Rocky Mountain National Park: The Complete Guide

Longs Peak Bear Lake autumn
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Rocky Mountain National Park

Address
Colorado, USA
Phone +1 970-586-1206

Rocky Mountain National Park is bursting with an abundance of natural beauty—including six glaciers, some of the highest mountains in the continental U.S., and, on either side of the Continental Divide, over 100 pristine mountain lakes, forested valleys, and the kind of majestic high-alpine terrain that every serious hiker dreams of. Moose roam the west side of the park, while elk dominate the east side. In between, a vibrant range of plants and animals call the park their home. Even by America’s national park standards, Rocky Mountain National Park stands out. Here’s your guide to what to do, where to hike and camp, and what else to know when you visit Rocky Mountain National Park.

Things to Do

Aside from hiking, these are some of the best activities that the park has to offer:

  • Driving Trail Ridge Road. Not for the faint of heart (or the frightened of heights), Trail Ridge Road covers the 48 miles between Estes, on the park’s east side, and Grand Lake, on the west. Eleven of these miles travel above the treeline, with an elevation near 11,500 feet. Driving the road in its entirety is an experience you won’t soon forget.
  • Wildlife Watching. The park’s vast large-animal population makes it one of the country’s prime spots for wildlife watching. Check out the Wildlife Viewing page for more info and tips on how to see elk, moose, bighorn sheep, otters, marmots, and more.
  • Rock Climbing. There are nearly 500 established climbs in many park areas, including Lumpy Ridge and Longs Peak (the park’s only fourteener). Climbing opportunities range from bouldering for a couple of hours to multi-day big wall experiences.
  • Fishing. Many great fishing spots can be found in the park, including Glacier Creek, Mills Lake, Dream Lake, the Upper Thompson River, and more. A valid Colorado fishing license is required for all persons 16 years of age or older to fish in RMNP.
  • Road Cycling. For a hardcore adventure (and a crazy-high climb), plan to do an out-and-back on Trail Ridge Road. Or, take Old Fall River Road, near Estes—this was the original road up and over the Continental Divide, and it’s a little over nine miles point to point, on gravel.

Best Hikes and Trails

Given that there are over 300 miles of hiking trails alone in the park (and all of them are worth exploring), it can be tough to narrow down the best hikes. Each of these trails was selected because it showcases the park’s exceptional natural beauty in one way or another.

  • Gem Lake. Located just north of Estes Park, this well-marked, 3.4-mile trail is a steep climb that’s well worth your efforts.
  • Ouzel Falls. On the southeast side of the park, Ouzel Falls makes for a scenic half-day outing, especially if you’re into waterfalls—this 5.4-mile trail is replete with them.
  • Chapin, Chiquita, Ypsilon. Bag three peaks on the Chapin, Chiquita, Ypsilon trail, which is 8.9 miles. On a clear day, you can see everything in the area: the town of Estes Park to the east, the Desolation Peaks and Longs Peak to the north and east, and the Never Summer Range and Medicine Bow peaks in Wyoming extending to the west.
  • Sky Pond and Lake of Glass. Starting at the Glacier Gorge trailhead, the 9.5-mile trek up to Sky Pond and Lake of Glass offers a comprehensive look at the beauty of RMNP: glacial lakes, snowy peaks, thick pine forest, you name it.
  • Mount Ida. If you want to do a summit hike that offers some of the most incredible views in Rocky Mountain National Park, Mount Ida is your gal. Well-marked and maintained, Mount Ida isn’t quite as popular as other peaks in the park (oddly, it doesn’t always appear on maps), which means that you might have the trail to yourself.
  • Flattop and Hallett Peaks. For a heart-pumping, thigh-burning incline with a big pay-off, the double-whammy of Flattop and Hallett makes for a great day hike. These peaks provide the gorgeous backdrop behind the popular Dream and Emerald Lakes—you can wave at all the tourists from your perch in the sky.
  • Mills, Black, and Frozen Lakes. The 11-mile Mills-Black-Frozen trek is, simply put, the most epically beautiful hike in the park. More so than other, perhaps more celebrated hikes, the jaunt up to Frozen Lake features everything you could hope to get from a single hike in RMNP: alpine meadows brimming with streams and wildflowers, waterfalls, panoramic vistas, lush forest groves. And, of course, three of the prettiest lakes in the park.
  • Ouzel and Bluebird Lakes. On the Ouzel Falls trail, past the falls themselves, lie two stunning alpine lakes: Ouzel Lake and Bluebird Lake. At nearly 13 miles round-trip (and, not to mention, a 2,500-foot elevation gain), this is by no means an easy trek, but it’s one with a fantastic destination: ice-blue Bluebird Lake at the base of dramatic-looking Ouzel Peak.

