Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park near Estes Park
Dream Lake, at 9,900 feet, is a one-mile hike from the Bear Lake Trailhead. | Photo by Wally Gobetz / flickr

By Sue Deans

Rocky Mountain National Park, the “park in the sky,” welcomes 3 million visitors a year and has just about everything — mountains, wildlife, hiking and climbing, camping and fishing, stunning scenery.

Only 65 miles from Denver, it is reachable and accessible all four seasons of the year. And the weather can change so quickly that sometimes visitors can experience all four in just one day.

The park covers 415 square miles at elevations from 8,000 feet in the valleys to 14,259 feet atop Longs Peak.

Rocky Mountain was the 10th national park to be designated in the United States. Enos Mills of Estes Park first proposed the designation in 1909, and it was signed into law in 1915 by President Woodrow Wilson. A year of major celebrations greeted its centennial in 2014-15.

Mills, born in 1870 in Kansas, was a sickly child who was sent to Colorado to improve his health. He built a small cabin, now a museum run by the Mills descendents. His relatives, the Lambs, taught him
about mountain lore. Later he bought their ranch and renamed it the Longs Peak Inn.

Mills took many of his visitors up Longs Peak, making hundreds of trips to the top. Mills is known as the “father of Rocky
Mountain National Park.”

Here are the park’s must-see highlights:

Trail Ridge Road, the highest continuously paved road in the United States, which crosses the Continental Divide and reaches elevations up to 12,000 feet, offering some of the world’s most spectacular views.

The 48-mile highway from the park’s eastern gate near Estes Park to Grand Lake, west of the park, usually opens by Memorial Day and stays open in the fall until conditions dictate otherwise.

Eleven miles of the road are above treeline at 11,500 feet, where visitors can experience alpine tundra. Milner Pass marks the Continental Divide.

Fall River Road, a one-way dirt road, is the original auto road over the mountains. It is open only in the summer and features a narrow roadbed and very tight turns with steep drop-offs and no guardrails. It joins Trail Ridge Road about nine miles up at Fall River Pass.

Bear Lake, a gorgeous alpine lake, is reachable by car or by shuttle when traffic is heavy. A trail around the lake provides a relatively easy hike through the forest with interpretive signs. It is also handicapped accessible. A number of lengthier and more difficult trails are accessible from the area.

Wildlife, from enormous elk and an occasional moose, downward in size through bighorn sheep, mule deer, beaver and marmots, even an occasional bear — the park teems with animals to watch. Many of the critters are more easily seen early in the day, and often at a distance. Bring your binoculars. Birds to watch are also numerous, and the park is a designated Globally Important Bird Area.

Check the National Park Service website for help in planning a trip.

• Longs Peak is one of Colorado’s most popular “fourteeners,” mountains more than 14,000 feet high, in this case 14,259 feet. However, the park warns that it is not for the inexperienced climber. The park’s website offers this advice among its Frequently Asked Questions about Longs Peak:

“This is not a ‘walk in the park.’ This is much more than a hike. This is a climb, a classic mountaineering route that should not be underestimated. The Keyhole Route crosses enormous vertical rock faces, is exposed to falling rock, and requires scrambling on all fours. The route has narrow ledges, loose rock, and steep cliffs. Depending upon conditions, you might encounter snow and ice any time of the year. The terrain requires route finding skills and the ability to assess and adjust to unexpected or changing weather conditions. A slip, trip or fall could be fatal.”

Be careful out there. For more advice check the park’s website.

The park’s visitor centers are:

• Beaver Meadows Visitor Center, three miles west of Estes Park on U.S. 36. Films on the park and a large topographical map, a bookstore, rangers to help plan activities. Handicapped accessible and family restrooms available. Open year-round.

• Kawuneeche Visitor Center, on the west side of the park, one mile north of Grand Lake on U.S. 34. Ranger walks, illustrated programs on Saturday night, a film on the park and a topographical map of the park, Bookstore, campsite reservations, handicapped accessible restrooms. Open year-round but hours vary seasonally; closed Christmas day.

• Fall River Visitor Center, five miles west of Estes Park on U.S. 34. Exhibits on wildlife and special hands-on exhibits for kids. Handicapped accessible and family restrooms. Restaurant and gift shop nearby. Open year-round, but only weekends and certain other days in the winter.

• Moraine Park Visitor Center and Museum , Bear Lake Road, 1.5 miles from the Beaver Meadows Entrance. A historic building that houses a museum, a bookstore and a half-mile nature trail. Closed
October through early spring.

• Alpine Visitor Center at Fall River Pass, Trail Ridge Road and Old Fall River Road, with views of alpine tundra and the Fall River Cirque, a bookstore, gift shop and snack bar. Open only if Trail Ridge Road is open.

For more information on visitor center hours and availability, check the park’s website.

Rocky Mountain National Park
1000 U.S. 36
Estes Park, CO 80517
(970) 586-1206
Trail Ridge Road information: (970) 586-1222