Insider's Guide to Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park
Rocky Mountain National Park Steve Bratman

Rocky Mountain National Park showcases the incredible diversity that defines Colorado’s mountainous reputation. Rugged, dramatic spires of rock contrast with carpets of colorful, hearty alpine flowers; gentle, rounded summit domes contradict sheer mountaintops that pierce the sky like shattered glass; placid alpine lakes issue forth deeply chilled streams while tumultuous storm clouds gather above in the afternoon sky. Wildlife great and small call the park home. Extroverted elk gallivant in open view, while less social species like black bears and mountain lions insulate themselves in the deep forests and remote valleys far from the crowds. Secluded in the innermost sanctum of the park are glaciers, gorges, and lonely mountains that, despite over 3 million visitors per year, remain largely unknown.

The iconic park was opened in 1915 and has grown to encompass an area of 265,761 acres. With a top elevation of 14,255’ atop Longs Peak, wilderness areas inherit most of their trademark features depending on which side of the Continental Divide they are found. Eastern aspects have been smoothed and contoured by ancient glacial waves, while the less-yielding western mountains are built on a bases of boulders and topped with defiant, broken ridges. The upshot is a variety of astonishing natural beauty that offer the adventurous a lifetime of exploratory possibilities.

Classic Adventures

The majority of RMNP’s most well-known adventures are found in the eastern half of the park. Day hikes out of two main trailheads, Glacier Gorge and Bear Lake, are popular for their access to alpine lakes. Out of Glacier Gorge, the marquee lake viewing experience is along the Glacier Gorge Trail, a 9.6 mile out and back that bypasses Mills Lake and Jewel Lake before reaching its terminus at Black Lake in the rocky, windswept basin above treeline. Almost as popular out of Glacier Gorge is the trek on the The Loch Trail / Sky Pond Trail to the aptly named Sky Pond, 9 miles out and back. The inky waters of the Loch, surrounded by pine forests, comes first, eventually climbing above treeline to the chilled waters of Sky Pond.

A Winter hike to Emerald Lake.  James Dziezynski

The Bear Lake Trailhead is a busy place. During summer months, the parking lot typically fills up by 6:30am, requiring a free shuttle from the Beaver Meadows visitor center -- so get there early if you want to leave your car at the trailhead. Bear Lake is right at the trailhead and is a nice introduction to the lakes in the area. The Emerald Lake Trail is a 7 mile out and back that passes Nymph and Dream Lakes before arriving at Emerald Lake, one of the most photographed areas in RMNP. The deep green waters sit at the foot of the towering half-dome of Hallett Peak and the craggy towers on the shoulder of Flattop Mountain. Intrepid explorers can continue west past Emerald Lake to the Tyndall Glacier, a rugged mile of difficult, off-trail scrambling and 1,800 vertical feet beyond.

Peakbaggers have a wealth of summits to choose from but none is as coveted as 14,255’ Longs Peak. This difficult, exposed, class 3 hike and scramble is a burly 15 mile round trip, most often done as a single day hike. It is critical to start long before sunrise (2 am is a good idea) to avoid being caught in the open when the inevitable afternoon thunderstorms roll in. The Keyhole Route is the classic way to the top. Hikers pass through the well-defined notch and transition from modest class 2 hiking to traversing a series of airy ledges, ascending a loose and scrappy gully, then scrambling up solid rock to the surprisingly broad, flat, and spacious summit.

Hiking the Narrows section of Longs Peak.  James Dziezynski

Of course, there are much more modest options. Off Old Fall River Road is the Chapin Pass Trailhead which offers trails to the trio of peaks: 12,454’ Mount Chapin, 13,069’ Mount Chiquita and 13,514’ Ypsilon Mountain. At 8 miles out and back, these peaks are all reached by rolling, non-exposed class 2 hiking trails with nearly all of the hike above treeline.

One more classic is Mount Ida, a 10 mile out and back from Milner Pass Trailhead off Trail Ridge Road that travels along the ridgeline that overlooks the Never Summer Mountains to the west. This non-technical trail traverses wide-open alpine meadows leading to the 12,880’ summit on a smooth path. Along the way, elk, deer, and marmots go about their lives among the flowers and grassy plateaus, taking in the brilliant views that extend all the way into Wyoming’s Medicine Bow Mountains.

