The soul of the Colorado Front Range, Rocky Mountain National Park’s spirit is reflected in its alpine lakes, tumbling waterfalls and dozens of peaks that reach 12,000 feet and higher. The Continental Divide splits this park in two with Trail Ridge Road forming a bridge between the gateway towns of Estes Park at the east end and Grand Lake at the west end. Wherever you are in Rocky, it’s hard to miss the the wildlife: moose wander the wetlands, bighorn sheep balance on the cliffs and herds of elk put on a bugling show each autumn. But before you head to the park, here are a few basic Rocky Mountain National Park essentials you need to know.
In an effort to decrease epic traffic, improve the visitor experience and spread out the impact of millions of visitors to the park, Rocky Mountain National Park has launched a reservation system again for 2023. Timed-entry reservations are required between May 26 and October 22, and are in addition to your entrance fee. You can get your timed-entry reservation for $2 at recreation.gov.
Get your pass.
In addition to your timed-entry reservation, you’ll need to pay a park entrance fee. You can buy a $35, 7-day pass at a park entrance station, or use your America the Beautiful or other interagency annual pass to get into the national park.
Afternoon thunderstorms occur daily in the summer months and lightning can pose a real danger to hikers. Hike in the morning and plan to be back at the trailhead by mid-day. If you hear thunder or see building, dark clouds, turn back immediately.
Ride the shuttle.
Trailhead parking lots fill notoriously early. Unless you arrive first thing in the morning, plan to take the park shuttle. Park at the Bear Lake Park & Ride where you can transfer to the Bear Lake Route or the Moraine Park Route to access hiking trails. Visitors can also take the Hiker Shuttle from the Estes Park Visitor Center outside the park, which has a large parking garage.
Get from east to west.
Trail Ridge Road is the highest paved road in any U.S. national park, topping out at 12,183 feet. This alpine road is the only way to get between the east and west sides of the park without a lengthy detour. It’s generally open late-May through October, depending on snow. Don’t miss stopping at the Alpine Visitor Center at the top.
Remember, you’re high.
Park elevations range from 7,600 to 14,200 feet. If you’re visiting from low elevations, give yourself a day to acclimatize before doing anything strenuous. Drinking plenty of water is key to staying hydrated and warding off the effects of altitude sickness (like headaches, dizziness and nausea). Bring at least two liters of water per person with you when you hit the trails.
Rocky Mountain’s alpine tundra ecosystem above treeline is said to “grow by the inch, die by the foot.” The intrepid plants that live at these elevations are very fragile and if killed, can take hundreds of years to come back. Stay on trails to avoid damage by walking on them.
Dress the part.
Closed-toed shoes with good tread like hiking boots or tennis shoes will protect your feet and give you a solid grip on park trails. Avoid cotton, which doesn’t wick moisture like sweat or rain, and pack layers like a jacket and hat when you hit the trails. Colorado weather is famously unpredictable.
Think twice about Longs.
Longs Peak, a Colorado’s 14er (14,000-foot mountain) is one of the park’s most iconic sights. Climbing the mountain isn’t a walk in the park and shouldn’t be attempted by anyone other than seasoned peak baggers. Don’t become a statistic and choose a trail that better suits your abilities. On average, two people die climbing the peak each year.
Give wildlife space.
The park’s incredible wildlife can be dangerous. Stay at least 120 feet from bears and moose and at least 75 feet from other wildlife like elk and bighorn sheep. Elk may look docile, but they can be aggressive, especially during mating season in the fall. Never touch or feed wildlife, even small critters like ground squirrels and marmots. Habituating them to human food can cause dangerous interactions, make them sick and lead them to loose their ability to find food on their own.
Keep it beautiful.
With 4.4 million visitors in 2021, every piece of trash adds up. Skip the plastic water bottle and refill your reusable at the park’s filtered filling stations. Pack out everything you pack in when you hit the trails. Yes, that means everything, including TP.
Know your Fido 411.
Dogs are only allowed on leash in campgrounds, picnic areas and parking lots. It’s best to leave furry friends at home so you can explore more of the park than the roads. Never leave your pet in the car as temperatures can become dangerous, even on a mild day.
Only you can prevent forest fires.
Did you know that 89% of wildfires are human caused?* Be sure to check for fire bans before you go camping and adhere to them. S’mores taste just as good cooked on the camp stove as they do over the fire, promise.
*Congressional Research Service
Where to stay?
There are no hotels in Rocky Mountain National Park. Most visitors stay in the gateway towns of Estes Park on the park’s east side, or Grand Lake on the park’s west side. Other neighboring towns like Lyons and Granby also offer lodging. The park has five campgrounds: Aspenglen, Glacier Basin, Moraine Park, Timber Creek and Longs Peak. The first four can be reserved in advance on recreation.gov in the summer and Longs Peak is first-come, first-served. Reservations open six months in advance and fill quickly, so it’s a good idea to book as early as possible.