National Parks

9 Musts for Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park
At the top of Colorado at Rocky Mountain National Park. credit: Pixabay

Rocky Mountain National Park

At the top of the Colorado, both in location and height, see rugged wilderness and wildlife along with over 70 mountain tops over 12,000. Take Trail Ridge Road to bisect the park from east to west and stop at the highest visitor center in the National Park Service. During your visit, take a hike or skip a rock at one of the numerous lakes in the park. Here’s what you need to know to plan a trip to Rocky Mountain National Park along with the top things to do in Rocky Mountain National Park. 

Year Established: 1915
Located: Northern Colorado
Size: over 265,000 acres
Top Features: Trail Ridge Road, Wildlife viewing and Mountain views 

Top Things in Rocky Mountain National Park 

  • Stop at a Visitor Center
  • Drive a scenic road, like Trail Ridge Road, the highest paved road in the U.S.
  • See over 70 peaks over 12,000 feet 
  • Glance at the Headwaters of the Colorado River that carves the Grand Canyon
  • See a pristine mountain lake
  • Find a Continental Divide sign, it bisects the park from North to South
  • Learn about rugged mountain living at the Holzwarth Historic Site
  • Picnic in the park
  • Earn a Junior Ranger Badge

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Visitor Centers in Rocky Mountain National Park 

Find five visitor centers in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Beaver Meadows Visitor Center

Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright’s school of architecture in 1967, the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center is National Historic Landmark. As the main visitor center, it’s open year-round with seasonal hours. 

Located at 1000 U.S. Highway 36 in Estes Park. During the summer, it’s open from 8 a.m. until 6 p.m. The winter hours are 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Fall River Visitor Center 

Home to the Rocky Mountain Conservancy Center.

Located at 3450 Fall River Road. The Fall River Visitor Center is open year-round from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. 

Alpine Visitor Center 

The Alpine Visitor Center is the highest visitor center in the National Park Service system at 11,796 feet (3,595 m). It’s a seasonal visitor center since snow comes early and stays around until late spring. 

Located along Trail Ridge Road, the Alpine Visitor Center is open from late May until mid-October from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. 

Holzwarth Historic Site

A 1920s dude ranch with interpretive displays that you can tour. 

Located on the western portion of the park, north of the Grand Lake Entrance. The site is open year-round. 

Kawuneeche Visitor Center 

At the Grand Lake Entrance, for visitors entering from the west side of the park. 

Located at 16018 U.S. Highway 34. Open year round from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. with reduced hours during the fall, winter and spring. 

Moraine Park Discovery Center 

Historic building with views of aspen 

Located along Bear Lake Road and open during the summer and fall only from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. 

Sheep Lakes Information Station

See wildlife in this area and the best place to see sheep.

Located along U.S. Highway 34 west of Estes Park in Horseshoe Park. Open 24 hours a day. 

Rocky Mountain Bus
Take the Rocky Mountain shuttle bus. credit: Pixabay

How to Visit Rocky Mountain National Park in 2021

To visit Rocky Mountain National Park during its peak season, day visitors will need a timed entry to visit Rocky Mountain National Park from May 28th until October 11th. Two permits are available, Bear Lake Corridor and a General Rocky Mountain National Park. The permits offer a 2-hour window of availability to enter the park or area.

The Bear Lake Corridor includes access to Bear Lake Road, Moraine Park, Moraine Park Discovery Center, Glacier Basin and Sprague Lake. This permit is needed from 5 a.m. to 6 p.m. (basically all day) and should be purchased in advance. You can use this permit to continue west along Trail Ridge Road. 

A general Rocky Mountain National Park (excluding the Bear Lake area)  timed permit will be required from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. 

The timed entry fee is $2 and this is in addition to the general Rocky Mountain National Park entrance fee. A 1-day admission is $25 per car and a 7-day pass is $35. All NPS annual passes are honored at entrances though you will need the $2 timed entry permit.

Note: In October 2020, two wildfires broke out and burned a portion on the park. The Western Entrance, near Grand Lake, was effected along the northern portion of the park. Trail Ridge Road is open though stopping is discouraged from Grand Lake Entrance to Onahu Trail.

Bear Lake area trails remained closed, like Fern Lake Trail, Mill Creek Basin and Hollowell Park.

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Scenic Drives in Rocky Mountains National Park 

Trail Ridge Road—Built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Depression. It’s a 48-mile- long (77 km) paved road that connects Estes Park entrance with the Grand Lake entrance. Eleven of its miles are above the tree line (11,500ft/3,505m in the park). It crosses Milner Pass (10,759ft/3,279m) and the Continental Divide. It’s the highest continuous highway in the U.S. 

Opens in May and closes October due to snow. The Alpine Visitor Center features information and restrooms.

Old Fall River Road—Opened in 1920, it was the first road in Rocky Mountain National Park. It’s an 11-mile route that’s one-way and surfaced with gravel. With a speed limit of 15 mph and no guard rails, it’s not for everyone though travels to Fall River Pass at 11,796 ft (3,595 m). 

