Hiker In Awe of Majestic Mountain View

Rocky Mountain National Park
Packed With Scenic High Peaks

With over 60 peaks above 12,000 feet (3,658 meters), Rocky Mountain National Park is truly a mountain lovers paradise. For 100 years, visitors have been enjoying all the grandeur the Rockies have to offer. The scenery, the wildlife, and the recreational opportunities seem endless.

Rocky Mountain National Park Longs Peak Reflecting in Lily Lake
As one of 4 Colorado National Parks, Rocky Mountain is by far the most popular. People are drawn to these high peaks in the summer. The sheer density of peaks is an attraction. What most don't realize, is that the lowest point in the park is over 7,500 feet (2,286 meters). Adjusting to the altitude can be a big problem for some.

Your first tip for enjoying your visit: take it slow. The air is thin. The lower oxygen levels cause dizziness in many, and sometimes nausea. Give yourself time to adjust. The air is also dry, plus the sun is very bright, too. Drink plenty of water. Take precautions to prevent sunburn (wide brim hat and sunscreen). Eat frequent and healthy meals. Minor exertion will leave you winded and out of breath at this altitude.

There are 4 entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park, CO. Two of them are on the east side, near Estes Park, CO. Beaver Meadows Entrance Station is on U.S. 36, and Fall River is on U.S. 34. In the southeast on Route 7 is Wild Basin Entrance Station. On the west side is Grand Lake Entrance Station on U.S. 34.

Looking for something specific?

While the park is open year round, not all facilities and roads are open. See the right column (quick facts) for visitor center seasons. The Rocky Mountain National Park map shows the winter road closings. Keep the map open to help orient yourself as you review the park activities.

Getting around can be difficult in the busy summer season at Rocky Mountain National Park. Parking can be even worse. There's a free shuttle service available from late spring through early fall. The shuttle has three routes. The Hiker Route makes pick-ups in Estes Park, CO, with drop-offs at Beaver Meadows and Moraine Park Visitor Centers.

Moraine Park Visitor Center is serviced by two shuttles, the Bear Lake Route and the Moraine Park route. Using these shuttles on the congested east side of the park will reduce your frustration and make it easier to get around the park.

Inside Recommendations

What does someone in the know think you should do at Rocky Mountain National Park?
An interview with Katy Sykes, Manager, Information Office at Rocky Mountain.
* Recommended attractions and activities, if detailed further down the page are noted with an *.
Q: Top must see attractions? A: Auto touring is a big thing. Trail Ridge Road and Old Fall River Road are seasonal. The phone number for the Trail Ridge Status Line is (970) 586-1222. Bear Lake Road, at the foot of the continental divide, is open year round and is spectacular.
Q: Biggest problems with hikers and other visitors? A: Visitors need to realize that Rocky Mountain National Park elevations range from 7,700 feet to over 14,000 feet. To acclimate: rest well, eat well, and drink 2 to 3 times more than normal. Hikers need to be safe and know their limits. Know when to turn around, due to fatigue or the onset of bad weather. Get an early start to avoid afternoon thunderstorms, which are dangerous on the mountain. A new park hazard is falling trees. Mountain pine beetles are killing Lodgepole Pines. Don't pitch a tent where a dead tree may fall. Be aware when hiking, especially on windy days.
Q: What are the top 3 trails for day hiking? A: Bear Lake has a lot of short trails for day hiking. Road construction will make the trails hard to get to. It's best to start early and car pool.
Q: What are the top 3 trails for overnight backpacking? A: All trails are nice, you can't go wrong. The park is full of great scenery. Make sure you get a backcountry permit and camp in a designated site.
Q: Best hike for solitude? A: If you're looking for solitude, maybe try off hours or off season. The west side of the park is normally quieter, maybe because the hikes are longer.
Q: How do you sell a potential visitor on Rocky Mountain National Park? A: You can visit the alpine tundra. 11 miles (18 km) of Trail Ridge Road is above the treeline. You feel like you're on top of the world. It's spectacular, and accessible to all. This can't be experienced at other places. Please help preserve the tundra by staying on trails and not trampling fragile plants.

