One hundred and fifty lakes. Four hundred and fifty miles of streams. Seventy-seven peaks higher than 12,000 feet. Montane and subalpine ecosystems, vast alpine tundra, and countless elk, deer, moose, bighorn sheep, coyotes, black bears, and mountain lions. Rocky Mountain National Park is, by all accounts, magnificent; it’s a landscape that’s breathtaking, even by Colorado standards.
These riches are made all the more remarkable because Rocky is just a 90-minute drive from Denver—which may explain why so many Denverites take this jewel of the Rockies for granted.
Yes, Colorado’s nearly unparalleled, ubiquitous, and accessible natural beauty probably has something to do with the fact that we’re not sufficiently investigating Rocky. After all, national parks have more rules, regulations, fees—and, let’s face it, crowds—than the plethora of wilderness areas, national forests, state parks, and open spaces Colorado offers. But there’s something captivating and romantic about national parks. A uniquely American invention, these federally protected lands—84 million acres of earth and 4.5 million acres of oceans and lakes—preserve some of the country’s most jaw-dropping landscapes (Hawaii’s volcanoes, California’s redwoods, Wyoming’s geysers, Florida’s wetlands) as well as many of its most prized historical landmarks (Gettysburg, Cape Hatteras, Klondike Gold Rush, Ford’s Theatre). We think that’s exceptionally cool—and we think it’s even more cool that we’ve got one right in our backyard.
If there were ever an extra-special time to visit Rocky—to not take this treasure for granted—it would be this summer. The September 2013 floods tore through the park, and while most of the hiking trails and camping areas are now open, significant damage remains. Although Rocky received $3.5 million in federal emergency relief funds, at press time the park was still waiting to hear about further relief funding; park spokeswoman Kyle Patterson says even that hypothetical purse may not be enough. Instead, Rocky will rely, in part, on park entrance and camping permit fees—80 percent of which go to fund projects tied to visitor use—to subsidize other necessary repairs. Which means a trip to the park these days will not only bring you face-to-face with one of nature’s most exquisite creations, but it will also let you play a part in safeguarding one of America’s loveliest conservancies: Rocky Mountain National Park.
5280.com Exclusive: See our slideshow of Rocky Mountain National Park historical photos.
Taking The High Road
Trail Ridge Road is not only the highest continuously paved street in the United States, it’s also one of the country’s most scenically magnificent byways. We map out a few of the best spots to make pit stops.
Fit, experienced hikers should park at Milner Pass and work their way along the Continental Divide to the summit of 12,880-foot Mt. Ida. The trail is a haul at 4.5 miles one way—with a 2,200-foot elevation gain—but the hike is beautiful even if you don’t summit. Most of the route is above timberline (read: completely exposed), so start early to avoid afternoon thunderstorms. Parking is limited at Milner Pass, which is just another reason to get there early.
There are two unconnected sections of the Ute Trail—one starting from the Alpine Visitor Center and another one that begins at a spot near Rainbow Curve. The four-mile (one way) section that leaves from the visitor center and ends at Milner Pass has little elevation gain but offers lovely views of the alpine tundra. Tip: Instead of doing the full eight miles round-trip, leave a car at each end and enjoy a leisurely hike.
Alpine Ridge Trail
You won’t be alone if you decide to hike this quarter-mile-long stone-paved “trail,” which leaves from the Alpine Visitor Center. Still, the views from the top of “Huffer’s Hill” are worth the 200-foot-plus elevation gain.
Tundra Communities Trail
Just beyond Rock Cut—the road clearly bisects part of a mountain here—visitors can park their cars and take a moderate 1.1-mile hike on the Tundra Communities Trail. The first quarter-mile of the hike is taxing (especially since you’re at 12,110 feet), but it levels out after that and takes hikers through wildflower-strewn alpine tundra to see Mushroom Rock (take a short side trail to get there), panoramic views of Longs Peak and the Mummy Range, and the Toll Memorial, dedicated to a former park superintendent.
Forest Canyon Overlook
The Forest Canyon Overlook is often, well, overlooked because drivers can’t see what the view will be from the road. Don’t make that mistake. From the overlook, spectacular views of some of the park’s remotest sections live in the shadows of towering mountains—some of which are above you and, because you’re at about 11,700 feet, some of which are below you. This is also a particularly great spot to see families of marmots as well as alpine tundra, which covers the ground in the area like a soft, green carpet.
First things first: If you need a potty break, vault toilets are available at this pullout area along Trail Ridge Road. But don’t hop back into the car so quickly you miss scoping out a few things from your vantage point. From the curve, you can pick out the Alluvial Fan (a large patch of light brown and gray boulders along the valley floor), the Roaring River, Hidden Valley Creek and its beaver ponds, and thirteeners Mt. Chiquita, Ypsilon Mountain, Mt. Fairchild, Hagues Peak, and Mummy Mountain.
There’s a reason why these two watering holes wear the name they do: In late spring and early summer, herds of bighorn sheep—about 350 live in the park—flock to the lakes to graze and eat the mineral-rich soil. As they descend from the alpine areas of the Mummy Range, the sheep must cross U.S. Highway 34 to reach the lakes. Remember: Animals have the right of way.
More than 150 blue-green pools dot Rocky’s terrain, but these beauties are the ones you shouldn’t miss.
