Bridal Veil Falls // © 2017 Rocky Mountain National Park
Feature image (above): Elk graze in the lush meadows of Moraine Park at Rocky Mountain National Park. // © 2017 Rocky Mountain National Park
More than 100 years ago, former president Woodrow Wilson signed legislation creating Rocky Mountain National Park. Today, the northern Colorado gem is one of America’s most popular national parks. In 2016, more than 4.5 million visitors came here to enjoy its scenic splendor, ample wildlife and myriad recreational activities.
Exploring the attractions of the country’s fourth most-visited national park takes travelers from aspen groves to snowcapped peaks, from wildflower meadows to evergreen forests and from scenic drives surrounded by mountains to hikes along subalpine lakes. Whether it’s low-key fun or adrenaline rushes that clients are after, an exploration of Rocky Mountain National Park brings nature’s beauty into spectacular focus.
Hit the Trails
The national park features more than 300 miles of trails, ranging from relatively flat and short walks to more challenging, steeper treks. Distance and elevation gain are important factors to consider, but nearly everyone, from casual hikers to experienced climbers, can find a suitable trail.
Among the park’s most popular destinations is the nature trail around Bear Lake. The scenic hike is less than a mile long, and there’s a parking lot nearby as well as a shuttle bus stop.
The loop trail around Lake Irene is another short, easy hike. A serene spot for a picnic and with plenty of photo opportunities, the alpine lake is nestled among spruce and fir trees. Picturesque Sprague Lake features a half-mile, handicap-accessible trail. Trees provide ample shade, and there are panoramic views of several peaks and the Continental Divide.
Dream Lake is one of the park’s most popular casual hikes. The 2-mile, roundtrip trek starts at Bear Lake trailhead and passes lily pad-covered Nymph Lake. Scenic views of Longs Peak, Flattop Mountain and Glacier Gorge encourage lingering. Hikers who continue a bit farther will reach Emerald Lake, which offers fantastic views of Hallett Peak.
Before setting off, stop by one of the park’s five visitor centers for maps and trail information. Trailhead parking lots often fill early in the day, but visitors can use park shuttles to get around.
Fun on Wheels
Two popular scenic drives allow visitors to experience the park’s grandeur from the comfort of their car. Open from Memorial Day through mid-October (weather permitting), Trail Ridge Road is the highest continuous paved road in the U.S. It crosses the Continental Divide at Milner Pass and reaches 12,183 feet near Fall River Pass. Along the way, visitors can stop at scenic overlooks. Sweeping views of peaks and valleys and glimpses of wildlife make this 48-mile route one of the West’s most memorable drives.
Another gorgeous drive is the steep, narrow and uphill-only Old Fall River Road. Opened in 1920, the historical route climbs above the tree line to the park’s Alpine Visitor Center. The unpaved, 9-mile road usually opens for the season by July 4 and closes in October.
Several local adventure outfitters offer bike tours and other outings in the park. Clients who want to leave the driving to someone else can see the sights with Green Jeep Tours, which offers guided small-group tours. Prefer pedal power? New Venture Cycling, based in nearby Estes Park, Colo., offers a variety of downhill guided bicycle tours — no technical riding skills necessary.
Wondrous Wildlife, Fall Foliage and More
Other soft adventures include wildlife viewing, fishing and camping. The park has five designated campgrounds, which fill up fast. Guests may want to make reservations several months before their trip. Backcountry camping is also allowed with permits in various sites.
The park is perfect for a leaf-peeping road trip. Fall colors emerge in stages, starting in the tundra region in early September and working their way to down to lower elevations. Winter activities include snowshoeing and cross-country skiing.
A wide variety of animals call the park home, including elk, moose, deer, bighorn sheep, marmots, beavers, hundreds of bird species and more. September and October are prime viewing months for elk. In spring, visitors can view bighorn sheep at Sheep Lakes, a natural mineral lick. Moose are often spotted in the Kawuneeche Valley, and look for deer in open meadows at dusk and dawn. Note: Never approach or feed wildlife, and don’t park on vegetation — use roadside pullouts.
Ranger-led activities provide fun, engaging opportunities to learn more about the park. Options include night-sky programs, guided hikes, twilight walks and presentations on topics such as geology, plants and wildlife.