Straddling the continental divide, Rocky Mountain National Park is famous for its high alpine lakes, waterfalls, pine forests, and majestic mountains.
The park has 77 mountain peaks that rise 12,000 feet or higher. Much of Rocky Mountain is designated as a protected wilderness area, and this makes it one of the nation’s top wildlife viewing destinations.
In this article we’re going to cover the top 10 things to do in Rocky Mountain National Park from the best hikes and scenic drives to the top rated overlooks and camping locations.
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Rocky Mountain National Park Must See
- Drive Up Trail Ridge Road
- Hike Around The Glacier Gorge Junction
- Picnic At Sprague Lake
- Go Camping In The Rockies
- Visit The Halzwarth Historic Site At Never Summer Ranch
- Look For Wildlife In Moraine Park
- Explore The Old Fall River Road
- Climb Longs Peak via The Keyhole Route
- Walk Around Bear Lake
- Snowshoe In The Winter
Drive up Trail Ridge Road
Trail Ridge Road is one of the most breathtaking scenic drives in the US. The road opened in 1932 as a pathway into the Rockies and is a major attraction on its own.
The road begins in the foothills of the mountains and quickly rises above tree-line into the alpine tundra.
Known as Colorado’s “Highway to the Sky,” Trail Ridge Road connects Estes Park on the east side of the Rockies to Grand Lake on the west. It’s also the highest continuous paved road in America.
The highway stretches 48 miles and crosses over the Continental Divide at Milner Pass. It’s highest point reaches an elevation of 12,183 feet.
While you’re driving, be sure to stop by the Alpine Ridge Visitor Center. It’s the highest visitor center in America. Many of the park’s best overlooks are also located along this road including the Forest Canyon Overlook, Gore Range Overlook, and Many Parks Curve Overlook.
Trail Ridge Road Overlooks:
- Farview curve
- Milner pass
- Medicine bow curve overlook
- Alpine visitor center
- Gore range overlook
- Lava cliffs
- Rock cut
- Forest canyon overlook
- Rainbow curve
- Many parks curve
- Hidden valley
- Deer ridge junction
Trail Ridge Road is a seasonal attraction that is typically open Memorial Day through mid-October. Heavy snow blankets the area throughout winter and remains late into the year. It’s not uncommon to drive between walls of snow–even in midsummer!
Tourists should plan to spend 2-4 hours driving one direction because heavy traffic and wildlife jams are common. The best time to avoid the crowds is in the early morning or late afternoon.
Hike Around The Glacier Gorge Junction
Exploring Rocky Mountain National Park on foot is one of the best ways to traverse through pine forests, over rocky landscapes, and to the base of waterfalls.
The park offers 355 miles of hiking trails, which run the gamut from short, family-friendly hikes to strenuous wilderness adventures.
Hiking around the park requires several days to fully appreciate, but there are a few gems that first-time visitors can’t miss.
The Glacier Gorge Junction is the starting point for some incredible alpine lake hikes and one of the most popular waterfalls in the park.
Alberta Falls is only 0.6 miles from the Glacier Gorge parking lot. It’s an easy hike for first-timers that leads to a 30 foot waterfall tucked behind the pine and aspen trees.
The trail will get you close enough to feel the spray of the water and view the falls from different angles.
Beyond Alberta Falls, hikers can continue to Mills Lake which is 2.8 miles from the parking lot. This alpine lake offers a breathtaking payoff after a steady incline rising 700 feet in elevation.
Just beyond Mills Lake, switchbacks lead hikers through a scenic gorge up to another alpine lake known as The Loch. This spectacular lake sits at over 10,000 feet and is surrounded by towering peaks on all sides.
Most tourists will choose to turn around after the Loch, but the most headstrong hikers will continue to Sky Pond.
The Sky Pond hike is 9.5 miles round trip and will take you beyond the Loch to Timberline Falls, up a challenging rock scramble, over water crossings, past the Lake of Glass, and eventually to Sky Pond.
The route typically takes hikers about 5 hours to complete, but the views can’t be beat.
Glacier Gorge Junction Hikes:
- Alberta Falls: 1.2 miles
- Mills Lake: 5 miles
- The Loch: 5.4 miles
- Timberline Falls: 8 miles
- Lake of Glass: 8.1 miles
- Sky Pond: 9.5 miles
*The hiking distances listed are round-trip.
Picnic At Sprague Lake
Sprague Lake is a favorite among photographers because of its mirror-like surface. You can easily see reflections of the continental divide from the eastern shore.
The lake is conveniently accessible from Bear Lake Road and has a large picnic area with restrooms, 13 miles of accessible trails, and a nearby horse stable.
It’s the perfect place for families to relax along the multiple beaches and search for wildlife that frequent the area.
Go Camping In The Rockies
If you want to get a true taste of nature, there’s no better way then by spending the night in the rockies.
Rocky Mountain National Park has five front-country campgrounds that are easily accessible by car. Many of these sites can be booked ahead, but there are also a number of first-come, first-serve campsites as well.