The trail Hikers will gain 580 feet of elevation on the 4.1-mile (one way) path that jogs through aspen groves, over scree fields, and down into a deep valley.
The crowds Odessa is a favorite haunt of anglers and backcountry campers so you may not be alone, but the length of the trail does provide protection from some of the hordes.
The highlight The pristine, jade waters of Odessa Lake ripple below Little Matterhorn and Notchtop Mountain, rock sculpture–like mountains that soar into the sky to create an iconic alpine lake scene.
The wow factor ????
The trail This 2.8-mile-long (one way) moderate hike begins at the Glacier Gorge trailhead and takes you past Alberta and Glacier falls.
The crowds Alberta Falls, which is less than a mile into the hike, is one of the most popular destinations in the park. Translation: There will be people—probably lots of them. In fact, you’ll likely want to use the free park shuttle to access the trailhead during peak summer season.
The highlight From the eastern shore of Mills Lake, a subalpine beauty, you can see the Keyboard of the Winds (a jagged, spire-filled mountain that channels gusts to create eerie howling noises), 13,497-foot Pagoda Mountain, 13,579-foot Chiefs Head Peak, and 12,668-foot Thatchtop Mountain.
The wow factor ???
The trail The first two miles of this path are the same as if you were going to Mills Lake; the final mile (three miles total, one way) switchbacks up about 500 feet in elevation and follows Icy Brook, a gushing creek that flows out of the Taylor Glacier.
The crowds Expect to see many fellow hikers, especially in the first mile during the summer months.
The highlight Taylor Peak, at 13,153 feet, towers over the dark aqua waters of the Loch (sometimes called Loch Vale).
The wow factor ???
The trail Easily the most accessible and flattest trail you’ll find in the park, the half-mile loop around picturesque Bear Lake is perfect for out-of-towners.
The crowds This is one of the most commonly hiked trails in Rocky; use the shuttle to access the trailhead during peak hours.
The highlight If you’re lucky enough to visit on a windless day, the reflection of Longs and Hallett peaks in the glassy surface of Bear Lake is breathtaking.
The wow factor ????
Nymph, Dream, and Emerald lakes
The trail A 1.7-mile (one way) easy-to-moderate hike beginning at the Bear Lake trailhead takes visitors to the banks of three lakes.
The crowds There’s a reason why everyone and their brother is on this trail: The scenery is so pretty you don’t care whom you share it with.
The highlights One, your eyes will feast on the deep blue waters of Dream perfectly framed by Hallett Peak; and two, you’ll immediately understand why it’s called Emerald Lake.
The wow factor ?????
5280.com Exclusive: Chasm and Mirror Lake
The trail This strenuous route (4.2 miles one way) follows the East Longs Peak Trail for 3.5 miles before turning onto the Chasm Lake Trail. Hikers will follow Chasm Lake Trail for another .7 miles—along the wall of a deep gorge and over a rock field—before reaching the deep green pool.
The crowds The East Longs Peak Trail is the trail that hundreds of people use each day to attempt to summit Longs Peak. You’ll need to be at the Longs Peak trailhead well before sunrise to get a parking spot.
The highlight The famous east-facing wall of 14,259-foot Longs Peak, known as the Diamond, soars 2,400 feet above Chasm Lake.
The wow factor ?????
The trail Hikers begin at the Corral Creek trailhead—which lies outside the park in Roosevelt National Forest—and hoof it for 6.1 miles (one way) on a moderate-to-strenuous route that gains nearly 1,000 feet in elevation.
The crowds Mirror Lake is the northernmost lake in Rocky, located in one of the remotest sections of the park. Except for the wildlife, you’ll be alone.
The highlight The deep, large lake rests in the shadows of the impressive peaks of the stunning Mummy Range.
The wow factor ????
A Lake Of A Different Color
About 1.65 miles beyond the Loch (follow Andrews Glacier Trail) lies the best-known tarn in the park. Tarns are mountain lakes formed in cirques excavated by glaciers. Although it’s not always the case, many tarns exhibit an unnaturally blue color. This phenomenon is created by rock flour, a pulverized rock powder in the water that absorbs the sun’s light spectrum and displays a shockingly bright sapphirelike hue. The hike to Andrews Tarn from the Loch is not an easy jaunt—but it’s worth it for a look at this icy blue gem.
Five cascades worth the hike.
Trailhead: Fern Lake trailhead
Hike: 2.6 miles one way
Difficulty level: moderate
The falls: a 60-foot waterfall that plunges down Fern Creek
On the way you’ll see: the Pool (the intersection of Fern Creek and the Big Thompson River); evidence of the 2012 Fern Lake Fire, which burned 3,500 acres
Trailhead: Glacier Gorge trailhead
Hike: 0.85 miles one way
Difficulty level: easy
The falls: a wide, 30-foot gusher that roars down a gorge
On the way you’ll see: pine forest and aspen groves
Trailhead: East Inlet trailhead (just outside park boundaries)
Hike: 0.45 miles one way
Difficulty level: easy
The falls: a 55-foot-tall series of watery steps that zigzags down a gorge
On the way you’ll see: pine and aspen trees—and lots of people; these falls see more than 110,000 visitors a year
Bridal Veil Falls
Trailhead: Cow Creek trailhead
Hike: 3.05 miles one way
Difficulty level: moderate
The falls: a 20-foot wall of water that cascades over a stony precipice
On the way you’ll see: Lumpy Ridge, a conspicuous granite formation that rock climbers flock to
Trailhead: Wild Basin trailhead
Hike: 2.7 miles one way
Difficulty level: moderate
The falls: a thick, 40-foot chute of water that rushes over a rocky creek bed below
On the way you’ll see: Upper and Lower Copeland falls; smaller unnamed falls; and 100-foot-long Calypso Falls
Rocky incurred approximately $10 million in damage to trails, bridges, roads, and buildings when the September 2013 floods ripped through the eastern side of the park. Although the deluge was a natural event, fixing some of the destruction was—and still is—necessary. This summer, visitors will notice certain areas of Rocky are still undergoing restoration or will be closed altogether. Here’s what to expect.
