Table of Contents
Pristine lakes, majestic mountain ranges, and lush forests help to distinguish Rocky Mountain National Park as one of the most beautiful places in America. Its 415 square miles of spectacular terrain feature a variety of ecosystems, from the low-lying valleys where elk herds graze to the alpine tundra high above. Northern Colorado’s diverse landscapes and distinct seasons make every trip to the park a unique and unforgettable experience. Whether you are simply visiting for the day or taking an extended vacation, Rocky Mountain National Park offers plenty of activities to keep you busy. Among the most popular things to do are hiking, biking, fishing, and wildlife viewing. Visitors during the colder months have the opportunity to go cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. It’s no surprise that nature lovers and adventurers flock to “Rocky” at all times of the year, making it one the most highly visited national parks in the entire country!
Photo: Bierstadt Lake is a beautiful sub-alpine lake on the east side of Rocky Mountain National Park. Multiple hiking trails along Bear Lake Road lead to this wonderful location.
In preparation for a trip to Rocky Mountain National Park, be sure to make a plan. Decide what you would like to do and when in order to get the most out of your time. Just be aware that changing conditions, such as weather or traffic, may require flexibility in your schedule. Also remember to leave some free time for relaxing, especially if you’ll be staying in the area for multiple days.
To help you plan a trip, this guide is divided up into six sections. The first section provides general information about the park and is essential reading for all visitors. The following four sections make up the bulk of this guide and represent the four seasons, beginning with summer and ending with spring. Each of these sections describes the expected (but definitely not guaranteed) conditions in the park, along with popular activities for the time of year. If you have already decided on a time to visit the park, you may choose to simply read the one section that applies. If you’re unsure of what time to go or you are considering returning to the park another time of year, be sure to read all four sections and decide which season sounds the best for you. There is no bad time to visit and every season in the Colorado Rocky Mountains is unique and wonderful! Finally, section 6 provides a brief overview of nearby activities. These include golf courses, historic towns, ski resorts, and more.
1. General Information for All Visitors
The basic information in this section is for those visiting at any time of the year. Directions to the park and details on visitor centers, campgrounds, and lodging are all included here. Information on fees, rules, and operating hours, as well as maps can be found on the official National Park Service website, an essential tool for any national park visit. Use the following links when planning your trip.
Directions to the Park
The park is located in the Front Range of the Rockies, meaning it is just a short drive from urban areas such as Denver and Fort Collins. The small town of Estes Park serves as the eastern entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park and offers many lodging and dining options. The quickest route from downtown Denver to Estes Park is to take I-25 north to exit 243. Head west through Longmont on Highway 66 (which eventually merges into Highway 36). You will later pass through the town of Lyons and then travel north to Estes Park. This route is about 70 miles and takes approximately an hour and a half. An alternative option is to take Highway 36 for the entire drive from Denver to Estes Park. This route passes through the city of Boulder and is about five miles shorter, but may require extra time.
For those who are coming from the north (Fort Collins or Cheyenne), Highway 34 is the only way into Estes Park. If travelling south from Cheyenne, Wyoming, take I-25 to Exit 257. Head west on Eisenhower Boulevard, which carries Highway 34 through Loveland and into Estes Park. From downtown Fort Collins, take either Taft Hill Road or the 287 south to Loveland. Taft Hill is generally the quickest route but is a two-lane rural road. Highway 287 is wider but has more stop lights and traffic. Either way, you will drive 12 miles south until you reach highway 34 in Loveland. From there, head west for nearly 30 miles through Big Thompson Canyon until you arrive in Estes Park.
For those driving from the northeast (including cities such as Omaha, Chicago, and Minneapolis) take I-80 to the intersection with I-76 in western Nebraska. Turn onto I-76 and drive to Exit 66B near the town of Wiggins, Colorado (14 miles west of Fort Morgan). Then take Highway 34 west through Greeley and Loveland. Estes Park is 87 miles from Exit 66B.
The western side of Rocky Mountain National Park is generally less crowded, due to the longer drive from Colorado’s urban areas. To reach this side of the park, take I-70 to Exit 232, regardless of which direction you are coming from. Head west on Highway 40 through the small town of Empire. You will climb over Berthoud Pass and go by the ski slopes of Winter Park shortly after. After passing through the small town of Granby, make a right onto Highway 34. This will take you past Lake Granby, Shadow Mountain Lake, and the town of Grand Lake, and then into the park. Grand Lake is the western gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park and has multiple lodging options.
The layout of the park is rather simple. There are three main entrances, two in Estes Park (east side) and one in Grand Lake (west side). During the summer, all portions of Rocky are accessible from each of the entrances. However, heavy snowfall from October through May leads to road closures that divide the park into western and eastern halves. Therefore, the two Estes Park entrances can only be used to access the eastern side and the Grand Lake entrance can only be used to access the western side throughout much of the year. The park’s east side has more roads and places to go, making it a more popular destination during the snowy months.
To explore the east side, use either of the two entrances in Estes Park. The Fall River entrance is northwest of town on Highway 34. Upon passing the toll station, you will drive by the Aspenglen campground. The road enters Horseshoe Park, a large valley where elk herds are commonly seen, and then begins to climb up the hillside to Deer Ridge Junction. The Beaver Meadows entrance is southwest of town on Highway 36. About a quarter mile past the toll station, you may choose to turn left onto Bear Lake Road. This scenic drive travels 9.5 miles southwest, providing access to multiple lakes and trailheads. Alternatively, continue straight from the Beaver Meadows Entrance and drive three miles to meet up with Highway 34 at Deer Ridge Junction.
Deer Ridge Junction is a three-way intersection, with roads heading north, west, and east. To the north is Highway 34, which leads to the Fall River entrance. To the east is Highway 36, headed toward the Beaver Meadows entrance. To the west is Trail Ridge Road, the park’s most scenic drive. Trail Ridge Road is only open during the warmer months, as it reaches an elevation of over 12,000 feet above sea level, where snowfall is very heavy. The road crosses the Continental Divide and then heads into the western side of the park. From the junction, it is 37 miles to the park’s western entrance station.
The west side of the park features the Kawuneeche Valley, a large grassy plain across which the Colorado River meanders. The area is excellent for watching wildlife, especially moose. The only major road in this area of the park is Trail Ridge (which carries Highway 34). From the entrance station, the road travels nine miles north to the Colorado River Trailhead, where it generally closes for the winter due to heavy snow. There are many picnic sites and additional trailheads along the route, as well as pullouts for wildlife viewing.
Rocky Mountain National Park contains five visitor centers. The Beaver Meadows and Fall River visitor centers are located in Estes Park, before drivers pass through the toll stations. The Kawuneeche Visitor Center is near Grand Lake, and again, before the toll station. The other two are located inside the park. High up on Trail Ridge Road is the Alpine Visitor Center. It sits above the tree line on the barren tundra (where no trees can survive due to a short growing season) and is closed in the winter because of harsh weather conditions. The fifth stop for visitor information is the Moraine Park Discovery Center. It is located near the beginning of Bear Lake Road on the park’s east side and features a small museum and nature trail. Stop by any of the five visitor centers to speak with a ranger and find out about current conditions in the park.
Campgrounds and Lodging
There are five different campgrounds within the park: four on the east side and one in the Kawuneeche Valley. Aspenglen, Moraine Park, and Glacier Basin campsites are located within a short drive of Estes Park on the east side. These three allow both tents and RVs, although RVs are limited to a length of 30 to 40 feet depending on the site. Aspenglen and Glacier Basin are generally open during the warmer months (May to September) while Moraine Park stays open year round. The other campsite to the east is Longs Peak, located ten miles south of Estes Park on Highway 7. The Longs Peak campground is open for the summer and allows tents only. Timber Creek is the only campground on the west side of the park. It opens in late spring and does not close until early fall. RVs are allowed at Timber Creek. Some of the sites take reservations (recommended, but not required) while other are first-come, first-served. Visit the official National Park Service website to find out more about reservations, fees, and amenities. In addition to the five campgrounds within the park, many privately-owned campgrounds can be found just outside park boundaries.
There are no lodges located within Rocky Mountain National Park; the only way to spend the night in the park is to camp. If you plan to stay in a hotel, a variety of options can be found in Estes Park and Grand Lake. Hotels, cabins, bed and breakfasts, as well as vacation homes and condos are available within close proximity to the park.
For those who are truly adventurous, leave the cities and developed campgrounds behind and try wilderness camping. It’s not for everyone, but provides an excellent opportunity to get closer to nature and experience some of the most remote areas of the park. Permits are required for camping in the wilderness.
The park is divided into three ecosystems: montane, subalpine, and alpine. Each of these three is determined by altitude. The montane ecosystem is the lowest of the three, comprising the golden meadows and forests of pine and aspen below 9,000 feet in elevation. The subalpine region of the park is at intermediate altitude. This ecosystem features abundant evergreen forests and rises to over 11,000 feet above sea level. Finally, there is the alpine landscape that covers the highest areas of the Rocky Mountains. The alpine ecosystem occurs at over 11,000 feet, a place where a harsh, cold climate prevents trees from growing. As a result, only grasses and small shrubs can survive here, along with a few animal species.
