There are so many things to do in Rocky Mountain National Park. It’s one of the most stunning national parks in America. Almost 4.5 million people visit it each year and you should have this park on your bucket list too. It’s the “highest” park in the states with 77 peaks over 12,000 feet. The highest being Long Peak at 14,259.
Amazing scenery along with the wildlife that you can see close, beautiful lakes and waterfalls, 350 miles of hiking trails, alpine sites, and millions of stars will make you want to visit over and over again.
As Rocky Mountain was always on our bucket list when we discovered we would be picking up our new camper only 3 hours away we immediately booked camping and were lucky enough to get a site in July for the first week in September.
Call us crazy but with a new camper in tow, we headed straight to this park and what an adventure we experienced.
Upon arrival at the campground, there was a herd of elk to welcome us. Although our site was tight, and we have never experienced “parallel” camping it was amazing.
We spend 6 days in the park and could have stayed longer. This is what we did and learned from our experience.
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Tips to make your visit better
Being from New York and living at sea level the altitude was a problem for us even though we were in other areas in South Dakota and Wyoming before heading to Rocky Mountain National Park.
You need to give your body time to adjust. It is recommended to take 2 to 3 days to let your body get used to the high altitude. If you said to feel sick it is recommended to return to lower levels. This list will give you ideas to help avoid altitude sickness:
- drink plenty of water
- eat carbohydrates
- avoid alcohol
- limit cigarettes
- avoid medication such as sleeping pills
The weather in this park can change at any time. I found that the days were sunny until sometime in the afternoon when it rained and had several thunderstorms while we were in the park. Be prepared for the weather changes and always bring rain gear with you. I can almost guarantee you will use it!
Also, temperature varies from day and night so always bring extra layers with you as well as wear sturdy shoes while hiking.
Bus Park Shuttle Service
This is a very popular park during the peak summer season and can get very crowded. It is recommended to take the park shuttle buses to travel in the park. These shuttles run in the Bear Lake and Moraine Park area. This is also a hiker shuttle that runs between Estes Park Visitors Center and Beaver Meadow Visitor Center.
Trail parking lots get filled early in the day, especially the Bear Lake Trailhead. It’s very easy to take the shuttle within the park. We used the buses and found them very convenient.
Things to do Rocky Mountain National Park
Scenic Drive on Trail Ridge Road
This scenic drive on Trail Ridge Road (US34) goes through Rocky Mountain National Park between the town of Estes Park and Grand Lake. The scenery of this road is just stunning.
The 48-mile-long road crosses the Continental Divide and takes you 11 miles above the treeline. You will experience the alpine tundra along the way. Although beautiful, this road may not be for everyone. The highest elevation is at the Alpine Visitor Center at 12,183 ft above sea level and if you’re not used to it, you will be gasping for air. So make sure you are used to the altitude before attempting the drive.
Due to the harsh weather in the Rockies, the road is only opened from Memorial Day weekend to October day weekend, but it really depends on the weather. At times it even had to close in June due to snow.
There are many scenic overlooks to stop at as well as some hikes to take. What the road doesn’t have it guide rails so caution must always to taken when driving it.
I was very surprised to see this very curvy road, narrow at times with absolutely no guide rails, so if you are afraid of heights maybe this road is not for you.
Things you need to be aware of while driving Trail Ridge Road
- The Alpine Visitor Center is about half-way between Estes Park and Grand Lake. You can get food and drinks here and there are restrooms too.
- You will need to watch for wildlife crossing along the road as elk and bighorn sheep head to the high lands in summer where it is cooler.
- The climate is very dry so make sure you always stay hydrated.
- It gets cooler the higher you go so much sure you have proper clothing with you
- You will experience the alpine tundra along the way. This is a very fragile ecosystem so please stay on the trails.
- The drive takes about 2 to 2 ½ hours depending on how much you stop along the way, however, if you were to drive around from Estes Park to Grand Lake it would take you about 6 hours.
- There are many places to stop to have a picnic on the road.
Drive Old Fall River Road
Old Fall River Road is a must-see when visiting Rocky Mountain National Park. This one-way, 9-mile narrow dirt road begins outside the entrance to the park and runs parallel to the Fall River. There are no guide rails and is very steep at times. The road starts at 8,558’ above sea level and ends at the Alpine Visitors Center which is at 11,796 above sea level.
We allowed a full day for our trip on Old Fall River Road. We drive a 23’ long crew cab pickup truck and at times we were not able to make the turns without maneuvering our truck several times. It is recommended that no vehicles over 25’ be on this curvy road and absolutely no trailers.
It felt like we were ascending into heaven with the steady climb, the beauty of our surroundings was magnificent. You experience three life zones (ecosystems) on your journey: montane, subalpine, and alpine tundra. The higher you go; you get to see remains of the glaciers and the harsh environment.
Stop along the way on the many side areas where you can take a short hike to Chasm Falls and also other paths as you climb and see the glacier action.
