A beginner’s guide to visiting Rocky Mountain National Park
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During this time of socially distant and budget-friendly travel, few destinations have the allure of a national park.
Rocky Mountain National Park is a classic national treasure. It might easily define and encapsulate the best of what a national park can be. It has snow-capped peaks that touch the sky and clear air that awakens the lungs like peppermint candy. It has proud and stately evergreen fir, spruce and pine trees that share a residency with the resplendent aspen that explode in color every year as fall arrives.
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There are meadows carved by long-ago glaciers that now serve as playgrounds for mighty elk, nimble deer, the plodding moose, the beaver, coyote and even the visiting humans. There are waterfalls that roar with melting snow and gleaming glacial lakes. Rivers and streams filled with rainbow, cutthroat, brown and brook trout flow through rocky gorges and meander lazily across grassy fields. Wildflowers bloom as spring turns toward summer and snow blankets the park when the days grow short and cold.
If you’ve never been to Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park, here’s everything you need to know to plan your first visit.
Rocky Mountain National Park basics
In a normal year, Rocky Mountain National Park attracts well over 4 million visitors to its 415 square miles that are home to 147 lakes, dozens of different mammals (bear, moose and bighorn sheep among them), 355 miles of hiking trails and the Continental Divide. This park surges in popularity from June through September, but this summer, things are a bit different, as you need to make an advance reservation to enter the park to help control crowding.
Rocky Mountain National Park has been around for more than 100 years, and while you need to plan ahead to maximize your visit more now than ever — the allure of hiking around Bear Lake, Emerald Lake or even driving Trail Ridge Road from the comfort of your own vehicle stands the test of time, even in a world still battling COVID-19.
Assuming you have a reservation to enter, admission costs $25 for a one-day pass for a single car full of visitors. A single visitor on foot or bike can get in for $15. But really, the better deal — at least if you plan to visit multiple national parks in a year — is likely an America the Beautiful Pass that costs $80 per year.
If you have a 4th grader in your group, remember that you can enter national parks for free that year from September through August.
A senior pass, available to those 62 and older, allows lifetime access into national parks for just $80, which has to be one of the best deals in the travel industry.
Related: How to visit national parks for less
How to get to Rocky Mountain National Park
Getting to Rocky Mountain National Park is part of the fun. In good driving conditions, the national park is about 90 minutes northwest of Denver. In most cases, renting a car is the best way to get to Rocky Mountain National Park and around Colorado. However, another option is the Estes Park Shuttle which operates from the Denver area for $95 round-trip or $55 one-way.
The drive on U.S. 34 from Loveland through Big Thompson Canyon, Highway 36 from Lyons to Estes with the St. Vrain River running shotgun and the Peak to Peak Highway from roughly Idaho Springs to Estes Park are all fantastic rides that complement and supplement the grandeur and beauty of this natural space.
Top things to do and see in Rocky Mountain National Park
Rocky Mountain National Park is a park for all seasons and a park for all ages. It’s a user-friendly park as many of its rewards are easily accessed or viewed from the roadside.
Before you actually enter Rocky Mountain National Park, you’re likely going to or through Estes Park.
In Estes Park, you can stroll through downtown and pop into the various shops and restaurants. Or, you can book a more active adventure such as horseback riding or whitewater rafting. And if you like taffy and sweet treats, you’re in luck as there are saltwater taffy shops in Estes Park dating back to the 1930s. That may sound like a weird thing to offer in a mountain town, but it became a popular concession in Estes Park almost a century ago and is still worth a calorie splurge today.
Unless you’re into camping or just coming in for a day trip, you may be spending the night in Estes Park, so you’ll have plenty of time to check out Antonios Real New York Pizza, Rock Inn Mountain Tavern or Scratch Deli and Bakery — all of which receive high marks from visitors.
Related: How to visit National Parks for less
Trail Ridge Road
Trail Ridge Road has been inspiring awe in those who make the drive since 1931. The road is only open seasonally, often from around Memorial Day until mid-October, but that’s very weather dependent. It could open later and close earlier, depending on snow and other conditions.
If you time it right, you’re in for a treat as you quickly gain elevation and drive the highest continuously paved highway in the country. Trail Ridge Road climbs about 4,000 feet in elevation and goes above the treeline up to a max elevation of 12,183 feet for a portion of the 48-mile drive that takes you from Estes Park to Grand Lake. It’s often between 20 and 30 degrees colder at the top of Trail Ridge Road than it is in Estes Park or Grand Lake.
The Alpine Visitors Center is a popular stop just past the road’s highest point. A restaurant, restrooms, exhibits, valuable information, year-round snow and a well-stocked gift shop can be found at that high-altitude stop. (You might be browsing for a new sweatshirt at this stop since it’s probably going to be chilly!)
