Rocky Mountain National Park Travel Guide

The rocky mountains in Colorado are breathtaking, and Rocky Mountain National Park stands at the heart of it all. This is where the tall Longs Peak can be found.

It’s an ideal spot for backpackers and hikers. From the rippling rivers and creeks to the clean lakes to the waterfalls and wildlife, you’ll be surrounded by beautiful scenery everywhere you look. When you look upwards, you’ll spot tall alpine peaks and ridges studded with trees.

Rocky Mountain National Park Facts

  • Approximately 3 million people visit the park each year.
  • Inside the park, there are 150 historic structures and 600 buildings in total.
  • It also contains 150 lakes and streams that span around 450 miles in total.
  • Longs Peak stands at 14, 259 feet, making it the park’s tallest mountain.
  • There are five visitor centers in Rocky Mountain National Park, and visitors can also stop by the Sheep Lakes Information Station and the Holzwarth Historic Site.
  • There is also a rich variety of wildlife found within the park’s borders. Creatures like bears, bobcats, elk, moose, deer, badgers, cougars, bighorn sheep, foxes, marmots, porcupines, and beaver are just a small selection of the animals that can be found there.

Where Is Rocky Mountain National Park

This national park is located in north-central Colorado. It’s northwest of Denver International Airport, around 76 miles away, and can be found within the Rocky Mountain’s Front Range. To the west of the park is the town of Grand Lake.

On the east is Estes Park. Both the Continental Divide’s western and eastern slopes pass through the park’s center. The Colorado River’s headwaters can also be found in the northwestern section of the park.

Denver To Rocky Mountain National Park

If you’re traveling to this park from Denver, you’ll have two main routes.

The fastest option is to head north on Highway 36, where you’ll pass through Boulder. After around 66 miles, you’ll reach Estes Park. From there, Highway 34 will take you to the park.

Alternatively, you go west on Interstate 70. From there, you can head north on Highway 40 once you’ve traveled through Idaho Springs. From Granby, you should travel to Grand Lake via Highway 34. This will take you around 100 miles from Denver.

Rocky Mountain National Park Weather

December Through March

During the winter season, you usually won’t find deep snow on the east slopes lower elevations. However, you’ll see arctic-like conditions when traveling to higher elevations. Intense winds, blizzards, and deep snow are all frequent sights. On the park’s western side, you’ll see less wind, but more snow.

The days are typically cold and clear during the winter season. Typically, for an overnight trip in the high country, you’ll need gear that can withstand temperatures of -35 or lower. The best time for snowshoeing and skiing is between January and March.

April Through May

Spring weather typically arrives in the montane environs, which have elevations ranging from 8,000′ to 9,500′, near the end of April, though it’s still not rare to see snow at this time of year. The weather conditions vary throughout the day, varying between cold and warm. Depending on the time of day, the weather could be wet or dry.

Spring doesn’t reach the subalpine country, with elevations of 9,500′ to 11,500′, until June. At this point, summer weather will have already arrived on the plains. It’s common to see wildflowers at lower elevations near the end of April or the start of May. The majority of trails remain covered in snow. Near the end of May, Trail Ridge Road will open up.

June Through August

You can see wildflowers blooming on the alpine tundra, with elevations of 1,500′ to 13,000′, from the end of June to the start of August. Weather is often windy and it’s common to see thunderstorms in the afternoon. It’s not unusual to see temperatures dropping by as much as 10 to 20 degrees throughout the day.

September Through November

In September and October, the weather is usually dry. The skies are blue and the air is crisp and clean. You may see snowfall during this time of year. The elks begin mating in September, and mating season carries on through October. The Aspen leaves begin to change colors in the middle of September. In the middle of October, Trail Ridge Road typically shuts down for the winter.

Best Time To Visit Rocky Mountain National Park

Ideally, visitors should come to the park between June and September. During this time, visitors can access attractions and trails, and the majority of snow will be melted. Of course, this is the most popular time to visit the park.

If you’d prefer fewer crowds, or if you’re interested in skiing or snowshoeing, visit the park between October in May.

Regardless of weather conditions, the park is always open throughout the year. However, trails may be closed and some parts of the park may no longer be accessible.

Things To Do In Rocky Mountain National Park

Travel Trail Ridge Road

Trail Ridge Road spans 48 miles, and there are scenic views throughout the entire drive. It’s an excellent way to view the Continental Divide and see what Rocky Mountain National Park has to offer.

