The Ultimate Rocky Mountain National Park Adventure Guide

40.3428° N, 105.6836° W

Snowcapped Longs Peak in RMNP

THIS IN-DEPTH ADVENTURE GUIDE ON ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK COVERS EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO ABOUT EXPLORING THE PARK; INCLUDING, THE BEST TIME TO VISIT AND THE TOP ADVENTURES.

 


Rocky Mountain National Park or RMNP for short, was established in 1915 - making it one of the oldest national parks in the whole USA National Park System. While it is widely known for its rugged mountains, clear alpine lakes and abundant wildlife, RMNP has a lot more to offer the adventurous explorer.


We have been lucky enough to call the national park our home park for much of our lives (Luke even grew up in Estes Park) so we have definitely spent our fair share of time exploring all of its nooks and crannies. And while the park is often ranked as one of the busiest and most visited (it came in 4th in visitation in 2020) there are still plenty of places to get away from the crowds and get back to nature.


Below is our in-depth adventure guide on everything you need to know about exploring one of the most beautiful national parks in the country.



HISTORY OF ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK


The history of Rocky Mountain National Park began when Paleo-Indians, most notably Ute and Arapahoe, traveled along what is now Trail Ridge Road to hunt and forage for food. In 1820, the Long Expedition, led by Stephen H. Long for whom Longs Peak is named, approached the Rockies via the Platte River. Settlers began arriving in the mid-1800s, which eventually led to the displacement of the Native Americans who mostly left the area voluntarily by 1860, while others were removed to reservations by 1878.


The towns of Lulu City, Dutchtown, and Gaskill in the Never Summer Mountains were established in the 1870s when prospectors came to the region in search of gold and silver. But the mining boom would end a short time later around 1883. The railroad reached Lyons, Colorado (just down canyon from the park) in 1881, while the Big Thompson Canyon Road—a section of U.S. Route 34 from Loveland to Estes Park—was completed in 1904.


Eventually, in 1915 the Rocky Mountain National Park Act was signed by President Woodrow Wilson and in the 1920s there was an increase in building infrastructure in the park. This included building lodges like the Bear Lake Trail School, and roads in the park. This building boom culminated with the construction of Trail Ridge Road to Fall River Pass between 1929 and 1932, then to Grand Lake by 1938. This construction would be mostly done by the Civilian Conservation Corps or CCC.


❔ GOOD TO KNOW: in 1976, UNESCO designated the national park as one of the first World Biosphere Reserves.


Today, the park is one of the most visited in the whole National Park System, ranking as the third most visited national park in 2015. In 2019, the park saw record attendance yet again with 4.6 million people, a 44% increase since 2012.










 

THE ULTIMATE ADVENTURE GUIDE TO ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK

 






\\ Rocky Mountain National Park | Fast Facts



YEAR ESTABLISHED

1915


STATE

Colorado


SIZE

265,873 acres


NUMBER OF VISITORS

3.3 million in 2019 (ranked 4th in visitation)


COST TO ENTER

$25 for a car for 1-day ($35 for 7 days), $15 per person (1-day), $25 per motorcycle (1-day)


BEST FOR...

Hiking, backpacking and snowshoeing





\\ Important Things to Know About Rocky Mountain National Park


Rocky Mountain National Park spans the Continental Divide and consists of dozens of rugged, often snowcapped, mountains. Due to its size and location, there are two main entrances to the park: Estes Park on the east side (the most popular entrance) and Grand Lake on the west side (much quieter).


The east side of the park is where most of the popular trails are located (Bear Lake, Mill’s Lake, Sky Pond, Long’s Peak), while the west side tends to see fewer people overall. Another difference to take note of is that the west side tends to be much greener and lusher than the east side. This is because the western slope of the Continental Divide tends to see more rain and water.


💬 INSIDER TIP: if you are looking to do some hiking and want to avoid much of the crowds, we suggest heading over to the west side instead. Some of our favorite hikes include Mount Ida and the East Inlet Trail.