Secrets of the Park

Trail Ridge Road is the main artery for visitors in RMNP and is definitely worth exploring, but there is much more to see beyond the well traveled road. On the eastern side of the park, Wild Basin is something of a local’s secret. Waterfalls, pristine lakes, peaceful camping, and inviting summits await from this special region of the park.

Wild Basin backpacking  James Dziezynski

Wild Basin has excellent on-trail options, such as the 8.6 mile out and back hike to Sand Beach Lake from the Sand Beach Lake Trailhead, but many adventurous souls are enticed by what can be discovered where the trails end. The Wild Basin Trailhead has excellent trails that are relatively flat for the first few miles, so don’t let the high mileage intimidate you. There are several waterfalls, including Calypso Cascade and Ouzel Falls, and a myriad of options to trek to remote lakes such as Thunder Lake (6 miles one way, with great camping) and Bluebird Lake (6.3 miles one way, also with nice camping nearby). Trails fade out along the Lions Lake Trail (6 miles one way) but this smattering of placid alpine ponds are some of the most beautiful in the park. Likewise, trekking west beyond Thunder Lake off-trail goes to the rarely visited Lake of Many Winds and the year-round snow fields of Boulder Grand Pass. Several excellent summit scrambles are in this area, including 13,310’ Mount Alice, 12,420’ Tanima Peak, and 13,579’ Chiefs Head Peak. And from Boulder Grand Pass, two of the parks most coveted, remote destinations can be reached: 13,118’ Isolation Peak and the rarely seen Moomaw Glacier.

Likewise, the western reaches of the park are far less visited. Spirit Lake and Lake Verna can be accessed by the East Inlet Trailhead and offer a 7 mile round trip adventure into the western side of the Continental Divide, where dense flora carpets the low-traffic trails and the lakes carry a primitive aura. Lulu City, a ghost town, is a 6.2 mile roundtrip outing via the Colorado River Trailhead that explores both the ruins of the boomtown but also the gnarly, craggy Never Summer Mountain range. And finally, if you’re in the mood for moose, Summerland Park from the North Inlet Trailhead, 3.4 miles roundtrip, is a wonderful place to spot Colorado’s largest mammal in the wild.

Extended adventures in RMNP are a great way to experience all that the park has to offer. Backpacking east to west across the park from the East Inlet Trail to Wild Basin is an excellent three day excursion with excellent camping options (Spirit Lake, Thunder Lake) that goes directly through the heart of the park. Mirror Lake, approximately 13 miles out and back, is a great weekend backpacking adventure to the quiet, northern reaches of the park.

Nearing the summit of Tanima Peak near Boulder Grand Pass.  James Dziezynski

Beyond hiking and backpacking, add more depth to the RMNP experience by rock climbing (over 350 established routes, some alpine classics) and winter adventures (snowshoeing, ice climbing). October through May, the park quiets down significantly. Snowy adventures, such as snowshoeing to Mills Lake / Jewel Lake or ice climbing in Glacier Gorge reveal the frozen beauty of the mountains.

Quick Tips: Getting the Most Out of Your Trip

  • If you plan to hike, get out early - 6 am at the latest - to avoid afternoon thunderstorms and to ensure trailhead parking before the crowds arrive (when you’ll have to take a shuttle to certain trailheads).

  • Trail Ridge Road (the main road through the park) is beautiful but, but clogged with traffic in the summer months. If your goal is to have a casual cruise through the park, it’s fine but if you want to get into the wilderness, consider Wild Basin or the western entrances of the park.

  • Make reservations well in advance (3 months or more) for car camping in the park. Backcountry camping permits are easier to get but it’s worth planning at least a month in advance if possible. For more information, visit the NPS website.

  • The Longs Peak and St. Vrain trailheads are two entrance points where it is legal to enter the park without paying a fee.

  • While dogs aren’t normally allowed beyond the parking lots in the summer, a few select winter closure roads allow on-leash dogs in the winter.

  • Photographers can count on incredible sunrise and sunset shots most days, even when afternoon storms blow in. They blow out just as quickly, making for spectacular sunsets.

Eyeing the east ridge on Mount Lead in the Never Summer Range.  James Dziezynski

Written by James Dziezynski 

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