Rocky Mountain National Park
Rocky Mountain National Park is a United States National Park that is located in the Front Range region of the state of Colorado. The park's borders lie within three counties, Larimer, Boulder, and Grand and it is surrounded by Roosevelt, Arapaho, and Routt National Forests. The Continental Divide cuts almost directly through the center of the park, creating two areas with very different landscapes - a drier and heavily glaciated eastern side, and a wetter, more forested western side. Both areas offer excellent spots for high altitude alpine hiking, backpacking and rock climbing as well as ample opportunity for spotting wildlife. The park is dominated by Longs Peak one of Colorado's 54 "Fourteeners" at 14,259 feet, and dubbed the "Monarch of the Front Range."
Evidence of Native American peoples visiting the park date back almost 10,000 years, mainly from the Ute and Arapaho communities. Several expeditions visited the area in the early to mid 19th century, including one by Joel Estes in 1859 after which he and his family established a homestead that would soon become Estes Park, the resort town that currently sits on the east side of the park. After a small mining rush on the western side of the park in the early 1880s, a 14 year old boy by the name of Enos Mills moved to the area and began to extensively document the region's geography and ecology through essays and books. He began to lobby Congress to establish a national park in the area surrounding Longs Peak, a mountain he had climbed over 40 times by himself. On January 26, 1915, President Woodrow Wilson signed a bill that established the creation of Rocky Mountain National Park. The 1930s brought a building boom to the park during the Great Depression, during which time the Trail Ridge Road was constructed through the park, which remains today the highest continuous stretch of highway in the United States.
Rocky Mountain National Park sits on the Continental Divide, separating the park into two distinct regions. The eastern and more developed side of the park is dominated by striking valleys and cirques that were formed through heavy glaciation and is a good starting point for first-time visitors. The western side of the park is wetter, is heavily forested and is less developed, but still contains excellent trekking and backcountry opportunities. Most areas of the park sit well above 9,000 feet with mountains along the Continental Divide topping off at above 12,000 feet. The 13,000 foot Mummy Range rests on the northern side of Rocky Mountain National Park with two roads skirting long it's southern edges; a one-way, dirt road that winds up the Fall River called the Old Fall River Road; and a section of Highway 34 famously known as the Trail Ridge Road. The Never Summer Mountains sit on the western side of the park and consist of 10 distinct peaks, all rising well over 12,000 feet, and contain the headwaters for the Colorado River. One of the most dominating features in the southeast area of the park is Longs Peak at 14,259 feet, which is surrounded on all sides by several peaks well about 13,000 feet, including Mt. Meeker, Mount Lady Washington, and Storm Peak.
Flora and fauna
For wildlife seekers, Rocky Mountain National Park offers some fantastic opportunities to view the variety of animals that live inside its borders. Elk, deer, chipmunks, ground squirrels, beavers, porcupines, foxes, and coyotes are all commonly seen in meadows and in and around lakes and streams. Marmots seem to be ubiquitous above the tree line, especially on well-hiked trails around Longs Peak. Hawks and eagles are often seen soaring above the glacier gorges in search of critters that hide among the rocks and colorful tree birds such as blue jays and cardinals fly in the lower altitudes. Hummingbirds have a tendency to fly close to where people - and their food - are sitting. Less common animal sightings include black bears and the rare mountain lions, although the former will manage to hang out if human food is accessible. Moose mainly stay on the western side of the park and Bighorn Sheep - a rare but exciting find - stay above the tree line and can sometimes be seen off the Trail Ridge Road.
Wildflowers seem to be everywhere throughout the park, including the popular Indian Paintbrush and Columbine, Colorado's state flower. One of the most spectacular sights in the mid to late fall is to walk through a grove of Aspen trees as their leaves change from green to gold. Ponderosa and Lodgepole pines are the dominate conifer trees in the area, although they have been recently dying in large numbers due to an outbreak of pine beetle infestation.
|Daily highs (°F)||38||40||44||53||62||72||78||76||70||60||46||39|
|Nightly lows (°F)||16||17||20||27||34||41||46||44||37||30||22||17|
The above measurements are for Estes Park. Temperatures in the mountains can be 10-15°F (5-7°C) cooler.