Old Fall River Road
Built between 1913 and 1920, Old Fall River Road was the first motor route to cross the park. Before the floods, the historic, narrow dirt road looked much like it had since the 1920s. Over the years, visitors to the park enjoyed taking the one-way, switchback-laden nine-mile roadway during the small window it was open to vehicle traffic (early July through mid-September). Because of the damage and planned renovations, Old Fall River Road will likely be closed to cars, hikers, and cyclists—from the Lawn Lake trailhead to the Alpine Visitor Center—throughout most of summer and fall 2014. Park staff is working with the Federal Highway Administration to determine how repairs should be made to the storied road.
On July 15, 1982, the Lawn Lake Dam failed and released 30 million cubic feet of water in a flash flood that killed three park visitors and changed the lay of the land in the Roaring River and Fall River valleys forever. When the rushing water hit Horseshoe Park, it spread out, slowed down, and left behind a large alluvial fan of debris. Since that event, the Alluvial Fan had become a point of interest in the park, where visitors could climb on the rocks and enjoy sitting beside the rushing Roaring River. However, the 2013 floods rerouted the course of the Roaring River and ripped out the nearby road and parking area. The entire area will need to be reimagined and restored. Summer 2014 visitors will not be able to access the area.
Twin Sisters Peaks
On the east side of the park, sticking out like a small peninsula, the Twin Sisters Peaks offer sweeping views of Longs Peak, Mt. Meeker, and the Continental Divide. Hikers who take the 7.4-mile round-trip hike up to the two approximately 11,400-foot summits can also see Mills Glacier, which forms the headwaters for Mills Lake and the Roaring Fork River. Last fall’s floods created a massive landslide, which can be seen from Highway 7, on the western side of the Twin Sisters. While damage to Twin Sisters Road has been repaired, parking in the area has been limited by the destruction.
Backcountry Trails and Campsites
Park officials are making their way through 350 miles of hiking trails to ascertain if any flood-related damage requires attention. Visitors to the backcountry this summer should be prepared to encounter places that need patching, especially missing foot bridges, washed out trail segments, unstable slopes, fallen trees, and missing signage. Known damage is mostly relegated to the Fall River, Lumpy Ridge, North Fork, Twin Sisters, and Wild Basin areas. Visit nps.gov/romo to check for closures before making a trip to the park.
Three spots many visitors skip. Don’t miss ’em.
Shadow Mountain Lookout Tower
The only remaining tower of four original fire lookouts built during the Great Depression, the Shadow Mountain Lookout Tower is a National Register of Historic Places–listed structure with an observation deck that overlooks the southwest corner of Rocky. Hikers can begin at the Grand Lake East Shore trailhead, which is outside the park, and follow Shadow Mountain Trail for a moderate 4.8-mile (one way) journey.
Constructed between 1890 and 1936, this water project—a 14.3-mile-long, 20-feet-wide, three-feet-deep canal—was built to divert water from the Never Summer Mountains to Colorado’s thirsty Eastern Plains. Increasing demand for more and more water led to the creation of the Long Draw Reservoir, which today sees high numbers of recreationalists in the summer months. Hikers can begin at the Colorado River trailhead for a moderate 5.2-mile (one way) hike.
The multihued seams of volcanic ash found in this miniature version of a similar feature in Yellowstone National Park aren’t the only reason to put this landmark on your to-do list. The canyon is also home to the headwaters of the Colorado River. Find the tiny stream on the east side of the Grand Ditch in a meadow and you’ve located the beginning of the waterway that carved the Grand Canyon. Hikers can begin at the Colorado River trailhead for a moderate 5.2-mile (one way) hike.
5280.com Exclusive: Alva B. Adams Tunnel
Alva B. Adams Tunnel
You can’t see it from inside the park, but the Alva B. Adams Tunnel (9.75 feet in diameter) burrows under Rocky’s varied terrain for 13.1 miles. The largest transmountain water project in Colorado, the Colorado–Big Thompson Project funnels water from the western slope of the Colorado River drainage through the tunnel (and then via the Rams Horn and Prospect Mountain tunnels and other infrastructure) to the water-starved Front Range.
About 80 percent of visitors enter through the east side of the park. That means 2.4 million folks pour in through Estes Park, leaving only 600,000 who’ve figured out that going through the back door has serious upsides. The Grand Lake entrance gives Colorado residents, who’ve likely already seen the striking Bear Lake area, a fabulous way to access the park’s less frequented—but still beautiful—sights.
