Rising high in the Front Range of the Rockies is an alpine paradise called Rocky Mountain National Park. It has five glaciers and more than 100 mountain peaks reaching over 11,000 ft., with Longs Peak towering above them all at 14,249 ft. Located in north central Colorado, the park has 355 miles of trails winding through forests of ponderosa and lodgepole pines, past waterfalls and high alpine lakes, and across meadows colored with wildflowers in season. The park is also home to wildlife such as moose, elk, mountain lions, bighorn sheep and black bears.
The Continental Divide runs the length of Rocky, from north to south, and splits the park’s 415 square miles into somewhat different climates, with more moisture giving the western side lusher forests. The park also contains three distinct ecosystems. From 5,600–9,500 ft., the meadows, rivers and ponderosa pine forests of the Montane have the richest diversity of plant and animal life in the park. Between 9,000–11,000 ft., the Subalpine level has crystal clear lakes and forests of Engelmann spruce, subalpine fir and lodgepole pine. Beyond treeline is the Alpine Tundra (above 11,000 ft.). It’s a harsh climate where strong, frequent winds and cold temperatures limit wildlife to the hardiest animals, including ptarmigan and elk, and plants like the deep-blue alpine forget-me-not.
If you plan on visiting Rocky, check our suggestions for getting the most out of your trip. The National Park Service is also a good resource for information on camping, day hiking, backpacking, rock climbing, biking and wildflower viewing in the park
Camping in Rocky Mountain National Park
Rocky has a total of five National Park Service (NPS) campgrounds. All are on a first-come, first-served basis. Aspenglen, Glacier Basin and Moraine Park have sites that can be reserved up to six months in advance. Call 877-444-6777, or visit www.reserveamerica.com or www.recreation.gov. All sites at Longs Peak and group sites at Glacier Basin are tent only.
In recent years, an outbreak of native pine beetles has caused the park service to remove dead trees in or around some campgrounds. Timber Creek and Glacier Basin have been especially hard hit, and both look very different than in the past.
All campgrounds are above 8,000 ft. (Longs Peak is the highest at 9,405 ft.) and are open late May–late September. Moraine Park is the only campground that’s open year-round. The camping fee is $26/night per site. Rocky campgrounds are in bear country, so the park service has placed food storage lockers at each campsite.
Here are a few of our favorite campgrounds in the park:
Morain Park Campground (244 summer sites, 77 winter sites; reservable in summer): Just a six-mile drive from Estes Park, Moraine Park is busy in summer. The good news: it’s set in a ponderosa pine forest above the meadows of Moraine Park and has many tent-only sites. Some are walk-in, so you can get some privacy. Views are gorgeous, and elk, coyotes and mule deer often wander through the meadow. There are lots of trails nearby, and a free shuttle bus to other trailheads.
Aspenglen Campground (52 sites; reservable): Situated in a pine forest and walking distance to Fall River Visitor Center, Aspenglen is one of the quieter campgrounds in Rocky. It has well-spaced sites, some with amazing mountain views, and five walk-in sites that give you a little piece of alpine heaven. Sites here go fast, so reserve early.
Longs Peak Campground (26 sites; tents only; non-reservable): The tent-only Longs Peak Campground is located in a lodgepole pine forest at 9,405 ft. Because of the elevation, expect it to be cooler, especially at night. Nearby is the trailhead to Longs Peak, so many people camping here are hikers who get up at 3am to climb the mountain. In summer, arrive early to bag a site.
Backpacking and Hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park
The park service has a Hiking page that provides a lot of useful information when planning a hike, including the latest Trail Conditions. Whether hiking or backpacking, you can use the free shuttle busses that run along the Bear Lake Road corridor and stop at a number of trailheads. A few more things to keep in mind:
Altitude: Most trails in Rocky begin above 8,000 ft. and climb much higher. To acclimate, spend at least one night at 7,000–8,000 feet before hiking. At higher elevations, ultraviolet light is stronger, so it’s even more important to use sunscreen, and wear a hat and sunglasses.
Dehydration can worsen the symptoms of altitude sickness, so it's important to drink lots of water. To make matters worse, dehydration can sneak up on you at altitude because sweat evaporates quickly in the thin, dry air, so you may not realize how much water you're losing. Also, you tend to breathe in and out faster and harder at altitude, causing you to lose water through respiration.
