With stunning mountain views, pristine alpine lakes, and great hiking, Rocky Mountain National Park visit is one of America’s finest. Regularly one of the top-five most popular national parks, an average of 4.5 million people visit every year. Most of these visitors focus on scenic drives, wildlife viewing, and hiking on over 350 miles of trails running throughout the park’s 415 square miles. Other popular activities include camping, climbing, fishing, and whitewater rafting on nearby rivers.
Located less than two hours from the Denver area, the park is an excellent stop during a Rocky Mountains road trip. It’s roughly a half-day or full-day drive to many popular national parks, including Black Canyon of the Gunnison and Mesa Verde in Colorado, the Mighty 5 parks in Utah, and Yellowstone and Grand Teton in Wyoming.
In recent years, Rocky Mountain National Park has instituted a timed-entry reservation system from late May through mid-October. During these months, you must have either a timed-entry reservation or a service reservation for camping, guided trips, or commercial tours to enter the park (plus entrance fee or parks pass). One access option is for the Bear Lake Road corridor only, and the other option is for the rest of the park, excluding Bear Lake Road. Time-entry reservations are not available at park entrance stations. These reservations are only available about a month ahead of time on Recreation.gov.
Elevation, Weather, & Seasons
With park elevations ranging from 7,500 to over 12,000 feet, it’s important to consider proper acclimation when planning activities. In general, try to moderate your physical exertions during your first day. Consider spending at least a night, up to a few days, at altitude before attempting more strenuous adventures.
Another consideration is the weather, which can be extreme and change rapidly at any time in the Rockies. Even during summer months, when average highs are in the 70s and 80s, be prepared for 10- to 20-degree drops and afternoon rain—possibly even snow at higher elevations.
While most national park enthusiasts visit during summer vacation, keep in mind that Colorado in the fall is a sight to behold. During fall color season, the Rocky Mountains come alive as aspen trees put on a stunning display of yellows, oranges, and reds. The precise timing varies each season due to recent weather patterns, including temperature and precipitation. Generally, leaves begin to change at the highest elevations during late August or early September, with the colorful show working its way down the mountains, progressing to lower elevations throughout the month of September. The peak is often around mid-September and ends sometime in early to mid-October.
For adventurous people looking for a quieter time to visit, another option for a Colorado weekend getaway is to come during late fall, winter, or early spring. During this long off-season, cold temperatures and snow cover at higher elevations limit activities to winter sports like snowshoeing and skiing. Hiking at lower elevations, often on frozen or icy ground using traction devices, may be possible. Typically, during April, spring thaw can cause muddy conditions that make hiking challenging. Other considerations include seasonal road closures, driving in winter conditions, and carrying proper clothing and supplies. The park maintains a detailed webpage for planning a winter visit.
Scenic Drives & Park Shuttle
Several scenic drives inside the park offer visitors a chance to explore a diversity of mountain landscapes, including lowland meadows, aspen groves, pine forests, and high alpine tundra.
Trail Ridge Road is a two-lane highway with its high point at 12,183 feet, making it one of the highest paved roads in the country. Running 48 miles between Grand Lake on the park’s west side and Estes Park to the east, about 11 miles are located above the tree line at around 11,500 feet. Highlights include chances to spot summer wildflowers and moose, crossing the Continental Divide at Milner Pass, and miles upon miles of rising mountains.
Opening in 1920, Old Fall River Road is the original auto route through the park. This mostly gravel road is one-way uphill for about 11 miles. Expect many switchbacks and curves and know that there are no guard rails along the way. For your efforts, you’ll be rewarded with a dramatically winding route through the heart of the park. Highlights include a chance to spot elk in Willow Park, access to Chasm Falls, and a traverse through Fall River Cirque.
From late May through mid-October, the NPS operates two shuttles, one through the Bear Lake Road corridor and the other through Moraine Park, making 12 stops across the heart of the park. During summer, parking areas along Bear Lake Road tend to fill up during peak hours. At these times, the shuttle offers the best chance at accessing certain trails.
Hikes at Rocky Mountain National Park
With so many hikes to pick from, it can be hard to decide which trails to tackle. If you’ve recently arrived from a lower elevation, consider some of the easier and flatter trails. Many of these trails circle around scenic alpine lakes near roads, while other moderate trails lead to higher altitude lakes or waterfalls, and strenuous hikes often climb up toward mountain summits.
One of the top easy hikes at Rocky Mountain is the Bear Lake Nature Trail, a scenic half-mile loop around Bear Lake that is wheelchair accessible. One of the most popular areas in the park, Bear Lake Trailhead is also the starting point for a series of moderate hikes to nearby lakes. Each offers stunning alpine scenery and can easily be combined into a half day or full day on the trail. One favorite destination is Emerald Lake, about 3.5 miles round-trip, passing through the narrow Tyndall Gorge along the way.
Another popular starting point is the nearby Glacier Gorge Trailhead. One easy trail, about 1.5 miles round-trip, leads to the tumbling Alberta Falls. Similarly, you can extend your hike by adding additional destinations, like favorite Mill Lake, an additional 2 miles, round-trip, with about 750 feet of elevation gain.
One strenuous but rewarding hike is to Chasm Lake. From the Longs Peak Ranger Station Trailhead, this route gains 2360 feet in about 8.5 miles, round-trip. The reward is a glacially carved lake surrounded by granite walls with views of the park’s highpoint, 14,259’ Longs Peak. Elsewhere in the park, you’ll find a wide variety of easier and harder hikes.
Camping in Rocky Mountain National Park
Inside the park, there are five campgrounds with over 550 total sites. Unlike some national parks, amenities inside Rocky Mountain NP are quite limited. Most campgrounds have bathrooms with running water and flush toilets but there are no showers inside the park. While RVs are allowed at about half of these campsites, and dump stations are available, there are no electrical hookups. Also, be aware there are no gas stations, grocery stores, or hotel rooms inside the park. There is one seasonal café and coffee bar, at Trail Ridge near the Alpine Visitor Center. Otherwise, for lodgings, restaurants, and supplies, visit the adjacent communities of Estes Park and Grand Lake.
Three NPS campgrounds, located throughout the heart of the park, are available for reservation on Recreation.gov and tend to be reserved well in advance. Each campground has sites for both RVs and tents, with around half being for tents only. These include Aspenglow Campground, with 52 sites near the Fall River Visitor Center. Glacier Basin Campground, located on Bear Lake Road, has 150 sites. And Moraine Park Campground, near the Bear Meadows Visitor Center, is the largest with 244 sites.
The remaining two campgrounds are both entirely first-come, first-serve. Timber Creek is the only campground on the west side of the park, with 98 sites for tents and RVs located at 8900 feet along the upper Colorado River. Located south of Estes Park, CO, the Longs Peak Campground has 26 sites for tents only.
Colorado Whitewater Rafting Nearby
Some national park enthusiasts who visit Rocky Mountain may be interested in an adventurous whitewater rafting trip. Many awesome raft trips can be found throughout the state of Colorado, with several options located not far from the park.
To the northeast, the Cache la Poudre River is in the National Wild & Scenic Rivers system. There are two whitewater trips to choose from, both typically lasting a half day and available from outfitters in Estes Park. The Lower Poudre is a family-friendly class III trip, and Mishawaka Falls is an advanced trip with Class IV rapids.
To the west and south of the park, there are plenty more trips of varying difficulty to consider. These include the Upper Colorado River, Clear Creek, and many others as you travel further away from the park. For a complete guide, check out the whitewater rafting page at the state’s official tourism site Colorado.com.
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Cover photo: Emerald Lake Trail. Margaret/Adobe