Considering the park's high altitude, the weather trends closer toward moderate four-season climate than edging on the extremes. Winters bring heavy snowfall, and although there is rarely a deep-freeze the park gets significantly less visitors. Summer are the high season with warm temperatures ranging in from mid 70s-80°F during the day, but dropping into the low 40s°F to near freezing. Thunderstorms are constantly looming in the early to mid afternoon during the summer, but clear off quickly by evening, bringing crisp and cool weather.
Highway 34 connects Grand Lake and Estes Park across the Continental Divide, giving you awesome views of the western and eastern sides of the park. A great stopping point along the road is the Alpine Visitor Center at the Fall River Pass, which sits at almost 11,800 feet. Colorado Route 7 runs from Estes Park to the south, passing by several trailheads, including those for Lily Mountain, the Twin Sisters, the Longs Peak Ranger Station and the Wild Basin. Many visitors use Bear Lake or Glacier Gorge as their starting point into the park, both of which can be accessed via the Bear Lake Road. The Beaver Meadows and Moraine Park visitor centers are popular destinations for getting oriented with the park's layout, the former having been designed by students of American architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
From the east: The Beaver Meadows Visitor Center is three miles from downtown Estes Park near the terminus of US-36 and can be reached via several roads. SR-7 runs from Boulder via Lyons and Allenspark along the east side of the park, passing the Longs Peak Ranger Station and intersects US-36 in Estes Park. SR-66/US-36 run from Denver through Longmont up the Big Thompson River canyon. US-34 also intersects US-36 in Estes Park via Loveland and continues on into the park toward the Fall River Visitor Center.
Rental cars are available at the Denver International Airport. If you aren't driving, the Estes Park Shuttle offers reasonable one-way and round-trip rates from DEN to downtown Estes Park.
NOTE: While the park is open year-round, the Trail Ridge Road closes in the winter and may not open until the late spring or early summer, depending on the snowpack.
The nearest major airport is Denver International Airport (IATA: DEN) located about 1 hour and 45 minutes away from the park, with connecting service to most major US cities. A smaller option is Eagle County Regional Airport (IATA: EGE) located near the skiing resorts of Vail and Beaver Creek; however, service to this airport is usually seasonal and confined to the winter months.
There are an extensive number of trails entering the park on all sides including the 3100 mile long Continental Divide Trail.
Entrance fees are $20 per private vehicle or $10 for individuals on foot or on bicycle, valid for seven days. Holders of the National Park Pass ($80, allows entry to all national park areas for one year) do not need to pay an entrance fee. In addition, there is a $40 pass available that allows entry into Rocky Mountain National Park for one year.
If you drive in early in the morning or late at night the fee booth will probably be unmanned. It is rumored that local Larimer County and Grand County residents can pass through the park without paying a fee if they mention that intention to the entrance guards.
Most of the major trailheads in the park are accessible by car and have parking lots depending on the popularity of the route. While parking is relatively ample in the early mornings, many lots are full by mid-morning during the peak summer months. The Trail Ridge Road and Old Fall River Roads are closed during the winter and usually don't reopen till late spring at the earliest. Access to Moraine Park and Bear Lake via the Bear Lake Road are open year-round and plowed.
There are several entrances to the park which do not have fees on the east side of the park:
- Longs Peak Ranger Station road (dead ends at the Longs Peak Ranger Station and trailhead)
- McGraw Ranch road (dead ends at McGraw Ranch and Cow Creek trailhead)
- Lily Lake Visitors Center parking lot (on the right side of SR-7 heading south from Estes Park
- McGregor Ranch Gem Lake entrance (parking lots near Lumpy Ridge trailhead)
Starting around Memorial Day Weekend and going through the end of September, Rocky Mountain National Park operates a free shuttle bus service which enables you to access many destination and loop hikes along Bear Lake Road, including Sprague Lake and Glacier Gorge to cut down on traffic congestion and limited parking. Shuttle buses run between many trailheads, Moraine Park Visitor Center, and Moraine Park and Glacier Basin Campgrounds.