Green Mountain Trail to Granite Falls
This easy-to-moderate 5.2-mile (one way) trail offers hikers a gorgeous cross-section of the terrain on Rocky’s west side. Moderate grades characterize the first section of the route before the tree-shaded path levels out. After about 1.8 miles, the trail reaches the edge of Big Meadows, a massive expanse of rolling land with scrub brush, ponds, and a creek where elk and moose often roam. Hikers will follow signs to the left, where a path travels 1.2 miles around Big Meadows, past a dilapidated log cabin, and into a lodgepole forest. Footbridges cross Tonahutu Creek in a few places before trailblazers reach Granite Falls, a terraced cascade that tumbles 20 feet and then funnels into a series of chutes.
Timber Lake Trail
This lake-bound path, the trailhead for which is on the east side of U.S. Highway 34 as you ascend out of the Kawuneeche Valley, has scenic views, stunning wildflower meadows, and a lovely pine-tree-surrounded lake. It’s a great place to spend an afternoon picnicking and checking out local wildlife—if you don’t mind a 4.8-mile (one way) journey that gains 2,100 feet in elevation.
Holzwarth Historic Site
Sometimes referred to as the Never Summer Ranch, the Holzwarth Historic Site is the remnants of a homestead and guest ranch operated by John Holzwarth Sr., an immigrant who took up residence in the Kawuneeche Valley in 1917. (Holzwarth also ran a dude ranch known as the Never Summer Ranch, but those structures have been removed.) Today, visitors looking for an easy but historical hike can stroll along the 0.65-mile (one way) trail to see views of the valley, the Colorado River, and many of the original buildings, including guest cabins for what was once the Holzwarth Trout Lodge (which reportedly offered horseback riding, hunting, and fishing for $2 a day or $11 per week).
Not unlike many ghost towns in Colorado, Lulu City sprung up when silver was found—in 1879—and died just six years later when it became obvious the ore was of low quality. Although the town—named after one of the town builder’s daughters—once had as many as 200 residents, 40 structures, and myriad businesses, there isn’t much left to see today. A pile of logs that was once a cabin, barely visible foundations, tailings from the mine: They’re all visible if you look hard, but Lulu is quickly fading into the earth. Still, the 3.7-mile hike (one way) is worth it for the wildflowers, the sounds of the babbling Colorado River, and the feeling of wonder you’ll get when you realize people actually lived in this wilderness that long ago.
Let a Rocky ranger lay some knowledge on you.
The wind is whipping, and although the sun is out, it’s chilly on the Ute Trail. At the front of the group, clad in green and gray, the park ranger has noticed that her hikers are shivering. “If you lie on the ground,” she says, “you’ll be warmer—about 20 degrees warmer.” Looking at one another first, the group of about 20 then drops down and lies among the scrub brush. After just a minute or two, it becomes obvious the ranger is right. It is warmer.
While they huddle on the earth, the ranger explains this temperature difference is what allows the dwarf shrubs—close-to-the-ground plants and grasses—to survive the rugged alpine tundra biome. “Like you, most trees and bushes don’t like the windy, cold conditions of a high-altitude climate; these little guys are hardy enough to take it.”
It’s a tiny tidbit of information, but it’s one most people don’t get unless they sign up for one of Rocky’s free summer ranger programs. “It’s funny how many people tell me they’ve visited the park for years,” says public information officer Kyle Patterson, “but never tried one of the ranger programs. Then they try one, and they can’t believe what they’ve been missing.”
Leaving from both sides of the park almost every day of the summer, these programs—some as short as 30 minutes that take place at a visitor center, some as long as four hours that unfold on a trail—cover a wide range of topics from high-country geology and tracking wildlife to lightning and wildflowers. The park even has night sky programs that help visitors explore the magic of the heavens without the light pollution typical in cities like Denver.
Visitors to the park interested in a free ranger-led program can call 970-586-1206 for more information. The schedule can be found by clicking the “Plan Your Visit” tab at nps.gov/romo.
The Awesome Power Of Nature
Earning a Junior Ranger badge galvanized my kids’ love and respect for wild places.
“it’s an ice cream tree,” my six-year-old daughter Ella shouts, racing up the Sandbeach Lake Trail just inside the Wild Basin entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park. In our family, that’s code for a ponderosa pine, the warm sap of which smells uncannily like a sundae bar. After a curious sniff, she pronounces it strawberry, with a hint of butterscotch. Our hike began only minutes earlier, and we’ve already racked up several discoveries: Ella has laid claim to the ice cream tree as well as several varieties of wildflowers; a spider, a pine cone, and loads of rocks were spotted by Georgia, our two-year-old.
When Ella pulls a pen from her CamelBak to dutifully write down her and her sister’s findings, my husband and I exchange a pleased glance. We set aside this day for hiking and exploring so the girls can partake in Rocky’s Junior Ranger program. Since 1993, the national park system has offered children free, activity-jammed booklets to stoke their curiosities of the natural world. A completed pamphlet garners a meeting with an official park ranger—something the girls are intrigued by. Even before that, it’s clear the day is a big success.
Ella checks the boxes for the flowers she spotted (crimson narrowleaf paintbrush and violet mountain harebell) then informs us it’s not OK to feed squirrels that beg for food. With that, the girls close their booklets and take off up the trail, the dirt dulling the sound of their typically thunderous footsteps.