Bear Lake Road—A 10.5-mile (16.8 km) road from Moraine Lake Visitor Center to Bear Lake. Consider the Shuttle Bus for this road

Bear Lake Road Shuttle Bus

Note—15-passenger limit on each bus. Rocky Mountain National Park offers two shuttle routes—Bear Lake route and Moraine Lake route. Each shuttle operates from 6:30 a.m. until 7:30 p.m. from the end of May until mid-October. 

Top Mountain Peaks in Rocky Mountain National Park

Drive down Trail Ridge Road to see mountain peaks from your car. The western portion of Rocky Mountain National Park also has several.

  • Sundance Mountain
  • McGregor Mountain
  • Deer Mountain 
  • Green Mountain

Continental Divide 

It’s the line that divides the Atlantic and Pacific watersheds in North America. Find the Continental Divide on the western side of Rocky Mountain National Park. To snap a picture of the brown sign, stop at Milner Pass, just north of the Holzwarth Historic Site.

The Continental Divide National Scenic Trail (CDNST) is a 3,100 mile long distance trail from the Canadian border in Montana to the Mexican border in New Mexico. It runs through Rocky Mountain National Park and offers two loops, both of which travel at elevations from 8,000 feet to 11,000 feet.

Best and Easiest Lakes to See

During your visit to Rocky Mountain National Park, see one its pristine alpine lakes.

  • Bear Lake
  • Sprague Lake
  • Lily Lake
  • Bierstadt Lake
  • Dream Lake
  • Emerald Lake
Hiking Trail Rocky Mountains
Take a hike to see the backcountry. credit: Pixabay

Hiking in Rocky Mountain

Find over 350 miles of hiking trails in Rocky Mountain National Park. Here’s some of the easiest hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park. 

Bear Lake—A flat .6-mile loop

Sprague Lake Loop—A flat .5-mile loop (closed for 2021 due to 2020 fire)

Lily Lake Loop—An accessible .8-mile loop

Holzwarth Historic Site—An accessible 1.0-mile walk

The Continental Divide Trail

Biking in Rocky Mountain National Park

Biking is permitted on Trail Ridge Road and Old Fall River Road. Though guard rails aren’t available and the shoulder is narrow so use caution. Shuttle buses do not have bike racks.

Fishing in Rocky Mountain National Park

With over 50 lakes in Rocky Mountain National Park, find four varieties of trout. Fishing is permitted in the park though some areas are closed for fishing. Other lakes and springs offer catch-and-release fishing only. Some lakes have size, weight and number limits.

A valid Colorado fishing license is required for those 16-years-old and older. Check in at the visitor center to find a river or lake open for fishing.

Horseback Riding in Rocky Mountain

Find two stables in Rocky Mountain National Park, Moraine Park and Glacier Creek with seasonal horseback rides. Find 30-minute rides along with one and two-hour rides. Reservations required through the concessionaire, Sombrero Stables. Riders must be six-years-old.

Horseback riding is permitted. Or bring your llama to pack your gear on your hike.

Rock Climbing in Rocky Mountain National Park

Not for the novice climber, though Longs Peak (highest peak in the park) is popular along with Hallett Peak.

Bouldering is popular at Rocky Mountain National Park, consider Emerald Lake.


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Where to Picnic in Rocky Mountain 

Find develop picnic areas with tables across the park.

East Side 
  • Beaver Meadows Visitor Center
  • Big Thompson/Kaley Cottages
  • Endovalley
  • Hidden Valley
  • Hallowell Park
  • Lake Lawn Trailhead
  • Lily Lake
  • Longs Peak Ranger Station
  • Park and Ride
  • Sprague Lake
  • Tuxudo Park
  • Upper Beaver Meadows
  • West Alluvial Fan 
  • Wild Basin Trailhead
West Side
  • Beaver Creek
  • Beaver Ponds
  • Bowen/Baker
  • Colorado River
  • Coyote Valley
  • Harbison Meadows
  • Holzwarth Historic Site
  • Kanwuneeke Visitor Center
  • Lake Irene
  • Timber Lake Trailhead

 Holzwarth Historic Site

On the western side of the park, visit  the Holzwarth site to learn about homesteading in the Rocky Mountains. The Holzwarth family moved to the area in 1917 in the Kanwuneeke Valley. Over the years, the family would develop the site and it would welcome visitors during the summer. In 1974, The Nature Conservancy purchased the site and donated it to the National Park Service. It offers daily tours during the summer season.

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Junior Rangers
The Carful of Kids have earned Junior Ranger badges since our first road trip. credit: Catherine Parker

Rocky Mountain National Park with Kids

The Junior Ranger Program is the go-to program for families to learn more about Rocky Mountain National Park. It’s free and takes about two hours to complete. My kids love the badges that the Rangers present them after completing their booklet. 