Even the lower montane ecosystem is at relatively high altitude. Using any of the three main entrances, you will enter the park at over 8,000 feet in elevation. The high altitude may be difficult for some visitors. Keep this in mind if you live within a few thousand feet of sea level. Do not over-exert yourself on long, challenging hikes, and be sure to drink plenty of water. When you first arrive at the park, give yourself some time to acclimate before doing any strenuous physical activity.
Photo: Each of the three ecosystems can be seen in this photo. The trees in the foreground are part of the montane. The forest on the distant mountainside is subalpine. The barren area near the top (including Longs Peak) is alpine.
2. Summer in the Rockies: June – August
When summer arrives in the Rocky Mountains, layers of snow and ice rapidly melt away, revealing a colorful landscape that has been kept hidden for months. Beautiful wildflowers begin to bloom on the alpine tundra while animals wake up from their long hibernation. The forests of aspen regain their green leaves as daytime temperatures become much more pleasant. The park becomes more active and so full of life!
Millions of people travel to Rocky Mountain National Park each year, and the majority visit during the summer. Many families come for vacation, attracted by the idea of a paradise high in the sky. The Rockies offer an escape from summer heat waves while maintaining an abundance of sunshine. Visitors during the warmer months can enjoy hiking, biking, fishing, picnicking, and so much more. Summer is a truly wonderful season to spend time in the park!
Photo: The Ute Trail traverses the alpine tundra, passing through a meadow of green grass and yellow wildflowers.
The Rocky Mountain region is notable for its unpredictable and abruptly-changing weather conditions. One minute, the sun is out and the temperatures are high. The next, storms move in to bring rain and cold air. Visitors should be prepared for all kinds of conditions at all times of the day.
Most often, mornings are the best time to avoid extreme weather. Winds are generally calm and temperatures are cool. The sun is almost always out early in the day. Mornings are great for hiking and biking as you can head out onto the trails and enjoy the crisp air and mild temperatures, staying comfortable and dry. In addition, those who head out early are rewarded with fewer crowds and better wildlife viewing opportunities.
Summer afternoons are often characterized by thunderstorms brought to the region by monsoon winds. Heavy rainfall, cold temperatures, and lightning are all very common from noon through the early evening. Be sure to consider these storms when planning your day in Rocky. In the event of lightning in the area, it is best to move to lower elevations of the park. The alpine tundra is above the tree line, meaning that it is exposed to the storms and highly susceptible to lightning strikes. Do not ignore the rumbles of thunder, as these storms can be very dangerous and even deadly. Stay safe by getting below the tree line and finding shelter in your vehicle, or better, a visitor center.
The high altitude of Rocky Mountain National Park causes temperatures to drop quickly once the sun has set. Nights are usually dry with cool temperatures. If you plan to be outside after dark, come prepared with jackets and long pants. Typical summer clothing is rarely enough to stay comfortable at night.
Understand that daytime temperatures are heavily affected by elevation, which ranges from 7,500 feet to 14,000 feet above sea level. Lower elevations can be quite warm, or even hot. On the contrary, temperatures on the alpine tundra occasionally drop to near freezing. In general, air temperature is inversely related to elevation: as the land goes up, the temperature goes down.
Photo: I took this photograph of Bear Lake on a typical summer morning with clear skies and mild temperatures- perfect weather for hiking.
Unlike winter, when the park is divided into east and west sides due to road closures, nearly all portions of Rocky are easily accessible from any entrance during the summer. You can watch wildlife in the Kawuneeche Valley, drive atop the spectacular Trail Ridge, and take a hike around Bear Lake all in one day, thanks to snow-free roadways. In addition, shuttle buses and biking become great alternative methods of getting around the park. Better road conditions and additional modes of transportation give summer visitors more freedom to discover Rocky Mountain National Park.
Driving is the most common method used by visitors to explore the park. Nearly all roads in Rocky are open to private vehicles during the summer, making it possible to see the sights at your own pace. If you choose to drive during your visit, there are a few things to keep in mind. First of all, steep roadways and low oxygen levels may be challenging to some vehicles. To avoid engine failure, stay in a lower gear and do not use air conditioning. Second, ensure that your vehicle’s brakes are working properly before heading up into the mountains. Good brakes are crucial to driving the park’s steep and winding roads. Finally, be sure to use extra caution at all times. Some roads have steep drop-offs to the side and become dangerous when people are driving too quickly. Wildlife on the road is another reason to slow down and be observant.
Since the majority of the park’s visitation occurs during the warmer months, expect heavy traffic and crowded parking lots throughout the day. This is especially true on weekends and even more so around holidays such as the Fourth of July and Labor Day. Late morning and early afternoon are often challenging times to find parking spaces in popular park destinations such as Bear Lake and the Alpine Visitor Center. Heavily used routes such as Trail Ridge Road can get backed up with long lines of vehicles during peak season. If you are looking for alternative methods of transportation, there are a couple of options.
Shuttle buses operate in the park from late spring to early fall and are a great way to skip the hassles of driving and parking. All bus routes are located on the east side of Rocky, making stops in Estes Park, the Moraine Park Discovery Center, Park & Ride (located along Bear Lake Road), Bear Lake, and other spots in between. The drawbacks of riding the bus include having to wait at the stations and not having access to the central and western portions of the park. Still, shuttle buses are a fantastic, stress-free way to get around and are highly recommended during times of heavy visitation.
The other alternative mode of transportation is biking. Riding your bike has its obvious set-backs, including difficulty on steep roads and extra time needed to get from place to place. It can also be dangerous when sharing the lane with cars and buses (many roads lack a shoulder). On the plus side, cyclists do not have to worry about searching for a place to park. Biking provides more freedom in getting around, and in addition, it’s great exercise!
If you will be staying in the area for multiple days, plan to do most of your activities during the early morning and late afternoon, skipping over the middle when crowds are the largest. Your experience in the park will be much more enjoyable with fewer cars on the road. If you are just coming for the day, and avoiding the crowds is not possible, consider the alternative transportation options and be patient with traffic. Visitation to Rocky Mountain National Park is on the rise, making transportation more and more of a challenge during the summer.
Places to Go
Bear Lake: This gorgeous sub-alpine lake sits at an elevation of nearly 9,500 feet on Rocky’s east side. Its crystal-clear waters are surrounded by lush forests of pine and aspen, as well as rugged slopes to the west. Longs Peak, the highest point in the park, can be seen from the eastern and northern shores. The lake is reached by taking the aptly-named Bear Lake Road approximately ten miles south from the Beaver Meadows entrance station. An extremely popular destination, Bear Lake serves as a trailhead from which many other lakes, along with waterfalls and mountain summits, can be reached. The parking lot is quite large, but fills up very quickly during peak season. Plan to arrive at Bear Lake early in the morning to ensure that spaces are available. Alternatively, take a shuttle bus from the Park & Ride located near the midpoint of Bear Lake Road.
Trail Ridge: Trail Ridge Road is one of the most spectacular drives in America! It climbs to an elevation of over 12,000 feet and meanders across the beautiful alpine tundra; it is the highest paved road in any United States national park. The road generally opens for the season in May or June, depending on snowpack, and remains open until October. Upon accent to the top from either side (Trail Ridge Road connects the west and east sides of the park), drivers encounter a few switchbacks and steep slopes. However, once the tundra is reached, the road becomes surprisingly flat and easy to drive. Trail Ridge Road offers multiple pullouts, as well as access to the Alpine Visitor Center and some short hiking trails. Adjacent to the visitor center is a store that includes a gift shop and restaurant.
Photo: Colorful wildflowers are abundant during the summer on Trail Ridge.
Kawuneeche Valley: The western side of Rocky Mountain National Park features a large grassy valley traversed by the Colorado River. Highway 34 travels north from Grand Lake through the Kawuneeche Valley before beginning the climb to Trail Ridge. Many trailheads and picnic areas are located along the highway. This portion of the park is excellent for viewing wildlife. Native species include moose, elk, mule deer, and coyote. River otters also live in the area but are extremely difficult to find. The Kawuneeche Valley is often less crowded than the east side of Rocky, due to the greater distance from Colorado’s major cities.
Horseshoe Park: Horseshoe Park is a large meadow on the park’s eastern side, most easily accessible from the Fall River entrance station. The area features a montane ecosystem, characterized by meadows, pine forests, and a few small lakes. Horseshoe Park is notable for being home to large herds of elk, often seen grazing on the open grassland. At the west end of Horseshoe Park is the start of Old Fall River Road. This scenic route is one way (up only) and climbs to the Alpine Visitor Center on Trail Ridge. This narrow, winding road is primarily gravel and contains steep slopes and switchbacks. Another location of interest in Horseshoe Park is the Alluvial Fan, where visitors can see large boulders and a cascading creek that remain from a 1982 flood.
Suggested Summer Hikes
Lily Lake: Drive six miles south from Estes Park on Colorado Highway 7 to arrive at Lily Lake. This easy, accessible trail makes a one mile loop around the lake and is excellent for families. Additional activities include picnicking and catch-and-release fishing.
Cub Lake: The hike begins at the Cub Lake Trailhead in Moraine Park, a couple miles off Bear Lake Road. The trail is 2.3 miles one-way and is rated as moderately difficult. As hikers approach the lake, the trail becomes rocky in some areas. Unfortunately, a large wildfire back in 2012 killed many of the trees surrounding the lake. Still, summer visitors are treated with the sight of thousands of lily pads floating on the surface of the water.
