Ever wished you could trade your wingtips for hiking boots and make playing in the Rocky Mountains your full-time job? These eight lucky people have done just that. Here’s what it’s really like to live and work in Rocky Mountain National Park. Hint: You won’t believe the perks.
Dylan Maddalena, Head Wrangler, YMCA Jackson Stables
Career path: I grew up in Estes Park and rode here as a kid. I always wanted to work here.
On the job: I’m in charge of all of the wranglers and 130 head of horses. I’m in charge of feeding, saddles, leather, all of that stuff. It’s like being in charge of 130 2-year-olds.
Typical day: In July, we’ll normally start around 6 a.m. We run the horses into the barn, brush them, feed them. We’ll throw saddles on them like it’s an assembly line. The first ride leaves at 7:40 a.m., and from then on it’s organized chaos. Probably the biggest thing we do is pick up horse manure.
Perks: We always tell people the hours are really long and it’s really hard work, but we have no room to complain because we get to work with horses and be outside all day long. It’s awesome.
Day to remember: Out on a three-hour ride, it started hailing, the worst hail I’ve ever seen up here. We stopped and got everyone off their horses. The hail finally went away, but it was still raining hard with lightning everywhere. I told the guests, “We can have you guys picked up to get out of the rain.” And the guests were like, “No, we came here to ride in the Rocky Mountains, and we’re staying!” We had to wait a good 50 minutes before the storm let up, but they were bound and determined to finish their ride. That was a lot of fun.
Free time: In the winter, I buy a park pass and it pays for itself by the end of the week. I go up to the Moraine Park area a lot and just sit, take pictures, and wander.
What makes RMNP unique: There are a lot of stables up here that ride through the park. We all ride the same areas, but nobody rides the same trails. So you can come here and ride at four different stables and never see the same thing.
Favorite ride: Bierstadt Lake. It’s a five-hour ride, which is a long time to be on a horse, but it’s absolutely gorgeous. Coming down the back side of the mountain, going down the switchbacks—the first time I rode that, I was like, wow.
Perfect day: A nice warm winter day when the whole park is covered in snow. You can see the elk bedding down with the snow on their backs, and a light snow as the sun is just rising. That would be pretty much perfect.
Kevin Sturmer, Rocky Mountain National Park Climbing Ranger
Career path: I was a climber way before I was a ranger. I worked in the guiding world for a long while, river guiding and climbing guiding. I worked my way through my EMS education and became a paramedic. A friend of mine worked here and said, “Hey, you should come check out this job, it’s pretty cool.”
On the job: I’m expected to be out and about in the backcountry 90 percent of my work time. In the winter we do a lot of skiing and ice climbing, and in the summer we do a lot of rock climbing and hiking. We chat with all user groups, from hikers and fishermen to climbers, mountaineers, and skiers. We also do overnight patrols. Between May and September I’ll probably do three overnights on Longs Peak. We used to be known as the Longs Peak Rangers, so we have a shelter up there. We also try to hit one or two of the backcountry cabins in the winter.
Biggest challenge: Another part of my job is to be available for search and rescue, which is definitely my least favorite part of the job. I really like helping people, but you end up helping them on the worst day of their life.
Perk: I love talking to climbers, hikers, fishermen, and skiers. We all talk the same language. Every conversation I start with a visitor is, “Hey, what are you up to today?” because I truly just want to know what they’re doing. Everyone has these crazy ideas of how they want to enjoy the park, and I want to be in on that!
What makes RMNP unique: If I wanted to, I could go skiing this morning, go ice climbing after that, and come back down into the valley in the evening and go rock climbing or trail running in shorts and a t-shirt. That’s the coolest thing to me about this park. It’s just multisporting, all seasons, all the time.
Favorite trail: Longs Peak. It’s something I gripe about all the time: “Oh man, I can’t believe I have to walk up the Longs Peak Trail again today.” But when it comes down to it, that’s when I’m happiest. I love the Keyhole. As long as it’s not thundering and lightning, it’s one of the coolest Fourteener routes in the state.
Mike Soucy & Norie Kizaki, Guides/instructors with Colorado Mountain School
On the job: We’re split between guiding—leading people up climbs or down ski descents—and teaching.
Where they go: Rocky Mountain National Park has a huge amount of technical climbing, from relatively straightforward scrambles on peaks like Longs, to pretty demanding technical climbs. We do everything from introduction to rock climbing in the summer to going with locals who want to take on some of the really demanding climbs.
Typical day: It’s getting to know people and taking them out on a fun climb. Sometimes those climbs go really smoothly and uneventfully and there are lots of smiles and photos. Other days you might go up there and someone gets way more than they bargained for, or you have a nasty storm come in and it’s a bit more dramatic. You come back here with wide eyes.