For more information and to learn about the different ecosystems read my post about our journey up Old Fall River Road.
Best Hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park
I believe the #1 thing to do in Rocky Mountain National Park is hiking. With over 350 miles of trails, you will discover that you will fall in love with this park.
We like to hike and I believe it’s the best way of getting off the roads and truly experience the park itself and what makes it different from other parks. Rocky Mountain didn’t disappoint.
We choose several hikes in the Bear Lake and Glacier Gorge areas and spent 4 days in the woods. From the Alberta Falls to all the lakes in the area, you will find a hike that you love too.
Read all about hiking in these areas in my post about Hiking the Bear Lake Trailhead.
Elk, elk, and more elk. What a beautiful sight to see herd after herd of elk while driving through the park.
In addition to elk, the larger animals in the park are bighorn sheep, deer, moose, black bear, and mountain lion as well as 55 species of mammals and over 275 types of birds.
Elk is seen throughout the park while moose are spotted mostly on Kawuneeche Valley and the Grand Lake areas. There are few black bears in the park and most are spotted in the campgrounds and you would be extremely lucky to sight a mountain lion.
All of these animals are wild and should be treated as such, so stay your distance from them, and please do not feed them. Let’s keep them wild.
Wild Basin Area
In the southeast corner of the park is the Wild Basin Area. This popular hiking area is known for its mountain peaks and beautiful lakes.
Unfortunately, we went to do some hiking here and the parking area was filled. Parking in this area is minimal with gravel and the narrow one-lane road to the location. We never got to see its beautiful lakes so my advice if heading here is to go very early.
Note: There is no hiker shuttle in this area.
Sheep Lakes is an area near Old Fall River Road that is known for its wildlife. There is a natural salt/mineral area that draws bighorn sheep. Also, a large meadow draws elk and an occasional moose.
Bighorn sheep live between the slopes of Bighorn Mountain and Horseshoe Park. Look for them in this area too.
There are 5 campgrounds located within the park and there is nothing better than staying at one of them. Reservations can be made at 3, Aspengien, Glacier Basin, and Moraine Park. While Long Peak and Timber Creek are first-come, first-serve only.
Note: There is no other lodging within the park.
Located near Fall River Road entrance of the park is Aspengien Campground. There is 52 tent/RV sites and the campground is opened from Memorial Day weekend to the end of September.
Glacier Basin is located on Bear Lake Road 9 miles west of Estes Park. It can accommodate 150 tent/RV and has 13 group sites.
We stayed here for 6 days and what a beautiful campground. The evening we arrive there was a herd of elk near the entrance and several times during our stay at night we could here the elk calling each other.
This is a tent only campground (26 sites) located south of Estes Park in the Wild Basin Area of Rocky Mountain.
Moraine Park is the largest campground in Rocky Mountain National Park and has 244 sites for tent and RV camping. It’s located about 3 miles west of the Beaver Meadows Visitors Center on Bear Lake Road. It is the most popular campground in the park.
Timber Creek campground is located on Trail Ridge Road about 10 miles north of Grand Lake. It is opened from Memorial Day weekend to Columbus Day weekend. No reservations are accepted here. It can accommodate tents and RVs and has a total of 98 sites.
All the campgrounds have restroom facilities however there are NO Showers in any of the campgrounds. Also, all are no hookups.
For camping reservation visit recreation.gov.
Note: The sites for RV camping are tight. We have a 34’ RV and the way the sites are designed it was parallel to the road. If you can get a pull-thru site I would recommend it although their pull thru is nothing like a private campground you will still have more room than a parallel site.
Estes Park is the town on the east side of the park, about 2 hours from Denver. It’s the hub for Rocky Mountain National Park’s visitors.
As there is no lodging in the park other than camping, most people that come to the park stay in Estes Park. There are also campgrounds (privately owned with full hookup) and restaurants and shopping in the area.
Estes Park gets very crowded during the summer peak season. I would definitely recommend making a reservation before coming here.
Lake Estes is a beautiful section of town where there are boating and fishing as well as many other activities like biking and hiking near the lake and during winter there is ice skating, sledding, and cross-country skiing.
The views of the Rocky Mountains can be seen from town that accompanies the downtown gardens, aspen groves, wildflowers, and riverwalk.
For information on Estes Park including lodging and restaurants, you can check out their website here.
Located on the west side of the park, Grand lake is much smaller then Estes Park. It also offers lodging, restaurants, and other amenities for a great national park stay. It’s known as the quiet side of the Rocky Mountains.
For information on lodging, restaurants and amenities visit their website here.
A trip to Rocky Mountain National Park will be remembered forever. The high mountains, stunning lakes, rushing waterfalls, and wildlife are all reasons to visit.
When John Denver sang “Rocky Mountain High” he was singing the praise of this magnificent place and until you experience it for yourself you could never imagine Rocky Mountain National Park.
For more articles on our beautiful National Parks
Happy Exploring, Kathy xoxo
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