TIMED ENTRY PERMITS


Due to the increase in visitation, RMNP decided to begin a timed entry permit system during the busy season. The permit will be required between May 28th and October 11th. There are 2 reservation options to choose from: Bear Lake Road Corridor from 5AM - 6PM and Rest of Park and, Rest of Park Area (this includes the Wild Basin area, Long's Peak, Trail Ridge Road and Fall River Area) 9AM - 3PM. Now one important thing to note is that you can get the Bear Lake Road Corridor permit and still visit the rest of the park. You just cannot get the Rest of Park permit and go to Bear Lake.


💬 INSIDER TIP: the Bear Lake Trailhead is by far the busiest trailhead in the park. If you do want to visit we suggest going before 5 AM, getting a permit and riding the shuttle (see below) or visiting during a weekday (and still maybe taking the shuttle).


Outside those times no reservations/timed entry permits are needed. You do also need to get a park pass or pay the entrance fee even with the timed entry permit (the permits are free). You can learn more about the timed entry permit system here.




PARKING VS PARK SHUTTLE


Due to an increase in park visitation, during the peak summer months the popular trailhead parking lots often fill up by mid-morning. Therefore it is smart to plan on taking the park shuttle bus into the park so you don’t have to worry about parking.


The park shuttle not only cuts down on parking issues (which can become intense during the summer weekends), but it also helps cut down on emissions and allows everyone to enjoy the scenery and decreases the stress of having to maneuver the winding roads, wild animals and other drivers.


❔ GOOD TO KNOW: the park shuttles run from May 27th to October 17th. The first bus leaves the Estes Park Visitor Center at 6:30 AM and the last one heads out at 7:30 PM. There are no bus routes that run on the west side of the park or that cross over Trail Ridge Road.



There are multiple bus routes within the park. Below is a quick breakdown.


| Bear Lake Route: runs every 10-15 minutes, stops at the Park & Ride, Bierstadt Lake TH, Glacier Gorge TH, and Bear Lake TH.


| Moraine Park Route: runs every 30 minutes, stops at the Park & Ride, Sprague Lake, Hollowell Park, Moraine Park Campground, Cub Lake TH, and Fern Lake TH (plus a few more)


There is also a Hiker Shuttle that runs between the Estes Park Visitor Center and the Park & Ride starting at 7:30 AM. But make sure to check it is actually in service (it was closed in 2021 due to Covid-19).




SERVICES IN THE PARK


Gas station: no, the closest gas stations will be in either Estes Park or Grand Lake.


Groceries: there is a Safeway in Estes Park and a smaller grocery store in Grand Lake (Mountain Market). We suggest picking up all supplies at one of these stores before heading into the park.

Medical: there is a hospital in Estes Park and in Granby (about 20 minutes south of Grand Lake).


Cell Phone Service & WIFI: do not expect cell service in the park (it is spotty at best). You can find WIFI at the Beaver Meadows and Fall River Visitor Centers. Otherwise, we suggest heading to town and finding a café (Kind Coffee in Estes Park is great).




WILDFIRES AND CLOSURES


RMNP was overwhelmed by the East Troublesome and Cameron Peak Fires in 2020. Between the two wildfires, 30,000 acres or 10% of the park were affected. Even more than a year later, some parts of the park are still closed due to needed maintenance. These areas include the Green Mountain Trail, the Spruce Lake Trail and all areas past the summit of Flattop Mountain.


When adventuring in burned areas it is important to be aware of a few hazards. These include unstable and weak ground near burned-out stumps, unstable dead trees (especially in windy conditions), flash flooding and lose rocks and logs.


You can do your part to protect the park and prevent wildfires by only having fires in provided metal grates while camping, not leaving fires unattended, not using fireworks (they are banned) and discarding cigarettes and matches properly (best to just carry them out with you).


➳ You can learn more about the wildfires and RMNP fire protections here.




