’s five campgrounds. For last-minute camping, try Timber Creek on the west side, which is always first come, first served (summer only). If all park campgrounds are full on the east side, consider one of the campgrounds or RV parks in Estes Park or along Highway 7 near Allenspark. I have routinely had good luck landing a site at first-come, first-served Meeker Park Overflow Campground (on the west side of Hwy. 7 at mile marker 11, 303/541-2500, https://fs.usda.gov, mid-June-early Sept., $13) when arriving in town early or mid-week. On the west side, you might also consider pitching your tent at one of the established Arapaho National Recreation Area campsites next to Shadow Mountain Reservoir or Lake Granby. Visitors can book a maximum of seven nights at park campgrounds June 1-September 30 and an additional 14 nights during the rest of the year.
Estes Park offers more than 200 lodging options, including rustic cabins and charming bed-and-breakfasts, while Grand Lake features lodges, motels, inns, and cottages in a variety sufficient to suit most tastes.
In the summer, the best (and most eco-friendly) mode of transport on the east side is the park’s shuttle bus system, which runs from late spring until early fall. This free service helps reduce traffic congestion at trailheads and also enables hikers to arrange some great one-way hikes without having to shuttle their own vehicles. The park’s shuttle service is only offered in the Bear Lake region.
The Hiker Shuttle Express Route (7:30am-8pm daily late May-mid-Sept., weekends only mid-Sept.-mid-Oct.) runs from the Estes Park Visitor Center to the Park & Ride. A park pass is needed to ride into the park from town.
The Bear Lake Route (7am-7:30pm daily late May-mid-Oct.) takes passengers to the Park & Ride, Bierstadt Lake Trailhead, Glacier Gorge Trailhead, and Bear Lake.
The Moraine Park Route
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- Jun 23, 2020
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