With 3.31 million visitors in 2020, there’s no doubt that Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park is seeing the effects of humans. From microplastics in the alpine tundra to human waste along the trails to record-breaking forest fires, we’ve left our mark on the park. If you’re like us and have started to think about your impact when you travel, you’re in luck. We’ve put together this 48-hour eco-friendly itinerary to help you be a more sustainable traveler from farm-to-table dining to supporting local conservation groups to practicing Leave No Trace on the park’s trails.
Humans aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, but if we all travel more consciously, we can help reduce our impact on the land, water and air of this stunning park.
Day 1: Farm-to-Table, Conservation and Tiny Houses
First Thing: Fuel Up in Boulder
On your way to Rocky Mountain National Park swing through the university town of Boulder whose entire ethos orbits around sustainability. You could spend an entire weekend exploring its farm-to-table dining scene, shopping in its sustainable boutiques and riding its bike paths. However, if you don’t have time for a weekend stay, at least swing by Blackbelly Market (www.blackbelly.com) at 1606 Conestoga St. This whole-animal butcher shop and restaurant run by award-winning chef Hosea Rosenberg, works closely with local ranchers and farmers to bring customers sustainable ingredients. Colorado’s known for its breakfast burritos and those at Blackbelly are iconic. Filled with eggs, hatch green chile, tater tots and butcher’s choice meat of the day, they make for perfect hiking fuel. Breakfast and lunch are only served on weekdays.
Day: Take a Tour
Join Rocky Mountain Conservancy, the official non-profit partner of Rocky Mountain National Park, for an educational adventure. Currently in 2021, the Conservancy is only offering on-demand bus tours, but keep an eye out as their schedule returns to normal with hiking trips, classes and more. Opt for a tour in one of the conservancy’s vehicles including an educational guide to explain the stunning flora, fauna and geology you’re passing, or have a naturalist join you in your own vehicle for the day to help you better understand the park. Your tour will help support the conservancy’s work including trail improvement, conservation and education. Don’t forget to stop by the Conservancy Nature Stores at the park visitor and discovery centers to pick up souvenirs.
Dinner: Dine Local at Bird & Jim
After a day spent exploring the park, head to Bird & Jim (www.birdandjim.com) for more local fare. This restaurant located at 915 Moraine Ave. in Estes Park is just outside of Rocky Mountain National Park. You’ll find local and sustainable ingredients on the menu from farms and ranches in Estes Park and the nearby towns of Longmont, Hygiene and Boulder. Try a bison burger with tomato-bacon jam and arugula or go vegetarian with the Pasta Estiva, a rigatoni dish with watercress salsa verde, garlic broccolini, cherry tomatoes and grilled artichoke.
Bedtime: Stay Small
Did you know that the average American home is 2,600 square feet? That’s a lot of building materials, electricity, HVAC and water. Enter the more sustainable tiny house. You’ve probably seen tiny houses, those totaling 400 square feet or less, on HGTV. Now’s your chance to stay in one for the night and see if downsizing is in your future. WeeCasa (weecasa.com), located 30 minutes east of Rocky Mountain National Park in Lyons, offers more than 20 tiny houses that can sleep between 2 and 6 people. Yes, they even have kitchens and bathrooms. Want to stay closer to the park? YMCA of the Rockies in Estes Park (www.ymcarockies.org/Locations/Estes-Park-Center) is also taking steps towards sustainability including an innovative project to eliminate plastic wrap.
Day 2: Fair Trade, Foot Power and Solar Energy
First Thing: Kick Start Your Morning
We’re not going to lie. One of our favorite parts of spending the day hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park is starting the morning at Kind Coffee (www.kindcoffee.com) in Estes Park. This community-focused coffee shop located right along the Big Thompson River is good for the planet and the soul. Kind serves certified organic, fair-trade coffee and you’ll receive a discount for bringing your reusable coffee cup. It’s also a member of 1% for the Planet and helped found the Estes Give Back Program, which gives 1% of sales to Estes Park non-profits. You can’t go wrong with anything on the menu, but a dirty chai shake is the perfect treat on a summer morning.
If you don’t already have a reusable water bottle, this is a perfect place to purchase one. Help save single-use plastic water bottles from the landfill by filling your new reusable bottle at the park’s filtered water filling stations. You can also grab a sandwich to eat on the trails. Find Kind Coffee at 470 Elkhorn Ave.
Morning: Take a Hike
Rocky Mountain National Park has 355 miles of trails. Leave your car at the Estes Park Visitor Center down the street from Kind Coffee and take the free shuttle to the Beaver Meadows entrance station and then hop on one of the park’s free shuttles to get to your trailhead. Taking the hybrid shuttle not only eliminates the hassle of parking, but it helps cut down on vehicle emissions in the park.
Before you hit the trails, make sure to familiarize yourself with Leave No Trace principles to help keep the park beautiful and protect plants, wildlife and other visitors’ enjoyment. One very important principle to practice in the park? Stay on designated trails. Researchers found that while the popular Loch Vale area of the park has 8 miles of designated trails, 25 miles of user-created trails existed. This spells trouble for delicate alpine plants. Stick to the designated trails, making sure to walk in the center even when the trails are muddy to avoid widening the paths. Also be sure to pack out whatever you pack in. That also means #2 and toilet paper if you have to go on the trail, another pervasive problem for the Loch Vale area.
Trying to decide which trail to pick for the day? With towering peaks and easy strolls alike, this park has a hike for everyone. Use our guide to help you find the best adventure for your group.
Afternoon and Evening: Relax at Eco-Friendly Lodging
Spend the afternoon driving up and over Trail Ridge Road to explore alpine tundra and the park’s west side which is known for its moose. When you’re ready to get off your feet, head an hour south to the stunning and upscale Devil’s Thumb Ranch Resort & Spa (www.devilsthumbranch.com) in Tabernash. Check in for the night and then relax at the spa, go for a horseback ride, relax in the pool, enjoy a paddleboard yoga session and more. The ranch is committed to sustainability from their nearly 100% solar powered spa to their geothermal heated waters to recycling programs. Every detail of the ranch focuses on keeping the surrounding wild spaces pristine.
For dinner, eat at Heck’s and enjoy a wagyu beef burger from cattle raised and grass-fed on the ranch with sustainable ranching practices. Looking for a more affordable option on the west side of the park? YMCA’s other property in the area, Snow Mountain Ranch (ymcarockies.org/Locations/Snow-Mountain-Ranch), is also making strides in sustainability, including a solar array project which will be completed in fall 2021 and will be able to provide 100% of the property’s power on low-energy consumption days.
More Ways to Have a Sustainable Vacation
Want another way to lower your carbon footprint on your next trip to Rocky Mountain National Park? Visit in an electric vehicle! Check out our guide to all the charging stations in and around the park.
Another great way to help reduce your carbon footprint on your trip is by purchasing carbon offsets. These offsets help sequester or offset carbon via various projects. Our favorite is the Protect Our Winters carbon calculator and offset purchase tool (protectourwinters.org/cost-of-carbon/) because it’s easy to calculate the footprint of your vacation. Choose which programs you want to support with your offset purchase from forest management to emissions reduction to methane recovery.