Rocky Mountain National Park

Mt. Meeker & Longs Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park. Over a third of the park is above timberline.

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.


A Clark's Nutcracker at Rainbow Curve.

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.


 Climate Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
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
Precipitation (in) 0 0 0 1 2 2 2 2 1 0 0 0

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.

Get in

Expect steady traffic on Trail Ridge Road, the highest continuous paved road in the United States.

By car

From the west: The Kawuneeche Visitor Center is one mile north of the town of Grand Lake on US-34. Grand Lake can be reached from I-70 via US-40 which runs through Empire and over the Berthoud Pass.

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.

By plane

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.

By foot

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. In addition, there is a $40 pass available that allows entry into Rocky Mountain National Park for one year.

There are several passes that allow free entry for groups traveling together in a private vehicle or individuals on foot or on bike. These passes are valid at all national parks including Rocky Mountain National Park:

In 2016 the National Park Service will offer several days on which entry is free for all national parks: January 18 (Martin Luther King Jr. Day), April 16-24 (National Park Week), August 25-28 (National Park Service's 100th birthday weekend), September 24 (National Public Lands Day), and November 11 (Veterans Day).

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.

Get around

By car

In the summer months, herds of elk move into the high country to graze above timberline.

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:

By shuttle

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.

On foot

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.

By bike

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.


Fireweed sprouts next to a jumble of downed trees along Old Fall River Road.



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.

Easy Hikes

Intermediate Hikes

The falls at the Alluvial Fan, an area still recovering from a massive landslide that occurred in 1982.

Difficult Hikes

Insane Hikes


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.



The view of Grand Lake from the Grand Lake Lodge porch. Built in 1919, the lodge is a classic example of Victorian stick architecture.

Technically, there is no lodging within the park, but the nearby towns of Estes Park and Grand Lake have numerous options.


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.


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:

  1. Include your name, address, zip code and telephone number.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.)
  4. 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 10AM 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.

Stay safe

Due to climate change, pine bark beetles have killed large swathes of pines throughout the park. On windy days, beware of falling trees and "widow maker" branches.

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.

Go next

Routes through Rocky Mountain National Park

Ends at Granby  W  E  Estes Park Loveland
END  NW  SE  Estes Park Denver

This article is issued from Wikivoyage - version of the Monday, July 27, 2015. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.