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The Rocky Mountain National Park is home to five glaciers, over 100 11k-foot peaks and around 150 beautiful alpine lakes. No wonder it’s the most popular national park in Colorado that attracts around 4.7 million visitors every year. It’s easy to come across awe-inspiring sights every now and then in the 265K acres plus park.
Size: 415 square miles (1,075 square kilometers)
Number of visitors: 4.7 million in 2019
Established on: 26 January 1915
Length of hiking trails: 355 miles (571 km)
Highest point: Long’s Peak, elevation 14,259 feet (4,346 m)
Lowest point: Big Thompson River, elevation 7,630 feet (2,326 m)
Other interesting facts about Rocky Mountain NP:
- Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the oldest US national parks and was Established in 1915
- Land for the park was acquired in 1803
- The park is one of the highest in the US with elevations ranging from 7,860 to 14,259 feet
- The park is home to 77 12ers (12,000 or more feet mountain peaks)
- More than 1/3 of the park is above the tree limit
- Trail Ridge Road was completed in 1932 and is the highest paved highway in the US (over 12,000 feet)
- Drivers can climb almost 4,000 feet in just a few minutes on the Trail Ridge Road
- Trail Ridge Road remains the main attraction for visitors and covers 48 miles between Estes Park and Grand Lake
- Almost 11 miles of Trail Ridge Road sits above the treeline
- Around 250,000 acres of the national park has been designated as a wilderness area
- The national park is also home to a museum that has around 44 thousand of items on exhibit
- The national park is one of the top wildlife watching destinations in the US with over 28- bird species, elk, deer, moose, bears and cougars
- Cross-country skiing and snowshoeing are great ways to experience park’s magic in the winter
- Over 400 Bighorn Sheep wander the Rocky Mountain, which is the symbol of the national park
- The plains and high peaks of the Rocky Mountain are home to many indigenous people
- Athabasca Glacier is North America’s most visited glacier
- The national park is also known as the Continental Divide (30-miles, divides North America)
- The mountains are believed to be around 55-80 million years old
- Francisco Vásquez de Coronado was the first person to explore the area now under the national park
- The national park has some of the highest sand dunes in North America (some are above 750-feet)
- The Rocky Mountains contain nine national parks
- Abner Sprague became the first person to enter the park after paying a $3 entrance fee in 1939
- The park is home to 150 historic structures and 600 buildings
- The climate of the national park ranges from desert heat to tundra depending on the time and area
- Highest and lowest recorded temperatures in the national park were 95°F (35°C) and -38.2°F (-39°C) respectively
The main things you need to consider when preparing for a hike or visit in Rocky Mountain National Park are almost the same as already covered here. But there are a few things hikers need to take special care of including:
Altitude sickness is our body’s response to less oxygen. Air gets thinner at higher altitudes because of low pressure. You don’t need to climb the world’s tallest peaks to experience altitude sickness. Anyone hiking a few thousand feet above the sea level can experience it.
The three types of altitude sickness include Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS, the most common with mildest symptoms), High-Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE, brain starts to swell), High-Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE, the lungs start to fill with fluid).
With symptoms ranging from light headaches to more severe symptoms such as disorientation, altitude sickness can ruin your trip if you are not prepared. Hikers who are used to sea level should not rush when they first arrive and instead, should schedule high-altitude hikes later in their visit. Staying hydrated and eating regularly can help a lot in dealing with high altitudes.
Hikers should also keep over-the-counter medicines with them such as aspirin, ibuprofen and acetaminophen, which helps relieve symptoms of AMS and HACE. The elevation of the park’s lowest sections ranges from 5,600 to 9,500 feet, effects of which can be felt by people coming from sea level. Many hikes gain elevation of over 9,000 feet, while some even reach 13 and 14 thousand feet.
Weather is unpredictable at higher altitudes with temperature between lower valleys and higher altitudes varying between 20-30 degrees. What you wear in the lower valleys might not be suitable at all for higher elevations. Then there are summer/mid-summer thunderstorms (usually between 1 to 3PM) that come without any warning. T
These thunderstorms can be expected almost every day from July to August. Hikers need to keep an eye for sketchy clouds once they are above the tree line and have an escape route in case weather turns ugly. We have already covered the most important things you need in your multi-day backpacking trips here and most of them also apply when hiking in Rocky Mountain.