When we stop for water, they scramble onto a flat rock and talk about how they can hear the wind, the grasshoppers, and the rustle of aspen leaves. Farther up the trail, my six-year-old asks for time to write and sketch. Even after a picnic and more hiking, the girls are still so engrossed in their surroundings I’m reluctant to tell them it’s
time to head home.
Fortunately, one last adventure awaits us: meeting with a park ranger at one of Rocky’s five visitor centers. After paging through the filled-out booklets and talking with the girls about their observations—which animals they spotted, what they liked about being outdoors, what their favorite activity in the book was—the earnest ranger asks them if they can do their part in taking care of Rocky Mountain National Park and other natural spaces. Wide-eyed, the girls nod an emphatic yes and recite the Junior Ranger Pledge, after which the ranger pins a shiny gold badge onto each of their shirts. The girls beam—and so do I. —Amanda M. Faison
What You Need To Know…
…The age-specific (five and under, six to eight, and nine and up) booklets are free.
…You can pick up the leaflets at any of the park’s visitor centers. In a pinch, you can also access them from the website (nps.gov/romo), but the bound copies are more colorful.
…Complete the activities, then meet with a ranger (no appointment necessary) at a visitor center. After discussing his or her findings and observations, your child will recite the Junior Ranger Pledge and earn a badge.
…Last year, the national park system awarded approximately 11,700 badges.
Choose Your Own (Backcountry) Adventure
Inside the park, there are 267 designated backcountry sites available for camping (with a $20 permit during high season). With that many options to choose from, we asked Backcountry Office manager Barry Sweet, who has been with Rocky for 27 years, to help us navigate the decision-making process.
Although there are more than 260 backcountry campsites, they are incredibly popular during the warmer months. (In fact, 10 percent of them were already booked by the end of March.) Reservations by phone, mail, or in person for the summer season open on March 1 and stay open through May 15. From May 16 through the end of September, reservations for backcountry sites are only available by mail (include name, address, phone number, requested itinerary/campsites, and number of people in party) or in person. Rocky Mountain National Park, Backcountry Office, 1000 W. Highway 36, Estes Park, CO 80517; 970-586-1242
Barry Sweet’s Other Favorite Backcountry Sites
Box Canyon • Cascade Falls • Glacier Gorge • Goblins Forest • Granite Falls • Happily Lost • Lost Falls • Lost Lake • Lost Meadow • Lower Granite Falls • Mirror Lake • Paintbrush • Stormy Peaks • Thunder Lake • Timber Creek
For a classic national park camping experience, Rocky has five campgrounds to choose from—but, given the option, we’d pick one of these three. Demand for the $20-per-night spots exceeds supply in the summer, so campers should make reservations (970-586-1206; recreation.gov).
Moraine Park Campground
For tent dwellers: Tent-only sites and tent-only walk-in sites (you’ll park and walk a short distance to your spot) on Loop D are near flush toilets, potable water, and a shuttle stop but are far away from most of the RVs. Bonus: No generators are allowed on this loop, making it less noisy.
For RVs and campers: The outer part of Loop C offers nice hillside sites for larger rigs, although be forewarned that this is dry camping.
For gamblers: If you didn’t make a reservation, Loop B is always first-come, first-serve—but we recommend getting there super-early in the day.
For tent dwellers: All of Loop A is designated for tent campers; however, we’d opt for one of the five walk-in sites that are adjacent to the old channel of the Fall River.
For RVs and campers: Loop C allows generators and has two sets of flush toilets; sites 34 through 41 offer the most solitude.
For gamblers: There are no first-come, first-serve sites here.
Longs Peak Campground
For tent dwellers: This tents-only campground is first-come, first-serve. Sites 21, 22, and 24 are the most secluded—although they are still within a short walk of flush toilets and water.
5280.com Exclusive: Glacier Basin and Timber Creek Campgrounds
Glacier Basin Campground
For tent dwellers: Although there are tons of tent-only sites on Loop C, pine-beetle kill forced the park to remove most of the trees in that area (read: zero shade). Instead, book one of the tent-only sites on Loop A or B; on Loop B, sites 47, 49, 51, and 53 are particularly scenic.
For RVs and campers: There are no hookups here and the sites are a little tight, but if you can find an appropriately sized space on Loop A or B, do it.
Timber Creek Campground
For tent dwellers: This campground has been hit hard by beetle blight, which means there’s very little shade. On the upside, Timber Creek is first-come, first-serve and allows tents on every one of its 98 sites. For a quieter spot, choose one far away from U.S. Highway 34.
For RVs and campers: Every first-come, first-serve site is open to a camper, but Timber Creek cannot accommodate rigs bigger than 30 feet in length; get there early in the day for the best selection. Sites 46, 47, 49, 51, 52, 70, 71, 72, 73, 74, 76, 78, and 79 are closest to the Colorado River; bring your fly rod.
It’s A Long Story
Chronicling our obsession with the Front Range’s dominant fourteener.
