Don’t be surprised if you have to stop your car because a parade of elk are crossing the road. Watching animals cross the road as you travel along Trail Ridge Road is an everyday event in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park. It’s just one of the reasons the park is the most visited place in Colorado. You can spend the day driving through the park on scenic roads, take a hike, or even go horseback riding.
Located less than two hours drive from Denver, this national park is unbelievably gorgeous.Photographers should not miss this opportunity. With tiny alpine lakes, high-country meadows, lots of wildlife and mountains including the 14,259-foot-high Longs Peak, take at least a one-day trip to get a glimpse of the region’s beauty.
Hikers should walk along some of the 350-plus miles of hiking trails, or drive on Trail Ridge Road. You may see elk, deer, big horn sheep, beaver or more rarely a bear or bobcat. Early fall travelers will have the opportunity to photograph the shivering gold aspen leaves on trees rooted in snow-tipped mountains and the rutting elk.
The closest gateway to the park is in Estes Park, Colorado, although the town is definitely not an Aspen or a Vail. It’s casual, laid back, and easy going, with mostly mom and pop shops and restaurants. It’s a tourist town and a walking town. Finding a parking place to leave the vehicle and browse the shops or stop for a meal could be a challenge. Go in the spring or fall and you may well see elk walking through town.
Once you’ve hear the high pitched whistle of a bugling elk, you’ll never forget it. The fall rutting season is the best time to see and hear the bull elk as they gather and protect their harems. (Good park locations include Upper Beaver Meadows and Horseshoe Park. The golf course in Estes Park is another prime spot.) You will usually find the big-horn sheep at the Sheep Lake Area between mid-May and mid-October. Bring binoculars and long telephoto lenses to really add to your experience.
Here’s a wonderful video of elk wandering through town and on the streets right past the locals and visitors. It was taken during the fall elk rut season, so there are some terrific views of bull elks clashing and locking antlers.
Remember these are wild animals. Rocky Mountain National Park is not a petting zoo and the animals get stressed by close human contact. Do not feed any wildlife, including chipmunks. It is against the law. Bull elk, moose and black bears can be very dangerous so keep your distance. Don’t try to put a youngster on the back of a moose for a photo. (We’ve heard of a dad actually trying to do this.) Check with the rangers at the visitor’s centers to learn where animals have been spotted on any given day and the time for the best chance of seeing them.
For those who want to avoid the large summer crowds, the park can be a quiet winter wonderland. There is little more beautiful than Longs Peak after a snow storm, with the sky a royal blue and fresh snow on the trees.
The park can be accessed from the Estes Park entrance in the winter. Many of the trails are open for snowshoeing, and backcountry skiing is available for all levels of cross-country and telemark skiers. Skis and snowshoes can be rented from Estes Park Mountain Shop (970-586-6548).
For a sense of the park’s grandeur, view the photo gallery on the park’s website and Evan Grantham’s Rocky Mountain National Park from You and Me. A photographer’s viewpoint.
Visit the park’s website for more information. There are five visitors centers in the park.
Most visitors come in the summertime. If you do, plan on starting your drive through the park early. It gets very crowded by mid-morning to noon. And, if you are hiking, you don’t want to be above tree level if it starts to rain and thunder.
Fall is a beautiful time to visit the park because, at least during weekdays, it’s not as crowded and the aspen trees are turning gold.
The park takes on a different kind of beauty in the wintertime. Although most of Trail Ridge Road is closed, you can still enter the park and go snowshoeing and cross country skiing.
If you are going to hike, start early in the day. If there are rain clouds forming they often will bring thunder and lightening. You want to be off the mountains before that happens because you can get hit by lightning. Rangers should be able to tell you if thunderstorms are expected the day you want to hike and what to do if you are stuck in an open area and it starts thundering and lightning.
Always take layers of clothing because the weather can change dramatically at any time. The temperature can drop 20 degrees within an hour or two, and while it’s rare – it has been known to snow in the summertime.
If you’re visiting the park in the summertime, head up Trail Ridge Road early. By mid-day or noon, especially on weekends, get very crowded.
Fall is a beautiful to visit Rocky Mountain National Park because the aspen trees are turning gold and the elk are bugling.
In the wintertime, most of Trail Ridge Road is closed, but there are enough open places in the park for visitors who love to go snowshoeing and cross country skiing.
Mountains can make their own weather. Temperatures can be 20 degrees cooler at the top of Trail Ridge Road than at the base. Also, afternoon thunder storms are common in the summer so plan hiking and walking in the morning. Winter provides large amounts of snow and there are periodic blizzards in the winter and spring.
Avalanches are common in the backcountry. Always check with the rangers about avalanche conditions and carry probes, shovels and transceivers if heading into the backcountry during winter.
Year-round, take more layers than you think you will need, plus water and energy bars.
Even when visiting the park in the summertime, take multiple layers because the air is cooler the higher you go, and if there’s a storm the temperature can drop dramatically.
Daily admission to the park is $20 for cars; a weekly pass is $30 for multiple admissions. Age 62 and older can get a lifetime national park pass for $10.
Free day are:
January 18: Martin Luther King Jr. Day
April 16 – 24: National Park Week
August 25 – 28: National Park Service Birthday Weekend
September 24: National Public Lands Day
November 11: Veterans Day
You’ll want a car to explore. However in the summer and fall when the park is packed you may want to park and take the free shuttles traveling through parts of the park, leaving visitors at key points to start hikes. Day trips from Denver are offered by some tour operators.
Estes Park is the key gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park and many vacationers choose to stay here while visiting the park or exploring the natural settings surrounding the town. But, it’s only takes about an hour and a half drive from Denver, so day-tripping is definitely an option.
To get here from Denver, take I-25 north and US 36 through Boulder and Lyons. You can also take the less traveled State Hwy 7 from Lyons to Allenspark to Estes Park through the beautiful South St. Vrain Canyon.