Some trails, businesses, campsites and roads leading to trails in the national park might be closed because of COVID-19 precautions. Make sure to check individual websites to know more about potential closures and safety protocols. Moreover, roads might also be closed because of snowstorms, which can happen even in June/July. For real time updates about such closures and weather updates, refer to the park’s official website.
Being the country’s 3rd most visited national park with a record number of 4.7 million visitors in 2019, you need to be ready for the crowds. Expect the parking lots to fill up even before breakfast, especially in popular tourist destinations like the Bear Lake and Trail Ridge Road, which usually gets packed by 10AM with RVs and minivans.
The best strategy would be to leave as early as possible in the morning, preferably before dawn. But you still might have to share the park with crowds if you want to explore its signature features. You can also use the park’s shuttle system, which can take you from the airport to famous trailheads. In any case, you need to understand and follow trail etiquettes to preserve nature and make the national park a better place for everyone.
Visitors are required to have a reserve permit to visit the national park, which usually remains open from 28-May to 11-October. Advance daily reservations can easily be made through the official website. The national park is like an entry point to mountains beyond Denver/Boulder. A lot of visitors rent a car or use the park’s shuttle system from Denver (80 miles southeast) to Estes Park (main entrance of the eastern side, 80% of visitors enter from here) and Beaver Meadows.
You can also enter the park using three other entrances i.e. Wild Basic and Fall Rivers on the eastern side and on the western side through Grand Lake. A free shuttle service can take you from Estes Park Visitor Center to trailheads including Bear Lake and the Glacier Basin. However, if you want to reach the western side, you have to do it on your own because there is no public transportation that can take you there.
The national park is crowded in the summer because of favorable weather conditions, but you can also visit Rocky Mountain in other seasons if you are well prepared. The summer season is limited, which is the main reason why the park remains crowded during the peak season.
The Trail Ridge Road is usually open by Memorial Day with June being the busiest month. At higher elevations you can find drifts of snow and snowbanks in summer. You should be prepared for afternoon thunderstorms as well as snow-storms at high altitudes.
Many hikers prefer visiting the national park from September to October, especially those who don’t like crowded places. Snowstorms are common in the fall and roads typically remain open until October. Temperatures can reach high-fifties during the fall, so camping at night requires a lot of preparation and proper gear.
Winter hiking in Rocky Mountain is for those who want to escape the crowds and are well prepared for lower temperatures. However, the only road passing through the park (Trail Ridge Road) remains closed from October’s end to May because of snow, while avalanches are also a concern during this time. Truly motivated hikers and visitors can still access the park using byways, including Old Fall River Road, Hidden Valley (formerly a ski resort) and Grand Lake located on the park’s western side.
Spring in the national park is like a slightly warmer continuation of winter with snow lingering into the last days of May and temperatures ranging from 30-50 degrees. This is the time when the wildlife starts to get active. It’s recommended to stay close to the Estes Park side if you don’t want to get too deep into snow.
Although Rocky Mountain national park lacks overnight lodges, there are five front-country camping grounds to choose from with pricing starting from $30. These campgrounds include Glacier Basin, Moraine Park, Aspenglen, Timber Creek, and Longs Peak. The first three campgrounds usually fill up pretty quickly, so you need to make bookings well in advance (6 months before visiting), while accommodation in the last two is available on a first come, first served basis.
In addition to hiking, which we’ll cover in a separate section below, there are a lot of things you can do in the Rocky Mountain national park including:
Because of its massive cliffs and around 500 climbs (established), Rocky Mountain is a great destination for rock climbers. Most of the climbs are traditional with several pitches, and descents being a lot sketchier than ascents. The park also has a lot to offer to beginners such as Blitzen Ridge, which is a 5.4 rated alpine route in the northern section. Climbers will find most of the established routes in Longs Peak, which range from 5.4-5.12 (difficulty level rating). The Glacier Gorge area offers a solid introduction to what rock climbing is like in Rocky Mountain.