Lightning: On any trail in the park, you can encounter lightning, especially late in summer and above treeline. For high altitude hiking, plan on reaching the highest part and be heading down by noon. If you ever hear thunder, go quickly below treeline.
Backcountry Camping: Rocky offers some of the best wilderness camping in the country, with more than 250 backcountry campsites. In planning a trip, check the Backcountry Wilderness Camping Guide. To decide where you want to camp, download the Designated Campsites map. Also, check the Backcountry Site Details page, which has info specific to each site.
May 1–October 31 you need to use a bear-resistant container to secure food and garbage. Also, fires are prohibited in the backcountry except in wood fire sites with visible metal fire rings (using dead and downed wood only).
Backcountry Camping Permits: They’re required for all overnight travel in the backcountry. There’s a $26 fee for each trip reservation (not per night or per person) May 1–October 31. Reservation rules differ based on camping dates. Check the Backcountry Wilderness Camping page for specifics.
Bear Lake Nature Trail Day Hike (easy; 0.5-mile loop): This family-friendly, accessible hike circles Bear Lake on a self-guided nature trail. It’s less than a mile long but gives you amazing panoramic views of mountain peaks, including Longs Peak and Hallett Peak, as well as Glacier Gorge. If you’re planning to hike into the backcountry from Bear Lake and haven’t been at altitude for a while, the nature trail is a good chance to become acclimated because it sits at 9,450 ft. The trail is popular, especially in summer when the parking lot at the trailhead is often full. Consider leaving your vehicle behind and taking a free shuttle bus to the trailhead.
Emerald Lake Day Hike (easy–moderate; 3 miles round-trip): Beginning at the Bear Lake trailhead, this hike takes you past Nymph Lake and Dream Lake and finally Emerald Lake. Along the way, you get great views of Longs Peak and Keyboard of the Winds, a serrated ridge of peaks where wind is channeled around jagged spires to create unearthly sounds. Nymph Lake gets its name from the bright pond lilies and abundant wildlife that create a mythical feel to the scene. The trail then takes you though patches of aspen trees and climbs steeply to Dream Lake, a picturesque alpine lake. Climb another 400 ft. to Emerald Lake, where you get a breathtaking view of surrounding peaks, including Flattop Mountain.
Sky Pond Day Hike or Backpack (moderate–strenuous; 9 miles round-trip): Begin at the Glacier Gorge trailhead in the Bear Lake area. About a quarter mile in, the trail crosses Chaos Creek before joining the Glacier Creek trail. At the junction, go left and continue to the intersection with the Loch Vale Trail.
Go straight on the Loch Vale Trail, and in three quarters of a mile you reach the lake at 10,190 ft. Loch Vale translates as “lake valley.” It’s a classically beautiful lake with Taylor Peak, Thatchtop Mountain and The Sharkstooth as backdrops. Extending into the water are outcroppings of rock that make a picturesque place to have lunch. Continuing beyond the lake, a side trail takes you to Andrews Glacier. On the way, you’ll pass a backcountry campsite called Andrews Creek. This makes a good spot for an overnighter.
The glacier itself is small, but still impressive and the most accessible glacier of the park’s five. Avoid the temptation to climb onto the glacier because it’s easy to get seriously injured by sliding onto the rocks below. Back at the junction, continue on what is now the Sky Pond Trail. You’ll pass Timberline Falls, where some tough steep scrambling might cause people with a fear of heights to make this the turn-around point for the hike. At 4.1 miles, you reach Glass Lake, then Sky Pond at 4.5 miles. It’s at 10,900 ft., about 1,800 ft. above the trailhead. Both are spectacular alpine lakes with wonderful views of the surrounding mountains.
Odessa Lake Day Hike or Backpack (moderate; 8.3 miles round-trip from Bear Lake, 8.4 miles one-way Fern Lake Trailhead to Bear Lake): Odessa Lake can be reached from Bear Lake or the Fern Lake trailhead. As a one-way trip (for either a day hike or backpacking trip), begin at the Fern Lake trailhead. You can use the park’s free shuttle service, which drops you off nearby at the Livery. The 0.8-mile walk from the Livery to the Fern Lake trailhead is the least interesting section. You can put that behind you and leave the approach to Bear Lake as the more interesting finish.