Bear Lake: This easy trail makes a 0.7-mile loop around the lake and is one the park’s most popular hikes. It is great for families and those who are still acclimating to the high altitude. Although the National Park Service lists the Bear Lake Trail as accessible for the disabled, there are a few inclined sections that may be challenging for some. Remember that the Bear Lake parking lot fills up very quickly during peak season. Either arrive early or take the shuttle bus.
Photo: The trail around Bear Lake is a dirt path. While the section in the photo is immediately adjacent to the lake, much of the trail is separated from the shoreline by trees and rocks.
Nymph, Dream, & Emerald Lakes: This wonderful hike starts at the Bear Lake trailhead and is extremely popular. The trail is relatively easy and very scenic, featuring three beautiful alpine lakes (four if you count Bear Lake). The first, Nymph Lake, is half a mile from the trailhead. This is the smallest of the lakes, but is noted for its abundance of lily pads. The next stop is Dream Lake, located 1.1 miles from the trailhead. This iconic Colorado destination features amazing views of Hallett Peak and Flattop Mountain. Most people stop at Dream Lake, but if you are looking to extend the hike further, continue another 0.7 miles to Emerald Lake for an even closer view of the rugged mountain peaks. A hike to all three lakes creates a 3.6-mile round-trip journey.
Alberta Falls: Starting at the Glacier Gorge trailhead, this is perhaps the most popular waterfall hike in the park. The trail passes through a forest of pine and aspen before reaching the 30-foot plunge of Glacier Creek. Hiking to Alberta Falls is not difficult, and the round-trip length is 1.6 miles. Parking spaces at the trailhead fill up quickly due to its location on Bear Lake Road. Shuttle buses beginning at the Park & Ride make stops here. Alternatively, the falls may be reached from the Bear Lake Trailhead for a 1.8-mile round-trip.
Tundra Communities: The Tundra Communities Trailhead is positioned along Trail Ridge Road at an elevation of just over 12,000 feet. The gently sloping walkway, known as the Toll Memorial Trail, is slightly more than one mile round-trip and is paved, making it very easy aside from the high altitude that may be challenging to some visitors. Small alpine wildflowers are abundant in the area.
Alpine Ridge Trail: Beginning at the Alpine Visitor Center, this steep trail rises 200 feet in just 0.3 miles and alternates between sloped walkway and stone steps. The lookout point at the top (elevation 12,005 feet) provides panoramic views of the surrounding mountain ranges. On very clear days, the Snowy Range of southern Wyoming can be seen 70 miles to the northwest. This trail is best hiked in the morning before the parking lot fills up and afternoon thunderstorms roll in.
Ute Trail: The Ute Trail is 4.5 miles one-way and connects Milner Pass to the Alpine Visitor Center. The lower end of the trail, located on the southwestern end of Poudre Lake, is at an elevation of 10,800 feet. From here, it is a steep uphill climb to the alpine tundra at nearly 12,000 feet. Pine forests at the bottom and colorful wildflowers near the top, paired with spectacular mountain views, make this one of the most gorgeous hikes in the park. Due to its length, some hikers arrange to have a driver drop them off at one end and pick them up at the other. If you are fortunate enough to have this option available to you, it is highly recommended.
Timber Lake: If you’re looking to escape from the crowds and take a long hike, make the journey to Timber Lake. Located on the west side of the park, this trail is about 10 miles round-trip. Beginning in the Kawuneeche Valley, it rises over 2,000 feet in elevation. Nearly the entire trail climbs through a pine forest, while offering occasional views of the Never Summer Mountains to the west. Roughly one mile before reaching the lake, the trail begins to travel alongside Timber Creek. The lake is just over 11,000 feet in elevation. Note: A landslide occurred about two miles from the trailhead in 2012. The trail is passable, but difficult, at the site of the landslide.
Coyote Valley: This easy, accessible trail is located in the Kawuneeche Valley on the park’s west side. The Coyote Valley Trailhead is at the end of a very short dirt road off Highway 34, 5.5 miles north of the entrance station. A pleasant stroll, the trail follows the Colorado River and is great for viewing wildlife such as moose. A loop off of the main trail features a picnic area.
Photo: A great place for a picnic, I found this table while searching for moose in the Kawuneeche Valley.
Watching for wildlife is among the most popular activities in the Rocky Mountains. Majestic elk, adorable marmots, and iconic bighorn sheep are all commonly seen during the summer. Being familiar with animal behavior and preferred habitats can help maximize your chances of seeing them during your visit. Always remember to keep your distance from wild animals and be sure not to disturb them.
Elk: Elk are among the most commonly viewed species in Rocky. These large deer are frequently seen in herds, grazing the open meadows on either side of the park. During the summer, however, many elk move to higher elevations, preferring the alpine tundra above the tree line. Although an elk sighting is certainly possible at lower elevations during the summer, the best place to look for them is along Trail Ridge Road.
Moose: Massive size, chocolate-brown fur, and a large nose make the moose a very lovable animal- a favorite among wildlife enthusiasts. Moose sightings in Rocky are most likely to occur in the Kawuneeche Valley, but are becoming more frequent on the park’s east side. Look for moose along the Colorado River, as well as near lakes, ponds, and streams. Much of their diet consists of aquatic vegetation, meaning that they never stray far from water.
Photo: I spotted this young moose along Trail Ridge Road in the Kawuneeche Valley.
Mule Deer: Mule deer are extremely common and seen by many visitors to the park. They are named for their large ears, which resemble those of a mule. Their preferred habitat is ponderosa forest, which is abundant in the eastern portions of Rocky and around Estes Park.
Bighorn Sheep: The Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep is Colorado’s state mammal and is easily recognized by its curled horns, which are much larger in males. Among the best places to see them is Trail Ridge, where herds of sheep graze on alpine vegetation. They are also seen frequently in Horseshoe Park by the appropriately-named Sheep Lakes. These animals often make trips to lower elevations for a change in diet that provides nutrients not available on the alpine tundra.
Marmot: The yellow-bellied marmot is a large rodent, or more specifically, a type of ground squirrel. In fact, they are very closely related to groundhogs found in the eastern United States. Marmots live exclusively in the park’s high country, rising from their burrows on the alpine tundra to eat grasses, flowers, and insects. Look for these cute critters along Trail Ridge Road.
Photo: A yellow-bellied marmot poses to have his picture taken.
Pika: A pika is a very small, rabbit-like creature that lives a similar lifestyle to that of the marmot. They can be seen in rocky areas above the tree line as they look for grasses to store for the winter. Pikas can be difficult to spot due to their size and camouflage. However, their quick movements are often enough to catch the eye.
Cougars, Bears, & Coyotes: The park’s larger predators are all very rarely seen by visitors due to their elusive nature. Like any carnivorous animal, they will travel wherever necessary in order to find food. Cougars, also known as mountain lions or pumas, hunt for larger prey such as mule deer. Scratched trees can be a sign that a cougar is living in the area. American black bears are the only bear species in the park, since grizzlies were hunted to extinction in Colorado. The majority of a bear’s diet consists of plant material, including grasses and berries. The remainder of their diet is primarily insects. Coyotes, which are the most likely of the three to be seen, are quite numerous in Rocky Mountain National Park. Their foods of choice include rabbits, rodents, and other smaller animals.
Birds: Hundreds of different bird species can be found in Rocky Mountain National Park, most of them living in the forested areas at lower elevation. The most commonly seen bird of prey is the red-tailed hawk, which prefers forests with high places for perching. Other carnivorous birds that are occasionally seen are kestrels (small falcons), eagles, and owls. More unique species in the park include mountain chickadee, grey jay, and the brilliant western tanager, which has a black and yellow body and red-orange head. Among Rocky’s largest birds is the wild turkey. Bird-watching guide books are a great tool to have and can be purchased at the park’s visitor centers.
Fishing: Rocky Mountain National Park has numerous lakes and ponds open for fishing. However, some of them are strictly catch-and-release. The most common type of fish in the park is trout, including the native Cutthroat species and non-native Brook and Rainbow. Popular fishing spots include Lake Haiyaha, Mills Lake, and Sprague Lake. Catch-and-release waters include Lily Lake, Dream Lake, and portions of the Big Thompson River. A Colorado fishing license is required to go fishing in the park. Visit the official park website for regulations and more details.
Horseback Riding: Many of the park’s trails are open to the use of pack animals, including horses, burros, and llamas. Animals must stay on designated trails and are not permitted in campgrounds or picnic areas. There are two stables within the park: one near Sprague Lake and the other in nearby Moraine Park. Multiple other stables are operated in the towns of Grand Lake and Estes Park, many of which offer guided horseback rides.
Picnicking: The sound of flowing water and the smell of pine create the perfect atmosphere for a summer picnic. Many of the park’s picnic sites offer grills or fire grates, and some of them also allow for the use of portable grills. Popular sites on Rocky’s east side include Sprague Lake and Endovalley. Lake Irene and Coyote Valley are nice picnic areas on the west side.