At dawn on longs peak, the sun’s rays illuminate the talus in the Boulder Field, the granite on the East Face, and the jagged Keyhole formation through which sleepy hikers are already trickling. To a certain degree, the landscape of 14,255-foot Longs Peak looks much the same as any one of Colorado’s other 53 fourteeners. It isn’t the tallest, the most difficult, or the most scenic. Yet Longs receives about 15,000 summit attempts annually and is arguably the state’s most famous peak.
Longs’ popularity is due in part to its location. Looming over Estes Park, Longs is the tallest point in Rocky and is visible from northern Denver. Tucked into the front of the Front Range, it’s an iconic peak for those living east of the Divide and an accessible destination for out-of-state hikers flying into DIA.
Location, however, only goes so far; it’s Longs’ intriguing history and hazardous reputation that really draw the hordes. Since 1884, 60-some people have died—from hypothermia, disastrous falls, even an accidental gunshot wound—on the mountain. Although Longs doesn’t land in the “most difficult” category on 14ers.com, it isn’t what anyone would call an innocuous peak. Mt. Everest climbing pioneer and Estes Park resident Dr. Thomas Hornbein, who first fell in love with mountaineering on Longs, says the uncertainty is part of the attraction. “Part of it is the challenge,” Hornbein says. “You ask yourself, ‘Can I do it?’?”
Thousands have asked themselves that question since the mid-1800s. The first ascent of Longs (named after Major Stephen H. Long, who, incidentally, never set foot on it) is credited to John Wesley Powell, who climbed it in 1868 with Rocky Mountain News founder William Byers. But that first summit is, ironically, disputed by a letter published in the Rocky in 1865 by J.W. Goss, which recounts what sounds like a successful route up the North Face. Of course, well before that, it’s likely the Ute and Arapaho in the area were the first to reach the top.
If who was first to summit Longs isn’t clear, the fact thrill seekers still see it as a challenge is. In the ’70s, Mike Sullivan, a cross-country runner, sped up Longs in an hour and 18 minutes. In ’99, blind climber Erik Weihenmayer summited by scaling the Diamond. And in ’03, Paul Pomeroy ran from Boulder to the summit and back in about 29 hours.
When asked why they want to climb a peak, many mountaineers quote famed climber George Mallory: “Because it’s there.” In the case of Longs, there is plenty of there there. With roughly 100 routes, people like Hornbein, who has summited it many times, can always find something new about the hill. Jim Disney, a two-time artist-in-residence and former unofficial guide at Rocky, has climbed Longs 93 times and says it’s different every time. The mountain looks vastly changed depending on the vantage point, he says—from Trail Ridge Road the summit looks flat; from Loveland it looks pointy; and from Wild Basin, the legendary peak is almost unrecognizable. “That’s the beauty of Longs; it has a complex personality,” says Disney, who best defines its primary character trait as “steep.” —Teresa Klassen
Lead The way
Colorado Mountain School, which is one of the few outfitters allowed to guide inside the park, offers nontechnical one-day routes as well as technical one-day routes for individuals or groups looking for a guided ascent of Longs Peak. coloradomountainschool.com
Although Rocky plays host to bighorn sheep, coyotes, marmots, moose, birds, bears, and mountain lions, the unofficial park mascot is certainly the elk. That may be because these massive herd animals migrate to lower elevations during their fall mating season (or “rut”)—and put on a spectacular nature show.
We break down the numbers behind this beautiful beast.
Wildlife Viewing Area: Elk
From early September through October each year, elk can be spotted from your car in open meadows in Moraine Park, Horseshoe Park, and Upper Beaver Meadows on the east side of the park and in Harbison Meadows and farther north along the Kawuneeche Valley on the west side of Rocky. Quick tip: September weekends are among the busiest times in the park. We suggest visiting in the late afternoon—around 3:30 or 4 p.m.—on a weekday for the best viewing and the opportunity to hear the elk bugling at dusk.
Desperately Seeking Aspen
The elk rut takes the spotlight during autumn in Rocky, but Mother Nature has always been a good multitasker. Even if you head to the park specifically to see the elk in action, give yourself enough time to take a drive—or even better, a hike—to view the fall foliage.
0.5-mile loop hike
This supershort, flat trail that winds its way around the lake named after one of the area’s earliest settlers gives leaf peepers panoramic views of the aspens that grace the Continental Divide, including the slopes of Half Mountain,
Thatchtop Mountain, Taylor Peak, Otis Peak, Hallett Peak, and Notchtop Mountain.
Start in Grand Lake and drive north along U.S. Highway 34 (aka Trail Ridge Road). The stretch of road—which lies inside the park but has views of adjacent Arapaho National Forest and the Never Summer Mountains—may be one of the more lovely fall drives you’ll ever take. You can turn around when you reach the Timber Lake trailhead or, if you’re so inclined, continue eastward on Trail Ridge Road to Rainbow Curve, which overlooks aspen-studded Hidden Valley.
Twin Sisters Peaks
On the far eastern side of the park lie the Twin Sisters Peaks, a pair of 11,400-foot mountains that create a peninsula jutting out from the park. The first mile or two of this one-way route passes underneath thick stands of quaking, golden aspens. You don’t have to go all the way to the summits, but if you do, you’ll be treated to views of Longs Peak and Estes Cone.
5280.com Exclusive: Winter in the Park
Although the majority of visitors descend upon Rocky in the summer and fall, the snowy months are a compelling—and much less crowded—time to witness the (frosted) beauty of the park.
