There is no better way to experience Rocky Mountain National Park than wilderness camping. Here you can start your day by waking to the sound of a running stream, the wind gently blowing through the trees, and a deep silence. During the day you can hike into areas that see little foot traffic, enjoy watching wildlife go about their lives, and then later gaze at a million shining stars above your head. This quiet stillness is something that is in short supply in our busy world.
Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the best places in the country for backpacking. There are 260 designated wilderness campsites which are widely dispersed throughout the park. These are all campsites that you need to hike into. None of them are accessible by road. Some of them are located as close as one mile (1.7 km) from the trailhead while others may be as far as 10 miles (16.6 km) from the nearest trailhead. If you prefer to do car camping, then check this page instead.
When backpacking or wilderness camping, is illegal to camp outside of the designated sites. There are just too many visitors to the national park to allow people to camp wherever they would like, as the damage to this delicate wilderness area would be significant.
Reserving A Campsite
Over recent years the demand for wilderness campsite permits in Rocky Mountain National Park has skyrocketed far beyond capacity. More and more people have discovered the wonder of the wilderness and are spending their vacations in our national parks. Fortunately, the national park has limited the number of permits and campsites available so that if you have a permit, you get a true wilderness experience. To get a wilderness camping permit in Rocky you have to be either well organized or lucky. Every year on March 1st at 8am, the wilderness camping permits go on sale at Recreation.gov. At that moment, thousands of people are trying to reserve the sites they want for the coming summer. Those who move the most quickly are the most likely to get the campsite they are seeking. Within a couple of hours, most of the summer’s wilderness campsite reservations are filled. The cost per reservation is $36. You can find more details about the reservation process at: https://www.nps.gov/romo/plany....
Campsites are reserved by name. I recommend that you purchase a National Geographic Trails Illustrated map of Rocky Mountain National Park as it shows the location of each of the campsites in the park. Alternatively, there is a map on the reservation page on recreation.gov. You can then look for campsites that are within your backpacking capability. Be sure to consider not only the distance but also the elevation gain, as well as the challenge of hiking at over 8,000 feet (2438.4m) above sea level. You want to be sure you arrive at the site with enough energy to enjoy your time. The other thing to consider is whether or not the campsite you want will be snow-covered. It is not unusual for many of the campsites to have snow through mid-June and some could have snow into mid-July. Check this page for the approximate date that each campsite is snow free.
If you are not able to obtain a permit on March 1st, it pays to check again closer to the time of your trip or even on the very day you would like to camp. Occasionally, people must cancel their trips due to work, family, or other issues. If this happens or if no one arrives before noon to pick up the permit, it will be made available and you may be able to obtain it. If this happens, you may not have a choice as to which campsite you get, just make sure that it is within your hiking ability, while carrying a large backpack.
Picking up Your Permit
Before you can head out on your trip, you’ll need to stop by the Rocky Mountain National Park Wilderness Office near the main visitor center on the east side of the park or inside the visitor center on the west side of the park. There you’ll meet with one of Rocky’s extremely friendly and helpful wilderness rangers. They will answer any questions you might have and tell you a little of what to expect at the campsite you have reserved.
These rangers know the ins and outs of this park and can often give you some ideas to help make your trip extra special. They see themselves as having the task of helping people fall in love with the wilderness, because it is only when we come to love a place that we will work to protect it. Take advantage of your time with these folks because they want you to have the best experience of your life.
The ranger will give you a piece of paper with a special code on it that will go on your car’s dashboard. When rangers see that your car is in a trailhead parking lot overnight, they can look up that code to check that you have a permit and when you are expected to return. Because it is a special code, others will not be able to find out this information. One other benefit of this paper is that it will allow you to enter the national park without a timed-entry permit. Simply show it at the entrance and as long as you have a park pass or pay the entrance fee, you will be allowed to drive to your designated trailhead.
You will also be given another piece of paper that must be attached to your backpack when you hit the trail. This paper is your permit. It lets other rangers know that you are legally camping. It also has a list of the rules you have agreed to abide by and your signature. Once you get to camp, you need to attach this permit to your tent.