Day to remember: I had a group getting prepped for climbing Denali. We went into the park; it was supposed to be three nights and four days. And then a storm came in and we had 3 feet of snow while we were camping. After the second day, I thought, if I wait one more night we can’t get out. So I made the decision to come out. Breaking trail in three feet of snow, it took an hour to go 100 yards.
Favorite trip to lead: (Norie)Skiing Dragontail Couloir, which you can access relatively easily from the Bear Lake Trail, from top to bottom on a really nice spring corn day is priceless. (Mike) The Diamond Face of Longs Peak is a favorite climb of mine. It’s a beautiful wall to be out on, and it really delivers for the person that you’re guiding—the wow factor. It’s such an iconic climb.
Walk on the wild side: (Mike) My dad and I were backpacking up in the Ptarmigan Drainage, sitting down having lunch, and this golden eagle caught an updraft. It must have had a wingspan that was wider than a couch. And it just buzzed us like we were lying on a runway and a 747 flew up over our heads and looked down at us. (Norie) One spring, a friend and I went skiing Fairchild Mountain, and in the parking lot there were footprints of a mountain lion and a little bit of blood. When we started hiking, we decided to go off-trail and we found a bear den, with the bear’s footprints all around the hole. It must have just come out that morning.
Laurie Bien, Co-owner, Kirks Fly Shop
On the job: We lead fly-fishing trips all over the park. Easy-access places, difficult backcountry places, everywhere. Anywhere there are fish, we’ll go. We also do Longs Peaks trips, dayhikes, overnight backpacking trips, snowshoeing trips, and llama pack trips.
Typical day: We get clients out on the river, start with basic casting, and teach them how to set the hook. At the end, they have the knowledge to go out on their own and catch fish.
On fishing the park: It’s one of the most beautiful places in the world. And there’s a ton of wild, abundant trout. The fishing is excellent. If you know the right places, you can get back in there and never see anybody for the whole day.
Favorite fishing trip: Spending one night at Thunder Lake, which has Snake River cutthroats and cutbows. Box Lake is a dayhike from there, and it’s all brookies. Then we go over the Continental Divide at Boulder-Grand Pass and drop down to Lake Verna, which is also all brookies.
Day to remember: I had a Longs Peak trip with a gal who was in her 50s. She had recently lost a lot of weight and had knee surgery. It took us until 12 p.m. just to get to the Keyhole—normally you’re up there by 6 a.m. But she kept trucking the whole way. She got up through the Keyhole and we had the most beautiful views, including the Trough and the Ledges. She didn’t summit, but just for her to get that far and to know that she could do it made it an amazing trip.
Occupational hazard: I once had to help carry a sick llama out of the park on a homemade stretcher made of aspen. At midnight.
What makes RMNP unique: I know lots of the parks are beautiful, but Rocky has something a little different about it. It’s a bit smaller than Yellowstone or Yosemite: It’s like a little jewel.
Tim Phillips, Thompson River Subdistrict Ranger
Enjoy the park while protecting the resources: We do law enforcement, emergency services like search and rescue (SAR), and emergency medical care.
Multitasking: We all have to be trained to at least the EMT level. We do law enforcement and we have exclusive federal jurisdiction, so any crimes that take place in the park, we have to handle them at a professional level. We’re expected to know the park and be able to perform technical rescues up to 14,259 feet.
Office politics: We’ve got some of the best climbers and most skilled rangers in the world. We had a climber stuck 800 feet down on the Diamond [a cliff on Longs Peak], and our rangers ran to the summit. That’s a 12-hour day for me, but they can make it to the summit in less than three hours. One of them rappelled down to the lady and was able to bring her up … in the dark … in a rainstorm. I oversee those kinds of operations and I’m proud of the people we have who can do that.
Typical day: There really isn’t a typical day. I tell people I hire to be Gumby-like, flexible. I come in thinking I’m going to be doing a lot of office work, next thing I know I’m managing an SAR and being flown in a helicopter to Longs Peak.
Study up: We’re rangers first, and we use law enforcement as a tool to protect the resources. So when we get out on an elk jam, and somebody asks me what that flower is, I think I should know what the flower is. I should know the difference between a greenback cutthroat trout and a brook trout.
Perfect day: One of the perks of the job is I get to use the park’s backcountry cabins on my off time. I like to go up to those cabins with my family and friends and fish some of those backcountry lakes and streams.
Don Seedle, Volunteer at Rocky Mountain National Park
What drives me: This is my 24th year as a volunteer. Everybody says altruistic things like you want to give back. Which you want to do. But also, it makes you feel good to volunteer. And it keeps me off the streets.
On the job: I started out with a group called the Bighorn Brigade down at Sheep Lakes in Horseshoe Park, directing traffic so sheep could cross the road safely. I was in the volunteer office full-time. Right now, I work at Beaver Meadows Visitor Center at the front desk. Of all the jobs, my favorite was up at the Alpine Visitor Center. You get to do a lot of interpretation up there: why treeline is at 11,000 feet, and why the aspen change color, and why we have those poles along Trail Ridge Road.