Constructed from 1929 to 1939, the trail reaches 12,209 feet. It’s historic and there is not another continuous paved road in the country at a higher elevation. When visiting Trail Ridge Road, you’ll travel from Estes Park to Grand Lake.

During the ride, you’ll see valleys carved by glaciers, beautiful lakes, tall peaks, and Horseshoe Park. Consider stopping at Many Parks Curve and Forest Canyon Overlook. In these spots, you can see scenic views of Estes Parks, Horseshoe, and Moraine.

Because snow is common in the winter, Trail Ridge Road opens in late May and closes in late October.

Stop By Grand Lake

If the weather is hot, and you want to stay cool, why not try visiting one of Northern Colorado’s lakes? Grand Lake is only around a mile from the western entrance of the park. It’s located next to the town of the same name.

This large lake boasts incredible views and is ideal for recreational activities. There is no deeper or larger natural lake in the state of Colorado. When people visit Grand Lake during the summer, they can enjoy swimming, kayaking, fishing, boating, and a variety of other activities.

There are activities to enjoy near the lake throughout the year. From hiking to picnicking to snowmobiling, this lake is always worth visiting. Seeing the reflection of the mountains is incredible.

If you’d like a better view of Mount Craig — which people often call Mount Baldy — visit Point Park. It’s a great place to see this 12,007-foot peak.

Snowshoeing

Even when snow is on the ground, you’ll have no shortage of things to enjoy in the park. If you put on snowshoes, you’ll be able to see everything the park has to offer during this season.

There are many excellent snowshoe trails within Rocky Mountain National Park, such as Gem Lake, Bear Lake Loop, Cub Lake, Sprague Lake, Deer Mountain Hike, and The Pool Loop

Viewing The Wildlife

You can find many types of wildlife within the park, such as mule deer, elk, and bighorn sheep. Rocky Mountain National Park is home to many mule deer, as well as between 200 and 600 winter elk and approximately 350 bighorn sheep.

There are 60 species of mammal in the park in total. You’ll also find 280 species of bird, 11 fish species, numerous butterflies, and a wide array of insects.

Elks can be glimpsed in the meadows, particularly in the area where the meadows reach the forest. Although they can be glimpsed throughout the year, they are easiest to spot in autumn.

It’s most common to spot bighorn sheep around the aptly named Sheep Lakes between May and mid-August.

To spot moose, you’ll want to head to the western side of the park, near Columbia River. They’re often glimpsed in the willow thickets.

Picnicking

You can enjoy your meal and the park during a picnic! You’ll find a number of picnicking spots across the park. Except for Lily Lake, all of these spots are first-come, first served.

During a picnic, you should remember not to feed wild animals in the region. Once you’ve finished heating, all trash should be disposed of in dumpsters or bear-proof cans.

Fishing

If you’re in Northern Colorado, you’d be hard-pressed to find better fishing spots than you’ll see here. Rocky Mountain National Park is home to the headwaters of Big Thompson River and the Cache la Poudre.

Furthermore, you can find numerous ponds and lakes scattered throughout the park. In total, there are over 50 lakes that allow fishing, as well as a number of streams.

Because the park is protected, there are special regulations that need to be followed. You will also need a Colorado Fishing License.

Riding Horses

It’s possible to ride horses at the park. This is a wonderful way to travel through the park and see everything that it has to offer.

Rocky Mountain National Park is home to two stables, Moraine Park and Glacier Creek stables. These both open in late May, near Memorial Day.

You can also find additional stables outside of RMNP that will allow you to ride into the park’s borders.

Visitor Centers

If you need more information about the park, the best thing you can do is stop through one of the visitor centers. Here, you’ll be able to view educational movies, check out exhibits, hit up the gift shop, and ask the staff questions. These facilities can also be a great place to get a break from the hot or cold weather.

You may want to stop by Alpine Visitor Center, which stands at an elevation of 1,796 feet. This makes it higher than any other visitor center in the United States. It’s near the Alpine Ridge Trail, which will take you to elevations of 12,000 feet.

Bear Lake Rocky Mountain National Park

Bear Lake is where some of the most popular trails in the park can be found. There are shorter trails that are suitable for children, but other trails nearby are more intense. The trail that circles the lake is easy to traverse. The waters here are clear, making this a fantastic place to snap photos.

Bear Lake Road stretches from Upper Beaver Meadows to Bear Lake. As you travel this path, you’ll spot picnic areas, hiking spots, the Moraine Park Museum, Sprague Lake, and campgrounds. The area is still open during the winter season.