Beginning at Many Parks Curve, the point at which Trail Ridge Road shuts down in the winter, you can venture past the closure gate on cross-country skis or snowshoes. By mid-winter, the snowpack settling on top of the pavement measures in feet and affords hearty adventurers panoramic, shimmery-white views of the park from the road’s lofty heights. | During the summer months, the meadow surrounding the Glacier Basin Campground is off-limits to hikers—a rule that allows the wild grasses and flowers to flourish without being trampled. In the winter, though, snowshoers can trudge along the open expanses, taking in the blown-open views and enjoying a relatively flat journey. | The Hidden Valley area once hosted a ski hill, which means the remnants of former ski runs make for great sledding. In fact, this sunken area of the park—which has a warming hut and is a great jumping-off point for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing trails—is the only place sledding is permitted. | Because it’s located on the less-frequented west side of the park, snowshoeing on the Colorado River Trail from December through March means there’s very little chance you’ll see another soul. What you will see—snow-dusted pines and the icy Colorado River—will more than suffice as good company.
3 Great Places To…
The spot: Hidden Valley
Where it’s located: Toward the eastern end of Trail Ridge Road
Who it’s for: Families schlepping coolers and toddlers
Why: Plenty of tables near the parking area, flush toilets, and a picturesque stream make this an ideal spot to pull off and chow down with the kids.
The spot: Lake Irene
Where it’s located: On an easy one-mile loop on the west end of Trail Ridge Road
Who it’s for: Day-trippers who haven’t planned ahead
Why: Parking is limited (but so are the crowds) at the trailhead for tiny Lake Irene. Eat at the picnic area by the lot—it’s the closest one to the Alpine Visitor Center, where you can snag made-to-order sandwiches from the Café at Trail Ridge—or enjoy a lakeside lunch after a brief, easy hike.
The spot: Summerland Park
Where it’s located: Just over a mile from the North Inlet trailhead
Who it’s for: Couples or mature families who don’t need a table
Why: This easy stroll along a private road is just enough to make you feel like you earned your bread and cheese. Throw down a checkered blanket in Summerland Park’s open meadows/backcountry camping site, pop a bottle of something cold, and smell the wildflowers. (Note: Glass and alcohol are allowed in the park; being intoxicated is not.)
The ride: Eugenia Mine, two hours, $50
The outfitter: Aspen Lodge Resort & Spa (eight miles south of Estes Park); aspenlodge.net
Who it’s for: Non-equestrian couples or families looking to play cowboy in comfort
Why it’s a must-try: Livery manager “Ricky the Wrangler” puts new riders, including youngsters, at ease, and the historic Eugenia Mine site will take you straight back to the Old West. Breaking in new riding boots? Be sure to book an outdoor evening foot massage, with wine and cheese pairings, at Aspen Lodge’s on-site spa.
The ride: Bierstadt Lake, five hours, $87
The outfitter: Jackson Stables at the Estes Park Center, YMCA of the Rockies (just east of Rocky); jacksonstables.com
Who it’s for: Groups of friends or families with teenage children
Why it’s a must-try: This half-day ride ups the ante with some trotting, multiple scenery changes, and impressive views of Longs Peak. At just $87 per person, it’s also a great value.
The ride: The Continental Divide Ride, 10 hours, $250
The outfitter: Glacier Creek Stables (on Bear Lake Road inside Rocky); sombrero.com/custompages/glaciercreek.asp
Who it’s for: Outdoor enthusiasts who’ve done shorter rides and are ready for a real challenge
Why it’s a must-try: Offered only on select dates in August, this 26-mile high-country ride is a true adventure. You’ll traverse the Continental Divide on the same trails Native Americans, explorers, and prospectors used hundreds of years ago and experience a wide variety of terrain and scenery—as well as the elements—on an unforgettable daylong journey.
The water: Big Thompson River up to Fern Lake
Access: Enter at the Beaver Meadows Entrance Station and park at one of the designated pullouts or parking areas in Moraine Park. The riffles parallel Fern Lake Road for a couple of fishable miles before the road ends and Fern Lake Trail begins. Fish your way upriver and then take the trail—about 3.85 miles—to Fern Lake, where you can find good stock of native greenback cutthroats.
The park ranger says: “This is easy fishing—not a lot of vegetation to get caught up in—and really, you don’t even need waders.”
Regulations: Big Thompson is catch and keep (except for greenbacks, which must be released); Fern Lake is catch and release
The water: Thunder Lake
Access: Enter at the Wild Basin Entrance Station and make your way to the Wild Basin trailhead. Follow signs to Thunder Lake. The moderate but lengthy 6.6-mile (one way) trail means you might want to try to secure a backcountry camping permit and make it a weekend fishing trip.
The park ranger says: “Resting just below the Divide and Tanima Peak, the Thunder Lake area is really beautiful—and the fish are definitely bigger and more fun to catch.”
Regulations: Thunder Lake is catch and keep (except for greenbacks, which must be released)
The water: North St. Vrain Creek
Access: Enter at the Wild Basin Entrance Station and make your way to the Wild Basin trailhead. What locals call the St. Vrain River runs along the trails and spur trails that spread out like fingers in this area. This is small-water fishing, so bring a three- or four-weight rod.