3. Autumn in the Rockies: September – October
As temperatures begin to cool down in the Rocky Mountains, the park’s deciduous foliage puts on a spectacular display of warm colors. Most notable are the aspens, which turn from lime green to yellow to orange, and occasionally, a cherry red. In addition to the changing vegetation, animals begin their preparation for the winter that lies ahead. Hibernating critters scavenge for food while massive elk herds form in the golden meadows for the annual mating season. September and October bring out the finest features of the natural world.
Fall is a highly popular season to visit Rocky Mountain National Park. Hundreds of thousands of people visit the park during the short time period in which the elk herds are active and the trees are colorful. While the autumn colors only last a few weeks, they are an incredible sight to see. Fall is a truly glorious season in Colorado!
Photo: Golden aspens and a vivid blue sky make for great photography. I captured this photo at an aspen grove near Hidden Valley, on the park’s eastern side.
Autumn is the best time of year to avoid extreme weather conditions in the Rockies. Afternoon thunderstorms that are common in the summertime become much less frequent in the fall. Temperatures are generally cool during the day and cold at night. Snow is a definite possibility in September and October, especially at higher elevations, but storms are usually short-lived.
Autumn mornings are often very peaceful in the mountains. Skies are a deep blue with minimal cloud cover, and winds are usually calm. This is an excellent time to get outside and enjoy your surroundings. The cool temperatures and dry air make outdoor activities such as hiking and biking very comfortable. The weather is also highly suitable for wildlife activity, making for great viewing opportunities.
Daily high temperatures are generally quite pleasant, averaging about 70 degrees in September and 60 degrees in October. Temperatures in the 40s and 50s are also possible, but are usually tolerable if the sun is out. Afternoon thunderstorms may pass through the park during the fall, decreasing in likelihood as the season progresses. If storms arrive, stay below the tree line and find shelter in order to stay safe from lightning.
Nights are cold, but rarely do temperatures drop far below freezing. A typical September night may see low temperatures ranging from the low 40s to the mid-30s. October nights are generally five to ten degrees colder. When snowfall occurs in autumn, it is most likely to fall either during the night or in the early morning. Snowfall is not a guarantee for September, but is almost certain to happen in October.
Transportation in Rocky Mountain National Park during the fall is generally the same as in the summertime. Almost all roads are open to private vehicles and shuttle buses run on the east side of the park. Bicycling is also an option for getting around, thanks to pleasant weather and good road conditions. Visitors are free to roam the entire park in search of active wildlife and the very best fall foliage. It is not until the middle of October when winter weather can place limitations on transportation in the park.
For the majority of the fall season, most park roads are open. The only closure that is likely to occur early on is Old Fall River Road, a gravel highway which usually shuts down for the season sometime in September. Trail Ridge Road generally remains free of snow until mid-October, and closes around this time. Until then, drivers are free to travel atop the alpine tundra between both sides of Rocky. Although snowfall is possible in September and October, accumulation on roadways is very minimal, rarely creating any challenges for vehicles. If you are visiting in October, watch weather forecasts for incoming snowstorms that may threaten to close Trail Ridge Road.
Ensure that your vehicle is prepared for mountain driving. Some roadways in the park are steep and winding, making them potentially challenging, especially if they are wet or snowy. Also be sure to check your brakes before heading up into the mountains. At higher altitudes, avoid turning on your air conditioning and remain at a lower gear. Do these things to help minimize the risk of engine failure that can be caused by lower oxygen levels. Finally, drive slowly and always lookout for wildlife and bicyclists.
Weekends from mid to late September (peak season for fall foliage) are often extremely crowded. In fact, among the busiest days in park history have occurred around this time. Expect very long lines of cars along the most popular drives, including Bear Lake Road and Trail Ridge Road. Parking can be nearly impossible mid-day. The lots at the Alpine Visitor Center and Bear Lake are virtually guaranteed to fill up well before noon. If you are able to visit during a weekday, it is strongly encouraged. Otherwise, consider the alternative transportation methods of biking and taking the shuttle buses.
Shuttle Buses, all of which run on the east side of the park only, remain in operation through early October. A series of bus routes connect downtown Estes Park, the Moraine Park Discovery Center, Park & Ride, and Bear Lake. This is a great way to avoid the worst of the crowds. Buses fill up very quickly when the park is at its busiest, and waiting in line to board is a possibility. Those who plan to use the shuttle system are encouraged to arrive early. Even the Park & Ride with roughly 350 marked parking spaces can fill up early in the day.
When parking lots are full and roadways are congested, it appears that biking may be the only way to beat the crowds. Unfortunately, this also has challenges associated with heavy visitation to Rocky. Many park roads do not have a shoulder for cyclists, making it quite dangerous for those who are not experienced. Additional hazards such as steep drop-offs and tight turns are often present. If you plan to explore the park on a bike, avoid the middle of the day, not only for your safety, but also in courtesy of drivers. Because there is not sufficient room on most roads, cyclists can cause traffic to back up further when cars and buses cannot pass. Use pullouts along the road when necessary.
Once October arrives and the leaves fall to the ground, the park finally calms down. Parking lots stop filling up so quickly and shuttle buses are no longer necessary. Transportation becomes much less of a hassle. Crowds may still exist on weekends with warmer weather, but nothing that is comparable to those of late September. The middle of October will, in most years, bring enough snowfall to the area to close Trail Ridge Road. This ceases the ability of visitors to easily move between the west and east sides of the park. At this point, at least three hours are required to drive between Grand Lake and Estes Park, using routes outside of Rocky.
Places to Go
Trail Ridge: Trail Ridge Road takes visitors to the top of the Rockies, reaching elevations of over 12,000 feet. This spectacular highway crosses the alpine tundra and is the highest paved road in any national park in America. Trail Ridge has a unique appearance during the fall. Most of the year, the tundra is covered in a thick blanket of snow, but come September, nearly all of the snow from the previous season has melted away. The grassy meadows above the tree line turn golden brown with hints of red. The rugged mountain peaks lose their white coating to become grey. Trail Ridge Road features multiple stopping points, including Forest Canyon Overlook and Tundra Communities Trailhead. It also provides access to the Alpine Visitor Center, where you can talk with a park ranger and learn about alpine ecosystems. Food and gifts are available in a store adjacent to the visitor center.
Photo: This is the view from the Alpine Ridge Trail, looking down at the Alpine Visitor Center. Golden-colored grasses dominate the landscape during the fall.
Hidden Valley: The short road to Hidden Valley stems from the eastern portion of Trail Ridge Road (2.5 miles from Deer Ridge Junction). Immediately to the side of the turn-off is an aspen forest that delights those who come in late September with its beautiful fall colors. Although small, this forest is a particularly popular spot for photographers. The road travels less than a half mile through a golden meadow to the parking area, which is quite large, but may fill up on crowded days. Hidden Valley is a former ski area, and some of the slopes are still visible. It is now a place to picnic and take an easy stroll through the woods. Gently-sloping paths follow both sides of Hidden Valley Creek (with multiple bridges to cross) through an evergreen forest.
Moraine Park: This spacious valley is located along the beginning of Bear Lake Road, near the Beaver Meadows entrance station. The trees in the area are mostly pine, but a few aspen groves are present and offer some fall color. Moraine Park’s grassy meadows and winding rivers form the perfect habitat for elk. Large herds congregate here for the mating season, which lasts all season long. The event is a favorite among wildlife enthusiasts, who come to see hundreds of these majestic animals all in one place. To get information about local wildlife and ecosystems, stop by the Moraine Park Discovery Center. At this visitor center and museum, you can talk with park rangers and learn about the natural history of the Rocky Mountains.
Suggested Autumn Hikes
Bear Lake: This easy 0.7-mile trail makes a loop around the beautiful Bear Lake. The hike is considered to be accessible to the disabled. However, there are a few slopes along the way, and snow on the trail is possible in the fall. If visiting in late September, remember to either come early or take a shuttle bus. The Bear Lake parking lot is large, but fills up very quickly. To the north of the lake is an aspen grove that puts on a nice display of color at this time.
Sprague Lake: Another easy lake hike, this trail makes a 0.8-mile loop with scenic views in every direction. The Sprague Lake loop is almost completely flat and covers a distance comparable to that of Bear Lake, making it very accessible to those with disabilities. Picnic tables are located at the parking area. Sprague Lake is accessible from Bear Lake Road.
Bierstadt Lake: Secluded in a sub-alpine forest high above Bear Lake Road is the incredibly gorgeous Bierstadt Lake. Hiking to the lake is moderately difficult, and multiple routes can be taken. The shortest, but most physically demanding route begins at the Bierstadt Lake Trailhead along Bear Lake Road, where the shuttle bus makes a stop. From here, a series of switchbacks are used to climb a steep hill that is covered in aspen and pine forests. About 0.7 miles from the trailhead is a junction. The quickest way to the lake is to turn right and hike another tenth of a mile. The lake is not immediately adjacent to the trail. Instead, there are multiple paths that lead to the water. The Bear Lake Trailhead can also be used to reach the lake. Beginning on the northeastern side of the lake (a short walk from the trailhead), this is the easiest route, but is two miles one-way. A third option begins at the Park & Ride. This trail travels through dense forests of lodgepole pine and is about 1.5 miles one-way. A few sections of this route are steep and rocky. All of these trails meet by forming a one mile loop around Bierstadt Lake.