Because Bear Lake is at 9475 feet, it freezes during the winter. When the lake and trails are covered in snow, it’s ideal for cross country skiing. The area is also a great spot for tubers. During the winter, Bear Lake Road is plowed, but it may temporarily be closed after heavy snowfall so that the area can be cleared.

Best Hikes In Rocky Mountain National Park

There are favorite activities to do in Rocky Mountain National Park, and hiking is one of them. You’ll find a trail that’s right for you, whether you’re walking a quiet lake trail or climbing a 14er.

Hikes That Are Easy

Are you short on time? Do you lack mobility? Are you short on experience? If you answered yes to any of these questions, a walk around a meadow or lake is an excellent way to experience the park’s beauty. After all, you can take in the wildlife and the atmosphere whether you are walking or climbing a steep mountainside.

Experience Lily Lake

Lily Lake has a 0.8 miles trail, with little incline, encircling it. You can find the trail south of Estes Park. You can get to it easily by way of Highway 7. You’ll find aspen and pine trees surround the lake and trail.

You can fish in the lake and you will find that the trial and the pier are wheelchair accessible. If you want more of a challenge, do the Lily Ridge Loop. The Loop splits off the Lily Lake trail at the north edge. You’ll get the 0.8 miles distance, but you’ll also get a 180-foot rise. This challenge works well for not only people at various skill levels but also for groups.

Experience Copeland Falls

This is an easy hike with awesome results. At the end of the 0.3-mile walk, which has little to no incline, you’ll find beautifully cascading falls. The Copeland Falls starts at the Wild Basin Trailhead that is located in the Wild Basin location of the park, which is south on Highway 7 from Estes Park.

If you’re an advanced hiker, continue on to Calypso Cascades, which is along the Thunder Lake Trail, for an additional 1.1 miles and a slight, 780-foot incline.

Experience Sprague Lake

This looped trail is wheelchair accessible. You’ll find Sprague Lake inside Rocky Mountain National Park right off Bear Lake Road. This is a popular spot and you’ll find an easy and scenic 0.5-mile walk around the lake.

You’ll also find birds along the trail as well as benches for taking a break and viewing the gorgeous views along the Continental Divide.

Hikes That Are Moderate

What if you want to challenge yourself a bit more? A moderate hike in the park will do it. You’ll experience spectacular views while being on the trail for a short time. Your best bet, during summer months, is to start early in the morning to avoid the afternoon thunderstorms. Also, pack a snack or lunch and be sure to wear layers.

Experience Finch Lake

This is a route that is not as traveled as the other routes. Nevertheless, Finch Lake is great for naturalists and birders. Its swampy shoreline is approximately 10,000 feet, which is perfect for local as well as migrating birds.

To navigate Finch Lake Trailhead, hike the 4.5 miles trail up 1,442 feet to the lake. You’ll find the trailhead off Highway 7 which is south of Esters Park, located in the Wild Basin area of the park.

Experience Gem Lake

Hiking Gem Lake is one of the favorite hikes in the Estes Valley. You will find that the trail begins at Lumpy Ridge Trailhead, which is a non-fee section of Rocky Mountain National Park. It’s located north of Estes Park, right off Devil’s Gulch Road.

You will find a 968 feet slight incline, but also some steep spots. This awesome 3.4-mile trail offers fantastic views of the Estes Valley. Be sure to look for Paul Bunyan’s Boot, which is a unique rock formation that resembles a boot with a hole in the bottom of it.

Experience Fern Lake

The former home of Fern Lake Lodge, Fern Lake was a popular spot for winter activities from 1916 to 1934. The 3.8-mile hike is moderate but challenging and has a 1,275-foot rise.

Along the way, there are fantastic views of Notchtop and Little Matterhorn. You’ll also find the trailhead in the middle of the park, which is near the west end of Moraine Park in Rocky Mountain.

Experience Emerald Lake

When you hike Emerald Lake, you’ll pass the mountain lakes of Nymph, Dream, and Emerald all located below 12,000-foot peaks right along the Continental Divide. You can do the three-lake hike, rough trip, in 3.6 miles with a 650-foot elevation change.

Hikes That Are Difficult

Now we get to hikes that are meant for experienced, technical hikers. If you intend to do one of these hikes, be sure to do your research. Check out the Rocky Mountain National Park website and take all precautions for your safety.

Experience Longs Peak

The term “14er” means peaks that rise above 14,000 feet above sea level. Long Peak is one of them, and it will certainly test your skills. Be sure to start early and plan your route, for, as we said before, avoiding the afternoon showers (including lightening.) You will find this trailhead at the south of Estes Park off Highway 7.