Smoky mountain valley at sunset

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\\ When to Visit Rocky Mountain National Park


What makes RMNP so special is that it is a great place to visit no matter the time of year. Below is a quick rundown of what you can expect during each season.


| Summer: this is by far the busiest time to visit the park, which makes sense since during the summer the park experiences long, sunny days. Similarly, in the summer, all of the trails are open - including Longs Peak, a 14-er.


| Fall: once September hits, the park's temperatures start to cool off, the trees start to changing colors (hello golden aspens), the elk begin to bugle and the first snow of the year starts to hit the high peaks.


| Winter: by late November the temperatures begin to be quite cold and strong winds can make being outside somewhat unbearable. Because of this, the high peaks are mostly off-limits except for backcountry skiing in Hidden Valley (see more below). Finally, because of the less than optimal weather, you can expect the trails to be practically empty.


| Spring: this time of year is also sometimes jokingly known as mud season due to the melting snow and common rain showers. But if you are willing to embrace the mud then you will be awarded with colorful wildflowers, lush meadows and wildlife.



In our opinion, the fall and spring seasons are the best times to visit the park because the weather is very nice, most of the trails are still accessible and the level of crowds are quite a bit lower.





\\ How to Get to Rocky Mountain National Park


The national park is conveniently located only about an hour into the mountains. From Denver (where you can fly into Denver International Airport) it is an hour and a half drive to the east entrance in Estes Park and just over 2 hours to the west entrance in Grand Lake.


Other nearby cities include Fort Collins, which is an hour from the east entrance, Boulder, also an hour from the east entrance, and Silverthorne (off of Interstate 70) is an hour and a half from the west entrance.




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\\ The Top Adventures in Rocky Mountain National Park



HIKING AND BACKPACKING


RMNP has 355 miles of hiking trails, which range from flat lakeside strolls to steep mountain peak climbs. There are around 23 different trailheads in the park so you can really pick and choose what type of area you want to explore. Within RMNP there really is an adventure for everyone.


For example, if you are looking to head up to some higher peaks without dealing with a lot of people, we suggest heading out to the Wild Basin Trailhead off of Highway 7 and venturing out to the Lion Lakes and Mount Alice area. Or if you want a nice little hike to a beautiful mountain lake, consider Gem Lake and the Lumpy Ridge Trailhead. Or if you want an even more stunning alpine lake - definitely head out to Chasm Lake on the Longs Peak Trailhead (bonus points if it is for sunrise).


Below are some more hikes to definitely consider checking out:

  • Odessa Lake, 4.9 miles one-way (from Fern Lake TH)

  • Black Lake, 5.0 miles one-way (from Glacier Gorge TH)

  • Thunder Lake, 6.8 miles one-way (from Wild Basin TH)

  • Spirit Lake, 7.8 miles one-way (from East Inlet TH)

➳ You can find even more hiking trails within Rocky Mountain National Park here.




EXPLORE MORE | HIKING MT. ALICE IN RMNP: WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW





THE CONTINENTAL DIVIDE TRAIL (CDT)

Another great hiking option is to jump onto the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) which runs just over 3,000 miles (4,988 kilometers) from the Canadian border in Montana to the border of Mexico in New Mexico. You can actually do 30 miles of the CDT within the national park. The easiest places to hop on are at the Onahu Creek Trailhead, the Green Mountain Trailhead, North Inlet Trailhead and the East Shore Trailhead.


❔ GOOD TO KNOW: all of the above trailheads are on the west side of the park, you will either need to enter from the west entrance (near Grand Lake) or drive over Trail Ridge Road to reach them.



LONGS PEAK

Easily one of the most iconic places in all of Rocky Mountain National Park, Longs Peak - a flat-topped monolith that sits at 14,259 feet - can easily be seen from all across the park, not to mention much of the Front Range. This mountain, one of the 58 famed 14-ers in Colorado (a mountain that sits over 14,000 feet), is often on top of many adventurers hiking bucket lists.


