With towering mountain peaks, endless hiking trails leading to gorgeous alpine lakes and waterfalls, and one of the most scenic drives in the country, Rocky Mountain National Park is one of America’s favorite national parks.
Rocky Mountain National Park is home to over 350 miles of trails, and its numerous granite faces and mountain peaks attract climbers from around the world. The park is also surprisingly easy to enjoy without venturing very far from your car. The Trail Ridge Road offers amazing roadside panoramic views and several short walking trails leading to pristine lakes and unique tundra landscapes.
Here are just a few of the amazing things you can do in Rocky Mountain National Park.
1. Drive the Highest Paved Road in the Country
Trail Ridge Road stretches for 48 miles through Rocky Mountain National Park from Estes Park in the east to Grand Park in the west. Climbing to 12,183 feet, it’s the highest continuous paved road in America. Trail Ridge Road travels through aspen groves and dense subalpine fir and spruce forests before reaching the alpine tundra high above the treeline.
The Alpine Visitor Center is located near the halfway mark and sits at an elevation of 11,796 feet, making it the highest visitor center in the U.S. National Park System. Numerous overlooks line the road and visitor favorites include Many Parks Curve, Forest Canyon Overlook, and Medicine Bow Curve. The road also provides access to several popular hiking trails.
Trail Ridge Road is typically open from around Memorial Day weekend through mid-October, although exact opening dates vary based on the weather and the road can temporarily close at any time due to snow. Plan on at least two hours to drive the road in one direction and more if you plan to do a few hikes. Just make sure to have a full tank of gas; there are no fuel stations along the route.
2. Hike to a Crystal Clear High Alpine Lake
Thanks to the large glaciers that carved the deep canyons and cirques characteristic of Rocky Mountain National Park, the park is just brimming with crystal clear high alpine lakes. Bear Lake is one of the park’s most popular lake hikes and it’s only a half-mile to the lake from the parking area near the end of Bear Lake Road. From Bear Lake, trails lead to nearly a dozen other lakes.
3. Experience the Alpine Tundra
Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the few places you can experience the alpine tundra biome in the U.S. outside of Alaska. This unique and fragile ecosystem starts between the elevations of 11,000 to 11,500 feet and is a land of extremes thanks to low annual temperatures, little precipitation, and nutrient-scarce soil. It’s too cold for trees to grow here and if plants grow at all, they’re often limited to grasses and tiny flowering plants called forbs.
Taking a stroll along the Tundra Communities Trail is one of the best ways to experience the tundra. The trail begins near the Rock Cut near the top of Trail Ridge Road and although the hike is rated as easy, the trailhead sits at 12,110 feet meaning visitors should take it slow if they’re not acclimated to the high elevation. The trail is paved and interpretive signs point out fun facts about the tundra as it winds its way through this interesting treeless landscape.
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4. Catch a Glimpse of Past Homesteading Life at Holzwarth Historic Site
In the early 1900s, the Holzwarth family set out to make a home in the Colorado wilds. Large swaths of land were still available for homesteading during this time, so John Holzwarth snatched up 160 acres in the Kawuneeche Valley. The Holzwarths operated a guest ranch near the Colorado River until the National Park Service acquired the land in 1975 for incorporation into the park.
Cabins from the original homestead still remain at the Holzwarth Historic Site and visitors can poke around the old buildings to see how homesteaders lived nearly a century ago. It’s a half-mile walk to the historic site from the trailhead located off Trail Ridge Road, about eight miles north of the Grand Lake Entrance on the west side of the park.
5. See the Headwaters of the Colorado River
Originating on the western side of Rocky Mountain National Park, the Colorado River is the American West’s mightiest river. The Colorado, which runs 1,450 miles from the Continental Divide to the Gulf of California, provides water for millions of people and irrigation water for much of the West’s food crops. Its headwaters are quite humble compared to the roaring rapids seen downstream, which makes it a great fly fishing spot for visitors to the park.
For views of the uppermost sections of the Colorado River, hike along the Colorado River Trail, which can be accessed via the Trail Ridge Road. You can also view the actual headwaters of the Colorado at La Poudre Pass via the unpaved Long Draw Road.
6. Climb to the Top of a 14,000 Foot Peak
At 14,259 feet, Longs Peaks is the highest mountain in Rocky Mountain National Park and the park’s only 14,000 foot peak. Although it’s possible to climb Longs Peak in a day, many climbers turn it into a multi-day adventure and camp overnight at the base of the peak. It’s a serious mountain, so some experience is necessary to safely make the climb. The route requires scrambling over narrow ledges and a bit of route-finding, plus afternoon lightning storms are common so an early start is important.
7. Take a Guided Tour of the Historic Stanley Hotel
Although not technically in Rocky Mountain National Park, the historic Stanley Hotel is a must-see for Estes Park visitors. This stately hotel opened its doors in 1909 as a health retreat for tuberculosis sufferers, but it’s most famous for being the inspiration for Stephen King’s book-turned-film, The Shining. King’s imagination ran wild after a stay at the Stanley Hotel in 1974, and now loads of visitors flock to the Stanley Hotel each year thanks to its haunted reputation.
Make the Stanley Hotel your basecamp for exploring Rocky Mountain National Park, or hop on a guided tour of the hotel to learn about the hotel’s history, interesting Colonial architecture, and folklore. Afterdark tours are also offered and are perfect for those interested in learning more about the Stanley Hotel’s purported paranormal activity.
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