During the peak summer months of July and August the campgrounds are full every night so you’ll want to plan ahead.
Rock Mountain Campsites
- Glacier Basin
- Longs Peak
- Moraine Park
- Timber Creek
Travelers who want to get away from the crowds and are more interested in a rugged camping experience will enjoy the backcountry which offers plenty of space and wildlife.
The Never Summer Wilderness, Indian Peak Wilderness, Mummy Range Area, and Wild Basin Area are just a few great places to go wilderness camping.
Permits for backcountry camping is required. There is a limited supply available so they are issued by random drawing. To increase your chances of winning, consider entering the less popular areas of the park or request campsites outside of the peak season.
Visit The Halzwarth Historic Site At Never summer Ranch
Beginning in 1917, a former saloon-keeper named John Holzwarth Sr. moved to the base of the Never Summer Mountains and built a homestead.
As tourism to the park increased, development of the homestead grew and created Colorado’s first-known dude ranch.
Today, you can take the 1-mile hike to the Halzwarth Historic Site and get a tour of homesteading life.
Hands-on activities like learning to lasso a steer, preserve animals, and touring the abandoned homestead cabin are just a few of the things you can do.
Look For Wildlife In Moraine Park
If you spend enough time in the rockies, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to encounter animals in their natural habitat. But one surefire way to see wildlife is by visiting Moraine Park.
Moraine Park is a wide open plain known for its blooming spring wildflowers and abundant wildlife. The area was carved by glaciers and has expansive views of the surrounding Colorado mountains.
Elk herds frequent the area and it’s also the starting point for many of Rocky Mountains best lake hikes including Mills Lake, Cub Lake, and Bear Lake.
Explore The Old Fall River Road And Chasm Falls
A lesser-known scenic drive in Rocky Mountain National Park is the Old Fall River Road. This hundred-year-old gavel path was the original road into the rockies.
The road is 11 miles long, entirely gravel, and has many tight switchbacks and hairpin turns. There are no guard rails along the way, and it’s a bit of a slow drive, but the road provides jaw-dropping views of the mountains.
The one-way road begins at Horseshoe Park and climbs past the popular trailhead to Chasm Falls before ending at the Alpine Visitor Center.
The Old Fall River Road is open during the summer only and provides an exciting way to explore the park.
Climb Longs Peak via The Keyhole Route
Longs Peak stands 14,259 feet tall and is the highest peak in Rocky Mountain National Park. This is also one of the most popular “fourteeners” to complete in Colorado. Nearly 10,000 people reach the summit each year.
Mid-July to mid-September presents the most ice-free time to climb. During these peak summer months, the mountain can be scaled without specialized equipment.
Climbing to the top of Longs Peak via the Keyhole route is 15 miles round-trip. It begins with a 5 mile hike which will lead you to the base of of a boulder field.
From there, you will scramble and boulder-hop up to the keyhole feature ahead. Then it’s just 1.5 miles to the summit. The final stretch is the most challenging and strenuous.
There is no marked path up the boulder field, instead you’ll need to follow the red and yellow bulls-eye markings on the rocks above.
Long’s Peak can be extremely dangerous with the quickly changing weather patterns. You’ll need to start your climb before sunrise and pay attention to any signs of altitude sickness along the way.
The National Park Service keeps an updated report of weather conditions on its website that you should check before climbing.
Walk Around Bear Lake
Bear Lake is one of the best places in Rocky Mountain National Park for a leisurely stroll. It’s perfect for families with kids, or travelers who are looking for a low-key adventure.
Bear Lake is special because it’s one of the few alpine lakes in the US that you can reach by car. From the parking lot, there are several short and easy trails to enjoy.
The walk around Bear Lake is less than a mile and provides you with views of Long’s Peak and Hallett Peak. Nymph Lake is only 0.6 miles away, and the hike to Dream Lake is 2.2 miles round-trip.
Snowshoe In The Winter
While many of the roads are closed in the off season, there are still plenty of things to do at Rocky Mountain National Park in winter!
Most park trails are open to exploration with a pair of snowshoes. Equipment can be rented in the nearby towns of Estes Park and Grand Lake.
From January to March, visitors can join ranger-led snowshoe tours. Winter is an especially good time to spot moose, elk, and mule deer. There are also less tourists in the area so you’ll get a more quiet and private experience.
That’s A Wrap!
There are many things to do at Rocky Mountain National Park for every fitness level, age, and preference. The national park features a rich, beautiful series of landscapes with many activities and attractions to explore with friends, family, or on your own.
The park is a spectacular place to enjoy other notable activities in addition to the above list. Bird watching, visiting nearby historic sites, and cabin lodging are also great features of the park and its ideal location.
The Rocky Mountain National Park’s visitor’s center offers many details on hiking paths, closures, camping facilities, and more for guests.
The center is open seven days a week, except for holidays. Between late May to the middle of October, the facility is open full days, with some reduction to office hours during the middle of summer. The center is closed during the colder seasons, from October until the following May.
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