Rocky Mountain National Park
1000 Highway 36
Estes Park, CO 80517-8397
Explore high country at the national park with the highest elevation of any other -- Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. Each year more than three million visitors flock to this spot, located just a couple of hours northwest of Denver. Whether you are an angler, a mountain climber, a day hiker, a photographer, or an artist, Rocky Mountain offers an incredibly diverse array of outdoor possibilities in the heart of the American West.
Entrance fees: $20/vehicle for 7 days or $10/individual for 7 days
Visitor centers: Beaver Meadows and Kawuneeche visitor centers are open daily except December 25. Fall River Visitor Center is open year-round on weekends.
Other services: Two museums and five campgrounds
- Longs Peak Campground. Open year-round. Some reservations are available. 800-365-CAMP.
- Moraine Park Campground. Open year-round. Some reservations are available. 800-365-CAMP.
- Timber Creek Campground. Open year-round. Some reservations are available. 800-365-CAMP.
Visiting Rocky Mountain National Park
Much has changed about the world since pioneering writer and naturalist Isabella Byrd first climbed the 14,255-foot Long's Peak over a century ago. (Her book, A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains, is a must-read.) Thankfully, the magnificent peaks of Rocky Mountain National Park still remain unchanged.
Now, as it was then, this is high country, with sweeping vistas of a jagged skyline crowned by towering summits. Snow lingers year-round, and the highest cirques preserve remnants of glaciers left over from the last ice age.
Each year the park's visitors find such wonders as Glacier Gorge, where the mountain scenery rivals that of Switzerland; Trail Ridge Road, the highest continuous road in North America; and the hauntingly beautiful Kawuneeche Valley.
The park features 78 peaks that are more than 12,000 feet high; 20 of them reach above 13,000 feet. Contrasting with this jagged terrain, meadows come alive in spring and summer as wildflowers poke their way through the tundra. The park makes accessible a vast wonderland of alpine terrain, towering peaks, high mountain tarns, and glacial moraines.
In the southern Rockies, the summers are fairly long, the valleys are broad and inviting, and the mountains are crisscrossed by trails and roads left by miners a century ago, which makes these mountains more affable than other American ranges.
Read the next section to find out about more must-see spots in Rocky Mountain National Park, as well as how to take advantage of the many recreational activities the park has to offer.
Sightseeing at Rocky Mountain National Park
With more than 300 miles of backcountry trails, Rocky Mountain National Park is a favorite among hikers and backpackers. One of the best areas for hiking is Wild Basin, located in the extreme southeastern corner of the park near the town of Allenspark and directly north of the legendary Indian Peaks Wilderness Area. Popular trails in Wild Basin lead to such lovely high country lakes as Thunder Lake, Snowbank Lake, and Bluebird Lake.
High above Thunder Lake, on the little-traveled Boulder-Grand Pass (12,061 feet), is the lovely Lake of Many Winds, which remains frozen through much of July. Hikers in these alpine areas frequently observe Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, elk, mule deer, and the occasional mountain goat, as well as golden eagles and ptarmigan.
Further north, in Glacier Gorge, hikers are treated to such spectacles as Hallet Peak, the Little Matterhorn, and Lake Odessa. All of these trails begin at Bear Lake, which is also a favorite among cross-country skiers and snowshoers during the winter months. Just down the road from Bear Lake is Moraine Park.
Another popular area -- some might call it the centerpiece of the park -- is Trail Ridge Road, which leads 20 miles over the high tundra along the Continental Divide, with views as far north as Wyoming on clear days.
Rocky Mountain National Park Photo Opportunities
Since all of Rocky Mountain National Park is truly breathtaking, it's hard to pinpoint just a few must-have photo ops. Here are some of the best:
- Longs Peak: Visible from almost anywhere in the park, this flat-topped summit is a whopping 14,259 feet high. Be sure to start your trek to Longs Peak early, as afternoon clouds often turn into brief bursts of heavy rain, thunder, and lightning.
- Dream Lake: This beautiful lake was constructed in 1932 by blasting out 90 tree stumps and then clearing the lake bed with a tractor. Dream Lake was destroyed by flooding in the winter of 1937-38 but was rebuilt in 1939.
- Trail Ridge Road: Trail Ridge Road offers a sweeping view of the Rockies in all directions. Eleven miles of this high highway travel above treeline, culminating in a high point of 12,183 feet.
- Sheep Lakes: Looking for some wildlife shots? Bighorn sheep are commonly seen at Sheep Lakes from May through mid-August.
Climbing Longs PeakRising 14,255 feet, Longs Peak, a steep-sided mountain with a flat top, dominates the Front Range of the Colorado Rockies for almost 100 miles. Along with Pike's Peak to the south, it is one of the landmark peaks of the range and one of America's most distinctive mountains.
Some of the most difficult climbing routes in North America lead up the peak's eastern face, a 90-degree cliff that is more than 2,500-feet high. There are also walking routes to the summit.
The most popular of these is the Keyhole Route, which begins at the Longs Peak ranger station. The eight-mile trail climbs nearly 5,000 feet, or almost a mile up. At first it passes through a forest of windblown limber pines, then across a rugged boulder field above the timberline where the real work begins.
After scrambling through a notch called the Keyhole, hikers traverse a rock field then head up a steep granite slab, called the Homestretch, which leads to the summit. The top is surprisingly level. From here, on a clear day, the views of the peaks of Rocky Mountain National Park and the mountains beyond seem endless.
The natural history of Rocky Mountain National Park is quite amazing and varied. Learn more on the next page.
The Natural History of Rocky Mountain National Park
With the highest average elevation of any national park, including those in Alaska, Rocky Mountain National Park sits atop the Continental Divide, the great ridge of mountains that cuts the continental United States in two. Water on the east side of the divide flows to the Atlantic Ocean, and water on the west side ultimately makes its way to the Pacific.
Much of the parkland is above the timberline, which is about 11,500 feet high in this section of the Rockies. The park's centerpiece, Trail Ridge Road, is the nation's highest paved highway and leads into the heart of a spectacular alpine world. One stunning stretch of the road follows a ridge as it rises to 12,183 feet.
In many ways, the timberline, which is so evident from this dramatic drive, is a biological battle line. Just below the timberline, such hearty trees as subalpine firs, limber pines, and Engelmann spruce struggle upwards root by root to find room in which to grow and survive.
Above the last trees, an even harsher world challenges the survival of the most robust plants, which cling tenuously to life during a brief growing season and in the face of constant winds. Here are lovely meadows bathed in green grasses and awash with dozens of species of wildflowers that grow low to the ground for protection in this harsh environment.
The park is not just a land of tundra, high rocky places, and ceaseless wind. Below the timberline, you will find lovely hidden places, such as the sublimely beautiful Dream Lake, a rock-rimmed mountain pond nestled in a meadow at the foot of rugged 12,713-foot Hallett Peak.
Countless numbers of wild creatures wander through the woods and meadows. Mule deer and black bears are common sights, and beavers build their dams in many of the streams that drain the lake.
Higher up are elk, while higher still, on seemingly impossible vertical cliffs where they are safe from predators are the elusive Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, the enduring symbol of this magnificent alpine park.
Whether you're into evening campfire chats, challenging hikes, or scenic drives, Rocky Mountain National Park provides something for every type of traveler. That's why three million people trek to this spot each year.
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