Rocky Mountain National Park

Location: Colorado

Park Tally: 8/59

Orientation: Rocky Mountain National Park is beautifully diverse and has something for everyone to enjoy. Despite the harsh Colorado winters, the park is open during all seasons and has a wide range of activities. Having lived in Boulder for 2 years, Rocky Mountain is one of our favorite places to explore and photograph. We have spent countless days hiking the numerous trails, driving the scenic roads and camping in the backcountry. This guide contains a mix of past and present photos from our years of exploring the park.

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Rocky Mountain is split into two main sections, east and west of the Continental Divide, with the famous Trail Ridge Road connecting the two areas. The east gateway of the park is where you will find the quaint town of Estes Park, numerous park entrances, and three visitor centers. The west gateway of the park is home to Grand Lake (the largest glacial lake in the state), a visitor center, and the notorious Continental Divide Trail. The Alpine Visitor Center is the fifth in the park, sitting at an elevation of 11,796 feet along the Trail Ridge Road.

The east gateway of the park can easily be accessed from Denver by driving one and a half hours (65-miles). On a clear day, you can even see Longs Peak (the highest peak in the park) from Denver.  Grand Lake, the western entrance of the park, can be accessed via a two-hour (100-mile) drive from Denver. Many visitors opt to enter the park on one side and exit on the other, so that they can experience the scenic drive along Trail Ridge Road.

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Most iconic view:  Dream Lake is unquestionably spectacular and should be high on any visitors list of things to see. This gem of the park is a popular hike during all seasons and can get crowded during summer. The best time to visit is during sunrise when the morning light glows on the peaks behind the lake. The hike to Dream Lake is 2.2-miles roundtrip and climbs 450 feet in elevation from the trailhead. Winter months (and often the shoulder seasons) require footwear appropriate for walking in the snow and sometimes snowshoes or micro-spikes.

Accessible activity:  Some of the best views in the park can be experienced along the scenic Trail Ridge Road. The 48-mile drive is the highest continuous paved road in the United States and reaches an elevation of 12,183 feet. Often referred to as ‘the highway-in-the-sky’, the road follows a path that Native American people used for thousands of years prior. Nowadays people use the road to drive between the eastern entrance (Estes Park) and the western entrance (Grand Lake).

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Rocky Mountain National Park has numerous less strenuous walks. Sprague Lake trail (0.5-miles roundtrip) is a popular hike for families and is also wheelchair friendly. There is a nearby wheelchair-accessible wilderness campsite with facilities such as accessible picnic tables, a fire grate, and an accessible privy. All wilderness camping in the park requires permits from the Wilderness Office.

Bear Lake trail (0.5-miles roundtrip) is another short but rewarding nature walk. For those wanting a little more adventure, continue the hike to Dream Lake (2.2-miles roundtrip) or to picturesque Emerald Lake (3.2-miles).

For the adventurous:  Backcountry camping is popular in Rocky Mountain National Park, and wilderness permits are quickly reserved during summer months. Winter camping is quite the experience for anyone looking for an even bigger adventure. Lake Helene, Black Lake & Lawn Lake are three very scenic backcountry camping spots.

Some popular roundtrip day hikes in the park include Sky Pond (9-miles), Chasm Lake (8-miles) and the ever so notorious ‘fourteener’ Longs Peak (16-miles). Be sure to have adequate mountain experience and preparation when taking on any challenging hikes.

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Experience the Divide: There are numerous ways to explore the Continental Divide, with the most popular being via car along Trail Ridge Road, or via foot on various park hikes. A unique way to experience the Divide is via a guided horseback riding tour through the park. Sombrero Ranches offer a 26-mile trek across the Divide, beginning at Sprague Lake and finishing at Grand Lake. The ride is only offered during August and is subject to weather conditions.

Best photo opportunities:  A popular photography spot in the park is Dream Lake, particularly at sunrise. The winter time and shoulder seasons provide a snowy setting, making the scene even more magical.

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Quick facts

  • Rocky Mountain was established on January 26, 1915 and it was America’s 10th National Park.
  • The Rocky Mountains are one of the world’s longest mountain ranges, extending almost unbroken from Alaska to below the nation’s southern border.
  • The park spans 265,769 acres of pristine wilderness (358 square miles), making it one of the largest national parks in the country.
  • The tallest mountain in the park is Longs Peak, at an elevation of 14,259 feet.
  • The Trail Ridge Road is the highest continuous paved road in the United States, reaching an elevation of 12,183 feet.
  • There are 124 named peaks 8,789 feet or high in the park. Of those, 77 are above 12,000 feet.
  • Rocky Mountain has an array of wildlife – moose, bighorn sheep, elk, deer, coyote, bears, and mountain lions (to name a few).
  • The AlpineVisitor Center is the highest visitor center in the National Park System, located at 11,796 feet (3,595 m) above sea level.
  • The park had 4,517,585 visitors in 2016, that is 1,526,444 more than in 2013.