Perks: Interacting with kids. One of the most fun things about the job is when you have a telescope on a group of coyote puppies, for example. And you get kids up here, and ask them, “Do you see them?” “No.” “Do you see them?” “No.” Then all of a sudden their faces just light up. You don’t even have to ask them if they saw them. You just know. That’s so satisfying.
What makes RMNP unique: The wildlife, number one, and the scenery, number two. I’ve been coming here my whole life, but every time I see an elk, I think, wow.
Walk on the wild side: One time a group of bighorn sheep was down in the meadow and a coyote came out. The sheep ran. The mothers do no protect their babies. They do up high, but when they’re down out of their element, they are as frightened as anything and they run. This one little baby laid down because the mother taught it when there’s danger, lie down. The coyote turned around and saw that baby lamb and started chasing it. We had 150 people in the parking lot. People were crying, the kids were hollering, “Do something!” Well, the baby lamb came up right through the crowd at the parking lot. The coyote reached there and could not go across because it was scared of the people. The lamb made it back up the hill and the whole crowd just burst into a round of applause and cheering. It was so cool.
Bending the rules: I got to work one day and there was a bighorn sheep that a coyote had chased out into one of the lakes in Horseshoe Park. It had been there all night. I went into the water and dragged it out and stayed with it. It was about an hour and a half before it had enough energy to get to its feet. It did finally make it across and up the road. Theoretically we’re not supposed to interfere with nature, but I’m a veterinarian too and I could not let an animal die when I could do something.
Tip for first-timers: Trail Ridge Road is the highest continuous paved highway in North America. It’s kind of the highlight of the park, so you have to do that. And don’t be in a hurry. I’ve lived here all my life and I haven’t seen everything, so to think you’re going to see everything in a hour is ridiculous. If you come here, make it worth your while.
Favorite peak: Longs Peak. I climbed it in 1954, and that’s enough.
Rachel Balduzzi, Education Director, Rocky Mountain Conservancy Field Institute
On the job: The Field Institute is the educational portion of the conservancy, which is the nonprofit partner of Rocky Mountain National Park. The Field Institute is here to enhance the educational programming offered by the park service. Where a ranger-led talk would be about the montane ecosystem, we would go more in-depth and do a program specifically on ponderosa pine trees and how they affect the area.
Back to school: We do about 300 classes a year here. They’re on a variety of different topics, from cultural and natural history to photography. We also provide some skill-building classes, such as avalanche awareness.
Top picks: Anything that has to do with birds is very popular. The banding owl class is very popular—going out and learning about the owls that are here, then banding them. Kids’ programming and bus tours are also popular. We’ll have professional photographers come in and teach landscape or wildlife photography, sometimes macro or night sky photography. We also have a two-day class where you learn about mountain lion research.
Perfect day: This summer I became an avid fly-fisherman, so it would probably involve hiking to a beautiful lake or stream where I could fly-fish. It would be the perfect, 75-degree day. I would probably see several moose along the way, a mountain lion, maybe a bear or two—all within safe distances—and I would get great photos.
Favorite peaks: Chapin, Chiquita, and Ypsilon, because of the experience I had the first time I climbed them. I was the only person I saw the whole day except for one other person on Ypsilon. Super quiet. It was just a nice, natural experience.
Looking for a few good hikes—and the best spots to grab a beer afterwards? These insiders know just the place.
- Black Lake. It’s straight up to get there, but the payoff is worth it. —Dylan Maddalena
- Any trail that goes over the Divide, like Boulder-Grand Pass or Flattop Mountain. —Laurie Bien
- Loomis Lake. Go up to Fern Lake, then Spruce Lake, and Loomis is above that. Really great fishing. —Tim Phillips
- Box and Eagle Lakes. Head to Thunder Lake, then go 2 miles south on a cross-country path. And I also really like being on top of Mt. Alice. —Kevin Sturmer
- Anything that gets you right up on the skyline, like Ute Pass or Chapin Pass. —Mike Soucy
- Ouzel Falls is a great half-day hike. And the Bear Lake loop that goes to Odessa Lake and out the Fern Lake trailhead is a good one. —Rachel Balduzzi
- In the ‘50s, our Boy Scout troop went from Wild Basin to Thunder Lake, over the Divide, and down into Grand Lake. —Don Seedle
Where to Toast Your Perfect Day
- Ed’s Cantina —Mike Soucy & Norie Kizaki
- The Stanley Hotel —Dylan Maddalena
- Twin Owl Steakhouse —Don Seedle
- The Rock Inn —Laurie Bien
- Sweet Basilico —Rachel Balduzzi
- Nepal’s —Kevin Sturmer