We wanted to demonstrate how our new guidebook (A Park to Yourself: Finding Adventure in America’s National Parks) is different from this website, so we are providing a sample chapter for Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. Here is a link to the Raven About The Parks blog post on the park.
The holidays are coming up, so order A Park to Yourself now on Amazon!
39. Rocky Mountain National Park
4,590,493 visitors in 2018
This truly is a National Park for all seasons. In the summer, it is worth the extra time it takes to drive 11 miles up the unpaved curves of one-way Old Fall River Road to Alpine Visitor Center at 11,796 feet, then back down Trail Ridge Road. Elk bulls spar and bugle in the autumn, when aspen trees briefly turn the mountainsides gold. Winter is a wonderful time for outdoor recreation here if you are prepared for the icy conditions, even on a short 1.6-mile trip up to Gem Lake just outside of Estes Park, Colorado.
Peak Visitation Months
July (20%) August (18%) June (16%)
Bear Lake Trailhead, Alluvial Fan, Alpine Visitor Center, Longs Peak
Worth The Crowds
Bear Lake Trailhead is the busiest area in the park. Its huge parking lot fills up early year round, but a hiker shuttle is available during the summer. While the trail starts above 9,000 feet elevation, it is only 1.1 miles with a steady ascent up to stunning Dream Lake ringed by jagged peaks. From there, you can continue on to Emerald Lake or take the long loop around to Lake Haiyaha and Alberta Falls. Even in the winter, these trails are generally packed enough that snowshoes are not required.
A Park To Yourself
The western side of the park is generally less busy throughout the year, but even less so in the winter when it is cut off after Trail Ridge Road closes each October. Snowshoeing past Adams Falls up the East Inlet valley is breathtaking when the snow sparkles in the sun and the river gurgles deep under foot. There are majestic mountain views once the forest opens up into a spectacular meadow. Better yet, there is never a fee required to park at the East Inlet or North Inlet Trailheads.
Around Memorial Day each year, all 48 miles of Trail Ridge Road open to vehicles. Its high point is at 12,183 feet, the highest elevation reached by a fully-paved road in the United States. For much of its length, jagged black mountaintops lined in pure white snow surround the visitor on all sides. Our favorite view is looking southwest towards the Gorge Lakes and Mount Ida from the overlooks at Rock Cut or Forest Canyon parking areas.
Scott’s Favorite Trail
Starting at the small parking lot at Poudre Lake, it is a steady climb five miles one-way to Mount Ida at 12,880 feet. After a mile, it is less a trail and more following cairns along the Continental Divide. Needless to say, above timberline there are first-class views of surrounding mountains. Elk and bighorn sheep are commonly spotted on the route. From the top you look down on the colorful Gorge Lakes and far across to Trail Ridge Road.
Tiff’s Favorite Trail
The Dunraven Trailhead is in Roosevelt National Forest, northeast of Estes Park. From there a trail drops to the canyon bottom then follows the North Fork of the Big Thompson River 4.4 miles before it enters the National Park, and backpack camping is allowed without a permit along this length. The views open up on the Mummy Range before the trail ends around Lost Lake. You can continue to explore the other lakes past there, but overnight stays in this area require a permit from the National Park Service.
Bonus Winter Trail
In the winter months, the road off Highway 7 to Wild Basin shuts down, but it is still plowed for those entering on foot. Adding the two mile road length to any hiking distance makes it about eight miles roundtrip to Calypso Cascades, which continues to flow beneath the snow and ice. Snowshoes are recommended as this trail sees much less use than those around Bear Lake.
There are multiple campgrounds within the park, but only Glacier Basin is open year round. Several National Forests surround the park and provide opportunities for dispersed camping, although near Grand Lake it does get crowded during the summer.
Backpacking permits are required and designated sites are reservable, including on the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail. You must still pay the National Park entry fee, but there is no additional charge to get a permit to park at the Bowen/Baker Trailhead and camp in the Never Summer Wilderness outside the park boundaries.
Most of the park roads are paved and the two-mile long dirt road to Wild Basin Trailhead is well-maintained. A hiker shuttle operates from Beaver Meadows Visitor Center in the summer. Old Fall River Road typically does not open until July, but this 11-mile long one-way dirt road makes a great loop when connected with Trail Ridge Road (open late-May to October).
Nearby Public Lands
There are no National Park Service units near this park, but it does border Arapaho National Recreation Area on the west side. If you are flying in or out of Denver International Airport, a short detour from Interstate 70 takes you to Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge, which contains bison, white-tailed deer, pronghorns, prairie dogs, and other animals.
Estes Park is the gateway town to
the eastern portion of the park. There
are often elk grazing in its neighborhoods and golf courses. While there, we recommend the ghost tour of
the Stanley Hotel, which inspired Stephen King’s The Shining.
In the summer, most of the elk herds head to high elevation, but other times of year they walk through the town of Estes Park and congregate near the eastern entrance stations. Rock Cut is a great spot to watch the spastic wanderings of yellow-bellied marmots and American pikas. Mule deer are found throughout the park, but moose are more common on the west side. We commonly see bighorn sheep on Highway 34 through Big Thompson Canyon, but have never spotted one within the park, even at Sheep Lakes where they come to lick salt.
We never thought we would have an entire National Park campground to ourselves, but that is exactly what we found at Timber Creek one beautiful March weekend. The ranger could not recall the last campers they had stayed there and it took some work to excavate a site from almost three feet of snow, but it was worth it. Sitting around the campfire that night, the silence was palpable until abruptly pierced by the eerie cries of coyotes that echoed up the valley. Snow camping is not for the faint of heart, but with proper planning we were well prepared for the 15°F temperatures that met us in the morning. On a clear day, the winter scenery in the Rocky Mountains is unsurpassed.
If you enjoyed reading this chapter, you can find all 50 chapters in our first National Parks guidebook!
We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.