This post covers our tips for visiting Rocky Mountain National Park, and our top 5 picks for things to do in the park. Located within driving distance of Denver, Colorado, Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the best ‘getaway’ National Parks you can visit. Its main park loop is easy to navigate providing short trips to the park a sense of accomplishment. It’s also a great park for longer vacations, as it has numerous trails and impressive landscapes to see once you get beyond the awe of the Rocky Mountains visible from the main loop (Trail Ridge Road).
Whether you’re looking to sight-see from your car, hike, watch for wildlife, or even do backcountry exploring, Rocky Mountain National Park is a great option. While this post offers our highlights of Rocky Mountain National Park, it should not be read as a comprehensive guide of everything there is to do in the park. To be sure, you could spend weeks there and not complete all the trails or backcountry sights. Our full list of things could probably be accomplished in a single weekend. There’s a lot of great information online on the National Park Service’s website.
As for books, the only book we recommend for Rocky Mountain National Park is Rocky Mountain National Park: The Complete Hiking Guide. Obviously, this focuses on hiking. However, unless you’re doing something niche like snowshoeing or going horseback riding, you really only need a book about the hiking. The rest is pretty self-explanatory or easy to find online. For photography, I couldn’t find anything that blew me away in terms of dedicated guides, but Images of Rocky Mountain National Park turned me onto some good spots and gave me some inspiration, plus, it’s cheap.
There are a lot of awesome ways to spend your time in Rocky Mountain National Park–let’s take a look at our favorites!
5. Sunrise at Sprague Lake
Sprague Lake is one of the best spots for a peaceful sunrise in Rocky Mountain National Park, with the sun illuminating the mountains in the morning. The water is also especially placid, making for great reflection photos. We also like Sprague Lake in the morning because it’s a great location to see elk and other wildlife (see the first photo, above).
Technically, getting to Sprague Lake requires a hike, as the lake itself is about a half-mile off of Bear Lake Road, along the Sprague Lake Loop. The full trail is less than a mile (start to finish), and is gravel the entire way with virtually no elevation change, so calling this an actual hike is a bit of a stretch. Still, it offers great views that are a bit off the main path, and is the perfect option for those who are super-lazy or have medical mobility issues.
4. Drive Old Fall River Road
Trail Ridge Road is perhaps the most beautiful drive in the United States. It is not to be missed, and is to be savored. However, if you’re visiting Rocky Mountain National Park in the spring, fall, or summer, you are pretty much going to be driving Trail Ridge Road by default, so it wouldn’t make for much of a suggestion to do something that literally everyone going to the park will be doing.
While Trail Ridge Road is a beautiful, modern drive, Old Fall River Road offers just as breathtaking views on a ‘road less traveled.’ (Basically, it’s the predecessor to Trail Ridge Road). After you spend some time doing a slow loop on Trail Ridge Road, go around again, and this time take the turn-off for Old Fall River Road. (Unfortunately, it’s likely that Old Fall River Road will be closed most of 2014.) It’s more intimate, with everything closer to the vehicle and a series of sharp turns, and much slower-paced (the 11 mile road will probably take around 45 minutes to drive), but it’s well worth it. Since this road is now far less popular and more entwined with nature, it now provides excellent opportunities for viewing elk, and is a great place to get away from the crowds. The only thing is here–we beg of you–don’t be those people who visit a National Park and do the entire park from their car and pull-offs. Get out, off the road and out of the parking lots, and actually experience the park.
3. Hike to Nymph, Dream & Emerald Lakes
Outside of people who are a little too enthusiastic about hiking, one of the biggest complaints about many hikes is that they offer little more than repetitive views of trees. As alluring as spending a few hours going up a grade to see trees is, we look for something more when hiking. The Bear Lake Trailhead offers exactly this, as it goes around these three lakes, with sweeping views, streams…and lest we forget…TREES(!!!) along the way.
In all seriousness, this trail does offer some impressive views and a lot of variety. In total, it’s 3.6 miles round-trip, but it’s a fairly easy hike. Plus, you can always turn back once you’ve seen one or two of the lakes (we recommend doing at least the first two). It starts with Nymph Lake (named that for its large swarms of promiscuous insects), which offers great views of Hallet Peak and Longs Peak, two of the highest peaks in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Dream Lake is next, and while its views aren’t nearly as impressive (in our opinion), the views you’ll see from overlooks between the two are impressive. From there, it’s on to Emerald Lake. This lake was carved by the notorious Tyndall Glacier, which allegedly went on a lake-carving streak back in the day. This is another beautiful lake with plenty of spots to sit and enjoy nature’s tranquility. We recommend packing starting this hike fairly early and having lunch (pack it and carry it with you; obviously there are no golden arches out by the lake) in one of these tranquil spots.
