Being the Ideal Visitor to Rocky Mountain National Park

Here is what we wish every visitor knew before coming to Rocky Mountain National Park. These are a few tips to help you be the type of visitor that we absolutely love to have.

Nearly five million people visit Rocky Mountain National Park each year. The impact of this visitation on the national park, the trails, the wildlife, the rangers, and even the surrounding communities is significant. Having lived at the edge of the park for nearly 20 years, I’d like to give you an insider’s view of how you can be the type of visitor the locals love to have.

Come with a learner’s attitude

One of Rocky’s long-time rangers said that when she was little and would visit her grandmother’s house, there were different rules than she had at home. She had to make a few changes to the way she did things. Visiting our wilderness areas is a lot like that. Things we might do without thought at home shouldn’t be done here. These wild lands are meant to be left as untouched by humans as possible. One of the challenges is that even little things we do have huge ramifications, because we are not the only one who does them. Hundreds of thousands of people may do the same things and multiply that impact. Here are a few key things to be aware of.

Bring it in, bring it out

The first and most obvious area where we need to take care is with our trash. Whatever we bring into the wilderness we must take out, every little scrap of it. Most of the trash you may find on the trail was accidently dropped or left. When you get up from a break on the trail, take a look all around to see if there is anything you missed. Be sure to pick up the micro-trash, even tiny bits of food that may attract wildlife. Be sure that there is nothing left before you leave.

Banana peels, apple cores, orange peels, sunflower seed shells, etc. should be packed out. They take a lot longer to deteriorate than you might expect. For example, a simple banana peel can take up to two years to biodegrade in the mountains. Such “natural waste” is not only an eyesore for other visitors, but it can actually make the wildlife ill, as their bodies are not able to process it.

This also applies to toilet paper. Use the toilet before you hit the trail. If you find you absolutely have to go while out in the wilderness, hike 200 feet (70 adult steps) off trail and at least that far from any stream or lake. Dig a 6" hole, do your business, cover the hole with dirt, put your used toilet paper in a plastic bag and pack it out. Yes, you must pack it out. If you leave it, animals will dig it up and use it for their nests.

Help keep our trails healthy

Over the last years the increased traffic on the trails has begun to show. Some trails that were once just one or two feet (0.3-0.6 m) wide are today over five to eight feet (1.5-2.4 m) wide and I can only imagine how much wider they could become in future years. The best way to avoid this is to not step off the trail. Better yet, hike in the center of the trail even when it becomes wet or muddy. The temptation is to walk around the mud but it only makes the trail wider. Hopefully you are wearing waterproof hiking boots and so should not have a problem walking through a bit of mud. If it is too deep, look for rocks you can stand on rather than on any vegetation. Experienced hikers see muddy boots as a status symbol much like mud on a 4-wheel-drive vehicle.

One of the temptations when hiking down a mountain trail is to bypass a switchback by taking a shortcut down to the trail below. While this is certainly tempting, when you walk down that steep slope your feet are pulling up some of the grass and other vegetation that is holding the hillside. This then opens the hillside to erosion and with the next rain, loose dirt will come down the hill, slowly creating a new gully. As more people do this, over time it may even wash away the trail below. While it may be tempting to short-cut, resist the temptation and stay on the trail.

Another growing problem in Rocky Mountain National Park is the creation of what are called "social trails." Individuals are creating these new trails that may or may not go anywhere at all. These social trails can create confusion for other visitors and damage the surrounding environment. It only takes ten passes to create a new trail. That’s just five people going out and coming back again. Be mindful to stay on the official trail and do not follow these developing social trails. They likely only lead to a place where someone went to relieve themselves, but unfortunately enough people followed it, so a path was created. Don’t be a lemming.

Take care of the trees and plants

It pains me that this even has to be mentioned—carving your name into a tree may sound like a cool thing to do but it certainly is not. It not only damages the tree and makes it more difficult for it to get nutrients but also creates the feeling of being in the inner city marked by graffiti rather than in pristine wilderness. The same goes for scratching messages or pictures on rocks. Just don’t do it!