Longs Peak stands 14,259 feet tall is the highest and only fourteener in the national park. Experienced mountaineers can reach the top in one long day, but many prefer camping at the base and bagging the peak in a two-day trip. Although many advanced climbers start from Longs Peak, reaching the top requires them to deal with narrow ledges, vertical cliffs and winter-like conditions throughout the year with the final section being the most severe.
Trail Ridge Road passes through the middle of the national park. It connects Estes Park with Grand Lake via a 48-miles paved road. Although a main thoroughfare for vehicles, it’s also a dream-come-true for cyclists. With 11 miles of cycling above the tree line, the road allows cyclists to climb 4,000-feet that passes through stunning landscapes. Cyclists can also use shuttle services to reach the top and then cruise down.
Fans of gravel roads can consider Old Fall River Road, which is a 9-miles stretch that climbs 31,80 feet and starts near Estes Park. Experienced cyclists can consider the longer loop starting from Old Fall River Road to Trail Ridge and back to Estes Park. These roads are usually opened a month before access is permitted to vehicles. This is a great opportunity for cyclists who want to enjoy the ride without any traffic.
In the late 20th century, many large animals such as gray wolves and grizzly bears were expatriated from the park. But there are still many charismatic animals left there, including elks (can be seen in Estes Park and on the east side), bighorn sheep (can be seen at higher elevations), moose (can be spotted on the East Inlet Trail leading to Lone Pine Lake), and pikas and marmots (subalpine areas in the central Bear Lake).
Hiking remains at the top of the list of things-to-do in Rocky Mountain. Whether you are a beginner or an experienced hiker, the park has something to offer to everyone. Hiking here provides a rare chance to travel along the Continental Divide, drive on one of the highest roads in the country, and pass through waterfalls, scenic lakes and dream-like landscapes. You might also like to have a look at this post to know more about day-hikes in Colorado and near Denver.
Hikers should plan for at least a three-day trip because of the size of the park, which gives them enough time to cover some important hikes. Experienced hikers might want to prepare for spending five or more days to get used to higher elevation and explore lengthier, tougher trails.
Hiking in the Rocky Mountain can be hard, especially for people who are new to hiking. That’s why they should try sticking with trails according to their experience, fitness level and preparation. Below is a list of some of the most popular hikes which have been sorted according to their difficulty rating. A rating less than 5 suggests an easy hike, 5-10 is considered moderate and 10+ strenuous).
- Nymph Lake – Bear Lake Road (difficulty rating 1.5, 1.1 miles round trip, 245-feet elevation gain)
- Alberta Falls – Bear Lake Road (difficulty rating 2, 1.7 miles round trip, 200-feet elevation gain)
- Emerald Lake – Bear Lake Road (difficulty rating 5, 3.5 miles round trip, 650-feet elevation gain)
- Fern Falls – Estes Park (difficulty rating 6.6, 5.2 miles round trip, 700-feet elevation gain)
- Ouzel Falls – Wild Basin (difficulty rating 7, 5.4 miles round trip, 870-feet elevation gain)
- Lake Helene – Bear Lake Road (difficulty rating 9, 6.5 miles round trip, 2340-feet elevation gain)
- Sky Pond – Bear Lake Road (difficulty rating 12.6, 9 miles round trip, 1780-feet elevation gain)
- Andrews Glacier – Bear Lake Road (difficulty rating 14, 9.3-miles round trip, 2300-feet elevation gain)
- Mount Ida – Alpine Visitor Center (difficulty rating 14.5, 9.6 miles round trip, 2465-feet elevation gain)
- Hallett Peak – Bear Lake Road (difficulty rating 16.8, 10.3 miles round trip, 3240-feet elevation gain)
Snow-covered peaks, high alpine lakes, stunning views and numerous world-class hiking trails make Rocky Mountain National Park a great destination for those who want to challenge themselves. However, visitors need to make sure that they are aware of changes due to COVID-19 and weather conditions, and are prepared before leaving for challenging hikes. It’s equally important to define your mission, identify your challenges, and adjust your goals when necessary instead of pushing yourself to the limits.
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