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Rocky Mountain National Park and Estes Park

Photo by Todd Petrie

Rocky Mountain National Park and Estes Park Itineraries

Rocky Mountain National Park Road Trip

Where elk stop your car and snow-tipped 14,000-foot-high mountains surround you

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Why did the elk cross the road in Rocky Mountain National Park? Because it’s their Park. You’ll probably stop for a parade of them more than once. Watching this spectacle along Trail Ridge Road is an everyday event and just one reason the Park is Colorado’s most visited destination. Spend the day driving through the Park on scenic roads, take a hike, or go horseback riding.

Less than two hours drive from Denver, and one hour from Boulder, this national park is unbelievably gorgeous. Photographers should not miss it. With tiny alpine lakes, high-country meadows, wildlife and towering mountains (including the 14,259-foot-high Longs Peak), it deserves at least one day to drink in the grandeur.

Hikers should explore some of the 350-plus miles of trails, and everyone should drive Trail Ridge Road. Wildlife spotters will see elk, deer, big horn sheep, beaver or more rarely, a bear or bobcat. Early Fall travelers may photograph shivering gold aspen leaves on trees rooted in snow-tipped mountains and rutting elk.


Estes Park

The closest gateway is in Estes Park, Colorado (which will never be mistaken for Aspen or Vail). Estes Park is casual and laid back, with mostly mom and pop shops and restaurants. It’s a tourist town, a walking town. In fact, in Spring or Fall, you may well see elk walking through town. Finding parking can be a challenge.

Once you’ve heard the high pitched whistle of a bugling elk, you’ll never forget it. Fall rutting season is the best time to see and hear bull elk as they gather and protect their harems. (Good locations include Upper Beaver Meadows and Horseshoe Park, as is the town golf course.) Look for big-horn sheep at the Sheep Lake Area between mid-May and mid-October. Bring binoculars.

Here’s a wonderful video of elk wandering through town. Taken during the fall elk rut season, there are terrific views of bull elks clashing and locking antlers.


Animal Watching

Rocky Mountain National Park is not a petting zoo; animals get stressed by close human contact. They are wild. Feeding wildlife, including chipmunks, is against the law. Bull elk, moose and black bears can be very dangerous; keep your distance. Do not, for instance, try to put a youngster on the back of a moose for a photo. Check with rangers to learn where animals have been spotted on any given day, and the best times for seeing them.


Winter in Rocky Mountain National Park

The Park is a quiet winter wonderland. Few things are more beautiful than Longs Peak with a royal blue sky after a snowstorm. Winter access from Estes Park leads to trails open for snowshoeing, and backcountry skiing is perfect for all levels of cross-country and telemark skiers. Skis and snowshoes are rented from Estes Park Mountain Shop (970-586-6548).


More Information

To sense the Park’s grandeur, view Evan Grantham’s photographs on Rocky Mountain National Park from You and Me.

Visit the Park’s website; there are five visitors centers in the Park.


Explore a Rocky Mountain National Park and Estes Park Itinerary

Rocky Mountain National Park Road Trip … breathtaking views, even from the comfort of your car


When To Go

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.

High and Low Season

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.

Weather and Climate

Weather in Rocky Mountain National Park

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.

Clothing

Year-round, take more layers than you think you will need, plus water and energy bars.


What To Pack and Wear

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.

What it Costs

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

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Transportation

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.

Getting There

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.

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