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True to its name, Rocky Mountain National Park is loaded with magnificent peaks that soar over 12,000 feet and offers 265,000 acres to explore.
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Rocky Mountain National Park has an extensive road system that offers visitors easy access to everything from lowland meadows, rivers and aspen groves to subalpine forests and even alpine tundra region. Trail Ridge Road, one of ten America’s Byways in Colorado and a national designated All-American Road, sometimes referred to as the “highway to the sky,” is one of its highlights. Travelers have the entire sweep of the Rockies before them in every direction on this 48-mile paved road that stretches from Estes Park on the east side of the park to Grand Lake on the west. At its peak, it winds across the tundra to the high point at 12,183 feet in elevation, offering jaw-dropping views and wildlife sightings, including elk, moose, bighorn sheep, marmots and more, right from the comfort of your vehicle.
The Alpine Visitor Center is the highest facility of its kind in the entire National Park Service. It sits at nearly 12,000 feet in elevation, which means it’s buried underneath snow for a good part of the year. But, just before summer arrives, usually in late May or early June, road crews arrive to plow the road to the Visitor Center, shovel out the buildings and open up the high-altitude visitor center to the public. The center boasts incredible views of alpine tundra and Fall River Cirque, tundra displays, a bookstore, a gift shop and a snack bar with a wide selection of options, including especially tasty pulled pork sandwiches, that serves as the park’s only eatery. Rangers also lead guided walks starting from here in this Land Above the Trees.
With more than 350 miles of trails crisscrossing the park, connecting alpine lakes, jagged peaks, waterfalls thick pine forests and rocky tundra, getting out and exploring on foot is arguably the No. 1 way to see the best it has to offer. You’ll find everything from very short treks to longer day hikes and multi-day backpacking adventures. The hike to Emerald Lake takes hikers deep into the Tyndall Gorge, passing three other picturesque subalpine lakes along the way. Blue Bird Hike is another excellent hike that offers a number of attractions along its route, including three waterfalls, while the Gem Lake Trail is ideal for those who want to enjoy hiking without the crowds. Although it’s just 3.1 miles round trip, it packs a punch when it comes to scenic views, and as the elevation gain is less than 1,000 feet, it’s a good one for families with children too.
This park is also a wildlife lover’s paradise, home to thousands of elk and mule deer, along with marmots, moose, big horn sheep, mountain goats and the occasional black bear. The east side of the park is generally the best area to spot a moose, where they’re typically seen near ponds, lakes and areas with willows. Just keep in mind that these magnificent animals may tend to move slowly while eating their way through meadows, but they can actually run over 30 miles per hour – and, weigh up to 1,500 pounds. You’re pretty much guaranteed to see elk, and plenty of them, they’re just about everywhere, spending much of their time at or above the treeline in the summer, and in lower elevations during the rest of the year. The most popular time to view them is during the fall rut, or mating season. The park’s impressive large animal population makes it one of the top wildlife-watching destinations in the country, but there is much more to see, with nearly 60 other species of mammals and nearly 300 recorded bird species.
The park is home to some 30 waterfalls, most of which can be found east of the Divide in two heavily concentrated areas: Wild Basin and Glacier Gorge. All but one require at least a short hike, and some of the waterfalls require days to get there, along with off-trail hiking to access. But the lack of easy roadway access means that even though about three million people visit the park every year, you might just get a waterfall all to yourself. The Glacier Gorge Trailhead is a popular one for enjoying beautiful waterfalls without going too far, though you’ll need to head out early in the morning, or late in the evening to avoid bumping elbows on the way. This trek features 25-foot Alberta Falls, 30-foot Glacier Falls and Ribbon Falls, a slide waterfall that spills from Black Lake. The Fern Lake Trailhead offers the chance to view several waterfalls and is a favorite due to its close proximity to Moraine Park and Moraine Park Campground.
Another great way to relish in the park’s unparalleled beauty is to experience it on horseback. This will allow you to cover some serious acreage, riding along rushing rivers and high mountain lakes while encountering all sorts of wildlife. There are miles and miles of horse riding trails, 13 stock designated backcountry campsites and two stables located within the park that are open during the summer months: near Glacier Basin Campground and Moraine Park on Bear Creek Road. There are also multiple outfitters located through Grand Lake on the park’s west side, and Estes Park on the east, with everything from short one-hour rides to trips that last for an entire day available. Some even offer rides to a chuck wagon for a tasty Cowboy-style steak dinner.
One of the top activities in the park is fly fishing. Populations of at least four species of trout exist in the park streams and lakes including brown trout, brook trout, rainbow trout and cutthroat trout. Peak fishing in the park takes place from mid-June through mid-October when the trout are plentiful and bite frequently. Generally, the deeper you go into the park, the smaller the fish, but the more stunning the scenery is, still many feel it’s well worth the trade-off. Hiking into waters that are tucked away, you’ll also get more exercise and have a better chance to see more wildlife like elk, moose and maybe bear. There are a number of spots in the park’s borders worth visiting, including Baker Creek, Onahu Creek and Spirit Lake on the west side, and Black Lake, Sprague Lake, Mill Creek, Roaring River and The Loch on the east.
The park is transformed into a magnificent winter wonderland during the colder months of the year, providing idyllic conditions for outdoor activities like snowshoeing. This is when you can truly enjoy the sights and sounds; the jagged peaks soften with their blanket of snow, while the summer hordes have disappeared. You’ll be far away from the big resort ski crowds too. Rentals are available in the Estes Park Mountain Shop near the entrance to Estes Park, and at the Warming House on the way to the Beaver Meadows entrance. You can snowshoe any of the hiking trails that are accessible by road, many become well-traveled routes for both cross-country skiers and snowshoers. Two popular trails include the Tonahutu Creek Trail near Kawuneeche Visitor Center and the Colorado River Trail to Lulu City that begins at Timber Creek Campground.
Rock climbing is another popular activity in the park, in fact, people have been coming here to climb since the 1800s, thanks to the wide range of opportunities for everyone from the novice to the expert. You’ll find everything from the chance to go bouldering for a few hours to multi-day big wall experiences. While day use in the park requires no special registration or permit, those who are planning multi-day climbs, or climbs that are 3.5 or more miles from the trailhead, consisting of four or more technical pitches, will need a bivouac permit. Longs Peak, the highest peak in the park, is a favorite, with the sheer cliff on its east face known as The Diamond offering more than 30 routes. The trailhead is located outside the park along Route 7, 9 miles south of Estes Park.
While you’re visiting Rocky Mountain National Park, you shouldn’t miss the chance to spend a night at the Stanley Hotel, the inspiration for Stephen King’s “The Shining.” Located just six miles from the park entrance, the historic hotel opened in 1909 and makes an ideal base for exploring the park as well as being a rather interesting attraction in its own right. Known as one of America’s most haunted hotels, it reportedly spooked horror master Stephen King so much that it became the inspiration for the setting of “The Shining.” Mr. Stanley, the hotel’s original owner and the inventor of the Stanley Steamer Automobiles, along with his wife, are said to frequently walk through the lobby, and Mrs. Stanley can sometimes be heard playing her piano in the music room. Fine dining is available in its Cascades Restaurant, while a variety of spa treatments and massage can be enjoyed at the Parlour Spa.