From the comfort of your car, you can enjoy awe-inspiring views (prepare to stop and take pictures), do some wildlife spotting and take in the trees, wildflowers, lakes and more. While you could do it a bit faster if you absolutely had to, we recommend budgeting at least a half-day for this drive.
Related: National Parks to visit when you first retire
Fall River Road
Fall River Road is perfect for nostalgic travelers.
It was the original road into the heart of the park, and has always been considered a “motor nature trail,” as it’s mostly gravel, is one-way uphill, has its share of switchbacks and keeps you so close to nature you can reach out the window and touch it.
It intersects back with Trail Ridge Road just below the Alpine Visitors Center.
Bear Lake is encircled by an easy and reasonably flat trail, a little under 1 mile in length and accessed at the end of Bear Lake Road, just 9 miles from the turn-off at Highway 36. But, be warned: This is a popular area, so you should get an early start in the morning.
Other hikes of varying length and difficulty originate nearby. Hikes to Dream, Nymph and Emerald Lakes are often included in a visit to the Bear Lake-area. Visitors can also walk on the beautiful valley floor of Moraine Park. You’ll feel as if you’re becoming a part of the park there.
Related: 8 tips for your next hike
This hike is easily combined with the one around Bear Lake, though it’s a bit longer at around 3 miles. While it’s not too strenuous, remember that the trail can be laced with snow as late as June. This is also a very busy area of the park, so the earlier in the day you can start, the better.
Where to stay in Rocky Mountain National Park
There are multiple drive-to camping sites within the park that start around $30 per night, but you need to plan ahead. Typically, reservations open six months in advance. Looking at this summer, there’s spotty availability in July and more beginning in August at both the Glacier Basin Campground and Moraine Park Campground. The other three campgrounds in the park do not have a reopening date at this time.
If camping is not your cup of tea, you can bed down in Estes Park, which is just a few minutes away.
If you want to redeem points, the Ridgeline Hotel Ascend Collection Estes Park is often available for between 12,000 and 25,000 Choice Hotel points.
Travelers should also consider the historic Stanley Hotel that first opened in 1909 — and yes, this is the same Stanley Hotel that inspired the Overlook Hotel in “The Shining.”
Rent a cabin
Travelers can also head to Airbnb or VRBO and rent a cabin or home in the area. Whether you want a one-bedroom cabin, or you’re looking for a space large enough for your entire crew, there are a number of properties in the area that often range from $150 to $350 per night, depending on the size of the cabin you’re searching for.
Best time to visit Rocky Mountain National Park
Rocky Mountain National Park evolves with the changing seasons. While the summer months and early fall are the most popular months to visit the park, a winter visit can also be quite magical.
It’s hard to beat mid- to late-September. The weather is comfortable but with an invigorating chill that makes a fireplace welcome and a cozy parka essential. The skies are spectacular, the aspens are ablaze, the animals are busy and the park is generally still fully open and accessible.
Related: Why you should visit ski towns in the fall
That time of year, the elk are in full rut and are everywhere: In town, on the roads, across the hills — absolutely everywhere. By then, the season’s first snowfall has fallen in higher elevations.
Trail Ridge Road is a glorious “Road to the Sky” that’s open typically from June through October and is usually unusable from November through May, when it’s blanketed in feet of snow.
You can hike to Emerald Lake in the warm summer sun or when it’s encased in ice in February. The intense quiet of a summer night is in stark contrast to the echo of the bugling elk come September. The thunder of the water roaring over Alberta Falls in June becomes more of a gentle cascade in October. In other words, the park is a true wonder year-round — just factor in unpredictable weather, especially in the late fall and winter months.
But the best time to visit Rocky Mountain National Park is truly whenever you can go.
There’s no shortage of beautiful valleys and vistas in the Centennial State, but even with the wide variety of natural wonders here, Rocky Mountain National Park still stands out as a must-visit destination for those who appreciate the great outdoors. Just be aware that the park is quite popular — so popular that, for the first time ever this summer, you have to make a reservation to even enter. If you want to camp inside the park, plan well ahead for that, too.
But, the reward for all that planning and hard work is a spectacular trip to Rocky Mountain National Park.
Read on for more tips on visiting America’s National Parks:
- Guide to visiting Zion National Park
- Guide to visiting Glacier National Park
- Plan a camping trip to Yellowstone National Park
- Guide to visiting Redwood State and National Parks
- Where to camp, stay and play at the Grand Canyon
- Top tips for taking kids to National Parks
Additional reporting by Buddy Smith
Featured image by Brad McGinley Photography/Getty Images
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