Attractions at Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park View From Trail Ridge Road Toward Continental Divide
*Trail Ridge Road is like no other. It takes you over the continental divide, up to an elevation of 12,183 feet (3,713 meters) at its highest point. The overlooks are phenomenal, including Many Parks Curve and Rainbow Curve. Even more amazing are the varied environments, ranging from meadows, aspens, ponderosa pines, and up above the tree line to the alpine tundra. This inspiring road makes these environments accessible to all.

*Old Fall River Road was the first road built over these mountains. Construction began before the park was established. It's an unpaved, one way, steep, no trailers allowed, no vehicles over 25 feet (7.6 m), road. Low clearance vehicles are not recommended, however, passenger cars work out fine. The road, which heads west from Horseshoe Park, features scenic overlooks, canyons, waterfalls, and access to trails.

*The alpine tundra is a unique experience. So many peaks rise above the tree line. Lack of trees doesn't mean lack of life. Spend some time at Alpine Visitor Center at Fall River Pass on Trail Ridge Road. Learn about this fragile environment that survives under extreme and harsh weather conditions. In early to mid-summer, plan on doing a ranger guided Tundra Nature Walk.

Holzwarth Historic Site is on the west side of the park in Kawuneeche Valley. It was originally built to be a ranch, but that changed in 1920 when Old Fall River Road was completed. It became a guest ranch, and has been restored to its 1920's look. The buildings are not always open, but many like to simply tour the grounds and see the buildings. A visitor center can assist with scheduled hours for interior access.

Rocky Mountain National Park Lodging

There is no lodging within the park. Your best bet is on the east side in Estes Park, Colorado, which claims upwards of 150 overnight lodging businesses, and over 3,000 rooms. On the west side, the historic village of Grand Lake, CO would also be an excellent choice for overnight accommodations.

Rocky Mountain National Park Camping

Rocky Mountain National Park Elk at Timber Creek Campground
Rocky Mountain National Park has 5 campgrounds with over 550 campsites in total. The facilities are on par with other National Parks, with each site having a picnic table, fire grate, and no hookups. There is potable water, as well as flush toilets, but no showers. Showers are available in nearby towns.

One important note on food storage: there are bears and other wild animals. Store your food, pet food, and scented toiletries in a hard sided vehicle, or in a campground food storage bin.

Aspenglen Campground - East side on U.S. 34. 54 campsites. Seasonal. Reservations accepted. RV and trailer maximum length is 30 feet (9.1 meters).

Glacier Basin Campground - East side on Bear Lake Road. 150 campsites. Seasonal. Reservations accepted. RV and trailer maximum length is 35 feet (10.7 meters). Dump station. 13 group sites are also available.

Moraine Park Campground - East side on Bear Lake Road. 245 campsites. Year round. Reservations accepted for late May to early October. Rest of the year is first come, first served. RV and trailer maximum length is 40 feet (12.2 meters). Dump station.

Longs Peak Campground - Southeast side on route 7. 26 campsites. Seasonal. First come, first served. Tents only.

Timber Creek Campground - West side on U.S. 34. 98 campsites. Year round. First come, first served. RV and trailer maximum length is 30 feet (9.1 meters). Dump station.

Moraine Park Group Campground - East side on Bear Lake Road. Only open in the winter. First come, first served. Tents only.

Rocky Mountain National Park Wildlife

Rocky Mountain National Park Moose in the Meadow
Rocky Mountain National Park is known for its wildlife viewing. Over 60 different mammals can be found here. Bird watching is also popular, with over 250 species recorded. Bring your binoculars and enjoy this truly top-of-the-line venue for observing wildlife.

Elk and bighorn sheep draw the most attention. Elk can be found in meadows, next to the woods. In the summer they're up on the tundra above the treeline. Sheep Lakes (east side, U.S. 34), from mid-spring to mid-summer, is where bighorn sheep can be seen. Moose like the wetter areas near the Colorado River on the west side. You might spot an otter, too. Other popular mammals include mule deer, bear, and marmots.

Birding along Trail Ridge Road is a favorite activity. You may spot an eagle, a hawk, or Clark's Nutcracker. Watch carefully and you may be able to pick out a White-tailed Ptarmigan, camouflaged on the tundra. There are also woodpeckers, owls, warblers, and a host of other kinds of birds.

