Get your rocky mountain high in Colorado’s favorite national park

January 13, 2016                 6m read time
Stacey McKenna


From elk ruts to America’s highest highway, here are 10 great reasons to visit Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park.

Rocky Mountain National Park spans 415 square miles of mountain wilderness. With more than 350 miles of hiking trails and 78 summits above 12,000 feet, RMNP is a haven for outdoor lovers, drawing 3 million visitors annually.

Whether you prefer lakeside picnics, backcountry adventures, or a scenic drive along Trail Ridge Road, you’ll be immersed in nature’s splendor. From the evergreens of winter to summertime’s bountiful blooms, alpine and subalpine flora astound year-round. The park is home to 11 species of fish, 60 types of mammals, at least 280 varieties of birds, and countless insects. Nearby Estes Park serves as an ideal entry-point to the park, with restaurants, outfitters, wilderness stores, and souvenir shops. Whether you venture out on your own or book a tour, adventure is available in many forms. 

1. Lace Up Your Hiking Boots

Sunrise on Long's Peak Diamond in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado Josh Montague

Sunrise on Long's Peak Diamond in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado

Josh Montague

 

Whether you hike for fitness, adrenaline, or to snap photos of wildflowers, Rocky Mountain National Park's got a trail for ya. Looking for a challenging hike into the clouds? Try the Keyhole Route on Longs Peak, the park’s tallest mountain at 14,259 feet. Hikers will gain 4,850 feet over 8 miles of rocky, exposed terrain—but watch out for narrow ledges and steep drop-offs. Summer is the best time to go, and hikers should leave the trailhead by 3 p.m. or risk getting caught in afternoon thunderstorms.

The route to Emerald Lake offers “gorge-ous” scenery on a mellower path. This 3.5-mile roundtrip hike winds through pine forests and the Tyndall Gorge, gaining 650 feet before giving way to the subalpine lake tucked between 12,000-foot peaks. This trail can be hiked year-round, but is especially busy during the summer months.

2. Play In (Or On) Sprague Lake

Sprague Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado John B. Kalla

Sprague Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado

John B. Kalla

 

At 8,200 feet, 13-acre Sprague Lake is an ideal spot for water-lovers. With just a 100-yard walk from parking lot to put-in, make sure to bring your canoes, kayaks, and stand-up paddle boards in the summer. And if you don’t have your own, drop by Lake Estes Marina in nearby Estes Park to secure a rental. Come winter, you can still take a half-mile stroll around the lake or, if it’s frozen, (carefully!) skate atop the ice on cross-country skis. Watch for wildlife—from trout in the lake to elk out and about—or drink in wide-angle views of the Continental Divide.

3. Sleep In The Backcountry

Hiker at Lake Odessa in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado Kris Wiktor

Hiker at Lake Odessa in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado

Kris Wiktor

 

Get away from it all by trekking into the backcountry for a single night or several. Rocky Mountain National Park has more than 100 designated wilderness campsites, with options for backpacking newbies, aficionados, and everyone in between.

Baker Gulch to Bowen Gulch is a classic route, following a 19-mile loop through the beautiful Never Summer Wilderness. The trail glides through fields of wildflowers, mixed conifer forests, and popular moose hangouts. Each leg culminates with lakeside camping above 11,000 feet.

Backpacking in RMNP requires careful planning. Choose a route that’s best suited to your fitness level, technical abilities, and schedule. Then make sure to have a permit, trail map, food, and supplies, and, from May through October, the means to hang your food and garbage.

4. Climb a Rocky Cliff

Climber and her climbing buddy on a rock RDaniel

Climber and her climbing buddy on a rock

RDaniel

 

Rocky Mountain National Park is home to some of the nation’s most picturesque and unforgettable rock climbing. With hundreds of routes and boulder problems ranging from beginner to advanced, you’ll find something no matter your max grade. That said, long approaches, standard alpine hazards, and lots of run-outs mean the park’s technical routes aren’t for the faint of heart. But you’re sure to be rewarded with spectacular scenery and classic ascents. Popular areas include Lumpy Ridge and Longs Peak. Be sure to respect the park’s long history and staunch traditional climbing ethic. If you’d like a guide, are new to the sport, or want to further your skills, Colorado Mountain School’s expert guides lead trips in the park.

5. Wildlife Watch (and Listen)

Moose grazing near Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado Kent Kanouse

Moose grazing near Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado

Kent Kanouse

 

The park offers plenty of opportunities to spot wildlife year-round, though fall and winter mark the best seasons to see big mammals.

