Rocky Mountain National Park

Photo: Zhukova Valentyna/Shutterstock
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Some 60 million years ago, Colorado was a high plateau, arches of rolling hills at most, nothing but wrinkles in the ground running away from the horizon. Eras of wind, water, and ice turned this ancient playground of granite and schist rocks into the jagged peaks we know today: the Rocky Mountains.

Of the 100 highest peaks in this 3,000-mile mountain range, stretching from the northern reaches of British Columbia to the southern sands of New Mexico, 78 are in Colorado. Of the 30 highest peaks, all climb to the clouds just northwest of Denver, congregating together in mighty defiance, celebrating their supremacy. Nowhere in the Rockies is quite like right here.

In 1915, Rocky Mountain National Park became the United States’ 10th national park — and its highest. From 7,630 feet at Big Thompson River to 14,259 at Longs Peak, the park twists and turns from gentle meadows to snowy alpine peaks that scrape the sky. Trail Ridge Road, the highest continual highway in the country, winds above the treeline for 11 entire miles, keeping us closer to the stars than the sea.

That is to say, in Rocky, buckle up. With 415 square miles of adventure at your feet, 150 lakes, 29 waterfalls, 355 miles of trails, 450 miles of streams, and 100 peaks topping 11,000 feet, all you really have to do is get outside. Here’s how to do it.

When to visit

In 2019, over 4.5 million people visited Rocky Mountain National Park. If you’re not a fan of crowds, know that the busiest month is July, and the fewest visitors come in February about 10 times fewer. 

But when it comes to weather and seasonality, there’s no right or wrong answer especially considering that you could experience all four seasons in one day, depending on your elevation. But in general, December through March means snowshoes, cross-country skis, and road closures. April and May are rather unpredictable, swinging from cool, snowy days to sunny, rainy, breezy ones. June through August means warmer weather, bigger crowds, and wildflowers. And September through November brings golden vistas, crisp air, lingering crowds, and wandering elk. 

Trail Ridge Road, the main road through the park, is open from late May to mid-October, as are most facilities. If your goal is to see both sides of the park, come in this window and stay awhile, as there’s a lot of ground to cover.

Getting to and from the park

Most out-of-state visitors will fly to Denver (DEN) and rent a car for the roughly two-hour drive to Estes Park, the hub to Rocky’s popular east side; Cheyenne, Wyoming (CYS), is a similar distance. Those coming from the west may wish to arrive via Grand Lake, the hub on the park’s wetter, quieter, western side. There are four entrances by car; the one you choose depends on what you want to see and do.

Beaver Meadows — This entrance, 3.5 miles west of Estes Park, is the busiest and its visitor center the most amenity-rich. This is your most direct route from Estes Park, and it’ll get you swiftly to Sprague Lake, Glacier Gorge, Bear Lake, and the greatest density of trails. 

Fall River — This entrance north of Beaver Meadows lies 34 miles west of Estes Park. The Fall River Visitor Center is the newest and most updated. Depending on crowds, this entrance may get you to Trail Ridge Road more expediently. 

Wild Basin — This entrance, also on the east side, is 17 miles south of Estes Park. It does not have a visitor center, but does take you to a section of the park most visitors won’t see.

Grand Lake This is the only entrance on the west side. It provides access to the Kawuneeche Visitor Center and takes you deeper into the mountains on the lusher side of the park. It offers quieter access with the allure of the massive lake, fewer tourists, and far more moose encounters.

Public transportation options — Ways to get around without renting a car include taking the Estes Park Shuttle from Denver International Airport, Denver’s Greyhound station, or Denver’s Union Station to Estes Park ($95 round-trip; $55 one-way). You could also take the Amtrak or Greyhound from Union Station to Granby, which is 15 miles southwest of Grand Lake. 

In the summer, Estes Park offers a free shuttle around town, including to several hotels, and the RMNP Hiker Shuttle, which runs around the Sprague Lake area, stops at the Estes Park Visitor Center. If you’re visiting in summer and looking for day hikes in the Sprague Lake area, seriously consider the shuttle to cut down on time searching for parking.

Getting around

Rocky Mountain does offer a shuttle bus around Bear Lake Road, but it’s meant for hikers and those staying within the Sprague Lake area. To truly get around, you’ll want a car. The park is big. Driving the 48-mile Trail Ridge Road alone, without stops, takes around two hours — and you’ll want stops. 

The Old Fall River Road, open early July to September, was the first route over the continental divide. Take it and you’ll crest the Fall River Pass at nearly 12,000 feet, ending at the high, high, high Alpine Visitor Center and its stunning views of the tundra. However, it’s one-lane of gravel for 11 miles, so don’t bring your RV.

Bicycles are permitted on all roads open to motor vehicles, unless otherwise posted, and cyclists must ride on the right and in single-file. From April 1 to Memorial Day weekend and mid-fall to November 30, Trail Ridge Road and Old Fall River Road are open to cyclists and hikers only. Miles 16 to 30 of Trail Ridge Road are above the treeline, at roughly 10,750 feet. 

Of course, on foot, there are more than 350 miles of hiking trails to choose from, with the greatest number congregating around the Sprague Lake area. Horseback riding and guided tours are options, too; there are outfitters in Estes Park and Grand Lake.

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