As a round trip, the Bear Lake route is slightly shorter, has less elevation gain and is arguably more scenic. Start at Bear Lake and go right onto the nature trail. After a short distance turn right onto the trail to Odessa Lake. The route climbs gradually through a grove of aspen trees. Coming into view will be Keyboard of the Winds, Pagoda Peak, Longs Peak and others. After passing a junction with the Flattop Mountain Trail, the route continues through stands of pine trees and fields speckled with wildflowers in season.
After passing the Sourdough backcountry campsites, you’ll see spur trails to your left. These go to Two Rivers Lake and Lake Helene, both interesting side trips. Eventually the trail descends into Odessa Gorge, where views of Little Matterhorn, The Gable and other peaks become really breathtaking. The trail descends farther to Lake Odessa. If you’re doing this as a backpacking trip, there are different camping areas to choose from, including Sourdough, Odessa Lake, Fern Lake and Spruce Lake. For more information, download the Designated Campsites map and check the Backcountry Site Details page. Permits on this route go fast, so apply early.
Bear Lake to Grand Lake Day Hike or Backpack (strenuous; 17.5 miles one-way): This is a glorious one-way hike that begins at Bear Lake on the east side and takes you over the Continental Divide. It requires a shuttle from the finish at Grand Lake on the west side. Total elevation gain is 2,875 ft.; total elevation drop is 3,825 ft. This could also be done as a one-way day hike if you’re up for that kind of workout.
Begin on the same trail as the Odessa Lake hike (above) and turn left at the junction with the Flattop Mountain trail. It’s popular in summer because it’s a relatively easy route to the divide. As the trail climbs for 3.5 miles, you get nice views of Longs Peak, Glacier Gorge, Emerald Lake and more. Above treeline, the trail crosses rock-strewn tundra. More views open up as you gain elevation to the summit of Flattop Mountain (12,362 ft.), although it’s hard to tell when you’ve reached the top because it’s mostly flat terrain. Hence, the name “Flattop.”
On the west side of the summit, go left at the junction onto the North Inlet Trail. It descends 4.5 miles to an area with several good campsites, including North Inlet Falls and Pine Marten. If you stay two or three nights, you can make side trips to Lake Nokoni and Lake Nanita. Word has it they’re among the best cutthroat trout lakes you’ll find anywhere. To learn more about fishing in Rocky, visit the park’s Fishing page and Colorado’s Parks & Wildlife site.
The rest of the trail to the North Inlet trailhead at Grand Lake is mostly on a gradual descent with beautiful views all the way.
Thunder Lake Day Hike or Backpack (moderate–strenuous; 11.5 miles round-trip): Another trail that can be done as either a day hike or backpacking trip, this begins at the Thunder Lake trailhead. To reach it, you drive south on Rt. 7 for 12.5 miles, then turn right onto the Wild Basin Road. This is a remote section of the park that gives you a more quiet experience on the trail. Total elevation gain is 2,275 ft. A short way into the hike, you pass side trails to two sets of falls, Lower and Upper Copeland Falls. You then enter a beautiful subalpine forest and pass the Pine Ridge backcountry campsite. A spur trail leads you to five more campsites. If you’re looking for a short backpacking trip (3 miles round-trip) into a pristine area of the park, these sites offer you just that.
As you continue climbing, you cross footbridges and pass more falls, where snowmelt sends vast amounts of water down from the mountains in spring. At 5.5 miles, you reach the highest point of the hike (10,675 ft.). The trail descends through a meadow to the lake itself. It’s a magnificent alpine scene, with Mount Alice to the northwest, Boulder-Grand Pass to the west and Tanima Peak to the south. After enjoying the view, check out the old National Park Service patrol cabin on the northeast shore of the lake.
Climbing in Rocky Mountain National Park
Rocky offers a wide spectrum of climbing including rock, big wall, ice and bouldering. Well-known areas include Lumpy Ridge and Longs Peak. Wherever you climb, be aware of all park regulations, including area closures to protect nesting raptors.
Long routes in the park (grade III to V), usually have some sections of loose rock, require a lengthy hike in and demand some knowledge of snow travel. Also, because you’re at 12,000–14,000 ft., you’ll be sucking air a lot. Having said that, climbing in the park is really spectacular.