A few words of caution on wildlife watching: Keep your distance. Keep quiet. Don't ever feed animals or birds (it's illegal). Remember that bears, mountain lions, elk, and other large mammals can be dangerous. Ask at a visitor center for the latest information on wildlife viewing.

Rocky Mountain National Park Fishing

Rocky Mountain National Park Lily Lake Fishing from Boat
Fishing is a popular activity in the park. Anglers love fishing these mountain streams and lakes for trout, but less than a third of the lakes support fish. A Colorado fishing license is required. There are a number of park regulations that must be followed.

Some lakes and streams are closed to fishing, some are strictly catch and release. In addition, some species are catch and release. Catch and release requires a barbless hook. No bait is allowed, only artificial lures and flies may be used. There are possession and size limits that vary based on specific species.

Stop at a visitor center before you fish. It's your responsibility to know the regulations.

Rocky Mountain National Park Climbing

Rocky Mountain National Park Looking Down on Climber at Petit Grepon
In recent years, climbing at Rocky Mountain National Park has become quite popular, attracting locals, as well as international climbers. Climbing routes are quite varied, and include everything from big wall to bouldering to ice climbs.

Longs Peak is one of the more popular climbing destinations, with some of the best routes in the country. Lumpy Ridge and Hallett Peak also draw a lot of attention. Probably the most revered route in the park is the classic South Face of Petit Grepon, known round the world.

You can't just come into the park and climb. Well, actually you can if you're doing a day climb. However, climbing is highly regulated, to minimize impact while maintaining a safe climbing environment. All climbers need to know the rules and regulations. Overnight climbs require a bivouac permit, which can be obtained from one of the backcountry offices.

Regulations are driven by Leave No Trace principles. Clean climbing is the accepted practice. Motorized drills are prohibited. Removable anchors are acceptable. There are designated areas for bivouacs, if you have the required permit. Some climbing areas do close for raptor protection. Get the latest on climbing conditions and closures at the backcountry offices.

Hiking Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park Summit of Longs Peak
There are over 350 miles (564 km) of hiking trails in Rocky Mountain National Park. There's something for everyone. Easy walks of less than a mile. Grueling, multi-day backpacking trips on steep, high altitude trails. Hikes for kids. Accessible trails.

If you plan on doing any hiking, you will need to mentally prepare yourself. This is not as hard as it sounds. Just understand that you're facing physical activity at elevations over 7,500 feet (2,286 meters). You may be excited and energized by the beautiful scenery around you, but take it slow. You'll be easily winded, so plan on frequent breaks.

Also, bring plenty of water. You'll lose more water through your lungs at high altitudes. Finally, there's the sun. It's more intense up here. Wear sunscreen and a wide brim hat. Consider long pants and a long sleeve shirt for sun protection. Remember, at these altitudes the temperature can be 20°F (11°C) or more cooler than at lower altitudes.

If you plan on doing some of the more serious hikes, you'll be facing steep and rugged terrain. Do yourself a favor and get in shape with some backpacking training. As part of your preparation for visiting Rocky Mountain National Park, review hiking fitness. These exercises will strengthen the lower and upper body, and improve balance. You'll enjoy this captivating wilderness so much more if you prepare physically.

Overnight backpacking requires some planning. You'll need to obtain a backcountry permit in advance. There are a limited number of campsites. The permit cost is $20 (as of 2014) from May through October. It's free in the colder, less visited months. There's a backcountry office next to Beaver Meadows Visitor Center on the east side, and one in the Kawuneeche Visitor Center on the west side.

Each hiker is responsible for knowing the backcountry rules. A bear resistant canister is required for all food and other scented items (toiletries) that attract bears. Bring a stove for cooking. Campfires are strongly discouraged because of increased danger and environmental impact. Get serious about Leave No Trace principles.

An unusual option available to backpackers at Rocky Mountain National Park is a permit for cross country hiking. Since there are no developed trails, map and compass skills are required. There are no developed campsites.