Early autumn signals elk mating season, and their flamboyant rut takes center stage. From mid-September to mid-October, the large ungulates—bulls can weigh over 1,000 pounds and cows over 500—gather by the tens or hundreds. The males’ distinctive bugles sound from before dusk until dawn. The best locations for elk viewing include: Moraine Park, Horseshoe Park, Upper Beaver Meadows, Harbison Meadow, Holzwarth Meadow, and the Kawuneeche Valley.

Even though these animals aren’t predators, they can still be aggressive, especially if they feel threatened. So don’t get caught up gawping and forget to give them their space!

6. Fish Year-Round

Fly fishing in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado Keith

Fly fishing in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado

Keith

 

Anglers will find an abundance of options throughout Rocky Mountain National Park. Is fly fishing your jam? Try your hand at catch and release in the Big Thompson River, with four species of trout averaging 12 to 16 inches in length. Not a river rat? The park’s stiller waters provide ample opportunities for big lake and wintertime ice fishing. If you left your gear at home, visit one of the local fly shops to rent a rod. Several also offer lessons, as well as guided day trips and overnights.

7. Snowshoe To Great Views

Snowshoer in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado Ellen

Snowshoer in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado

Ellen

 

Don’t let the cold keep you inside! Hiking enthusiasts can don snowshoes and trek atop the powder. Spy the Continental Divide from Deer Mountain’s summit plateau or slip through riverside willow thickets as you ascend to the higher elevation’s pine and aspen glades. Beginners can try tromping around the Bear Lake area or take one of the ranger-led tours that leave from the Kawuneeche Visitor Center.

Winter means you’ll likely have the trails and views to yourself, but the going may be tougher than warm-weather travels. Remember to dress for the low temperatures and, if you’re new to snowshoeing, take it slow and easy. Rentals are available at The Warming House and the Estes Park Mountain Shop.

8. Trot Through The Park

Horseback riding in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado Nelson Sirlin

Horseback riding in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado

Nelson Sirlin

 

People have moved through Rocky Mountain National Park with their equine companions and assistants since its designation more than 100 years ago. Horse-owners can park trailers at Lawn Lake, Lumpy Ridge, Wild Basin Road, Colorado River Trailhead, East Inlet, and Green Mountain. Whether you’re going for a day ride or carrying camping gear, more than 260 miles of trail—80 percent of the park’s network—will be open to you and your steed, and several designated campsites allow overnight stays with stock. If you don’t have a mount of your own, a number of stables within the park and surrounding areas offer guided trail rides for all levels.

9. Wrestle the Rapids

Rafters on Clear Creek in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado Phillip Rubino

Rafters on Clear Creek in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado

Phillip Rubino

 

As the weather warms, adrenaline junkies can raft one of the three rivers that run in or near the park. The Colorado River’s headwaters start in the park itself, while Cache la Poudre—Colorado’s only designated National Wild and Scenic River—and Clear Creek lie to the north and south, respectively. Regardless of your experience level, you’ll find a bevy of rafting companies to choose from. Expert guides will lead you through an afternoon of raging rapids, gentle floats, wildlife watching, and towering canyon walls.

10. Road Bike Up Trail Ridge Road

Mountain biker on a road lightpoet

Mountain biker on a road

lightpoet

 

Looking to test your mind and body? Grab your bike and hit Rocky Mountain National Park’s 48-mile “highway to the sky.” Trail Ridge Road, America’s highest continuous paved road, stretches between Estes Park and Grand Lake, crossing the Continental Divide at 10,758-foot Milner Pass before cresting at 12,183 feet. The six- to seven-percent grades mean steep ascents as you climb from meadows to clifftops, calling for legs of steel and plenty of determination. If you’re looking to test your nerve more than your mettle, consider hiring a local company to ferry you to the top. You can ride Trail Ridge Road from late May to mid-October.

Stacey McKenna

Stacey is a freelance writer covering travel, adventure, health, and social justice. A longtime vagabond, she lived all over the U.S. as well as in France, Austria, Morocco, and Canada before landing in northern Colorado. If not tramping about the U.S. with her husband and dog, she’s probably avoiding winter in the deserts or tropics.

You can read more of her writing at Stacey McKenna Writes, check out her climbing & travel blog and follow her on Twitter.

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