At just over 400 square miles (nearly 266,000 acres), Rocky Mountain National Park isn’t the largest in the system by any means. But any of its millions of annual visitors will agree there is none finer.
One of the main reasons has to be granted to Trail Ridge Road. Crossing the park from east to west, this 50-mile drive drops into the Kawuneeche Valley, where visitors can see the Colorado River. Along the way, you’ll climb up to over 12,000 feet through some of America’s highest peaks.
But those statistics don’t begin to describe the breathtaking scenery you’ll see along the way. As you make your way through the famed ‘Roof of the Rockies’ you’ll see glacier-carved mountains at every turn. Stop at Forest Canyon Overlook and you’ll see alpine forests that are among the most magnificent anywhere. Take a few minutes to visit the Alpine Visitor Center at Fall River and the friendly staff will tell you all about the area.
Rocky Mountain offers some of the best hiking anywhere along its over 350 miles of trails. Bear Lake is one of the most popular starting points. Sitting at the base of Hallett’s Peak at the Continental Divide, it’s a magnificent sight all by itself.
Hiking here can be a little more demanding than other areas, though. Park elevations range from 7,500 at minimum to over 14,000 feet. At those heights, the air is thinner and the UV stronger. Be prepared. You’ll need plenty of water, since the thin, cooler air evaporates moisture from your lungs faster. Headaches are a common symptom for those who don’t hydrate properly.
Whether driving or walking there’s plenty of wildlife to see, too. Rocky Mountain NP is home to over 3,000 elk, 800 Bighorn sheep and over 280 different bird species. Visit the Bighorn at Sheep Lake anytime from May through mid-August. See moose wander through the willows along the Colorado River in Kawuneeche. Keep a close eye out and you may spot some river otters, too.
At dawn or dusk you can see some of the many bats that hover over the lakes looking for insects. Marmots are easy to spot on the tundra along Old Fall River road. Stellar Jays dot the skies along Trail Ridge road, sharing space with the Prairie Falcon and the odd Golden Eagle. White-tailed Ptarmigans are another fascinating bird species that call the park home.
The park offers several museums and historical sites. The Moraine Park Museum is one of the best. It’s filled with items from the area that give a great overview of the natural flora and fauna. The Never Summer Ranch is another favorite, offering a look at what a resort from the past was like.
Unlike some of the national parks, Rocky Mountain is open year round. That makes it possible to explore it Winter, Summer, Spring or Fall just like the other 3 million annual visitors. A non-summer visit will be less crowded and offers views you can’t see during those hot months.
In Fall, Elk move to lower elevations to Horseshoe Park, Beaver Meadows and other locations. The leaves change from green to gold. During Winter, there’s skiing galore on the North Inlet trails or at Bowen-Baker. Coyotes come out to hunt. In Spring, Peregrine Falcons nest on Lumpy Ridge, not far from the Red-Tailed Hawks. Or, see thousands of sage-colored buttercups or blue pasqueflowers.
Visit Rocky Mountain National Park at any time of the year and you’ll share the opinion of millions who rightly call it one of America’s premier natural wonders.