Experience Andrews Glacier And Andrews Tarn

This is a lake, which is glacier-fed, that resides over 11,000 feet. If you take this hike it’s over 2,000 feet elevation and 4.6 miles. If you’re a technical climber, go south past the lake to find Andrews Glacier. You’ll typically need technical equipment, depending on the conditions, to climb safely.

You can access both points of interest from the Glacier Gorge Trailhead. It’s located off of Bear Lake Road in the park. You’ll follow the Loch Vale Trail to the Andrews Creek Trail.

Rocky Mountain National Park Camping

A park that is one of the most visited is the United States’ Rocky Mountain National Park. There are five campgrounds within the boundaries of the park. Therefore, there’s lots of competition for finding a spot. So, it goes without saying, be sure to book early.

You can make reservations for Apenglen, Glacier Basin, and Moraine Park campgrounds months in advance, up to six months. However, Timber Creek and Longs Peak, you cannot make a reservation. It’s first-come, first-served.

During July and August, the campgrounds are typically full every day. However, in June and September, it’s not as crowded at the campgrounds. If you check mid-week, you should be able to find an available campsite without a reservation.

Campgrounds That Are Established

  • The only year-round campground in Rocky Mountain National Park is Moraine Park Campground. In the summer, you can make a reservation. However, it’s first-come, first-served in the winter. There are 244 spots in the summer, and there are 77 spots in the winter. RVs are allowed up to 40 feet, and it is closed to many of the popular trailheads.
  • From June through September, Aspenglen Campground is open for reservations. There are 53 sites at the campground, and some of them will take RVs up to 30 feet. It can be difficult to reserve in Aspenglen Campground.
  • You cannot reserve at Longs Peak Campground, open from June 30 to September 6. It is only first-come, first-served. It has 26 sites that fill up fast and these sites are tent-only. The campground is located at 9,500 feet or 2,896 meters. You’ll find Longs Peak near the trailhead to hike the summit of Longs Peak, which is the only 14er in Rocky Mountain National Park.
  • The Glacier Basin Campground consists of 150 single-occupancy campsites with 13 group sites. The group sites are tent-only and cost $4 per person. RVs are allowed up to 14-feet in non-group sites. The campground is situated at 8,500 feet or 2,591 meters. You will find fantastic views of the surrounding national park and the campground is open from June 9 to September 11.
  • The only campground on the western side of Rocky Mountain National Park is Timber Creek Campground. Opened from late May to early November, it is operated on a first-come, first-served basis, there are 98 sites and accessible by RVs that can be up to 30 feet.

Camping For Overflow

  • For overflow, there’s Meeker Park Overflow Campground found at the outside of the park’s eastern edge. It is a first-come, first-served campground that has 29 car camping spots. You will find no potable water at the campground and there are few amenities. Despite these issues, Meeker Park Overflow Campground is a gorgeous place to camp. It involves large sites and gorgeous views of the mountains.
  • Down about three miles from Meeker Park is Olive Ridge Campground. It has a total of 56 sites and can hold up to 30-feet RVs. You will find that the campground is open from that later part of May through September. It’s a great sleeping spot for those who want to summit Longs Peak but who can’t find space at Longs Peak Campground.

Rocky Mountain National Park Lodging

Historical Lodges

Located five miles outside of Rocky Mountain National Park and featured in the PBS series “Great Lodges of the National Parks,” is the Stanley Hotel. It has great views of the park and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a historic site.

Lodging At Estes Park

You’ll find the most convenient of the two gateway towns is Este Park. Located approximately 70 miles from Denver, it has a summer visitor shuttle stopping at various lodging locations around town. It also features an express hiker shuttle that hikers can take to Rocky Mountain National Park.

There are 150 lodging establishments at the location that range from ranches to campgrounds. Including the Stanley Hotel, other locations include the Apenzell Inn and the Lane Guest Ranch.

Lodging At Grand Lake

The western gateway town Grand Lake is located at Rocky Mountain National Park. It’s a small village filled with scenic outdoor activities. There are cabins, resorts, bed and breakfasts and even condos. Many of them include great views of the mountain, lake, or river.

It’s just a mile from Grand Lake to Rocky Mountain National Park. The lodging includes Mountain Lakes Lodge, Soda Springs Ranch, and Gateway Inn.

Brian

1 thought on “Rocky Mountain National Park Travel Guide”

  1. This is a great resource of information for the Rocky Mountains! I will be sure to use all of it while planning out events in the the outdoors with my family.

    Thank you!

    Reply

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