One of the marquee trails is Longs Peak Keyhole Route. It's quite popular, very strenuous and not for the faint of heart. So many want to attain the highest peak in the park at 14,259 feet (4,346 meters). This hike is really a climb, a scramble, a walk along narrow, dangerous ledges. Prepare for Longs Peak as you would a winter hike. Layered clothes, hat, gloves, foul weather gear. There can be snow and ice any time of year. It's 15 miles (24 km) round trip, taking 10 to 15 hours. Start by 3:00am so you're returning early in the day. This reduces the chance of encountering sudden thunderstorms, which can be deadly on the mountain, especially if you're around the top.

Be prepared to turn around at any time, due to mountain weather conditions, or your own personal condition. Listen to what your body is telling you.

Another high profile hike is the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail. 30 miles (48 km) of this 3100 mile (5000 km) adventure are within Rocky Mountain National Park boundaries, and feature alpine tundra and spectacular scenery. The trail comes in from the north through Arapaho National Forest, and enters the west side of of the park in Kawuneeche Valley. It crosses U.S. 34 between Holzwarth Historic Site and Grand Lake Entrance Station.

Following Green Mountain Trail and Tonahutu Creek Trail eastward, it reaches the Continental Divide. That's where you catch North Inlet Trail and head back west to Grand Lake, then south out of the park on East Shore Trail. The Continental Divide National Scenic Trail is routed over existing, well marked trails. Backcountry permits are required for overnight camping in the national park.

There are numerous other hiking trails featuring peaks, waterfalls, scenic meadows with wildlife, and lakes. Listed below are some of the more popular trails:

Location Trail *Length Difficulty
Alpine Tundra Ute Trail 4.7 1W mi moderate - from Alpine Visitor Center to Milner Pass
*Bear Lake Alberta Falls 1.2 mi easy - one of the premier waterfalls
*Bear Lake Emerald Lake 3.6 mi moderate - includes scenic Nymph Lake and Dream Lake
*Bear Lake Flattop Mountain 8.8 mi strenuous - spectacular views
*Bear Lake Mills Lake 5.6 mi moderate - breathtaking views from lake
Fall River Beaver Mountain Loop 6.1 mi moderate - open meadow views, aspens
Fall River Deer Mountain 6.0 mi moderate - great views of other peaks
Fall River Gem Lake 3.4 mi moderate - scenic mountain lake and rock formations
Kawuneeche Valley Coyote Valley 1.0 mi easy - accessible, follows Colorado River, Elk
Kawuneeche Valley North Inlet/Cascade Falls 6.8 mi moderate - meadows, forest, waterfalls
Kawuneeche Valley Shadow Mountain Lookout via East Shore 10.2 mi strenuous - spectacular views of Grand Lake and Shadow Mountain Lake
Kawuneeche Valley Timber Lake 9.6 mi strenuous - lake views, wildlife, wildflowers, fishing
Moraine Park Cub Lake 4.6 mi moderately easy - large meadow with elk, fall colors
Wild Basin Ouzel Falls 5.4 mi moderate - forested, 40 foot (12 m) waterfall
*Length: Round trip unless otherwise noted with 1W (1-way). To convert to kilometers multiply by 1.61.

These are many other trails in the park. Visitor Centers have complete information on all trails and current conditions. Personally, I like to plan ahead. A great trail guide to help you do that is National Geographic Trails Illustrated for Rocky Mountain National Park, from Amazon. This trail map includes surrounding forests.

Amazon also carries a separate Trails Illustrated map detailing Longs Peak, Bear Lake, and Wild Basin .

Winter at Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park Snowshoeing at Glacier Gorge
Even during the harsh winter months, Rocky Mountain National Park is full of activity, averaging over 2,000 visitors daily. Trail Ridge Road is closed between Many Parks Curve and Colorado River Trailhead, which means you can't drive across the park. Old Fall River Road is closed. Both Beaver Meadows and Kawuneeche Visitor Centers are open daily.

Two campgrounds, Moraine Park and Timber Creek, are open in the winter at a reduced rate. The water is turned off and dump stations are closed. It's best to bring your own water and refill either in Moraine Park or at the open visitor centers. Backcountry camping is available, and the permit is free in the winter.