In a similar vein, please don’t pick the flowers or damage any of the other plants, including tree branches. Let them grow and flourish. Remember that by picking a flower, you are often removing the seeds for future generations. Leave them for their own well-being and for the enjoyment of all who come after you. We want to leave the wilderness wild.

Know how to behave around wildlife

Many visitors to the national park do not really believe that the wildlife is wild. Yes you may see them next to roads or even in the surrounding communities, but that is simply because we’ve built roads and houses in areas where they have lived for centuries. The animals you see are not tame and can be very dangerous, from the chipmunks carrying diseases like the plague to mother elk who, to protect its young, will trample you before you can blink. The wildlife must be respected and enjoyed from a safe distance. They must be allowed to go about their life without disturbance by us.

If you are unsure if you are too close to an animal, a good rule of thumb is to use your thumb. Stretch your arm out in front of you and put up your thumb. Try to block your view of the animal with your thumb. If any part of the animal can still be seen, then you are too close. This is an excellent way to teach children to respect wildlife and the distance between them and us.

Bear in the Berries

It is generally recommended that you keep a distance of about 75’ (23m) from elk and bighorn sheep. That’s about two bus lengths. For moose and bears, you should keep at least 120’ (36m) between you and them. If you notice an animal turning to look at you, that means you are getting too close and should back away.

Do not feed the wildlife.It should also go without saying that there is never a good time to feed a wild animal. They survive just fine without us and if we begin feeding them, they will no longer be wild. They will develop a dependence on humans and may start to get aggressive around people in their pursuit of food. When that happens, the animal has to be killed. Furthermore, some of the foods that we eat cannot be digested by wild animals and can make them very ill. For the wellbeing of these animals, give them space and do not feed them.

Drive like a local

Driving in the mountains can be quite different from driving in the cities, suburbs, or open plains. There are many steep and windy roads with gorgeous views on every side. It can feel quite uncomfortable at first, but with practice it becomes easier. Because mountain roads are so difficult and expensive to build, they generally have just one lane in each direction. Having just one lane and a windy road makes passing very difficult. As a result, traffic can quickly build up behind someone who is driving more slowly. There is an easy solution to this and it does not involve driving faster. Mountain roads are built with numerous pull-overs and these are often sign posted about 500 feet (152 m) before you reach them. Simply pull off in one of these designated spots to let the traffic go by, and then resume your journey. There is even a law requiring drivers to pull over, read more about that here.

Bighorn sheep block the road near the Fall River entrance

Another thing you will encounter in and around the national park is wildlife on or next to the road. It is not uncommon to find herds of elk wandering across the road or even a moose grazing at the side of the road. When you encounter wildlife in the road, allow them to cross before you slowly move on. Be aware that if you see an animal cross the road, that there may be others coming behind them as some animals travel in groups.

While it may be tempting to stop your car in the road to watch animals on the side of the road to see a spectacular view, instead pull off the road at the next pull-over and then walk back to enjoy the show. Remember that others are using the roads to get places and some of the roads in Rocky Mountain National Park and the surrounding communities are actual highways. Imagine if you were driving a highway at home and someone stopped in the middle of the highway to enjoy the view or watch cows grazing in a field. Don't be that person.

Savor this time away

Those of us who live here, have two main requests. Firstly, that you will make the most of your visit by being fully present while you are here, savoring each minute of being in this special place and being with friends, family and loved ones. We all need a time of refreshment and that is what we hope you will find.

We also hope that you will fall in love with the natural world as we have. We all need nature much more than we often realize. It helps us refocus and reconnect with the things in life that are most important. At the same time, the natural world needs us. It needs for us to care, to recognize that we are interconnected with the natural world, to take steps to ensure that it is protected.

We hope that you make memories that you will never forget and that every time this place comes to mind, you can't help but smile and relive the sense of wonder and peace.