The park ranger says: “This section of stream can get really blown out by snowmelt in the late spring and early summer; make plans to visit the St. Vrain after the Fourth of July for the best fishing.”
Regulations: North St. Vrain Creek is catch and keep
*A valid Colorado fishing license is required to fish in the park.
5280.com Exclusive: 3 Great Places To…
The route: North Ridge of Spearhead (5.6)
Where it’s located: Six miles from the Glacier Gorge trailhead. You’ll transition to a cairned climbers’ trail for the final mile once you pass Black Lake.
Who it’s for: Experienced climbers looking for a gentle introduction to Rocky’s gorgeous granite.
Why it’s a must-try: Because you’ll be touching the soul of the earth—at least according to Rocky Mountain National Park Classic Hikes & Climbs author Gerry Roach. While more skilled climbers might find the initial part of this classic nine-pitch route a little underwhelming, the final pitches of beautiful movement through a series of cracks, corners, and dihedrals more than make up for it. Do not skip the short scramble to the summit once you’re at the top. The swoon-worthy view of Black Lake and the backside of Longs Peak will tide you over on the somewhat uncomfortable descent through talus and scree fields.
The route: Casual Route, Longs Peak (5.10a)
Where it’s located: Smack-dab in the middle of “the Diamond,” the massive, unmistakable east face of Longs Peak.
Who it’s for: Fast, adept list-tickers looking to bag the ultimate Rocky classic—and another fourteener.
Why it’s a must-try: There’s nothing casual about this route, which begins with a five-mile haul from the Longs Peak trailhead. The seven pitches of super-exposed climbing require confidence and calm—especially if high-alpine weather sets in, which it sometimes does, even in summer. The small weather window can make this a sometimes-crowded route in the late summer months, but the challenging moves (and simply spectacular views) on the fifth and sixth pitches make it a prize worth claiming.
The area: Da Kine at Emerald Lake
Where it’s located: About 1.75 miles from the Bear Lake parking area and trailhead.
Who it’s for: Intermediate and advanced climbers who are looking to do some bouldering (close-to-the-ground, ropeless climbing).
Why it’s a must-try: Chaos Canyon might have more problems—but it’s also got more ways to hurt you (read: scary landings). Instead, opt for this collection of mid-grade problems (mostly V4 to V7) a few hundred yards down from Emerald Lake, which have fairly friendly landings and fun movement. The pretty glimpse you’ll get of Hallett Peak isn’t a bad bonus either.
If You Go
Rocky is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. If you’re planning a visit, the below information will be helpful.
Automobile: $20 and valid for seven consecutive days, including date of purchase
Pedestrians, bicycles, motorcycles,and mopeds: $10 per person (not to exceed $20 per vehicle) and valid for seven consecutive days, including date of purchase
Annual pass fee
$40 provides unlimited entry to Rocky Mountain National Park for one year from the date of purchase
Rocky Mountain National Park Call Center
From 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily, prospective visitors can call 970-586-1206 and speak with an actual person about the park. Personnel answering the phones can help with general questions about weather conditions, hiking trails, and campgrounds and can also connect callers to different offices within Rocky if necessary.
Visit reserveamerica.com or recreation.gov, or call 1-877-444-6777.
There is a backcountry office located next to the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center and one adjacent to the Kawuneeche Visitor Center. Call 970-586-1242 to inquire about permits, specific sites, and camping requirements.
estes park Visitor’s Guide
Where to Stay
The Stanley Hotel, 333 E. Wonderview Ave., Estes Park, 970-577-4000, stanleyhotel.com
Aspen Winds on Fall River, 1051 Fall River Court, Estes Park, 970-586-6010, aspenwinds.com
YMCA of the Rockies, 2515 Tunnel Road, Estes Park, 1-888-613-9622, ymcarockies.org
Murphy’s River Lodge, 481 W. Elkhorn Ave., Estes Park, 970-480-5081, murphysriverlodge.com
Where to Eat & Drink
Smokin’ Dave’s BBQ & Taphouse, 820 Moraine Ave., Estes Park, 970-577-7427, smokindavesq.com
Coffee on the Rocks, 510 Moraine Ave., Estes Park, 970-586-5181, coffeeontherocksestes.com
Rock Inn Mountain Tavern, 1675 Highway 66, Estes Park, 970-586-4116, rockinnestes.com
Nepal’s Cafe, 184 W. Elkhorn Ave., Estes Park, 970-577-7035
The Parking Problem
There’s no getting around the fact that parking spots are scarce in Rocky, particularly on the east side. Whether you’re trying to climb Longs Peak, take a stroll around Bear Lake, or fish for a few hours in the Wild Basin, you’re going to run into issues with finding a spot to leave your vehicle. The best advice? Get to the park crazy-early (like before dawn), go during off-hours (hit the park late in the afternoon), or, in the Bear Lake corridor, use the shuttle system and satellite lots. Visit nps.gov/romo/planyourvisit and click on “Things To Know Before You Come” to learn about the park’s shuttle bus routes.
Free For All
In 2014, Rocky Mountain National Park will waive its entrance fee on these days:
—Photo Credits: Rocky Mountain National Park, Randall Bellows III, Ric Cederholm, Robert Dent, Amanda M. Faison, Carl Johnson, Ethan Welty/Aurora Photos