There are two routes: The Bear Lake Route and the Moraine Park Route. Both routes are based at the Park & Ride shuttle bus parking area across from the Glacier Basin Campground. The first bus departs from Park & Ride at 7PM. and the last bus leaves at 7PM. The last bus of the day leaves Bear Lake and Fern Lake Trailheads at 7:30PM. The Bear Lake Route shuttle makes the round trip between the Park & Ride and Bear Lake. These buses run every 10 to 15 minutes. The Moraine Park Route shuttle makes the round trip between the Park & Ride and the Fern Lake Trailhead bus stop. These buses run every 30 minutes.
To experience the true beauty of Rocky Mountain National Park means getting out onto some of the 355 miles of trail that wind in, around and over the Continental Divide, Wild Basin, Mummy Range, and more.
Cycling through the park offers riders a chance to take in some of the scenery and striking vistas at a casual pace; however, some may be daunted by the high altitudes and steep climbs on the main roads. Elevations range from 8,000 feet to 12,183 feet (2,400 to 3,700 m). There are 60 miles (97 km) of hard-surfaced road with a five to seven percent grade. Most of the roads in the park have little to no shoulder, with the added challenge of dealing with heavy summer traffic. Early mornings or late evening rides may minimize conflict with other vehicles. Be vigilant for thunderstorms in the early to late afternoons, where lightning can create a serious hazard.
Winter cyclists will have access to Upper Beaver Meadows Road, Moraine Park Campground, Endovalley Road, Aspenglen Campground and High Drive. For a unique cycling experience, check with the park information office for specifics on the Old Fall River Road (gravel surface) and Trail Ridge Road (paved), which are open to bicycles early in the summer season, before they open to vehicles.
Off-road mountain biking is prohibited inside the park.
- Alpine Visitor Center (at Fall River Pass at the junction of Trail Ridge and Old Fall River roads). Open daily May 28 - October 11 (2010 season). This visitor center offers ranger-led walks in the Land Above the Trees and exhibits on the alpine tundra. There is a book store and snack shop as well as accessible restrooms and vault toilets.
- Beaver Meadows Visitor Center (on U.S. Route 36, three miles from the town of Estes Park). Open Year-round (Closed Christmas Day). Offers a 20-minute film on the park (show times on the hour and half-hour throughout the day). Rangers can also provide information on what to do in the park. A bookstore offers items for purchase, and there are handicapped accessible restrooms available.
- Fall River Visitor Center (on U.S. Route 34, five miles west of the town of Estes Park, near the Fall River Entrance to the park). Open All Year. Offers exhibits about park wildlife, children's exhibits, and rangers can provide tips about what to do in the park. A bookstore offers items for purchase. Handicapped accessible and family restrooms are available.
- Kawuneeche Visitor Center (one mile north of the town of Grand Lake on U.S. Route 34 at the entrance to the park). Open All Year (Closed Christmas Day). Offers daily ranger walks and illustrated programs on Saturday night. A 20-minute film on the park is also shown on request. Displays include a topographical relief map of the park and exhibits about the Colorado River and its people. A bookstore offers items for purchase and handicapped accessible restrooms are available.
- Moraine Park Visitor Center (off the Bear Lake Road, 1 1/2 miles from the Beaver Meadows Entrance). Open May 1 through October 11 (2010 season). Offers natural history exhibits and a half-mile nature trail. There is also a bookstore with items for purchase.
The park offers 359 miles of trail to hikers, backpackers and horseback riders. Difficulty levels range from the half mile wheelchair accessible jaunt around Bear Lake to the backbreaking 'Mummy Kill', recommended only for those with years of mountaineering experience or a death wish. A few of the most memorable hikes are listed below. Many of the trails in the Eastern Part of the Park can be reached via shuttle buses. Note that snow conditions should be considered before hiking as higher elevations will be snow-covered later into the year.
- Bierstadt Lake (Trailhead is shuttle bus accessible) A beautiful morning hike, this Lake is situated on top of Bierstadt Moraine giving brilliant views of Longs and the Front Range. As three separate routes converge on this lake, all of which lead to Shuttle Bus serviced trailheads, this hike can be done many different ways or even tacked onto a bigger venture. Arguably the best route is from the Bear Lake Trailhead to the Shuttle Parking Lot as this 4.5 mile stroll is mostly downhill. Walk down, take the bus back up.