Pick up a booklet at any visitor center then complete the age-appropriate activities. Return for a souvenir badge and certificate. 

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Fall Color in the Rocky Mountains

As the season officially changes from summer to fall so do the trees. The quaking Aspen start to mellow into its signature gold color in middle to late September until mid October, depending on weather and elevation. 

The easier way to experience fall color season is a scenic drive, like Trail Ridge Road. Though hiking is another way to enjoy the cool weather and brilliant fall color. Try Sprague Lake, Bear Lake or Albert Falls for the best color. 

Winter in Rocky Mountain National Park

It snows a lot in the Rocky Mountains and the west side of the park gets more snow than the east. Trail Ridge Road shuts down for the season in the fall and doesn’t open again until late spring.

Snowshoeing and winter hiking is available. Several popular trails are open like Upper Beaver Meadows or Gem Lake Trail.  

Cross Country Skiing is permitted across the park during the winter. Though the Park Service doesn’t groom trails.

Sledding is allowed at Hidden Valley. Bring your own plastic saucer sled. 

Elk in Rocky Mountain
Elk are plentiful in Rocky Mountain National Park. credit: Pixabay

Wildlife Viewing in Rocky Mountains

  • Elk—Throughout Park
  • Moose—Along Colorado River in the Kawuneeche Valley  
  • Black Bear
  • Big horn sheep—At Sheep Lakes 
  • Canadian Lynx
  • Cougars
  • Note: Grizzly bears were removed from the park in the early 1900s along with wolverines. 

Bears in the Rockies 

Though encounters are rare, Park Rangers offer some guidelines to reduce bear encounters:

  • Remain observant. 
  • Hike in groups.
  • Keep campsites clean.
  • Make noise while hiking by wearing bear bells and talking.
  • Don’t approach bears or let bears approach you. 
  • If a bear notices you, you are too close. Back away slowly and if attacked, fight back. Don’t play dead.

Where to Sleep in Rocky Mountain National Park 

Rocky Mountain National Park feature traditional national park lodges inside the park. Find lots campsites if you want to spend the night.

Aspenglen Campground Near Fall River entrance

  • Seasonal from May until October
  • Reservations recommended 
  • 52 sites without hook-ups 
  • Potable water and flush toilets
  • No showers or dump station

Glacier Basin Campground 

  • Seasonal from May until October
  • Reservations recommended
  • 150 sites without hook-ups
  • Potable water and flush toilets
  • No showers 
  • Dump station 

Longs Peak Campground 

  • Seasonal from May until October
  • First-come, first-serve
  • 26 tent only sites without hook-ups
  • Potable water and vault toilets

Timber Creek Campground on west side of park 

  • Seasonal from May until October
  • First-come, first-serve
  • 98 sites without hook-ups
  • Potable water and flush toilets
  • No showers 
  • Dump station

Morraine Park Campground **Closed due to recent Fire

  • Open year-round
  • Reservations recommended
  • 244 sites without hook-ups
  • Seasonal potable water and seasonal flush toilets
  • Year-round vault toilets
  • No showers
  • Seasonal dump station

East Entrance vs. West Entrance

Since 80% of the visitors use the eastern entrance, consider entering Rocky Mountain National Park’s western entrance near Grand Lake. Especially if you didn’t reserve a Day Use Pass for entering the park, enter on the western portion of Rocky Mountain National Park before 9 a.m. and a timed entry pass isn’t required. The western portion of the park sustained fire damage in 2020 though the areas that didn’t as less crowded that the eastern portion of the park. 

Altitude Sickness

Anytime you go above 8,000 feet, you can experience Altitude Sickness. Look for the following symptoms. If can effect anyone, regardless of age or health. 

  • Headache
  • nausea
  • dizziness
  • vomiting
  • fatigue
  • shortness of breath
  • loss of appetite 
  • trouble sleeping 

Over-the-counter medications can help and symptoms should improve in 24 or 48 hours. Though if symptoms don’t improve or get worse, consult a medical attention.

How to Get to Rocky Mountain National Park

Estes Park is about 5 miles from the Fall River Entrance on the east side of Rocky Mountain National Park. Granby is about 16 miles from the Grand Lake Entrance on the west side of the park. Denver is approximately 70 miles from the Fall River Entrance.

Rocky Mountain National Park is open 24-hours a day, 365-days a year. A one-day admission is $25 per car or a 7-day pass is $35. You can use a NPS annual pass for your visit though an entrance permit is still required. 

Find seasonal road closures from October until May. 

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Head to Colorado's Rocky Mountain National Park for epic vistas with over 70 mountian peaks over 12,000 feet, alpine lakes, wildflower meadows and lots of wildlife, like elk and moose. Get the top things to do in Rocky Mountain National Park, like scenic drives and where to picnic along with details about the new required permits. What to do in Rocky Mountain National Park | Where to camp in Rocky Mountain | Tops things to do in Rocky Mountain National Park #Colorado #NPS
credit: Pixabay

 

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