What to Expect at a Wilderness Campsite
Generally, each wilderness campsite is located at least one mile (1.7 km) from other wilderness campsites. Each campsite is marked with a wooden sign on the main trail. You’ll then follow a spur trail well away from the main path, following red markers until you arrive at your campsite. This gives you some privacy and a chance to fully engage with being in the wilderness.
In terms of facilities, don’t expect much. Most campsites have nothing more than a stake in the ground with a couple of dirt pads where you can put your tent. What you get is unspoiled wilderness. The one thing you can count on is that there is always a stream nearby for filtering water.
Only a few wilderness campsites have pit toilets. You can check this chart to find out if the campsite you are staying at has one. If not, you need to hike 200 ft/60 m (70 adult steps) from camp and away from water to dig a 6” (15 cm) hole in the ground and do your business. You must pack your toilet paper out with you, because animals will dig it up. In a few of the campsites, where there is too much traffic or there is a high water table, you may be asked to use a “wag bag”. This is a special bag to carry your waste out with you.
A small number of the campsites have a metal fire grate, but the vast majority do not. In general, campfires are not allowed at wilderness campsites. While we all enjoy a campfire, they are extremely dangerous with the extreme drought conditions in the west and the ease at which massive forest fires can be started.
Being A Good Backpacker
I mentioned that each campsite has a stake in the ground. You’ll notice that these stakes have a silver park symbol on it. You are asked to setup your tent as close to that stake as you can, as this helps limit the camping impact from spreading out widely across this area. Before you set up your tent, first look around for any dead trees that could blow over in a windstorm. You want to stay near the stake, but more importantly to ensure that you are camped in spot that will be safe from falling trees.
One of the requirements for wilderness camping is that you must use a bear canister for your food. It must be an approved hard-sided bear canister. You are not allowed to tie your food up in a tree. Our bears are too smart for that. Bear canisters can be rented from several of the outdoor stores in Estes Park and Grand Lake.
When you are ready to leave your campsite, be sure to collect everything. Beyond picking up the trash that you see, please take a little extra time and look for micro-trash. Micro-trash are the tiny corners of wrappers, or twist-ties, scraps of food, and anything at all that was brought in by humans. The cleaner you leave the campsite, the safer the local animals will be and the better experience the people who come after you will have.
Here are a few quick notes about some of the key things to keep in mind when hiking and camping in Rocky Mountain National Park:
- Avoid leaving food in your vehicle, as bears have been known to break into cars attracted by food and scented items.
- At trailheads, store food in food storage lockers where provided.
- Properly display your Wilderness Permit, Tent Tag, and vehicle Dash Tag.
- Read the trailhead bulletin board.
- Falling trees are an ever-present hazard especially during windy or snowy conditions.
- Plan to be off summits early in the day to avoid thunder and lightning storms. Prepare for unexpected wind gusts on exposed areas and ledges.
- Streams, lakes, and waterfalls can be dangerous and deadly at any time of year, especially during high runoff in May and June as well as after thunderstorms. Keep your distance from stream and riverbanks because powerful currents exist. Provide proper supervision for children. Use caution in winter when crossing rivers.
- Hunting and recreational use of firearms are prohibited. Possession of firearms must comply with federal and state laws.
- Pets and vehicles (including bicycles) are not permitted in the wilderness.
- Bring insect repellent to fend off mosquitoes. Check frequently for ticks.
- Travel in small parties as the fewer the number of people together, the less impact there will be on the fragile wilderness.
- Hike on the trail and hike single-file. Resist the temptation to walk off the trail when it is muddy. Mud will flake off your boots much sooner than trampled plants will grow back.
- Never shortcut switchbacks.
- Pick up litter you find along the way.
- Horses and llamas have the right-of-way. Step off the trail on the downhill side and stand quietly until the stock passes.
- Never leave food unattended or unsecured from wildlife.
- Never feed wildlife as this can be hazardous.
- Do not disturb any flowers or plants.
Additional details about wilderness camping in Rocky Mountain National Park can be found here: https://www.nps.gov/romo/planyourvisit/wilderness-camping.htm. I also recommend getting a copy of “Hiking Rocky Mountain National Park: The Essential Guide”. In it you’ll find everything you need to know about hiking to your destination as well as lots of helpful input on everything from dealing with wild animals, Leave No Trace ethics, equipment for filtering water, what to do if you get lost, what to expect for weather conditions, etc.