- Lily Mountain This short hike leads to the top of a foothill near the edge of the park that gives a great view of the front range. A 3 mile hike, the trail is really close to the edge of the park which spoils some of the wilderness feeling you can get far inside the park, however the view from the top is more than worth it. The Lily Mountain Trailhead can be found a little ways south of Estes Park along Route 7.
- Emerald Lake (Trailhead is shuttle bus accessible) A beautiful tarn in the shadow of Hallets and Flattop, the hike up with take you past three other lakes (Bear, Nymph, and Dream) on route from the Bear Lake Trailhead. Although this trail can get crowded, an early morning start can give you relative solitude on what many people conclude is the best short hike (under four miles) in the park.
- Sky Pond (Trailhead is shuttle bus accessible) Definitely the most crowded hike given its difficulty in the entire park with good reason. The vast number of features along this hike make it a favorite of many with two waterfalls and three lakes surrounded by increasingly shear and spectacular mountains. If there seems to be a lot of people, do not be discouraged. Beyond Timberline Falls the number of hikers reduce, as many are turned away by the short scramble up the side of falls. The Hike leaves from the Glacier Gorge Trailhead and is nine miles in length.
- Fern Odessa Loop (Trailhead is shuttle bus accessible) This 7 mile trail consists of hiking from the Bear Lake Trailhead down to the Fern Lake Trailhead and taking the shuttle buses back. Not only will you not need to backtrack on this trail, it has several optional side hikes such as Spruce Lake that you can take if you are feeling better than expected. Look forward to hiking across some snowfields as the northern flank of Flattop seems to gather a lot of them.
- Flattop and Hallett (Trailhead is shuttle bus accessible) The easiest peak in the park is Flattop Mountain, a 9 miler round trip up from the Bear Lake Trailhead. Although the route up is spectacular, the summit itself is less so though making the half mile walk to Hallett Peak more than worth it. However, even though it is the easiest of the main summits in the park, even Flattop must be respected. People have died on this hike, mostly because they summitted too late and the weather closed in.
- Bluebird Lake One of those destinations which is absolutely assured to make you gasp in amazement the first time you see it. Not only is the Lake itself magnificent the hike up is fantastic as well passing by three major waterfalls and magnificent views. The only question is if you can foot the 12 miles round trip distance from Wild Basin Trailhead and back.
- The CCY Also known as 'Chapin, Chaquita, Ypsilon' takes in three peaks in less than 9 miles, rising to 13514 ft. Rising from Chapin Pass Trailhead on Fall River Road this hike is a local favorite with spectacular views of the entire park. Be wary of the volatile weather of the Mummy Range and do not be afraid to turn back with dark clouds approaching. Getting stuck up here in a storm is no picnic.
- Shelf and Solitude Lakes (Trailhead is shuttle bus accessible) Considered by many the best alpine lake hike in the book, and for good reason. This hanging valley off Glacier Gorge is truly a magical place, but the approach is dfficult at best. A nine mile round trip jaunt from the Glacier Gorge Trailhead on Bear Lake Road the last mile to the lakes leaves the main trail at an easily missed turnoff before climbing an extremely steep slope. If you are unable to find the turn off do not feel bad about continuing on the main trail to Black Lake, a spectacular lake in its own right.
- Longs Peak via the Keyhole Route A classic 16 mile route allowing you to conquer this 14259 footer, the roof of Rocky Mountain National Park. This hike requires an early start from the Longs Peak Trailhead (head south on Route 7 from Estes Park), early as in 4 am. The last portion of the ascent crosses high above glacier gorge and will either permanently cure, or reinforce, your fear of heights. However, this section is not as dangerous as it seems. The largest danger manifests itself through the non prepared hikers who throng to this trail and have no business being on the mountain.
- Continental Traverse This hike begins at the Milner Pass Trailhead and continues from their along the continental divide before descending via the Flattop Mountain Trailhead to Bear Lake Trailhead 20 MILES LATER. You must be in prime physical condition, be completely acclimated, start at an absurdly early hour, and have extremely good luck as far as weather goes in order to make this work. If you can make this work you will see some areas of the park which very few people get to see, but if weather forces you off the ridge get ready for a long slog to the Kewaunchee Valley to get out.
