Rocky Mountain National Park, created with the power of President Woodrow Wilson’s pen on January 26, 1915, is the fifth most-visited national park in America. Open 365 days a year, 24 hours a day, the magnificent mountain park hosts over 3 million visitors each year.
It’s easy to see why so many people from Texas visit Rocky Mountain National Park. It’s home to an impressive number of “thirteeners”—peaks higher than 13,000 feet—with Long’s Peak reaching an elevation of 14,259 feet. Although the drive from southeast Texas is daunting, a Houston-to-Denver flight takes just a little over two hours and visitors can drive (or take a commercial shuttle) from the Denver airport to the park in about two hours. It is therefore possible to leave Texas in the morning and be in the park, breathing refreshing mountain air, that same afternoon. As an added bonus, switching from Central Time to Mountain Time makes it easy to wake up an hour earlier than other park visitors, and to enjoy the park at its most uncrowded and tranquil time.
A Park for All Seasons
Although Rocky Mountain National Park is open all year long, a large percentage of visitors arrive during the summer, when temperatures are mild. Those who like solitude might prefer a visit after Labor Day, when daily attendance plummets. In the fall, aspen and cottonwood trees drench the mountain landscape in orange and gold. From about mid-October until Memorial Day (depending on snow pack), parts of the famous Trail Ridge Road, the highest continuous paved road in the country, lie underneath several feet of snow, but visitors can access this winter wonderland on cross-country skis and snowshoes. In the spring, snowmelt brings countless mountain streams and waterfalls to life.
Nearly 250,000 acres of the 415 square miles in Rocky Mountain National Park are in a federally-protected wilderness area. There, according to the Wilderness Act (signed in 1964), “man himself is a visitor who does not remain” and there are “outstanding opportunities for solitude.” Most of the park’s 355 miles of trails are within this wilderness area. On these trails, visitors can view some of the most spectacular scenery in the park, often encountering wildlife along the way. Some trails are accessible by mountain bike and horseback.
Rocky Mountain National Park has a dense elk population, and it is not unusual to spot large herds of elk throughout the park. They’re not shy and often graze close to roads and trails. On the west side of the park, where wetlands produce lush grasses, moose are plentiful. Throughout the park, visitors often spot mule deer, bighorn sheep, wild turkeys, and even the occasional mischievous black bear. Wildlife encounters are more likely in the early morning and late afternoon.
The Continental Divide splits Rocky Mountain National Park; on the east side, water runs downhill toward the Atlantic Ocean; on the west side, runoff goes to the Pacific. Water, in fact, is one of the most impressive features of the park. Countless mountain streams, rushing downhill over rocks, meander through the park. There are many thunderous waterfalls, some accessible by short hikes of as little as a quarter mile. Trails, ranging from a quarter mile to several miles long, lead to numerous mountain lakes backed by snow-capped mountains. (One trail takes hikers to four lakes—Bear Lake, Nymph Lake, Dream Lake and Emerald Lake—on a round-trip hike of less than four miles.) Fishing is permitted in Rocky Mountain National Park, but a valid Colorado fishing license is required.
The Amazing Trail Ridge Road
One of the park’s most incredible features is the 48-mile Trail Ridge Road, a section of U.S. Highway 34 that traverses the park and connects Estes Park, the town on the northeast side of the park, to Grand Lake, the smaller community on the southwest side. Before the road was constructed, Arapaho Indians reportedly used Trail Ridge to cross the mountains and access the hunting grounds in what is now the eastern part of Rocky Mountain National Park. During the road’s construction in 1931, Horace Albright, then director of the National Park Service, predicted, “It is hard to describe what a sensation this new road is going to make. You will have the whole sweep of the Rockies before you in all directions.”
Trail Ridge Road, designated an All American Road and one of America’s Byways, rises to an elevation of 12,183 feet, taking travelers above the timber line and through the wildflower-spotted tundra. Trail Ridge Road creeps to this elevation via a series of switchbacks—hairpin turns that leave drivers with their eyes glued to the road and passengers with their fingernails digging into their arm rests. Fortunately, there are numerous pull-outs. There, visitors can stop, breathe the rarefied air, spot wildlife and stunning displays of wildflowers, and take photographs of sweeping mountain views within just a few steps of their cars.
Along the 11-mile stretch of tundra, it is often windy and 20 or more degrees cooler than the temperature at the lower elevations of the road. Along this stretch, long wooden poles are strategically placed every few yards on both sides of the road so that cross country skiers can find the road in winter, and as a guide for slow plows during the spring.
Although visitors can see spectacular scenery without ever venturing from their cars, many short hikes start at trailheads along Trail Ridge Road. One of the most popular of these hikes begins at the Alpine Visitor Center and goes about .3 mile (all uphill) to a scenic overlook at 12,005 feet. Clouds are such a prominent afternoon feature there, the coffee shop inside the Alpine Visitor Center Gift Shop is called “Coffee in the Clouds.”
What to Know Before You Go
There is an abundance of lodging in Estes Park and Grand Lake, so rates are surprisingly reasonable. There are several large campgrounds within the park; some can accommodate recreational vehicles, while others are designed for pop-up campers and tents. Backcountry camping is also available for those who like more solitude.
When preparing for a trip to Rocky Mountain National Park, remember to “expect the unexpected.” Mountain weather is highly unpredictable: it’s not unusual for summertime visitors to wake up to temperatures in the upper 40s, hike through snow at the higher elevations of the park, peel off jackets during the warm afternoons and then experience late afternoon thunderstorms with plunging temperatures. Locals recommend clothing that can be layered and removed as needed.
It’s important to keep in mind that Rocky Mountain National Park ranges in elevation from 7,500 to over 12,000 feet. People from lower elevations, even if they’re very fit, can experience altitude sickness at such elevations. Symptoms include headaches and shortness of breath, so some travelers plan a day or two of easy activities before attempting strenuous activities at the higher elevations of the park. Higher elevation also means dehydration can occur more quickly, so it’s important to drink ample fluids. In addition, ultraviolet light is more intense at higher altitudes, so be sure to pack hats, sunglasses, and sunscreen.
Don’t forget to plan for picnic lunches, as the only available restaurants in the park are located within the few visitor centers. However, nearby Estes Park and Grand Lake have a variety of restaurants, both casual and elegant. Some offer local specialties, such as elk burgers. Those who like to shop can find a variety of quaint stores in Estes Park and Grand Lake. Some stores contain items made by local craftsmen. Parking in town can be a challenge during the peak summer months.
Free shuttle buses ferry visitors to and from Estes Park and the most popular ranger stations, visitor centers, and trailheads in the park. While some visitors prefer the solitude of self-exploration, many free, ranger-led activities are available. Topics include park geology, weather, plant life, wildlife, and fly fishing. Some programs are designed especially for children; some are wheelchair-accessible. Park rangers also offer some guided hikes.
With 415 square miles of mountain playground, it’s sometimes hard to choose which beautiful parts of Rocky Mountain National Park to visit. Plan ahead by visiting online forums or by reading one of the many books written about the park, but do not put off a trip to this national treasure. As Enos Mills, who tirelessly campaigned for the creation of Rocky Mountain Park, once said, “Rainy days, gray days, windy days, all have something for you not ordinarily offered. . . Forget the season and the weather; visit the parks when you can stay there longest.”