Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the jewels of the US Park System. This national park wonderfully preserves a spectacular section of the southern Rocky Mountains while also making it accessible to the public. It is a perfect place to get away from the stresses of our hurried lives and to reconnect with nature, family, and the things in life that truly matter.
With abundant wildlife, 100+ lakes, over 350 miles (560km) of hiking trails, roads that take you to the top of the mountains, and all the amenities you need just outside the park boundaries, Rocky has everything you need for an amazing vacation whether you are by yourself, with that special loved one, or with the extended family.
Rocky Mountain National Park is in north-central Colorado about 60 miles (97 km) north of Denver. The great range of the Rocky Mountains stretches 3,000 miles (4,800 km) from northern Canada to New Mexico. Rocky Mountain National Park protects a small sliver of this, covering an area of 415 sq. mile (1,075 sq. km). It is however a beautiful portion of these mountains that is well worth protecting.
Rocky Mountain National Park’s gateway towns are Grand Lake in the west and Estes Park in the east. The Continental Divide runs through the park from north to south along the top of the mountains dividing the park into a western and eastern side of the park. There is only one road connecting the east and west sides of the park and this road is usually closed from mid-October until late May, as the snow and high winds make it impossible for snowplows to keep the road clear.
94% of Rocky Mountain National Park was designated a wilderness area by Congress, protecting the majority of the park from any construction of roads, buildings, or other infrastructure. This wilderness is left in its natural state and can only be accessed on foot or by horse. As a result, you’ll enjoy the sounds, smells, and sights of the natural world in a way that is hard to do outside a wilderness area. It also allows the park to be a safe haven for the many wild creatures and plants that live there. Read more about the creation of the park and the formation of this wilderness area.
Rocky Mountain National Park is known for its lofty peaks, having over 60 mountains higher than 12,000’ (3,658m). In fact, 1/3rd of the national park is above the height where trees can grow, making it the highest national park by average elevation in the United States Park Service. This high-altitude area is known as tundra, much like the arctic tundra you might find in Alaska. Here, the average temperature is simply too cold for trees to grow, yet life here abounds. Because of the cold temperatures and high winds, life thrives in miniature. If you get down low and look at the delicate tundra you’ll see all types of mosses, grasses, sedges, and flowers which create their own micro-climate that is often quite a number of degrees warmer than the air above it. This tundra is extremely delicate, with a growing season of only about 60 days annually. Because it is so easily damaged, visitors are asked not to step on the tundra in high visitation areas. In the high alpine areas, you’ll also find elk grazing in the summer, bighorn sheep climbing boulders, furry marmots lying on the rocks sunning themselves, and little pika racing back and forth collecting vegetation for the coming winter.
The highest mountain in the national park is Longs Peak. It is also the icon of the national park and can be seen from as far away as Denver and the Denver International Airport. It can even be seen from Cheyenne, Wyoming!
Longs Peak is 14,259’ (4,346m) tall. For many years it was thought that this peak was impossible to climb. The first recorded climb of the mountain was by a party led by the famous explorer John Wesley Powell in 1868. Since then, Longs Peak has become a major destination for climbers as it is one of the more challenging mountains in Colorado. Thinking about climbing Longs Peak? Read this first.
Subalpine and Montane
As well as high tundra and peaks, Rocky Mountain National Park also has deep forests, lush marshes, and large open meadows. These are located in the lower subalpine and montane ecosystems of the park. Here you'll also find over 100 small lakes. Some are located right at the edge of tree line and some of these are at the base of towering peaks. There are also about 80 streams taking the melting snow from the high country to the plains below. Rocky is a place overflowing with icy cold water, bringing life wherever it goes.
Rocky Mountain is home to a wide array of wildlife that roam freely through the mountains, meadows, and valleys of the park. While there are more than 60 species of mammals that live in the park, as well as birds, amphibians, insects, and fish, there are several primary animals that you are most likely to encounter. You’ll find herds of majestic elk grazing in the meadows or the tundra. Moose are often in the marshes and shallow lakes. Mule deer roam the edges of the forest. Coyote can be seen sneaking into the meadows during the mornings or evenings. Bighorn sheep come down to take in minerals near Sheep Lakes. Marmots and pika hang out in the rock piles along Trail Ridge Road, while Wyoming ground squirrels and least chipmunks are often posing for pictures around the lakes and picnic areas. Learn more about park wildlife.
Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the premier hiking destinations in the United States, having over 350 miles (560km) of hiking trails leading through diverse terrain. You could almost hike a different mile of trail every day of the year. Along these trails are also wilderness campsites, that must be reserved in advance, allowing you to make multi-day trips through the park.
As well as hiking, there is fishing, rock climbing, wildlife watching, scenic drives, opportunities for photography, bird watching, backpacking and camping, horseback riding, snowshoeing, sledding, and skiing in the park.
Rocky Mountain National Park is a great place to get away from the rat race of life and find rest and restoration. Here one can reconnect with the natural world and with the things in life that truly matter.
Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the nation’s most visited national parks. It is usually listed as the third or fourth most visited national park, with visitation numbers similar to Grand Canyon National Park. Due to its proximity to Denver and the rapidly growing Colorado Front Range, it receives numerous day visitors from the surrounding area as well as visitors from across the United States and beyond.
There is very little infrastructure inside of Rocky Mountain National Park apart from roads, trails, campgrounds, and a few informational buildings. Visitors to Rocky Mountain National Park are served by the gateway towns of Estes Park and Grand Lake. Estes Park sits at the eastern entrance to the park and provides lodging, food, shopping, and numerous activities for visitors. Grand Lake is a much smaller community located on the western edge of the national park with similar services but on a smaller and quieter scale.
A Place of Restoration
Rocky Mountain National Park is a place where you can reconnect with the natural world. It is a place where running streams, fresh air, lofty mountains, pine trees, and wildlife restore your senses. It is a place where you can finally let go of the troubles of a busy world and remember what life is really about.
(Map created using: QGIS.org, 2021. QGIS Geographic Information System. QGIS Association. http://www.qgis.org)