- McHenrys Peak (Trailhead is shuttle bus accessible) Climb up past Black Lake in Glacier Gorge and past where the trail ends. Go higher and even higher past Frozen Lake. Climb over Stone Man's Pass, which except for a few weeks in late August requires crampons. Then continue up the mountain over extremely exposed class three climbing. That is McHenrys Peak. This 13327 footer is the most difficult non technical (and that's pushing it) peak in the park. However, this 16 mile hike is considered a gem to those with the wherewithal to complete it, unlocking some of the most spectacular views in the Front Range.
Most of the visitor centers offer books and other items for purchase, and there is a gift shop located next door to the Fall River Visitor Center.
Snacks are available for purchase at the Alpine Visitor Center, and there is a snack shop located next door to the Fall River Visitor Center. There are no sit-down restaurants inside of the park, but the neighboring towns of Estes Park and Grand Lake have numerous options.
There is no wine or alcohol for sale anywhere in the park. Beverages may be purchased at the snack bar next to the Fall River Visitor Center or at the Alpine Visitor Center. Water is available at the entrance station and visitor centers, and during summer months at the campgrounds.
- Grand Lake Lodge, 15500 U.S. 34, Grand Lake, Colorado (Located East of Trail Ridge Road near Grand Lake, Colorado), ☎ . Situated on an island of private land within the park, and a short distance from the Southwest entrance and Kawuneeche Visitor Center, the historic Grand Lake Lodge is emerging from financial difficulties. Its cabins are scheduled to reopen summer 2011, with the lodge taking reservations for the 2011 season beginning September 2010.
There are five drive-in campgrounds and two group camping areas in the park (one group campground is winter only, one is summer only). Three campgrounds, Moraine Park, Glacier Basin, and Aspenglen, take reservations, as does the group-camping area at Glacier Basin. Other park campgrounds are first-come, first-served, and fill on most summer days. There are no electric, water or sewer hookups at any campsites. The water is turned off in the winter at all year-round campgrounds but drinking water is available at entrance stations and open visitor centers.
- Aspenglen Campground (located on U.S. Highway 34 just west of the Fall River Entrance Station). Located at 8200 ft elevation, with 54 sites. The campground is seasonal, opening (in 2010) on May 26 and closing on September 25. Reservations accepted and recommended. Recreational vehicle and trailer length limit is 30 feet. The A Loop is for tents only, including walk-ins, the B Loop does not allow generators allowed, and the C Loop allows generators. $20 per night.
- Glacier Basin Campground (located on Bear Lake Road approximately six miles south of the Beaver Meadows Entrance Station). Located at 8500 ft elevation with 150 sites. The campground is seasonal, opening (in 2010) on May 26 and closing on September. Reservations available and recommended for Loops C & D; A & B Loops will be first-come, first-served. Recreational vehicle and trailer length limit is 35 feet and shuttle bus access is available. $20 per night.
- Glacier Basin Group Sites. Reservations accepted and recommended. This group campground is tent-only. The small sites (#1 & 13) fit 9 - 15 people and a maximum of three vehicles. The medium sites (#2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 10, 11 & 12) fit 16-25 people and a maximum of four vehicles. The large sites (7, 8 & 9) fit 26- 40 people and a maximum of five vehicles. There is no limit on number of tents, but no more than five vehicles per site are allowed. $3 per person.
- Longs Peak Campground (located approximately nine miles south of the town of Estes Park on Route 7). Located at 9500 ft elevation and open year-round, this tent-only campground has 26 sites. All sites are first-come, first-served (no reservations taken). The trailhead to Longs Peak and other destinations is a short distance away. $20 per night when water is on (late May-mid thru September) and $14 per night when water is off.
- Moraine Park Campground (located in a ponderosa pine forest above the meadows of Moraine Park on Bear Lake Road approximately two and a half miles south of the Beaver Meadows Entrance Station). Located at 8160 ft elevation, this campground is open year-round and has 245 sites. Reservations accepted and recommended from May 26 to October 4, 2010, and it is first-come, first-served the remainder of the year. There is a recreational vehicle and trailer length limit is 40 feet. Trails from the campground connect to numerous other trails, and shuttle bus access is available. This campground is well-situated for exploring the eastern part of the park and is very clean. There are no showers at the campground you have to go in to Estes Park - find them at laundromat in the same shopping centre as the Safeways. $20 per night during the reservation period and when water is on; $14 per night the rest of the year.