Deer Mountain: Starting at Deer Ridge Junction, this trail is three miles one-way and climbs to the top of its namesake peak. Those who reach the summit are rewarded with incredible views of Estes Park, Moraine Park, Longs Peak, and the Continental Divide. Bring binoculars and you may be able to see large elk herds in the valleys below. The trail is considered to be of moderate difficulty due to length, elevation gain, and a series of switchbacks.
Photo: This cluster of aspens with yellow-orange leaves was photographed near the summit of Deer Mountain in mid-September. Longs Peak is visible on the left side of the image.
Gem Lake: As the name suggests, this lake is one of Rocky’s hidden gems, secluded in the Lumpy Ridge area to the north of Estes Park. The trail climbs past spectacular rock formations for about a mile and a half (round-trip: 3.2 miles). Most of the area’s trees are pine, but a few aspens may provide some fall color. While the lake itself is small, its location is beautiful with fantastic views of the town below. The Gem Lake Trail is moderate in difficulty with steep and rocky sections. Note: The Lumpy Ridge area is not connected to the rest of the park by road. The trailhead is accessed through the town of Estes Park.
Tundra Communities: The Toll Memorial Trail begins at the Tundra Communities Trailhead, which is located along Trail Ridge Road. This easy, paved walkway travels across the alpine tundra at over 12,000 feet above sea level. The grasses along the path are usually a mix of gold and red during the fall. A few wildflowers may still be in bloom. The trail is just over one mile round-trip and passes some interesting rock formations.
The fall season is fantastic for wildlife watching in Rocky Mountain National Park. At this time, animals begin their active preparation for the coming winter. Elk move to lower elevations of the park to mate, marmots fatten themselves up before going into their long hibernation, and snowshoe hares trade their brown coats for white ones with better camouflage. This transitional season triggers an increase in activity from local fauna- a great thing for park visitors. Always be respectful of wild animals by keeping your distance and not feeding them.
Elk: While elk are commonly seen on the alpine tundra during the summer, they take notice of the change in season and move to the montane ecosystems at lower elevations. The fall mating season for elk, called the “rut”, is when massive herds of these incredible animals form in the park’s grassy meadows. The elk rut is a truly extraordinary event to watch. The males, called “bulls”, proudly display their elegant antlers to females, and occasionally use them to battle with rival males. They also make their presence known by making bugles, loud noises with a very wide range in pitch. These calls are usually made by older bulls and are most commonly herd in the morning or evening. The best places to observe the elk rut are Moraine Park, Horseshoe Park, the Kawuneeche Valley, and any other open meadows at lower altitudes of the park. Be sure to keep extra distance between yourself and the animals at this time. Elk are under heavy stress during the mating season and can become dangerous if provoked.
Photo: A bull elk displays his large antlers in a meadow on the eastern side of the park. Remember to keep your distance from these animals, as they can be very dangerous (I zoomed in a lot to get this photo).
Mule Deer: This highly common species is frequently seen by visitors to the park. Their preferred habitat is montane forest which is abundant on the eastern side of the park, but occurs elsewhere. Fall is the mating season for mule deer. At this time, males compete for females by displaying their large antlers. Mule deer are social animals and form herds in the fall. However, these herds are generally much smaller than those of elk.
Moose: The moose is one of Rocky’s most beloved animals. As the largest deer species in the world, males of certain subspecies can weigh up to 1,500 pounds. Moose in Colorado, however, belong to a subspecies that is generally smaller. They are most frequently viewed in the Kawuneeche Valley near bodies of water, as much of their diet consists of aquatic vegetation. Look for moose in the western portion of the park along the Colorado River. Moose sightings on the park’s east side are rare, but are becoming more common as populations grow.
Bighorn Sheep: Just like the three deer species in Rocky Mountain National Park, bighorn sheep mate in the fall. While male deer only occasionally use their antlers to fight, bighorn rams use their thick, curled horns to battle each other for desired females. Few visitors to the park are lucky enough to witness as two males charge and collide head-on, relying on their horns to cushion the impact. Injuries are surprisingly uncommon. Males generally continue to battle until one surrenders and walks away. Bighorn sheep can be spotted in a variety of habitats, ranging from the high alpine tundra to montane valleys at lower elevations.
Marmot: Unlike elk, marmots live their entire lives in the park’s high country. During the fall, these large rodents eat as much food as possible to prepare themselves for hibernation. Their diet consists primarily of grasses and flowers, and occasionally insects. Marmots are often seen along Trail Ridge Road on the alpine tundra. They usually begin to hibernate around the beginning of October, and do not come out of their burrows until mid-spring.
Snowshoe Hare: Hares are not technically rabbits, but are very similar. They are noted for their large ears and long hind legs, the latter of which gave them the name “snowshoe”. This species of hare is brown in the summer and white in the winter. During the fall, they are often seen transitioning between the two coats. They live much of the lives in forested areas, and are most commonly seen in the morning or evening.
Viewing Fall Colors
Many of the forests in Rocky Mountain National Park consist of coniferous trees such as pine. These types of trees keep their green needles year-round and have no change in foliage during the fall. On the contrary, aspen trees are deciduous, meaning that they lose their leaves for the winter. Fortunately, there are plenty of aspen groves scattered across the montane and sub-alpine areas of the park, providing great opportunities for visitors to watch the display of color.
Why does foliage change colors in the fall? The reason that leaves are ordinarily green is that they have an abundance of the pigment, chlorophyll. Chlorophyll is a reflector of the color green, and an absorber of all other colors. As a result, leaves appear green throughout the summer. When cooler autumn temperatures arrive, the chlorophyll levels deplete, leaving yellow, orange, and red pigments to become visible. While these pigments are still present in the leaves during the summer, they are overpowered by the green color of chlorophyll.
The brilliance of the fall foliage is variable from year to year, and some autumn seasons in Rocky are significantly better than others. Unfortunately, both the timing and the amount of color are dictated by the weather, making them difficult to predict. Typically, the best time to see trees at their peak of color is during the second half of September, often between the 20th and 25th. Again, it could be earlier or later depending on weather conditions. Keep in mind that altitude also plays a role. Trees at higher elevations of the park will often change earlier than those at lower elevations.
An excellent place to see fall foliage is along Bear Lake Road. Specifically, the hillside above the Bierstadt Lake Trailhead is often quite colorful. There is also a grove of aspens just west of the Moraine Park Discovery Center, immediately adjacent to the road. Another great spot on the park’s eastern side is at the entrance to Hidden Valley. This forest of aspen is located along a small creek and often has some nice shades of yellow. This same forest can be seen from above by driving Trail Ridge Road to the Rainbow Curve lookout point. The Kawuneeche Valley also has fantastic color. While there are not many large aspen groves in this portion of the park, many small pockets of aspen can be seen along the main highway.
Photo: This is the aspen grove near the entrance to Hidden Valley. This photo was taken on September 20th, around the peak of fall color.
4. Winter in the Rockies: November – March
The Rocky Mountains are well known for their long winters with very heavy snowstorms. Annual snowfall totals vary greatly from place to place, but are generally 150 inches or higher. When winter arrives, a thick white blanket covers virtually the entire park, transforming it into a spectacular winter wonderland that is almost unrecognizable from the colorful landscape of the warmer months. Rocky Mountain National Park becomes a completely different destination.
It comes as no surprise that the park receives lesser visitation during the winter months. This is true partially because many people underestimate the recreational opportunities that are available when snow is abundant, or because they believe that it must be warm in order to appreciate the great outdoors. Winter visitors to the Rockies enjoy activities that are unique to the season, such as cross-country skiing, sledding, and snowshoeing.
Photo: A couple of snowshoers travel across the snowy landscape around Bear Lake (the lake is the white area at the bottom of the image).
One might believe that winters in the Rocky Mountains are long, cold, and dreadfully harsh. While there are times that this holds true, it is overall inaccurate. Large snowstorms are periodic, often separated by intervals of sunshine and mild temperatures. Even when powerful storms do move through the region, they are short-lived, very rarely lasting more than a day or two. In general, winter weather does not create any major problems for visitors who are adequately prepared.
Early morning is often the coldest time of day. This is because temperatures continuously drop during the night and do not begin to increase until after sunrise. At this time, the temperature is usually below freezing, but very rarely sub-zero. Fortunately, wind speeds are often much lower, or absent, during the early hours of the day. Light snowfall is common in the morning.
Afternoons are the warmest time of day, especially after the sun has been out for a while. Sunny winter days often feel much warmer than they truly are. This is due to low humidity and the fact that there is less atmospheric protection from the sun’s rays at high altitude. A thermometer may say 30 degrees, while the air might feel more like 50. This is especially true for those who participate in physical activities such as hiking and skiing. It is not uncommon to see people shedding their warm jackets on a sunny winter day. On the contrary, if cloud cover prevails, thermometer readings will seem to be more accurate and layers of clothing will be necessary.
As soon as the sun sets (or hides behind clouds) the temperatures begin to drop, causing nights to become increasingly cold as they progress. Snow flurries are common at night, and may continue through the early morning. Large snowstorms typically persist for less than 24 hours, usually giving way to partly cloudy or clear skies afterwards.
An important note for winter visitors: be sure to bring sunglasses. A layer of snow on the ground can reflect ultraviolet radiation from the sun. Sunglasses are essential to protect your eyes.
