Photo: Andrew R. Slaton/Tandemstock

Rocky Mountain National Park Essentials

Explore an alpine wonderland in the crown of the Rocky Mountains.

The Rocky Mountains are a truly wild landscape: postcard-pretty and ruggedly unforgiving all at once. The range’s eponymous national park is no exception. Founded in September, 1915, Rocky Mountain National Park is a 265,807-acre alpine highlight reel, with turquoise lakes, wildflower-speckled meadows, and bands of quiet aspen forest. Above the greenery, you’ll find peaks up to 14,259-feet high, which remain snow capped much of the year.

For hikers, campers, backpackers, and climbers, Rocky is an endless playground of winding trails, bucket-list campsites, and world-class alpine rock. But of course, people were here long before outdoor enthusiasts came for the recreation. The Ute, some of the land’s first inhabitants, followed big game like bison and elk into the high country in the summers. In fact, some of the park’s first trails were originally Ute byways. Trail Ridge Road, the highest paved road in North America and the park’s most famous scenic drive, traces a route originally established by Ute people as a path across the Continental Divide.

Today, Rocky Mountain National Park is the third-most visited National Park in the U.S. In 2019, it saw a whopping 4.6 million visitors. Concerned about environmental impacts, traffic congestion, and parking shortages, the park put a reservation system in place in 2020, requiring visitors to have a reservation to enter the popular Bear Lake Corridor after 5 a.m. during the high season (check current regulations before you go). Fortunately, with more than 350 miles of trails and mind-blowing scenery across the park, there are plenty of opportunities for adventure and solitude no matter when you visit.

Carved by Glaciers

Rocky Mountain National Park has a rich geologic history. Along the trails here, you’ll see everything from silvery schist to pink Pikes Peak granite, some of it up to 1.7 billion years old. However, some of the mountain-building events that brought these rocks to the surface are an enigma, even to geologists. After all, the Rocky Mountains are far from the nearest tectonic faults, which is where mountain creation usually happens. There are plenty of theories, but the mystery remains.

What is well understood is how the park’s characteristic U-shaped valleys were formed. Over the last 700,000 years, there have been a number of glaciation events, which left massive tongues of ice at the feet of the high peaks. Over time, the glaciers slipped slowly downhill, carving out valleys and leaving other telltale signs—in some places, you can see “glacial striations” or gouges left in rock panels by the passing of the ice.

The First Inhabitants of Rocky Mountain National Park

As far as park researchers can tell, human beings first arrived in what is now Rocky Mountain National Park around 12,000 years ago. This was back when mammoths and other large game animals wandered the open meadows between the peaks. Throughout the park, archeologists have found ancient arrowheads, spear points, and low rock walls once used to funnel animals to waiting hunters.

Later, the Ute People used the land as summer hunting grounds. Members of the Arapaho Tribe were also known to hunt here, though they more often lived in the lowlands at the base of the mountains, where the temperatures and landscapes were more hospitable.

The demographics of the area didn’t start to change until the 1800s, when miners, fur traders, and other European settlers began to move into the Rockies. Mines around Rocky Mountain National Park weren’t fruitful, but the scenery and mountain air ultimately drew tourists. Estes Park, the gateway town for Rocky Mountain National Park, became one of the area’s first tourist towns.

Visiting the National Park

Summer is the most popular season, but you can visit the park throughout the year and experience an entirely different landscape each time. Here’s when to go to make the most of your visit, and how to navigate the reservation system.

Reservation System

To enter the park between late May and Early October, you’ll need a timed entry permit. That’s if you want to access Bear Lake Road—home to the most popular hikes—between 5 a.m. and 6 p.m., or the rest of the park between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. (If you arrive outside of those hours, no reservation is required.)

The reservation system opens at the start of each month for advanced planners, and at 5 p.m. the night before for last-minute trips. But be quick: the $2 reservations book up fast. (To enter, you’ll need a National Parks Pass or ;pay the park entrance fee in addition to your reservation.)