Where to Stay

Camping

There are five front-country campgrounds in the park: Aspenglen, Glacier Basin, Moraine Park, Longs Peak, and Timber Creek. Longs Peak and Timber Creek are first-come, first-served, while the other three require reservations. (Pro-tip: Aspenglen is the prettiest campground.) As with anything in Rocky, you’ll need to make camping reservations well in advance to secure a spot (you can book up to six months in advance). If campgrounds are full, HipCamp has some decent options in the area. (See here for wilderness camping info.)

Lodging

Unlike some national parks, there are no overnight accommodations in Rocky. Both Estes Park and Grand Lake have plenty of lodging options, from small boutique hotels to riverfront cabins to luxury resorts.

How to Get There

Rocky Mountain National Park encompasses 415 square miles of north-central Colorado. The park has two gateway towns: Grand Lake on the west and Estes Park on the east. Beaver Meadows is the main entrance (near Estes Park); the other three entrances (Fall River, Wild Basin, and Grand Lake) receive far fewer visitors.

Denver International Airport (DEN) is the closest major airport (about 80 miles southeast of the park). There is no public transportation from the airport to the park, but a commercial shuttle service is available from the airport to Estes Park. Estes also operates a free shuttle service during the peak summer tourism season and several town-produced special events throughout the year.

Accessibility

The park has many accessible facilities for visitors, including visitor centers, self-guided trails, scenic overlooks, campgrounds, and more. For more on accessibility in the park—including which trails and campsites are accessible, service animal info, and more—visit the National Park site. In addition, the Disabled Traveler’s Companion provides valuable trip-planning assistance to disabled travelers.

Tips for Visiting

  • Know the best times to visit—and how to prepare for unpredictable weather, no matter the time of year. Some people say that June to September is the best time to visit the park when the snow is mostly melted, and trails are accessible. That being said, these are the four most popular months to visit, so you’ll be dealing with crowds. Autumn (generally from Labor Day to mid-October) sees fewer visitors, and you’ll get to see the aspen trees, shrubs, and grasses turn gorgeous shades of red, yellow, and gold. And if you can swing a midweek visit in the fall? Count on having a much more peaceful experience than you would in the summertime. Plan for unpredictable weather whenever you decide to go—summer thunderstorms are common, and July snowstorms aren’t unheard of. Bring extra base layers and rain gear, and if you’re hiking above the treeline, pay strict attention to the weather.
  • Learn how to prevent altitude sickness. If you’re coming from sea level, take a few days to acclimate before attempting a big hike. Eat regular, healthy meals and drink plenty of water throughout the day to prevent altitude sickness.
  • Know how to minimize interaction with crowds. Rocky is one of the most-visited parks in the country. While crowds are an inevitable part of the experience (especially if you want to see the main points of interest), there are ways you can minimize your exposure to the tourist hordes. Namely, get started as early as you possibly can—as in, before dawn. Even if you start early, you may encounter a full parking lot—luckily, the park has a good shuttle system. Also, keep in mind that Grand Lake, on the western side, is much less populated than Estes Park on the eastern side.
  • Show up prepared for hikes. Bring plenty of water, get started early (in addition to avoiding crowds, you’ll want to avoid afternoon thunderstorms), and be ready to exert some effort.
  • Be a good steward of the land. Stay on the trail (especially above treeline, where the ecosystem is incredibly fragile), use bear boxes at campsites, never feed the wildlife and don’t bring firewood into the park. We only have one planet—protecting our national parks is of the utmost importance, especially one as grand and beautiful as Rocky Mountain National Park.
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Your Complete Guide to Visiting Rocky Mountain National Park