Snowy roadways make transportation tricky during the wintertime. Some roads within the park are closed for the season, and roads that are open often have a layer of ice, snow, or slush. Getting around the park during the winter is possible, but requires preparation.
The closure of Trail Ridge Road will have the greatest impact on your visit. Trail Ridge Road is the only highway within Rocky Mountain National Park that connects its west and east sides. Therefore, from October to May, the park is divided. The quickest route between the towns of Estes Park (east side) and Grand Lake (west side) is to head south from either town to Interstate 70, pass through Idaho Springs, and then head up north to the other town. This takes about three and a half hours with good road conditions. Because of this separation, many winter visitors choose to stay on the east side where there are more amenities and places to go.
Most other park roads remain open during the winter, as long as conditions allow for it. Popular drives such as Bear Lake and Fall River roads are plowed after any significant snowfall. Thus, they are only closed temporarily after larger storms. As soon as crews can plow the roads, they reopen. Even when snow is present, park roads are generally drivable by most vehicles, although having four-wheel drive is advantageous. When doing any winter driving in the park, be sure to go slow and use caution. Expect point-to-point travel times to be longer.
Always be prepared by keeping the necessities in your vehicle. Have food and water available in case you get stranded in the snow and park rangers are not able to arrive right away. Be sure to bring a snow shovel, a critical tool to have if your car gets stuck. Other important items to keep with you are extra clothing (including shoes and socks) and a snow brush to clear your vehicle’s windows. Also remember to check weather forecasts before heading out.
There are a few alternative methods of transportation in the winter. Bicycling is allowed on park roads at all times of year. However, it may not be a good choice if snow and ice are present. Cross-country skiing can be a good alternative if there is ample snow on the ground. Generally, the west side of the park is better for skiing, as heavier snowfall occurs to the west of the continental divide. There are no shuttle buses that run during the winter due to a lack of demand.
Photo: The winter closure of Trail Ridge Road on the park’s eastern side begins just past Many Parks Curve (above).
Places to Go
Bear Lake: The cold climate of the sub-alpine ecosystem causes Bear Lake to freeze over completely in the winter. In addition, a thick layer of snow often hides the ice, leaving the lake to be distinguishable only by the large area absent of trees. In fact, it could almost be mistaken for an open meadow instead of a body of water. Despite the lake’s disappearance in the wintertime, Bear Lake remains a popular destination in Rocky Mountain National Park. Many excellent snowshoeing and cross-country skiing trails begin at the Bear Lake Trailhead, and travel to places such as Dream Lake, Mills Lake, and Flattop Mountain. Because of the area’s popularity, the parking lot can fill up, even in the winter. Expect little to no parking to be available mid-day on weekends with decent weather. On snowy days, or Monday through Friday, the lot generally does not fill up.
Wild Basin: This is one of the least visited portions of Rocky- a great place to enjoy some privacy in the great outdoors. Wild Basin is located on the east side of the park, about thirteen miles south of Estes Park on Highway 7. The winter recreation parking lot is about a mile and a half west of the highway. The area is generally not too crowded in the wintertime, but parking is very limited. Wild Basin is incredibly scenic, featuring an open meadow intersected by St. Vrain Creek, lush pine forests, and views of the Continental Divide to the west. There are many snowy trails in Wild Basin thanks to a base elevation of around 8,400 feet, with many of the trails climbing much higher. Snowshoeing and cross-country skiing are the most popular activities. Both skiers and snowshoers use the same trails, but are encouraged to maintain separate tracks wherever possible.
Hidden Valley: Located about two and a half miles west of Deer Ridge Junction is Hidden Valley, the former site of Ski Estes Park. This is the only place within Rocky Mountain National Park where sledding is allowed. The sledding hill is very gentle and great for small children. As a matter of fact, it was the bunny slope of the former ski area. Visitors must bring their own sleds to Hidden Valley, or rent them in Estes Park. Snowboarding and skiing are also allowed in the area, but are becoming increasingly difficult due to the repopulation of trees on the old ski slopes. Located at the base of the hill is a warming room. Open on the weekends, this is a great little place to warm up after playing outside in the cold.
Photo: This building in Hidden Valley contains restrooms and the warming room.
Kawuneeche Valley: The expansive Kawuneeche Valley is situated west of the Continental Divide, making it an exceptionally snowy region of the park. Large accumulations of snow and gentle terrain make the valley a great place for cross-country skiing. The Colorado River Trail is especially popular at this time of year. Ski equipment, as well as snowshoes, can be rented in the town of Grand Lake to the south. Another winter activity in the valley is wildlife viewing. The dark brown coats of moose are easily visible against a white blanket of snow. Since the majority of Trail Ridge Road is closed in the winter, the Kawuneeche Valley is completely isolated from the remainder of the park- a good thing for those looking to escape the crowds. The only road that is open for the season on the west side of Rocky is the ten-mile stretch of Trail Ridge Road that carries Highway 34 between the entrance station and the Colorado River Trailhead.
Suggested Winter Trails
Most park trails get buried in heavy snow and require either skis or snowshoes to be used. Especially at higher elevations, accumulations can easily reach multiple feet, making it impossible to hike in the traditional sense during the winter. Skiers and snowshoers often travel along the same trails, but are advised to maintain separate tracks for safety reasons. The greatest concern is that holes left in the snow from snowshoes can be hazardous to skiers. Equipment for either of these activities can be rented in Estes Park or Grand Lake. For visitors who do not have equipment and do not wish to rent, there are a few trails at lower elevations that are often accessible simply with snow boots.
Bear Lake: The 0.7-mile loop around Bear Lake is a great winter trail for beginners in snowshoeing. Snow accumulations around the lake are sufficient, but not too high, making it a rather easy trip with the proper equipment. The trail has a few slopes along the way, but is overall quite flat. The Bear Lake Trail is heavily used by snowshoers. As a result, snow conditions are often poor for cross-country skiing.
Nymph, Dream, & Emerald Lakes: This is one of the park’s most scenic trails, and a very popular one with skiers and snowshoers. The trail begins at the Bear Lake Trailhead and climbs to three alpine lakes (which will be frozen), each one at a higher elevation than the previous. The first, Nymph Lake, is a half mile from the trailhead. Dream Lake is an additional 0.6 miles and Emerald Lake is 0.7 miles further. That makes a grand total of 3.6 miles round-trip to visit all three lakes. Many people, however, turn around at Dream Lake for a 2.2-mile trip. The trail is considered to be of moderate difficulty, with a steady uphill climb for nearly the entire duration. Much of the trail is wide enough for snowshoers and skiers to form separate tracks.
Sprague Lake: This easy trail forms a 0.8-mile loop and is often free from heavy snow, making a trip around the lake possible without skis or snowshoes most of the time. Sprague Lake is located along Bear Lake Road, about six miles from its beginning near the Beaver Meadows entrance station. Because the trail follows closely to the lake’s shoreline, it is almost perfectly flat. If snow accumulations allow for it, this can be a great trail for beginning snowshoers.
Photo: This is what Sprague Lake often looks like in the winter. A blanket of snow covers a thick layer of ice. This photo is a good illustration of why sunglasses are very important on sunny winter days.
Wild Basin: Plenty of excellent ski and snowshoe trails are available in Wild Basin, located about thirteen miles south of Estes Park. Many of the trails in this area are quite long, climbing to elevations much higher than the trailhead. Therefore, Wild Basin is a favorite destination for those looking for more challenging hikes. One of the most popular trails is the 4.2-mile one-way trip to Sandbeach Lake, an incredibly scenic spot near the base of the towering Mount Meeker. Elevation gain from the trailhead is approximately 2,000 feet. Shorter, less challenging trails in Wild Basin include Copeland Falls and Calypso Cascades.
Colorado River: The Kawuneeche Valley receives much heavier snowfall than the east side of the park, making it a great place for cross-country skiing. The Colorado River Trailhead is located at the starting point of the winter road closure, but is still accessible by vehicle. The trail heads north, following the river. It passes by the remains of some old miners’ cabins and, after about three and a half miles, reaches the site of historic Lulu City. Unfortunately, very little remains at the site today. Elevation gain is only a few hundred feet, which doesn’t seem like much over the course of the trail. Heavy snowfall in the area makes this an especially popular trail for skiers, but snowshoers can use it as well.
Green Mountain: The Green Mountain Trailhead is located less than three miles north of the Kawuneeche Valley entrance station. This is a fantastic intermediate trail for both skiers and snowshoers. It begins by travelling through a dense forest, passing by the occasional clearing. It eventually reaches the area known as Big Meadows, an open plain in which Tonahutu Creek flows. Look for both elk and moose in the area, as the meadows are prime habitat for these species. The trail is 3.6 miles round-trip and has an elevation gain of around 700 feet.
The wintry landscape of Rocky Mountain National Park may appear perfectly still, almost lifeless, at first. However, the park’s incredible animals are still around; you just have to know where to look. Many of Rocky’s larger animals such as elk and bighorn sheep move to lower ground where weather conditions are better. This may require exiting park boundaries. Other animals continue to thrive within the park, despite the cold temperatures and snow. Spotting them in the winter just takes a little extra patience.