While there are a few different routes up the mountain, by far the most common trail is the Keyhole Route - which takes you through aptly named places like The Narrows and the Home Stretch. The route is 15 miles roundtrip and 5,000 feet+ of elevation gain (you start at 9,400 feet and end or summit at 14,259 feet).


While you might think hiking Longs Peak is just like any other hike, be aware that the mountain is an entirely different beast that needs the utmost respect. Be prepared for snow at the top (even in the summer) narrow ledges, loose rock, exposure and dangerous weather.


A few things to keep in mind when hiking Longs Peak:

  • Start early. The weather can turn sour quickly and summer thunderstorms often hit by the afternoon. We suggest starting around 2 AM for the best chance of summiting before any bad weather rolls in.

  • Wear good hiking shoes. This should go without saying, but hiking Longs Peak requires shoes that are not only sturdy but will also be comfortable after 10+ miles of hiking (uphill...).

  • Be aware of symptoms of altitude sickness. If you are coming to RMNP from a lower altitude then this is especially important. Altitude sickness, which is caused by a drop in pressure and less available oxygen, can lead to symptoms like headaches, dizziness, nausea, fatigue and shortness of breath. The best way to help altitude sickness is to drink lots of water, go slow, or if it gets really bad, to turn around and head to lower altitudes. You can learn more about altitude sickness here.







BACKPACKING

If you are looking to take your hiking to the next level and instead want to do a multi-day trip through the park, you are in luck for RMNP has some seriously beautiful backcountry camping sites and long-distance trails. One great option is to do a cross-over hike - meaning starting from either the east or west side and hiking over the Continental Divide to the opposite side. This can usually be done in 2 days.


Two popular routes for the cross-over (and campsites to stay at along the way):

  • Thunder Lake Trail - Boulder Grand Pass - East Inlet Trail

Campsites along the way: Siskin, Thunder Lake, Solitaire and Slickrock

  • Bear Lake - Flattop Mountain - Tonahutu Creek Trail - Onahu Creek Trail

Campsites along the way: Timberline Group, Renegade, Granite Falls, Onahu Creek



➳ You can find even more backcountry campsites here.




CLIMBING AND MOUNTAINEERING


Climbing has been a popular activity in and around the area since the 1800s. The wide variety of peaks and granite rock formations in the park provide excellent opportunities for a wide spectrum of climbing, including rock, big wall, snow and ice, bouldering and mountaineering.


Some of the most popular areas to climb are Longs Peak and Lumpy Ridge Trailhead. The former is often high on many climbers and mountaineers list - especially the famous East Face, an incredible alpine wall that is crowned by the Diamond.


In the Lumpy Ridge area, you can find a larger array of climbing routes, from beginner-friendly 5.5s to much more advanced 5.12s. Also, whereas Longs Peak requires quite a haul in, many of the rocks in the Lumpy Ridge area are a short mile to 2-mile flat hike with only a bit of strenuous uphill climbing at the end.


Below are a few climbs worth checking out:

  • Pin Route: a nice, super fun 5.5, 3-pitch trad route that gets you on top of Twin Owls

  • Magical Chrome Plated…: the name is long but the route is supposed to be one of the best in the area. It is a 5.7, 5-pitch route on Pear (rock).

  • Kor’s Flake: this is a nice long 6-pitch, 5.7 route that climbs up Sundance Buttress, one of the farthest rocks in the Lumpy Ridge “range.”

➳ Find more climbing routes in the Lumpy Ridge area here.



❔ GOOD TO KNOW: the Lumpy Ridge climbing area does close between March and April due to nesting raptors. After the raptors find their nesting sites some areas will reopen while others will remain closed (it will remain closed if a bird decides to move in). Always check ahead on closures when planning to climb in the area.




Large rocky outcropping in a valley.



LEAVE NO TRACE PRINCIPLES FOR CLIMBING

Respect for the environment and a commitment to low-im