Preparing for High Elevation in Rocky Mountain National Park

To experience the best possible vacation in Rocky Mountain National Park, make sure you are prepared for the elevation change. It often catches people by surprise the first time they visit.

The lowest point of Rocky Mountain National Park is 7,600’ (2,316m) and the elevation continues to climb up to 14,259’ (4,326m). People who visit usually live at much lower elevations and can find the higher elevation to be something of a shock to their system. At higher elevations there is less air pressure which results in the oxygen molecules being more dispersed. Until your body adjusts, it will struggle to take in enough oxygen. This can result in shortness of breath, as well as headache, fatigue, loss of appetite, and even nausea. It is not uncommon to experience breathlessness with even a simple walk down the sidewalk or up a flight of stairs, even for those who are very fit. Generally, your body will adjust within a few days. Because it takes a little while to acclimate to the new elevation, don't plan any major hikes during your first couple of days. Also, you may want to wait a little bit before driving up to the top of Trail Ridge Road. Take it slowly and listen to your body.

Hidden Summit
Longs Peak in the clouds

To help improve your chances of adjusting to the new elevation and to avoid altitude sickness when visiting Rocky Mountain National Park, make sure you are properly hydrated. Several days before you arrive and during your entire stay increase your water intake to several quarts a day. This will keep you properly hydrated. Be aware that alcohol and caffeine may hinder your adjustment. Be very deliberate in getting enough water into your body. It can be easy to overlook this while hiking or having fun. You may want to set a timer or use an app that helps track how much water you’ve drunk. Yet the body needs more than water. Too much water by itself can throw your body off-balance. You need salt and electrolytes to keep your system operating healthily. Some low- or no-sugar sports drinks have the proper amount of salt and electrolytes to help you maintain or regain that balance.

Another way you can help your body adjust is to sleep at lower elevations until your body has acclimatized. That might mean Estes Park rather than a backcountry campsite, or possibly somewhere lower, like Denver. Consider staying a night near the airport before heading up to the park.

Sunset behind the Never Summer Mountains

Be aware that the high altitude may not affect you on one visit and then can hit you hard on the next. Listen to your body and let it adjust at its own pace. If you experience any of the symptoms of altitude sickness, don’t head to higher elevations until your body has adjusted, as it can lead to more serious and even life-threatening conditions. If you are hiking or driving up a mountain and your headache keeps getting worse or you experience any of the other symptoms of altitude sickness, don’t push through it. Immediately turn around and head to a lower elevation. Here's a great article on altitude sickness which you should consider reading before you come.

Another real concern at elevation is sunburn. There is less protection from the sun’s rays at high elevations, making it easy to get sunburned. Be sure to lather yourself with sunscreen (SPF 30 or higher) and sun-protecting lip balm. This is true not only on warm summer days but also in the winter when the harsh sun reflects off the snow and burns places you wouldn’t expect, such as around your nostrils or under your chin. For those of us with thin hair, a hat is a wise choice. Additionally, you’ll want to have a good pair of UV 400 sunglasses to protect your eyes.

For more safety tips for visiting the mountains read this article.