If you’re a hardcore trekker or an adrenaline junkie, you may be seeking more than a lovely hike through the forest to a stunning alpine lake. You may like sleeping on the side of a cliff or inside the most famously terrifying hotel in the country. Perhaps you’re intrigued by one of the deadliest mountains in Colorado. Whatever gets your spine tingling, Rocky Mountain National Park and its environs offer plenty of badass ways to spend an afternoon, an overnight, or even a few days.
1. Scope out the Continental Divide.
The Continental Divide Trail goes all the way from Mexico to Canada — that’s 3,100 miles — with a 30-mile stretch in Rocky Mountain National Park. From the north, it enters the park near the Bowen Pass Spur Trail and winds toward the Tonahutu Creek Trail and Grand Lake. The “short loop” stays on the western side of the park; the long loop takes you near Flattop Mountain and the Bighorn Flats. If you’re looking for a solid backpacking trip, or just a taste of the Continental Divide Trail, this could be a great option. However, do keep in mind that the trail reaches 12,000-plus feet here. The air is thin, and you’ll need to be adequately prepared.
2. Hike up (half of) Longs Peak.
At 14,259 feet, Longs Peak is the highest point in Rocky Mountain National Park. It’s not the tallest mountain in Colorado, but it is one of the deadliest. An average of two people die every year trying to summit its peak — far, far more find themselves hunched over and crying somewhere along its flanks.
So — with that disclaimer — if you’re a serious hiker, have taken several days to acclimate to the elevation, and are decent at trail-finding, you might be fit to climb it. There are a couple of backcountry campsites along the way to break up the trek, should you be so lucky as to secure one. You’ll need a wilderness permit, which you can apply for online. Boulder Field has nine individual sites, is one of the more unique backcountry sites, and does, surprisingly, have an outhouse. However you do it, know this: There is honor in knowing when you have to turn around. Turning around on Longs Peak is practically a ritual. Whether you hike half of it or all of it, you’re doing it right.
Fun fact: William Byers, the founder of Rocky Mountain News, stated in 1864, “We are quite sure that no living creature, unless it had wings to fly, was ever upon its summit, and we believe we run no risk in predicting that no man ever will be, though it is barely possible the ascent can be made.”
3. Go cliff-camping.
You know those Instagram shots of people hanging out in a tent on the literal face of a cliff, hanging off the side like they’re suspended in mid-air? You can do that, too, in Rocky Mountain National Park. Kent Mountain Adventure Center takes anyone, not just climbers, to their hotel — it’s technically called a “portaledge” — for the night. They’ll escort you as you climb up, or if you’d prefer the “easy” route, you can rappel down to it. KMAC will provide the food and gear, too, bringing you back down to terra firma the next day. That is, only after your cliffside breakfast and endless stream of badass selfie shots.
4. Climb the alluvial fan. And then fly fish it.
In 1982, the Lawn Lake Dam broke, and all of Estes Park was flooded. One of this disaster’s remnants is the alluvial fan, a sort of river-turned-waterfall with literal tons of sediments and boulders misplaced into a rocky, climbable maze. Today, visitors can reach the alluvial fan via a short 0.7-mile round-trip trail right off Fall River Road; there are parking areas and trailheads on either side. Once you’re there, kids — and adults — will have fun climbing the boulders, watching the Roaring River cascade over the rocks, and taking in the views. If you’re an angler, consider fly fishing it, too, as the fan covers 42 acres.
5. Go for a twilight tundra walk.
In summer, Rocky Mountain National Park runs the ranger-led Twilight on the Tundra program. From above the treeline, you and a small group of others will head out near the Alpine Visitor Center and watch the heights of the national park come alive in new colors. There’s more life up here than you might expect. You’ll be out on your own, seeing wide, sweeping views of the park after sunset, with your interpretive guide clueing you into what you’d otherwise be missing.
6. Hit the park on two wheels.
Most people see the park via driving up Trail Ridge Road and making whatever stops they deem fit. A more unique way? Get out from behind your walls of metal and glass — on a bicycle, a motorcycle, or a horse. But for a bit more adrenaline, you could rent a dirt bike from Backbone Cycles in Estes Park. You can’t go off-road in the park, but Backbone will indicate where in the national forest you can off-trail on your dirt bike.