Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the most popular and scenic national parks in the United States. Located in north-central Colorado, the park covers an area of 415 square miles and encompasses a spectacular range of mountain environments, from alpine meadows and forests to high peaks and glaciers. The park is home to a rich diversity of wildlife, including elk, bighorn sheep, moose, lynx, and boreal toad, as well as hundreds of species of birds and fish. The park also has a fascinating cultural history, dating back to the Native Americans who used the land for thousands of years, and the pioneers and miners who settled and explored the area in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Rocky Mountain National Park offers visitors a variety of activities and attractions, such as hiking, climbing, fishing, wildlife viewing, and stargazing. Whether you are looking for a relaxing getaway or an adventurous challenge, Rocky Mountain National Park has something for everyone. In this article, we will explore some of the park’s highlights and facts, and give you some tips on how to make the most of your visit.
Rocky Mountain National Park has 355 miles of hiking trails. They range from flat lakeside strolls to steep mountain peak climbs. If you are new to the park, consult with rangers at visitor centers or the Wilderness Office. They can provide advice about trails which are appropriate to different fitness and experience levels. Check out some of the most popular hikes.
Some of the best hikes in the park are:
- Bear Lake Loop: This is a 0.6-mile easy loop around a scenic lake, with views of Hallett Peak and Flattop Mountain. It is one of the most accessible and crowded trails in the park, so arrive early or take the free shuttle bus to avoid parking hassles.
- Emerald Lake: This is a 3.6-mile moderate out-and-back trail that passes by three beautiful lakes: Nymph, Dream, and Emerald. The trail offers stunning views of the surrounding mountains and glaciers, and is a great spot to see wildlife such as elk, marmots, and pikas.
- Sky Pond: This is a 9.4-mile strenuous out-and-back trail that takes you to one of the most spectacular alpine lakes in the park. The trail involves some steep sections, a waterfall scramble, and a bit of exposure, but the reward is worth it. You will see Lake of Glass, Sky Pond, and the Cathedral Spires along the way.
- Longs Peak: This is a 14.5-mile very strenuous out-and-back trail that leads to the summit of the highest and most iconic peak in the park. This is not a hike for the faint of heart, as it involves a very early start, a long and grueling ascent, some scrambling and climbing, and exposure to the elements. Only attempt this hike if you are well-prepared, experienced, and acclimated to the altitude. The views from the top are breathtaking, but so is the challenge.
Wildlife Watching and Photography
Whether it be bighorn sheep, elk, mule deer, or other wildlife, Rocky visitors have a passion for viewing wild animals, especially the big ones. A winter elk herd numbering between 200-600, about 350 bighorn sheep, and numerous mule deer call the park home. The park’s great large-animal population makes it one of the country’s top wildlife watching destinations. Here at Rocky, you can find 60 species of mammals, 280 recorded bird species, 11 species of fish, and countless insects, including a surprisingly large number of butterflies.
Some of the best places to see wildlife in the park are:
- Horseshoe Park: This is a large meadow near the Fall River Entrance, where you can often spot elk, deer, coyotes, and occasionally bears and moose. The best time to see wildlife here is early morning or evening, especially during the fall rutting season, when the male elk bugle and compete for mates.
- Sheep Lakes: This is a viewing area along Fall River Road, where you can see bighorn sheep from May to mid-August. The sheep come down from the high country to lick the salt and minerals from the soil. There is a short trail and a viewing platform where you can watch the sheep from a safe distance.
- Trail Ridge Road: This is the highest road in the park, and it offers a chance to see some of the animals that live in the alpine tundra, such as marmots, pikas, ptarmigans, and bighorn sheep. You may also see elk and deer along the lower sections of the road. The road is usually open from late May to mid-October, depending on the weather conditions.
- Moraine Park: This is another large meadow near the Beaver Meadows Entrance, where you can see elk, deer, coyotes, and sometimes bobcats and mountain lions. The meadow also has a campground, a picnic area, and a museum. The best time to see wildlife here is early morning or evening, especially during the fall rutting season.
When viewing wildlife, remember to respect their space and safety. Never feed, approach, or harass wild animals. Use binoculars or a telephoto lens to observe them from a distance. Keep at least 25 yards away from most wildlife, and at least 100 yards away from bears and moose. Follow the park’s wildlife viewing etiquette and get tips for capturing amazing photos.