If you want to do some winter hiking, it's best on the east side, at lower elevations, since the snowfall is lighter. Many prefer to do their hiking with snowshoes or skis strapped on. The Bear Lake area is a great place for snowshoeing and cross country skiing. Lots of trails and open meadows. Cub Lake Trail is popular too, as is Old Fall River Road.

The west side of the park, with its heavier snowfall, is known for even better snowshoeing and cross country skiing. Sun Valley Trail along the Colorado River is a common winter destination. So is Adams Falls and the trails beyond the falls. Please be courteous and maintain separate tracks for snowshoeing, skiing, and hiking.

Hidden Valley Snowplay Area is the only place to go for sledding and sliding in Rocky Mountain National Park. It's is located on the east side on Trail Ridge Road, near the Many Parks Curve closure. Since snow can be unreliable on the east side, call ahead for conditions at (970)586-1206.

A few words of caution to be sure you have an enjoyable winter visit. Dress in layers and include a warm hat and gloves. Stay hydrated and keep dry to prevent hypothermia. Bring spare clothes. You may perspire and the clothing next to your body would get wet. The sun is bright, especially reflecting off the snow. Wear sunglasses and sunscreen. Prevent avalanches by staying off ridges and steep slopes, and stay out of gullies.

Rocky Mountain is by far the most visited of Colorado National Parks. Whatever you envision in the Rockies, this park has it. Lots of high peaks. Unbelievable scenery. Meadows with wildlife. Accessible alpine tundra. It's a must-do destination for hikers and other outdoors enthusiasts.

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Rocky Mountain National Park Books and Guides from Amazon.

Rocky Mountain National Park Sign at Entrance
Rocky Mountain National Park
Entrance Sign

Rocky Mountain National Park Quick Facts

  • North-central Colorado, about 70 miles (113 km) northwest of Denver.

  • Known for its many high peaks and wildlife.

    Main Road:
  • Trail Ridge Road is the main park road. It's an east-west road, but is closed from mid-October to late May between Many Parks Curve and Colorado River trailhead.

  • Size:
  • Over 265,000 acres (107,000 hectares; 415 square miles)

  • Established:
  • 1915

  • Annual Visitation:
  • 10 year average: 2,900,000

  • Peak Visitation Months:
  • Summer, with July the highest.

  • 2014 Entrance Fee:
  • $20 for a private passenger vehicle, $10 for a motorcycle, bicycle, or individual on foot, good for 7 days.

  • Normal Temperatures (high/low), higher elevations are cooler and warmer elevations warmer:
  • January: 30°F/5°F (-1°C/-15°C)

  • April: 50°F/25°F (10°C/-4°C)

  • July: 75°F/45°F (24°C/7°C)

  • October: 60°F/30°F (16°C/-1°C)

  • Average Annual Rainfall at Big Meadows (east side):
  • 14 inches (36 cm). About 6 inches (15 cm) more on west side.

  • Visitor Centers:
  • Beaver Meadows Visitor Center - Park Headquarters. East side, on U.S. 36 west of Estes Park, CO. Open year round except Christmas.

  • Fall River Visitor Center - East side, on U.S. 34 west of Estes Park, CO. Open daily in the summer, weekends in the winter.

  • Kawuneeche Visitor Center - West side, on U.S. 34 north of Grand Lake. Open year round except Christmas.

  • Alpine Visitor Center - Interior alpine tundra area. On Trail Ridge Road at Fall River Pass. Open daily in the summer.

  • Moraine Park Visitor Center - East side, on Bear Lake Road. Open daily in the summer.

  • Note: Park is open 24 hours, every day of the year. Information: (970) 586-1206

    Rocky Mountain National Park Flattop Mountain and Golden Aspens
    Rocky Mountain National Park
    Flattop Mountain with Aspens

    Rocky Mountain National Park Elk in Winter Snow
    Elk in Winter

    Rocky Mountain National Park Alpine Visitor Center with Snow
    Alpine Visitor Center

    You've come to rely on National Geographic Trails Illustrated Maps. Shop the huge selection at Amazon.com.

    Rocky Mountain National Park Alberta Falls over Rocks
    Rocky Mountain National Park
    Alberta Falls

    Rocky Mountain National Park Touring Holzwarth Historic Site
    Holzwarth Historic Site

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