Good introductory routes include the North Ridge (5.6) of Spearhead, the Northeast Ridge (5.6) on Sharkstooth and the East Gully (5.4) on Sharkstooth. Some challenging routes are the South Face (5.8) of the Petit Grepon, Culp-Bossier (5.8+, runout 5.7) on Hallett. In the 5.9 range, solid choices are Syke’s Sickle (5.9+), the steep Hesse-Ferguson (5.9 R) on Hallett, and the Direct South Ridge (5.9) of Notchtop.
Day trips don’t require any special registration or permit. A bivouac permit is required for multi-day climbs 3.5 or more miles from a trailhead, consisting of four or more technical pitches. The park’s Bivouac Sites page tells you where bivies are permitted.
Cross-country Skiing & Snowshoeing in Rocky Mountain National Park
Rocky is a wonderland for winter activity—snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and even sledding at the former Hidden Valley ski area. The park has free ranger-led programs for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. On the east side of the park beginner snowshoe walks are offered each Saturday, Sunday and Wednesday from January through March, depending on conditions. On the west side, beginner and intermediate snowshoe walks are offered along with a “Ski the Wilderness in Winter.” Check the park’s Winter Recreation page for more information.
Fishing in Rocky Mountain National Park
The park is home to at least four species of trout: brown, brook, rainbow and cutthroat. Only 48 of the 156 lakes in the park have reproducing populations, but Rocky gives you the chance to fish in one of the most beautiful alpine environments anywhere. There are different rules for fishing the park’s various lakes, so be sure to check the park’s Fishing page all the specifics. Also visit Colorado’s Parks & Wildlife site for information on picking up a fishing license.
Cycling in Rocky Mountain National Park
With road elevations in the park ranging from 8,000 ft. to 12,183 ft., Rocky offers road cyclists the chance to test their lung power as they enjoy some spectacular mountain scenery on their rides. All told, there are 60 miles of hard-surfaced road in the park with a five to seven percent grade. The entrance fee is $10.00 for a weekly permit per bicycle.
For more information about cycling in Rocky, visit the park’s Biking page.
Tips for Visiting Rocky Mountain National Park
Getting to Rocky Mountain National Park
The park is situated in north central Colorado, with Trail Ridge Road (route 34) running across the middle of the park. Grand Lake serves as the western gateway, and Estes Park the eastern. Amtrak and Greyhound both service the town of Granby, CO, which is 15 miles southwest of Grand Lake. See the park’s Directions & Transportation page for more information on traveling to Rocky.
Trail Ridge Road is the highest paved road in any national park, cresting at 12,183 feet. It’s closed from approximately mid-October through late-May because of snowpack. If you are traveling to the park in the fall or spring, check the Road Status Report to see if Trail Ridge Road and other park roads are passable.
Park Fees and Passes
Fees for entering the park depend on the type of pass you choose and your vehicle. You can opt for a single-use park pass (for 1 day/7 days: $20/$30 per vehicle; $20/$25 per motorcycle; $10/$15 per cyclist or hiker), an annual park pass or the America the Beautiful Interagency Annual Pass that covers all national parks and federal fee areas. See all fee details at the Fees and Passes page.
The park is open year-round, although snow closes many roads, including the main Trail Ridge Road, from roughly mid-October through late-May. The continental divide runs through the center of Rocky Mountain National Park and creates two somewhat different climates.
In winter, the west side has more snow, less wind and clear cold days. In spring, many trails are still snow-covered while wildflowers begin blooming at lower elevations. In summer, temperatures reach the 70s and 80s during the day, then drop into the 40s at night. At the high country, it can still snow in July.
Guidebooks and Maps
On the park’s Brochures page, you can download maps, trail guides and other useful information. For more detailed versions, the Rocky Mountain Conservancy, a nonprofit organization assisting the National Park Service, has an excellent selection of hiking guides and maps, and books about the Rocky Mountain area, including fun books for kids. You can also find guidebooks and maps at REI.com.
Before hiking or backpacking in Rocky, you should check the park’s Black Bear, Big Horn Sheep and Mountain Lion pages to learn how to respond if you encounter any of those animals. The Safety page also has tips on how to reduce your risk of animal-transmitted diseases, such as hantavirus.
Written by Steve Burke. REI Adventures guide Tim Dice contributed to this article.