The road system of Rocky Mountain National Park offers visitors access to diverse ecosystems characterizing the higher regions of the central Rocky Mountains. The roads take visitors through lowland meadows and aspen groves, along swift-flowing rivers and up through subalpine forests to more than 12,000 feet in elevation. The views from the overlooks are stunning, and you can also stop at various trailheads, picnic areas, and visitor centers along the way.
Some of the best scenic drives in the park are:
- Trail Ridge Road: This is the most famous and spectacular road in the park, as it crosses the Continental Divide and reaches the highest point of any paved road in the US at 12,183 feet. The road is 48 miles long and connects Estes Park in the east to Grand Lake in the west. Along the way, you will see amazing panoramas of the mountains, valleys, and tundra, as well as wildlife such as elk, bighorn sheep, and marmots. The road is usually open from late May to mid-October, depending on the weather conditions.
- Old Fall River Road: This is the original road that ascended to the high country before Trail Ridge Road was built. The road is 11 miles long and one-way uphill, starting from Horseshoe Park and ending at the Alpine Visitor Center. The road is narrow, winding, and unpaved, and it follows the course of the Fall River through a steep canyon. The road offers a more rustic and adventurous driving experience, as well as views of waterfalls, wildflowers, and wildlife. The road is usually open from early July to late September, depending on the weather conditions.
- Peak to Peak Scenic Byway: This is a 55-mile scenic route that runs along the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, from Estes Park in the north to Black Hawk in the south. The road passes by several charming towns, historic sites, and natural attractions, such as Nederland, Central City, Golden Gate Canyon State Park, and Brainard Lake Recreation Area. The road also offers stunning views of the snow-capped peaks, aspen forests, and colorful foliage, especially in the fall. The road is open year-round, but some sections may be closed or icy in the winter.
Summer and fall are great times to take in one of the many ranger-led programs offered by the park. You can learn about the park’s natural and cultural history, wildlife, and geology from the experts. The programs are free and vary in length, difficulty, and topic. Some of the programs include guided hikes, evening talks, nature walks, birdwatching, stargazing, and junior ranger activities. The programs are suitable for all ages and interests, and they are a fun and educational way to enhance your visit. You can check the current schedule of programs at the visitor centers or online.
The park has five visitor centers, where you can get information, maps, brochures, exhibits, books, and souvenirs. The visitor centers are also staffed by friendly and knowledgeable rangers, who can answer your questions and help you plan your trip. The visitor centers are:
- Beaver Meadows Visitor Center: This is the main visitor center and the park headquarters, located near the Beaver Meadows Entrance. The visitor center was designed by the famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright, and it features a 20-minute park orientation film, interactive exhibits, and a bookstore. The visitor center is open year-round, except on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day.
- Fall River Visitor Center: This is the visitor center near the Fall River Entrance, located next to the Fall River Road. The visitor center has exhibits on the park’s wildlife and ecosystems, a 14-minute park orientation film, and a bookstore. The visitor center is open from late May to mid-October.
- Kawuneeche Visitor Center: This is the visitor center on the west side of the park, located near the Grand Lake Entrance. The visitor center has exhibits on the park’s history and culture, a 20-minute park orientation film, and a bookstore. The visitor center is open year-round, except on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day.
- Moraine Park Discovery Center: This is a seasonal visitor center located in Moraine Park, about 1.5 miles from the Beaver Meadows Entrance. The visitor center is housed in a historic log building that was once a dude ranch, and it has exhibits on the park’s ecology and wildlife. The visitor center is open from late May to early October.
- Alpine Visitor Center: This is the highest visitor center in the US, located at 11,796 feet on Trail Ridge Road. The visitor center has exhibits on the alpine tundra, a short alpine tundra trail, and a gift shop and cafeteria. The visitor center is open from late May to mid-October, depending on the weather conditions.
Enjoy a night under the stars in Rocky Mountain National Park! Five campgrounds offer wonderful opportunities for outdoor fun and adventure. Have peace of mind knowing a campsite is waiting for you in beautiful Rocky.
Rocky Mountain National Park is a natural wonderland that offers something for everyone. Whether you want to hike, drive, camp, watch wildlife, or learn from rangers, you will find plenty of opportunities to enjoy and appreciate the park’s beauty and diversity. Rocky Mountain National Park is more than just a park, it is a national treasure that deserves your visit and respect. Plan your trip today and discover why Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the best places to experience the Rocky Mountains.