Elk: The cold winter weather of the Rocky Mountains causes the large elk herds to move to lower elevations. Often times, elk become absent from the east side of the park, having moved even further east to find slightly warmer temperatures. Visitors commonly see these magnificent animals outside of park boundaries, in and around the town of Estes Park, as well as along highways 7, 34, and 36. The same is true for the west side of Rocky. While elk may be spotted in the Kawuneeche Valley, many of the herds move south to places such as Grand Lake and Granby.
Photo: I came across this massive herd of elk along Highway 36 to the south of Estes Park (outside of national park boundaries). It was a truly incredible sight!
Moose: The moose is considered to be the largest deer species in the world. However, the moose populations of the southern Rockies belong to a subspecies that is significantly smaller than most others. As a result, moose in Rocky Mountain National Park are generally smaller than elk. The majority of moose sightings occur in the Kawuneeche Valley. They do not camouflage too well, as their chocolate brown fur stands out against the snow. However, if weather conditions are not favorable (too cold, windy, or snowy), they may move to forested areas, making them more difficult to find.
Bighorn Sheep: Although bighorn sheep have bodies designed for life at high altitude, they too must move to lower elevations in the winter in order to find food. Their diet consists of grasses and shrubs, which are not available on the alpine tundra at this time of year due to heavy snowfall. Sheep are most often seen along Fall River Road, from Horseshoe Park to Estes Park.
Coyote: Coyotes are quite elusive and are not commonly seen by visitors. Winter, however, provides wildlife watchers with the best chances. Snow and cold weather make food sources much scarcer, forcing coyotes to spend more time in search of prey. Much of a coyote’s day is spent wandering open areas such as Moraine Park, Upper Beaver Meadows, and the Kawuneeche Valley to look for mice, hares, and squirrels. Larger coyote packs will even hunt deer on occasion.
Red Fox: The red fox is perhaps even more elusive than the coyote. Very similarly, this species is difficult to find, but winter presents the greatest opportunity. Foxes wander the park’s open meadows in search of small prey including hares, squirrels, and birds. These animals have no need for camouflage. Instead, their reddish coats become highly visible with the presence of snow. Seeing a fox in the park requires patience and luck.
Birds: The most commonly viewed birds in the wintertime belong to the jay family. Grey jays are often seen in forested areas in and around the park, including both coniferous and deciduous. These birds are especially frequent at picnic areas, where they have learned to search for human food. A related species, the Steller’s jay, can be found in the same habitats as the grey jay. This species is easily identified by its mostly blue body and black head. It is often erroneously referred to as a “blue jay”, a bird which is not known to occur in Rocky Mountain National Park. Other bird species that are often seen in the winter include magpies and woodpeckers. Birds of prey such as eagles, owls, and osprey are more rarely spotted by visitors, but are nevertheless residents of the park.
Photo: This is an American Three-toed Woodpecker. I photographed it while snowshoeing around Bear Lake.
You can still go fishing in Rocky Mountain National Park, even when the lakes and ponds are frozen. Ice fishing is a challenging, but popular winter activity. Many bodies of water contain trout of multiple species: brook, rainbow, and cutthroat. The possession of the Greenback Cutthroat Trout, however, is prohibited since the species is considered threatened. Fishing can be done in small lakes within park boundaries as well as nearby reservoirs such as Lake Estes and Lake Granby. Rules and guidelines for ice fishing can be found on the official National Park Service website.
5. Spring in the Rockies: April – May
Spring is a gorgeous, but unpredictable season in the Rocky Mountains. When most people think of spring, blooming wildflowers and baby animals come to mind, but this is not always the case in Colorado. Warm sunny days are common in April and May, but may be followed closely by large spring storms that produce several inches of snow. Despite the wintry weather that makes occasional appearances during the spring, temperatures begin to rise around this time and wild animals begin to wake up from hibernation.
Visitation to the park is relatively low during this time of the year, partially due to the fact that spring is a transitional season. However, there are advantages to visiting the Rockies in the spring. There is generally enough snow on the ground to participate in winter activities such as snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, but to the delight of many visitors, temperatures are often more pleasant than during the winter. Spring is a time to enjoy winter adventures in Colorado along with a little extra warmth and sunshine.
Photo: This beautiful forest of lodgepole pine is located near Sprague Lake. There was still plenty of snow covering the ground on this early spring day.
As previously stated, spring weather is highly unpredictable in Rocky Mountain National Park. A visit in April of May could see abundant sunshine with temperatures in the 60s or 70s. Perhaps just as likely, a large storm could drift through during your visit, leaving a fresh layer of snow on the ground and tree branches. And if temperatures warm just slightly, the falling snow could transition to rain. When it comes to weather, you must be prepared for anything. Be sure to bring clothing for all conditions on your trip.
Spring mornings are almost always quite cool. It is not uncommon for daily lows to be below freezing, especially earlier in the season. Any outdoor activity before noon will likely require long pants and a jacket, even if the afternoon is expected to be warm. You should also have snow boots and gloves at the ready.
As the afternoon arrives, temperatures are practically guaranteed to increase. However, a cold and snowy day may see a difference of just a few degrees. In contrast, a warmer day may see the temperature in Fahrenheit climb from 30 at sunrise to 70 in the afternoon. For this reason, you may find yourself shedding the gloves and jacket that seemed absolutely necessary a few hours prior. Finally, if the sun is shining and snow remains on the ground, be sure to wear sunglasses. Wet spring snow is highly reflective of the sun’s rays, so eye protection is important.
Nights in the park can get very cold. One of the side-effects of high altitude is the dramatic temperature variation between day and night. A warm spring day is commonly paired with freezing or near-freezing conditions at night.
Photo: It looks like a winter scene, but this photo was actually taken from Trail Ridge Road in early June.
The spring can be quite similar to winter with regard to getting around the park. Roadways may be covered in snow, ice, or slush, creating challenges for drivers. If roads are snowy during your visit, be sure to take the same precautions that are necessary in the winter. Keep a snow shovel in your car in case you get stuck. Also bring along water, food, extra clothing, and a brush to clean off your vehicle’s windows. Always drive carefully when road conditions are suboptimal. Spring snow can also prompt road closures throughout the park.
Trail Ridge Road, which connects Rocky’s west and east sides, remains closed during the spring. Even when snow is absent at lower elevations, a blanket of snow that is multiple feet deep may still be present at high altitude. Due to this, the road is often kept closed between Many Parks Curve (east side) and the Colorado River Trailhead (west side). It reopens for the summer season once it has been plowed, which doesn’t usually occur until late May. The actual opening date depends on weather conditions and varies from year to year. The alternative route between Estes Park and Grand Lake involves heading south to I-70 and takes at least three hours.
Fortunately for springtime visitors, many other park roads are open. The western portion of Trail Ridge Road which runs through the beautiful Kawuneeche Valley is generally clear of snow, except following larger storms. This is an easy drive with few hills or curves, and provides many opportunities for hiking and wildlife viewing. On the eastern side of the park, virtually all roads are open. You can enter from either of the two entrances in Estes Park and visit many popular destinations such as Hidden Valley and Bear Lake.
Many of the same places that are accessible by car can also be reached on a bicycle. Bicycling can be a great alternative mode of transportation when road conditions allow for it. However, there are challenges involved. Cyclists must be prepared to share the road with cars. Many roads have very narrow shoulders and no bike lanes. In addition, steep hills and sharp curves are abundant. For these reasons, riding in the park can be difficult for inexperienced cyclists.
Places to Go
Moraine Park: Starting near the Beaver Meadows entrance station, head south on Bear Lake Road for around a mile and a half to arrive at the gorgeous Moraine Park. “Park” in this case means a wide-open meadow in the mountains. It was derived from “parque”, a term used by French fur trappers in the 1800s. Moraine Park is excellent for wildlife viewing, as large herds of elk gather here during the cooler months. These magnificent animals graze on the golden-colored grasses that cover the valley floor and drink from the meandering Big Thomson River. The valley features plenty of opportunities for hiking, including the Fern Lake and Cub Lake trailheads. Other amenities in the area include the Moraine Park campground and Moraine Park Discovery Center, a visitor center with museum exhibits.
Horseshoe Park: The twin of Moraine Park, Horseshoe Park is located on Rocky’s eastern side, near the Fall River entrance station. This expansive and scenic meadow is another great place for watching elk herds, as well as other wildlife. The forested mountains that lie immediately north of Horseshoe Park provide suitable habitat for bighorn sheep. When the weather is cooler, sheep move to lower elevations and may be seen near roadways in the area. There are also a few small ponds that attract a variety of bird species. To get a different perspective of Horseshoe Park, drive up the hillside on Fall River Road. There’s a large pullout less than a mile from Deer Ridge Junction that provides nice views of the valley below. You can also take Trail Ridge Road up to the Many Parks Curve overlook, where both Moraine Park and Horseshoe Park can be viewed from high above.
Photo: One of the highest summits in the park, Ypsilon Mountain reaches an elevation of over 13,500 feet and can be seen from Horseshoe Park.