- Moraine Park Group Sites. Open winter only, this tent-only group site is first-come, first-served. The small sites fit 10 - 15 people, medium sites 16-25 people, and large sites 26 - 40 people. There is no limit on number of tents, but no more than five vehicles per site are allowed. $3 per person.
- Timber Creek Campground (located along the Colorado River in the Kawuneeche Valley on U.S. Highway 34 approximately 10 miles north of Grand Lake). Located at 8900 ft elevation with 98 sites. This campground is open year-round starting on May 28, 2010. It is first-come, first-served, with no reservations taken. There is a recreational vehicle and trailer length limit of 30 feet. $20 per night when water is on; $14 per night when water is off.
You must have a backcountry/wilderness permit to camp overnight in the park's backcountry/wilderness. You can pick one up at the Headquarters Backcountry Office or at the Kawuneeche Visitor Center. To minimize impacts on the park's resources, the number of permits issued is limited. You may obtain day-of-trip permits in person year round. You may make reservations by mail or in person anytime after March 1 for a permit for that calendar year. You may make reservations by phone from March 1 to May 15 and anytime after October 1 for a permit for that calendar year.
Backcountry/Wilderness Permits Rocky Mountain National Park Estes Park, CO 80517
You can also call the backcountry office at (970) 586-1242 to reserve a permit. For all reservations:
- Include your name, address, zip code and telephone number.
- List an itinerary with dates corresponding to campsites or crosscountry area where you plan to stay. If you plan to stay in a crosscountry area, indicate the area(s) and elevation where you wish to camp.
- Specify the number of people that will be in your party. (Limit of 7 per party for individual campsites and crosscountry areas. Limit of 12 per party for group campsites.)
- There is a $20 administrative fee for permits during peak season periods (non-refundable). Fees are not to be sent when requesting reservations, but are payable (by cash or check only) when the permit is issued.
During the busy summer months, if you have a permit reservation, you must pick up the permit by 10 AM on the first day of your planned backcountry/wilderness stay, otherwise, the permit will be cancelled in its entirety, and given to other backpackers. If you know you will not be using your permit, please cancel your reservation as soon as possible.
The greatest danger to most park visitors is due to altitude. The entire park is above 7,500 feet and ranges as high as 14,259 feet, so it is important to take time to acclimate before undertaking strenuous activities. Even driving at high elevation can affect sensitive individuals. Altitude sickness symptoms include shortness of breath, fatigue, dizziness, nausea, rapid heartbeat and insomnia. Also note that high elevation increases the chance of dehydration, severe sunburn, and the aggravation of pre-existing medical conditions. Drink several quarts of water per day to ward off dehydration. Wear and reapply sunscreen often. If you begin to feel sick or experience any physical problems descend to lower elevations.
In addition, be aware of the weather. A bright, sunny day can turn windy and wet within a matter of minutes with high winds and driving rain or snow. Be prepared for changing conditions by dressing in layers and always carrying gear appropriate for both cold, wet weather and bright, sunny conditions. If caught in a lightning storm above treeline get away from summits and isolated trees and rocks and find shelter (but avoid small cave entrances and overhangs) and crouch down on your heels.
Other park dangers include wildlife - never feed wild animals, and always give them their space. Animals are unpredictable, particularly if they feel threatened, and even a deer is capable of killing a human. To protect against larger predators like bears and mountain lions make noise while hiking to avoid startling an animal, and use bear-proof containers to store anything with a scent; this includes food, toothpaste, deodorant, empty food wrappers, or anything else that might attract a bear's interest.
Park streams may contains giardia and other water borne diseases, so always purify water before drinking. Be careful on snowfields, particularly on steep slopes where avalanche dangers may be high.
- Estes Park - This mountain town borders the park to the east of the park, offering lodging, food and shopping options.
- Grand Lake - Bordering the park to the west, this town also offers amenities for travelers.
|Routes through Rocky Mountain National Park|
|Ends at ← Granby ←||W E||→ Estes Park → Loveland|
|END ←||NW SE||→ Estes Park → Denver|