Rocky Mountain National Park: A User's Guide

LIGHT SHOW: A thunderstorm approaches as the sun is setting in Rocky Mountain National Park as seen from Trail Ridge Road. (Photo: AlphaTangoBravo/Flickr).
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With a mix of soaring granite peaks, lush alpine meadows, high country lakes and waterfalls, Rocky Mountain National Park is a park straight out of central casting.

Driving the 48-mile Trail Ridge Road from Estes Park on the park's east side to Grand Lake on the west offers thrills you can’t find in a car without a number painted on the side. You’ll start out in the shade of aspen and ponderosa pine before rising above the timberline to more than 12,000 feet above sea level. It’s breathtaking — and in the very best way.


President Woodrow Wilson signed the Rocky Mountain National Park Act on Jan. 26, 1915. Construction on Trail Ridge Road began in September 1929 and the road reached Grand Lake in 1938.

Things to do

The first thing most visitors to Rocky Mountain National Park need to do is acclimate themselves to the thin air. Elevations in the park range from about 8,000 feet to 14,259 feet atop Longs Peak.

With more than 350 miles of hiking trails, there is something for just about everyone. Family friendly hikes include the Coyote Valley Trail, which follows the Colorado River and offers views of the Never Summer Mountains, and a loop trail around Lily Lake.

A 3.5-mile hike takes you to Cascade Falls and a lung-busting 4.4-mile hike takes you to the 12,324-foot summit of Flattop Mountain.

About 260 miles of trails can be explored on horseback and two stables are located within the park.

Why you’ll want to come back

elk at Rocky Mountain National Park

The flat-topped Longs Peak can be seen from almost anywhere in the park, and each year it draws thousands of hearty souls trying to bag a peak 14,259 feet high. It’s no Sunday stroll — the route to the summit requires scrambling where a fall could be fatal.

Flora and fauna

It’s not uncommon to see big animals such as elk (pictured), mule deer moose and bighorn sheep from pullouts along the park’s roads. Moose —perhaps as many as 50 — roam the wetter, west side of the park. Predators in the park include coyotes, black bears, bobcats and mountain lions, although you’ll be extremely lucky to spot the latter.

Above the timberline you may see pika and marmots.

More than 250 types of birds have been spotted in Rocky Mountain National Park including white-tailed ptarmigan, blue grouse, mountain chickadee and western tanager.

The greenback cutthroat trout — list as threatened under the Endangered Species Act — was thought to be extinct when a population was discovered in Rocky Mountain National Park in the Big Thompson River in 1957.

By the numbers:

  • Website: Rocky Mountain National Park
  • Park size: 265,800 acres or 415 square miles
  • 2010 visitation: 3,128,446
  • Funky fact: Rocky Mountain National Park is the setting for “Hard Truth,” the 2005 book by Nevada Barr, whose series of best-sellers features National Park Service ranger Anna Pigeon.
This is part of Explore America's Parks, a series of user's guides to national, state and local park systems across the United States. W e'll be adding new parks all summer, so check back for more.

Inset photo of an elk in the park:wanderstruck /Flickr