2. Watch Wildlife in Kawuneeche Valley
Ever wanted to watch a moose graze in the middle of nowhere without another soul around? Okay, would watching a moose graze off the side of the road with a few dozen parked cars and gawkers suffice instead? Kawuneeche Valley is a popular spot to see moose, elk, and other animals early in the morning or late in the afternoon, but inherent in that popularity is that it usually means that plenty of other humans will also be around. That’s the downside.
The upside is that it’s popular for good reason, and you are very likely to see wildlife here so long as you get up early or stay out until around sundown (or later). Be mindful of park ranger instructions, as they will often be in the area to ensure that visitors don’t get too close (you’d be surprised by the number of people who seemingly want to be gored by an adult bull moose), park in the middle of the road, or do other stupid things.
1. Hike Rock Cut’s Tundra Trail
With the exception of Longs Peak, Rock Cut is the highest elevation in Rocky Mountain National Park. Whereas Longs Peak is an all-day (at least) hike, Rock Cut is an easily-accessible parking area along the main loop (technically, I believe Rock Cut is the area of road you drive through that was ‘cut’ by blasting). From the parking area, there’s a trail that’s called the “Tundra Trail” or “Tundra Communities Trail,” depending upon who you ask.
This leads to more ‘cut’ rock formations. While this trail is relatively short and looks fairly simple, it is deceptively difficult. This is due to the gains in elevation on it, and because there’s about 35% less oxygen at this elevation than there is at sea level. All of this makes a trail that is only about a mile roundtrip way more difficult than it should be.
With that said, it’s an awesome experience. This truly is tundra, and you’re likely to see marmot and pika along the way. (The latter of which is about the size of a mouse, but makes chirping sounds at humans to defend its turf. Our actual list of the top 5 things to do in Rocky Mountain National Park consists entirely of engaging in a turf war by chirping back at these little dudes.)
The formations at the end are beautiful, and are my pick for the best location in Rocky Mountain National Park to watch the sunrise–unless you’re hardcore-enough to hike to Longs Peak. Given the beautiful 360-degree view, it’s equally good for sunsets, although you’ll have to contend with many other park guests who have the same idea. At sunrise, it’ll only be a couple of other dedicated photographers, as the cold and hiking time in the dark will weed out the casual tourists. It’s an extremely easy hike in the dark, though, and well worth braving the cold for this view.
BONUS: Explore Estes Park
This is a “bonus” item rather than a main one because Estes Park isn’t within Rocky Mountain National Park. It’s a gateway town, and is largely touristy. However, it also has its fair share of charm, niche shops, dining, and hotels. Our biggest recommendation in Estes Park is to see the Stanley Hotel (maybe even stay there). It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and has a rich history of famous guests, including (supposedly) ghosts. We didn’t do one of their ghost tours, but that would probably be fairly interesting if you’re into that sort of thing.
As far as eating goes, our top recommendation is Rock Inn Mountain Tavern. I had an all-natural, free range bison burger, which was easily the best bison burger I’ve ever had. The place is somewhat pricey for a tavern, but it has a local atmosphere, live entertainment, and a great menu.
We did other things in Estes Park, but nothing else–specifically–comes to mind in terms of things you should do. It’s a charming little city, and definitely worth exploring to see what might appeal to you, personally.
Obviously, there are a lot of other things to do in Rocky Mountain National Park than just what we have listed here. We did several other hiking trails (none of which left much of an impression, although all offered mountain views), and explored the various park roads, galleries, and visitors centers.
These photos of Rocky Mountain National Park were all shot with my my Nikon D700. For lenses, I used a Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR lens, a Nikon 24-105mm f/4 VR, and a Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 Lens, plus a tripod. I carried a lot of other gear, too. To get some more Rocky Mountain National Park photo ideas, check out my Rocky Mountain National Park Photo Gallery.
Where are your favorite places and things to do in Rocky Mountain National Park? Any spots we missed on this list? Which of these would you most like to photograph? Any questions? Hearing from you is half the fun, so please share any thoughts you have in the comments!