The 265,769 acres of Rocky Mountain National Park, reaching from 8,000 feet above sea level all the way up to 14,295 feet, offers a plethora of recreational options for everyone. Whether you want to backpack the backcountry, climb The Diamond on Long's Peak, go fly fishing for cutthroat trout or just take a scenic, relaxing drive along Trail Ridge Road, Rocky Mountain National Park is a haven that you could spend a lifetime exploring. For those of us without the luxury of a lifetime who might only have a day or two, here's a sample itinerary that will ensure you see some of the best that Rocky has to offer.
After an early breakfast, pack your lunch and a backpack, hop in your car and take Highway 36 to enter the park through the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center/Park Headquarters, where you can stop for a view of Longs Peak, Rocky Mountain National Park's tallest mountain at 14,259 feet.
Take Bear Lake Road south all the way down to the Bear Lake Trailhead. This beautiful trail is quite popular and the parking lot will fill, so it's worth getting there early to beat the crowds. Grab your pack and take off down the Emerald Lake Trail. This 2.6 mile out-and-back offers a mellow stroll through rolling, forested terrain that winds its way up to a cirque between Halletts Peak and Flattop Mountain, where Emerald Lake offers a scenic place to sit and enjoy the view. To the north, Dragon's Tail and Dragon's Tooth Couloirs cut their way down the south face of Flattop Mountain – common spring mountaineering options. Look to the south for climbers ascending the Great Dihedral, prominently displayed on the north face of Halletts Peak.
After returning to the car, load back in and drive north back up Bear Lake Road until you reach Dear Ridge Junction. Park at the Deer Mountain Trailhead, grab your pack and lunch, and head up the Deer Mountain Trail, which leads you up a moderate three mile hike to the 10,013 foot summit of Deer Mountain. Along the way, you'll find stunning views of both Longs Peak and Ypsilon Mountain. Whether you make the summit or not, Deer Mountain has plenty of picturesque lunch and photo spots.
After leaving Deer Mountain, continue in the car through West Horseshoe Park to the West Alluvial Fan parking lot. Take the Old Fall River Road, which, in 1920, became the first automobile road to climb into Rocky Mountain National Park's alpine. Today, this one-way dirt and gravel road winds up from Endovalley to the Alpine Visitor Center. While the 15 mph speed limit – due to narrow width of the road, steep grade and tight switchbacks – stretches the nine-mile drive to approximately one hour, those patient enough are gifted with incredible views of glaciers, valleys, cirques and peaks. A map at the road's beginning highlights some of the amazing geology, historical cabins and spots of interest; a $1 guide is available for purchase at the visitor centers. Be sure to stop at the Chasm Falls pullout and visit the beautiful 25-foot waterfall framed by rocks and trees.
Once you arrive at the Alpine Visitor Center, stop in and take a quick walk with a ranger through the alpine tundra. From there, drive back down along the Trail Ridge Road – a “scenic wonder road of the world” according to the Rocky Mountain News –through Moraine Park, being sure to stop at the pullouts in Moraine Park (some of the best places to view wildlife), and back down to Estes Park, where a variety of establishments offer delicious dinner dining.
Have more time?
Check out some of the following options if you find yourself with some time to spare.
- Hike Cub Lake – The scenic views and beautiful fall colors make this moderate hike a park favorite.
- Rocky Mountain Nature Association Field Seminars – These field-based educational experiences highlight different aspects of the park and different recreational activities – everything from fly fishing courses to photography to naturalist-led hikes about flora and fauna.
- Spend the night – Rocky Mountain National Park has six drive-in campgrounds and numerous hike-in campgrounds throughout the park to provide you with relaxing places to spend the night (or nights).
- Hike Long's Peak – Not for the faint of heart, Long's Peak is the highest point in Rocky Mountain National Park. Summiting is a challenge, no matter the time of year.
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