Photo: NPS

Seasons 

Spring

This is a great season to enjoy the snow-covered terrain with warmer temperatures and longer days. Snow often lingers into June in the high country, so come prepared. Bring (or rent) snowshoes, pack plenty of layers for fast-changing conditions, and consider gaiters to keep the snow out of your boots. Snow makes navigation tricky, so stick to well-marked trails unless you have well-honed map-and-compass skills.

Summer

With most snow melting by late June and wildflowers peaking in July, summers are prime-time for hiking in the Rockies. No surprise, that makes summer the most crowded season. Pro tip: Arrive before dawn or after 4 p.m., and stay away from the crowded Bear Lake Corridor. Aim to be below treeline between 12 p.m. and late afternoon, which is when dangerous alpine thunderstorms usually take place. Watch for weather changes: Even in summer, temperatures can swing from 80 degrees in the sun to 40 degrees with windchill any time. 

Fall

Autumn is a magical time in the park. In September, aspen groves turn into a forest of golden confetti, and in October, the elk rut brings the ethereal sound of bugling stags (and Estes Park’s annual Elk Fest celebration). Crowds start to dissipate around this time, too, but the aspens and the elk still draw plenty of visitors. Keep your weather guard up: Snow can arrive in the high peaks as early as September.

Winter

Winters in the Rockies bring snow, bitter cold, and harsh winds. But visit on a clear, sunny day, and you’ll be gifted with quiet trails, the sparkle of sunlit snow, and lakes frozen smooth and flat as marble. Ice-skating is sometimes possible on Chasm or Emerald lakes early in the season, and snowshoeing is a great option all winter long. The park also hosts some great spots for ice climbing and backcountry skiing.

Things to Do

Rocky Mountain National Park offers everything from snowshoeing and skiing to horseback riding and road biking. But it’s most famous for its storied trails and technical climbing. Here are our top picks.

Take a Hike

See the park’s showiest views on these half-day and full-day trips.  

Odessa Lake

This quiet, 9-mile out-and-back begins at the less-crowded Fern Lake Trailhead and follows a gentle grade up through coniferous forest to Odessa Lake, a glassy alpine tarn framed by the Tourmaline Gorge and the peaks beyond.

Emerald Lake

Experience lily-pad studded lakes and winding, rocky trails on this popular 3-mile out-and-back. The trail takes you past Nymph and Dream Lakes (equally fairytale-worthy) and traces the floor of the Tyndall Gorge. At the top, you’ll be treated to views of Emerald Lake bookended by Hallett Peak on one side and Flattop Mountain to the other. Do this one early or late, or out of season, to avoid the crowds.

Longs Peak

At 14,259 feet, Longs Peak is the tallest mountain in the park and one of Colorado’s most iconic climbs. You can ascend the peak without ropes via the Keyhole Route, but don’t underestimate the time and effort it takes. It’s 16 miles round-trip with more than 5,000 feet of elevation gain. Parts of the route require technical scrambling, and there’s exposure that makes some hikers uncomfortable. Plan a pre-dawn start (as early as midnight) to reach the summit before thunderstorms roll in. The hike is long and mostly waterless, but it passes through some of the most incredible landscapes in the park: The 360-degrees of the continental divide can’t be beat, and herds of deer and elk sometimes wander over the trail at dawn. Caution: The final stretch to the summit is fairly exposed. If you lack technical scrambling experience, consider going with a guide or experienced friend.

Camp Out

Rocky Mountain National Park has five established campgrounds. Two—Longs Peak Campground and Timber Lake Campground—are first-come, first-serve, while the others can be reserved.

If you want to spend a quiet weekend alongside an alpine lake or stream, there are numerous wilderness campsites available. Permits are required for all backcountry camping (apply online).

Go Rock Climbing

Rocky Mountain National Park is home to some of the most classic alpine rock routes in the country. Beginners beware: Many of the routes start at 12,000 or 13,000 feet, and there are few bail options, so make sure the grade is well within your ability level. If you’re new to the area, consider hiring a guide for any technical climbing.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.