Rocky Mountain National Park: The Must-See Checklist
Here’s our must-see hit list at RMNP to help you plan your trip:
Take the free park shuttle to the trailhead of this extremely popular family hike in RMNP. Tackle the 0.8-mile path counter-clockwise to follow along with the self-guided interpretive tour. Morning is best for missing the crowds, spotting wildlife and capturing glowing a.m. images of Hallett Peak and Longs Peak reflecting off the water.
Wild Basin Area
Drive the Peak to Peak Scenic Highway (Hwy. 7) between Meeker and Allenspark and look for signs to this tucked-away corner of RMNP. You’ll find numerous trailheads to iconic hikes, like Ouzel Falls and Calypso Cascades, and will quickly agree with historic naturalist Enos Mills’ description of the area: “the land of many waters.” For the ultimate wildflower spectacle, hike around Bluebird Lake in July and August.
Alpine Visitor Center
The highest facility of its kind in the National Park Service, this visitor center sits at 11,796 feet and is hidden under snow for most of the year. In May, crews plow and dig it out, opening for the summer season and providing an idyllic lunch-time pit stop or photo op along Trail Ridge Road. Hit the visitor center’s book store, gift shop and snack bar, and don’t miss the ranger-led walks.
This famous twisting ribbon of highway was built in 1931 to unveil “the whole sweep of the Rockies before you in all directions.” Cruise the roadway’s 48 miles from Estes Park to Grand Lake and enjoy breathtaking views, alpine tundra and wildflowers, and watch as green aspen and ponderosa pine fade up and into rugged tundra, topping out above treeline at 12,183 feet. Look for pikas, marmots, ptarmigans and bighorn sheep, and bring extra layers—it’s often 20 degrees cooler up here.
Turn off of Hwy. 36 onto Bear Lake Road to reach this trailhead. Follow the path across Chaos Creek and veer left to head to Alberta Falls. The 1.7-mile hike is rated easy and brings hikers through mixed pine forest and aspen groves, eventually approaching a scenic 30-foot waterfall with rocks to perch on for a picnic and photo shoot. The waterfall is named for an original Estes Park settler, Alberta Sprague. If you’re up for the challenge, extend your hike and trek up to Mills Lake.
This one is best saved for early autumn. One of the national park’s most popular roadside pull-off spots, Moraine Park opens up to an expansive viewing space (also check out Horseshoe Park and Sheep Lakes) and affords the ideal, safe spot to witness large herds of elk, hear them bugle and gather harems of female cows. You may even glimpse bighorn sheep, ptarmigan and coyotes here. If you time it just right, an autumn trifecta comes together with the elk rut, peaking gold aspen trees and crisp Colorado bluebird skies. Aim for mid-September to mid-October for this postcard-perfect landscape.
Dinner, strolling and shopping in Estes Park, the gateway to RMNP, is the icing on a long day of adventuring.
By Lisa Blake