Sprague Lake: Located 0.3 miles off Bear Lake Road, a few miles past Moraine Park, Sprague Lake is an excellent spot for a picnic and easy hike. The lake itself covers roughly ten acres and may be frozen if you visit earlier in the springtime. A 0.8-mile trail makes a loop around the lake and provides spectacular vistas of the towering mountain peaks to the west. The trail is very easy and has virtually no elevation gain. Along the loop is a small fishing pier, which may be used either to catch trout or simply to enjoy the views. The parking lot is located by the northwest corner of the lake. There are restrooms and picnic tables available here. A few additional tables can be found along the creek by using a small pullout on Sprague Lake Road, just a few hundred feet from Bear Lake Road.
Suggested Spring Hikes
Deer Mountain: This popular trail begins at Deer Ridge Junction on the eastern side of the park. It is three miles in length (one-way) and climbs to the summit of Deer Mountain, which has an elevation of around 10,000 feet. The summit provides hikers with excellent views in all directions; Estes Park, Moraine Park, and Longs Peak can all be seen. The trail is given a moderate difficulty rating because of its length and elevation gain of 1,000 feet.
Bear Lake: This is quite possibly the most popular hike in Rocky Mountain National Park. It is easy and relatively flat with a total length of 0.7 miles. The trail is excellent for families and those who are not fully acclimated to the altitude. If you visit early in the spring, there is likely to be snow in the area and the lake may still be frozen. Later in the spring, the aspen trees around the lake may be growing their new leaves. Keep in mind that the Bear Lake parking lot fills up quickly, especially on weekends. Be sure to arrive at the trailhead early.
Lake Haiyaha: There are many stunning alpine lakes that can be reached from the Bear Lake Trailhead. Lake Haiyaha is one of the largest of them. The hike is nearly two miles each way and passes by Nymph Lake along the route. The trail reaches a junction one mile from the start. From here, turn left (south) to head to Lake Haiyaha. The trail includes a steep climb from the junction and provides hikers with amazing views of the area. At approximately 1.6 miles from the trailhead, you’ll arrive at another marked junction. The lake is roughly 0.2 miles to the west of the junction. The hike to Lake Haiyaha is moderately difficult with a few steep slopes and rocky terrain. It is also important to note that challenging winter trail conditions may exist in April and early May. A recommendation: hike a tenth of a mile west from the first junction to arrive at Dream Lake. This short detour is worth the extra effort.
Hidden Valley: A former ski area on the eastern side of the park, Hidden Valley is a great place for a short and easy hike. A small creek runs through the valley and two trails parallel it on both sides. You can begin hiking on one side and use one of multiple bridges to cross over the creek. The trail is sloped, but not very steep, making for a peaceful and relaxing hike.
Holzwarth Historic Site: This is another easy and relaxing hike. The trailhead is eight miles from the Kawuneeche Visitor Center on the park’s western side. The trail is a wide dirt road that meanders across the floor of the Kawuneeche Valley and features a small bridge over the Colorado River. Half a mile from the parking lot, you’ll reach Holzwarth Historic Site, a homestead and guest ranch from the early 1900s. The site features numerous log cabins.
During the early spring, when snow remains abundant in the park’s higher elevations, many animals continue to hibernate. Larger species such as elk and bighorn sheep, however, are awake and active. As the spring progresses, more and more wildlife will appear throughout the park. Most animals will venture out of their underground winter homes once a reliable food source can be found. Animals are readily seen by visitors in the late spring as they search for their first meal of the season.
Elk: Seasonal changes cause elk herds to live at various altitudes throughout the year. For example, they will often spend winters at lower elevations outside of the park, while spending summers on the high altitude alpine tundra. In the springtime, elk live at intermediate elevations. They are usually spotted by visitors in the open meadows of Moraine Park, Horseshoe Park, and the Kawuneeche Valley.
Photo: Elk gather in Moraine Park to feed on the golden grasses.
Mule Deer: Mule deer are native to much of Colorado and can be found in a variety of habitats. One of the best places to see them is in the pine forests on the eastern side of the park, especially near the appropriately-named Deer Mountain. Mule deer can also be seen roaming the nearby towns of Estes Park and Grand Lake.
Moose: The Kawuneeche Valley on Rocky’s west side provides excellent habitat for moose. The Colorado River and numerous small bodies of water are teeming with aquatic vegetation, which makes up a large part of a moose’s diet. They have dark brown fur, which makes them stand out against a snowy landscape. However, if spring weather conditions are too harsh, moose may retreat into the forests for shelter and become hidden from visitors.
Coyote: Coyotes are very intelligent and have keen hunting skills. They are the most commonly seen large carnivores in the park, since mountain lions and black bears are highly elusive. Coyotes are active throughout the year. They spend much of their time roaming the valleys of the park in search of prey. Some coyotes hunt alone while others prefer small packs. The grey wolf, the coyote’s close relative, was hunted to extinction in Colorado by 1940.
Rodents: The American beaver is one of the world’s largest rodents. They are most well known for their rubbery paddle-shaped tails and large teeth, which are used to cut down trees. Twigs, branches, and mud are used by beavers to construct lodges and dams. Beavers are semiaquatic and live near streams and ponds. Evidence suggests that their population has been declining in Rocky Mountain National Park, making them difficult to find. Another large rodent, the North American porcupine, may be spotted in trees throughout the park. Numerous other types of rodents can be seen including squirrels and chipmunks.
6. Nearby Attractions
Historic towns, golf courses, ski resorts, and many other attractions are all located near the entrances to Rocky Mountain National Park. Additionally, three national forests and some of Colorado’s largest lakes provide plenty of recreational opportunities. These local attractions are a great way to add some extra variety to your national park vacation.
Estes Park: Serving as Rocky’s eastern entrance, Estes Park is a charming mountain town with historic character. The heart of the town features small streets lined with locally-owned shops, restaurants, and art galleries. One of the top attractions in Estes Park is The Stanley, a historic hotel which is rumored to be haunted. The hotel offers guided tours of the property. Other activities in the area include mini golf and an aerial tramway.
Photo: The Stanley hotel opened in 1909 and features a Colonial Revival style of architecture.
National Forests: The park is surrounded by three national forests: Roosevelt, Arapaho, and Routt. These forests are maintained by the United States Forest Service and collectively cover thousands of square miles. Visitors can enjoy hiking, fishing, hunting, camping, and much more. National forests are often less crowded than the national park, making them an excellent choice during the summer peak season.
Brainard Lake Recreation Area: Brainard Lake is operated by the U.S. Forest Service. It is located 34 miles south of Estes Park and about 30 miles from the city of Boulder. There are multiple gorgeous lakes in the area, each with spectacular mountain views. Among the most popular hiking destinations are Long Lake and Mitchell Lake. The recreation area is also one of the best spots in Colorado to see moose. If visiting in the summer, be sure to arrive here early because parking can fill up quickly.
Photo: Brainard Lake sits immediately east of the Indian Peaks Wilderness, one of the most scenic areas of the Colorado Front Range.
Lakes and Reservoirs: To the west of Rocky Mountain National Park are some of the largest bodies of water in Colorado. The largest of them, Lake Granby, is a massive reservoir that is great for boating and fishing. To the north of Lake Granby is Shadow Mountain Lake, another large reservoir open for recreation. Finally, there’s Grand Lake. Grand Lake is the largest and deepest natural lake in the state. A small marina on the north shore of the lake has boats that can be rented by the hour. The adjacent town of Grand Lake features numerous shops, restaurants, and lodges.
Golf Courses: Numerous public golf courses are available on both sides of the park. Estes Park features a 9-hole course along the shores of Lake Estes and an 18-hole course less than two miles south. The western side of the park provides a few more options, including scenic courses at Granby Ranch and Grand Lake. Each course features mountain vistas in all directions, and similarly to how golfers in Florida share the course with alligators, the local elk and mule deer may add some obstacles to the game.
Ski Areas: No winter vacation in Colorado would be complete without enjoying the snowy slopes of the Rockies. Nearby ski areas include Winter Park, Granby Ranch, and Eldora. Winter Park Resort, located 35 miles south of the national park’s west entrance, is the largest of the three. It features over 3,000 skiable acres and has 25 lifts. Besides skiing and snowboarding, the resort offers sleigh rides, snowshoeing trails, and a tubing hill. Summer activities include hiking, mountain biking, and scenic chairlift rides. Located mid-way between Winter Park and Grand Lake, Granby Ranch is a smaller ski area that is noted for its excellent cross-country skiing and snowshoeing trails. A third ski area, Eldora Mountain Resort, is just a 20-mile drive from Boulder. As one of the few skiing areas east of the Continental Divide, it is conveniently located near Colorado’s major cities.
About the Author
Connor Beekman is a resident of Colorado and a lover of the great outdoors. He began practicing photography in his early teenage years and quickly developed a passion. Connor has won multiple local photo contests and now displays his work in his online gallery. When he’s not outside hiking and taking pictures, he’s working hard as a college student. Connor attends the Colorado School of Mines where civil engineering is his field of study.
If you enjoyed looking at the photographs throughout this guide, please visit Connor’s .
Also, feel free to email Connor with questions or comments: [email protected]
Rocky Mountain National Park is among the most visited national parks in the United States. Located in the beautiful state of Colorado, the park is a popular destination at all times of the year. This travel guide is uniquely divided into the four seasons, making it easy to plan a relaxing summer vacation or a winter snowshoeing adventure. Learn about places to go, popular hikes, and wildlife viewing, as well as typical weather conditions in the park. The helpful information within this guide is supplemented with gorgeous photography from the author.