After spending a short time in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, it’s very easy to see why John Denver wrote a beautiful song about them. It’s just about impossible not to feel a natural high from spending a few minutes surrounded by the red rock canyons and pine forests and wide-open meadows and towering peaks that comprise the Colorado Rockies.
Apparently most people agree, because Rocky Mountain High was actually adopted as Colorado’s second official state song in 2007 (much to the chagrin of a few lawmakers at the time, who thought the “high” he was referring to was a reference to drugs…).
There are thousands upon thousands of hiking possibilities here, and there’s no way we’ll ever explore them all. But Rocky Mountain National Park in particular has many hiking trails and I’ve made it my goal to hike as many of them as I can. As I complete each one, I’ll be adding them to a “Rocky Mountain National Park Hikes” series of posts, the first of which will be up next week!
But for today, I want to focus primarily on the non-hiking aspects of this incredible park.
Rocky Mountain National Park is less than 2 hours northwest of Denver, just outside the beautiful tourist town of Estes Park. The park is at very high elevation – over 8,000 feet (2400 m), to be exact – so for anyone coming from lower elevations, hiking may not be the most feasible of plans. Fortunately, there are many things to do that don’t involve venturing too far from the car.
There are 3 main campgrounds in the park – Glacier Basin, Moraine Park, and Aspenglen – all of which require reservations in the summer and fill to capacity nearly every night. I’ve camped at Moraine Park and Glacier Basin; both are large, with a variety of sites, running water, and bathrooms. There are no hookups or showers in the park, and only Moraine Park campground remains open in the winter.
I’ve not stayed at Aspenglen, but I’ve driven through it and it looks nice. It’s much smaller and more out of the way as compared to the other two campgrounds. Some of the sites are very hot and sunny, but there are some shady sites near the Fall River too. In fact, this is the only campground with waterfront sites.
There are also two non-reservable campgrounds – one on the east side (Longs Peak Campground) and one on the west side (Timber Creek Campground) of the park – that are significantly smaller, making it difficult to secure a site. However, there are many camping and lodging options in Estes Park and the surrounding national forest as well.
Most people who come to Rocky flock to the main tourist attractions, and while these locations are definitely deserving of the hype, there are also a lot of less popular options that are just as beautiful! For example, I recommend taking the time to drive some of the small dirt roads out to the picnic areas. You’ll find yourself away from the crowds but surrounded by the same beautiful high mountain views.
Much of the traffic at Rocky will be on Bear Lake road, as this is where many of the hiking trails are. I’ll be discussing these hikes in detail at a later date, but for today I do want to mention Bear Lake and Sprague Lake.
Bear Lake is all the way at the end of the road and is best accessed using the free park shuttle. From the drop off point, it’s about a 2 minute walk to the lake. Bear Lake is accessible year round, unless inclement weather temporarily closes Bear Lake Road.
Sprague Lake is located about halfway down Bear Lake Road and is not on the shuttle route, so this one is best accessed by car. This is also about a 2 minute walk, with the option to continue on the flat, handicap accessible 0.75 mile (1.2 km) trail that encircles the lake.
The other main highlight of Rocky is Trail Ridge Road – the main road through the park that tops out at over 12,000 feet (3600 m). It’s a steep, curvy drive that can be daunting for those not familiar with mountain driving (hint: when you’re going downhill, shift into a lower gear to avoid burning out your brakes). But for those willing to tackle it, the views are incredible!
At the high point of the road is the Alpine Visitor Center, viewpoints, and a couple trails through the tundra (please stay on the trails; due to the extremely harsh environment the tundra is exceptionally fragile, and it can take years for a plant to recover from being crushed by your foot). And if you’re lucky, you may glimpse big horn sheep, mountain goats, marmots, and – my personal favorite – pikas!
A second, much more primitive route to the summit is via Old Fall River Road. This was the original route to the top before Trail Ridge Road was constructed. Today, it’s a one-way dirt road leading from the eastern side of the park up to the Alpine Visitor Center, where it connects with Trail Ridge Road. The road is reasonably well-maintained and AWD, 4WD, or high clearance is not necessary. Be aware that both Trail Ridge and Old Fall River Roads close in the winter.
The first two attractions of Old Fall River Road are an alluvial fan and waterfall formed by massive floods in 1985 and 2013. From the parking area, it’s just a short walk out to both. Alluvial Fan has been under construction since the 2013 flood completely washed out the area, but they spent summer 2019 paving and rebuilding bridges so it should be completed and handicap accessible now.
Chasm Falls, just a short distance up the road, is not handicap accessible or paved, but a short walk complete with boulders and logs to navigate will bring you up to the viewing platform.
Beyond these waterfalls the road continues to zig zag its way up to the Alpine Visitor Center, and the views get progressively better as you climb.
From the Alpine Visitor Center, Trail Ridge Road then descends down the west side of the continental divide, taking you into the Kawuneeche Valley. I haven’t spent as much time on this side of the park simply because it’s a decent drive to get all the way up and over there. This appears to be the case for most people; this side is significantly less crowded.
The Kawuneeche Valley is cut by the Colorado River, and boy does the Colorado River look drastically different up here near its headwaters than it does down south in the Grand Canyon.
Further along is the parking area for the Holzwarth Historic Site. This old ranch was founded in 1917 under the Homestead Act by a family of German immigrants. They eventually expanded their homestead to include guest cabins and purchased an adjacent homestead as well, turning it into a dude ranch.
In 1974, the ranch and adjoining land was sold to The Nature Conservancy before becoming part of Rocky Mountain National Park. Today at the site you can tour some of the buildings, chat with rangers and volunteers about life on the ranch 100+ years ago, and try your hand at some old-fashioned games and lassoing.
Spoiler alert: Lassoing is exceptionally difficult. I couldn’t even manage to get the rope around a small stationary wooden horse. And yes, I looked like a complete doofus during my failed attempts.
Continuing along Trail Ridge Road, you will eventually arrive at the Kawuneeche Visitor Center and the western entrance to the park. Just outside the park is the town of Grand Lake. A couple trailheads leave from the edge of town and head back into the park. One nice, short option is the 0.6 mile (1 km) round trip walk up the East Inlet Trail to Adams Falls.
From Grand Lake, the road continues south into the surrounding mountains, where numerous other opportunities await. I haven’t explored this region too much, but it’s an area I’m hoping to spend some time visiting in the near future.
The Important Stuff:
- Getting there: the eastern entrance of RMNP is just beyond the town of Estes Park in north-central Colorado; the western entrance is located just north of the town of Grand Lake
- Fees and passes: $25/car for a day pass or $35/car for a 7-day pass; interagency annual passes accepted
- Places to Stay: there are 3 reservable campgrounds and 2 non-reservable campgrounds in the park, as well as numerous public and private campgrounds outside both entrances. Cabins, hotels, and other lodging options can be found in Estes Park and Grand Lake; fees vary
- Hiking: there are so many hiking opportunities in RMNP; I didn’t discuss any of them here, but more information can be found here, and my personal accounts of the various trails will be added to my Rocky Mountain National Park Hikes series as I complete them
- Other: I don’t think anyone can ever stress enough how rugged and wild these mountains are. It rarely gets above 75°F (24°C) and cools down to 40-50°F (4-10°C) overnight in the summer, it’s almost always windy, the sun is extremely intense, the weather changes on a dime, and the lightning/thunderstorms here are no joke. Pack layers, rain gear, sun protection, and if there are clouds rolling in get down below tree line and seek shelter ASAP!