Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

rocky mountain national park

Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, USA is 415 square miles of rugged mountains, forests, rivers, lakes, alpine tundra and wildlife. Rocky was the 10th to become a National Park, and is the 5th most visited in the country, attracting over 3 million visitors each year.

We were there last in 2015 for just a couple days on a road trip from our home in Minnesota to family living in the Denver area. The park was celebrating its centennial year.

As usual, I wish it could’ve been longer, but it was well worth the extra time and miles out of our way.

Why is it so great?

THE MOUNTAINS. Truly impressive whether hiking, riding or driving. As a Midwesterner, the mountains are the main reason I love to come to the West. In Rocky, they’re everywhere and they’re huge.

Long’s Peak is the highest elevation point at 14,259 feet. There are 19 other peaks over 13,000 feet and dozens more over 10,000. This is considered part of the front range of the Rocky Mountains.

HIKING TRAILS. There are 348 miles of trails in the Park, several that are easily accessible. Like I said, we were only there for a couple days, but long enough to get on two: the Bierstadt Lake Trail and the Bear Lake and Dream Lake Trails.

The Dream Lake trail is absolutely stunning (and also very popular—take the shuttle to the trail head as the parking lot fills up by 9:00 am!). The photo at the top was taken from that trail. This one below is on the Bierstadt Lake trail.

Bierstadt Lake trail

HORSEBACK RIDING. This was a highlight for all three of us (my husband, son and me). We went on a 3-hour ride that took us through pine and aspen forests, over streams and up mountainsides.

There are a couple large stables that operate within Park boundaries on the east side. Some of the hiking trails are shared by those on foot and those on horseback, which is fun, too. Here’s a post about our ride.

CAMPING. We stayed at the Moraine Park Campground on the east side. Like all national park campgrounds, it’s cheap but amenity-free. There are flush toilets and running water at a couple facilities, but no water at the sites, no showers.

Lots of people, but our site was a little off the road and up a rise, so we had some privacy and wonderful scenery 360-degrees around us. Friendly neighbors too! Here’s more about our campsite, along with a couple pictures.

THE WILDLIFE. The one big difference we noticed between this park and the Wyoming Parks of Yellowstone and Grand Teton—no grizzly bears! (Well, grizzlies are seen occasionally, but they’re not common like further north into Wyoming and Montana.)

Elk and mule deer are common. In fact, our first morning at our campsite we hosted a couple male deer in the meadow eating their breakfast within a few feet of our tent. There are goats and sheep in the upper elevations, as well as pikas, marmots, etc.

elk at Rocky

TRAIL RIDGE ROAD. This list is not in order of coolness, by the way. Trail Ridge Road is one of the absolute best features of Rocky. This paved road runs the width of the Park between Estes Park on the east (which is a town, not a park!) and Granby on the west.

It’s only open between late May and early November—as soon as they can get snow plows through in the spring, and until it gets snowed-in in the fall.

The road has several pull-offs with spectacular views of the mountains. A good portion of it is above the treeline, taking you through the alpine tundra up around 12,000 feet.

trail ridge drive

Anything not so great?

THE CROWDS. We were there in late June/early July—the busiest time of year. Every single one of the 244 campsites in our campground was full!

LACK OF GIFT SHOPS. This is such an odd one for me to talk about, because I’m not much of a shopper. But we were surprised at the lack, especially after being at the Tetons and Yellowstone a few summers before where there are several gargantuan shops. (I came home without a sweatshirt I liked—a major bummer!)

The best gift shop in the Park is near the summit of Trail Ridge Road, which is so cool! It’s a beautiful new log building with a large coffee shop, lots of goodies, and stunning views of the surrounding tundra and mountains.

MOUNTAIN PINE BEETLE. While part of the natural ecosystem, this itty bitty bug has devastated millions of acres of pine in Colorado, including large sections of Rocky. We noticed it especially on the west side of the park coming down Trail Ridge Road towards Granby.

The beetle is now declining, but it’ll take years for the forest to recover. We had a similar issue in the Boundary Waters back in the 80s when I started going up there. The forest there looks much healthier now, and it will eventually in Rocky, too. Still, it’s sad to see.

Things to know before you go

  • Prepare for crowds if you visit in the busy summer season. If you’re going to camp, get a reservation ahead of time. When I checked 2-3 weeks before we went, there were only a handful of sites left in the entire Park! Backcountry camping will be a different story.
  • Prepare for the weather. It’s very common in summer in the mountains for rain to come in during the afternoon. One of the rangers told us visitors are killed in the Park every year by lightning. Not to be messed with!
  • When you take Trail Ridge Drive, bring rain gear and warm clothes. It’s cold above the treeline!
  • Use common sense when around the wildlife. While the biggies of Yellowstone aren’t there—bison and grizzlies—the animals that are there are still wild and unpredictable, and they can hurt you.
  • There are few-to-no mosquitoes in Rocky!! Yay! And few flies, too, which is a welcome relief for those of us coming from other parts of the country. We didn’t have to pull out bug spray.

Rocky Mountain National Park is so well worth a few days. Our neighbors in the campground were sisters who’ve met there to camp for a week or two every summer for the past twenty years.

It’s one of our national treasures. Put it on your bucket list!

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(PHOTOS: Top—view from Dream Lake trail; the Bierstadt Lake trail; bull elk; Bottom—my nephew Sebastian near the summit of Trail Ridge Drive)