Rocky Mountain National Park - Sprague Lake
photo by F Delventhal

Rocky Mountain National Park

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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.


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.


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 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.


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.

Getting there

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.

Traveling around

By car

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)

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.

Things to do


  • The park offers 359 miles of trail to hikers, backpackers and horseback riders. Difficulty levels range from the half mile wheelchair accessable 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 memerable hikes are listed below. Many of the trails in the Eastern Part of the Park can be reached via Shuttle Buses, those are deliniated below with a * after the hike name.

Easy Hikes

  • "Bierstadt Lake*" A beautiful morning hike, this Lake is situated on top of Bierstadt Moraine giving brilliant views of Longs and the Front Range. As three seperate 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*" 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.

Intermediate Hikes

  • "Sky Pond*" is 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 surounded by increasingly shear and spectacular mountains. If there seems to be alot 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*" 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 Hallets*" 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 Hallets 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.

Difficult Hikes

  • "Bluebird Lake" is 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", or '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*" is 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" is 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 hights. 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 buisness being on the mountain.

Insane Hikes

  • "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*" 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.



  • Castle Mountain Lodge, .

  • McGregor Mountain Lodge, .

  • Machin's Cottages in the Pines, .

  • Best Western Silver Saddle, .


  • Moraine Park Campground is well located for exploring the eastern part of the park, is very clean, and very full in the summer so make sure to reserve your site ahead of time. As 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.


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 ($50, allows entry to all national park areas for one year) do not need to pay an entrance fee. In addition, there is a $35 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.

Contact & location

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The photos displayed on this page are the property of one of the following authors:

F Delventhal, Frank Kovalchek, Mike Young

Some photos courtesy of: . The photos provided by Flickr are under the copyright of their owners.

This travel guide also includes text from Wikitravel articles, all available at WikitravelView full credits

Felix Huang, Zain Iqbal, Amy Alle, Nick Roux, Bill Johnson, Ryan Holliday and Brad Lane, Morph, Episteme and Nzpcmad

This travel guide also includes text from Wikipedia articles, all available at WikipediaView full credits

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