Rocky Mountain National Park, one of the most popular in the United States, is visited by millions of people each year. Because of snowy roads in the winter months, summer provides the best (and sometimes only) opportunity to see what it has to offer. But with so many people and so many things to see, it can be hard to know how to prioritize. We’ve made a list of the top sights so your trip to Rocky Mountain National Park can be an alpine breeze.
1. Trail Ridge Road
Trail Ridge Road is the highest paved through-road in North America, connecting the two towns of Estes Park and Grand Lake. Built in the 1930s, in the dawn of the National Park System, it is also on the National Register of Historic Places. Driving along it you soar at 12,000 feet above sea level (that’s above tree line), navigating winding turns, bumper to bumper traffic, and variable weather. So what makes this feat worth it? The views. Surrounded by mountains and alpine tundra, this is one of Colorado’s best scenic byways.
Another scenic byway worth mentioning in Rocky Mountain National Park is Old Fall River Road. A rocky dirt road with no guard rails, this 11-mile-long path is not for the faint of heart, but it is ideal for visitor’s who want a back-in-the-day experience. In fact, according to the National Park website, the road “follows a route traveled long ago by Indian hunters, who came to the park area in search of its abundant game.”
2. The Wildlife
Rocky Mountain National Park is renowned for its wildlife. Elk, bighorn sheep, bears, beavers, and moose are just some of the animals you may see in the park. You are encouraged to view them from a distance and use the opportunity to take photos.
That said, remember that wildlife is just that—wild. These animals are dangerous, so it is best to keep a good amount of distance. Never feed the animals and refrain from littering. Feeding animals lures them onto roads and into close proximity of humans, which could prove fatal to them or to you. Be knowledgable about what to do if you come upon an animal by accident and if you ever have a question, ask a park ranger.
3. The Night Sky
Light pollution prevents many people from seeing the night sky where they live. But on a clear night in Rocky Mountain National Park’s protected skies, the stars and planets are clearly visible. Every summer Rocky Mountain National Park hosts a Night Sky Festival. Over the course of three days, you can participate in fun daytime activities, hear speakers on the topic, and view the sky at night through telescopes. Even if you don’t make it for the festival, the park regularly hosts ranger programs for night sky viewing. So get out and take on the night.
4. The continental Divide
The Rocky Mountains act like a pointed roof along the North American continent. When it rains in spring or when winter snow melts, water flows in two opposite directions down the mountainsides. In Rocky Mountain National Park, you can cross the exact line where this phenomenon happens. Look for the signs!
5. Emerald Lake Trail
One of the most popular hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park is along Emerald Lake Trail. While that may seem like a reason not to go, Emerald Lake Trail is popular for a reason. Along a moderate two miles of hiking you can see three different lakes: Nymph Lake, Dream Lake, and Emerald Lake. All the lakes are spectacular in their own right, but Nymph Lake in particular draws crowds because of its bright, yellow water lilies.
If you’re thinking “that sounds great but I hate crowds,” a less-crowded option is to turn after Dream Lake towards Lake Haiyaha. This alpine lake is known for its massive boulders and large trees. In fact, some of the oldest trees in the park are said to reside there.
6. Alberta Falls
Another of the most popular trails is the one to Alberta Falls. This short hike from Bear Lake or Glacier Gorge Trailhead leads to an impressive waterfall. Go early in the morning to avoid the crowds.
7. The Alluvial Fan
The term “alluvial fan” was foreign to us before visiting Rocky Mountain National Park. It refers to rocks, sand, or other materials that have been deposited behind flowing water. At this particular spot, there was a flash flood when a dam broke. The fast-flowing water took out everything in its path and deposited it there once the water slowed down. Now it acts as a spacious waterfall that you can climb in and around, getting your feet (if not your whole body!) wet.
8. The Visitor’s Centers
We recommend touring one or more of the visitor's centers of Rocky Mountain National Park (and of any other national parks you visit). Places you travel are much more interesting once you know what defines them. Visitor’s centers educate you on the park and give you practical information on where to go and how to get around. Not just that, but you can ask park rangers questions, kick your feet up out of the heat watching an educational film, and play with interactive exhibits that teach you what makes this park unique.
9. Long’s Peak
Long’s Peak is Rocky Mountain National Park’s only “fourteener.” For those who aren’t in the know, Colorado is famous for its fourteeners—that is, its 14,000 foot tall (or more) peaks. Many people put to hike all of Colorado’s fourtneeners on their bucket lists.
Long’s Peak towers over the area at 14,259 feet high, shadowing its neighbor Mount Meeker at 13,911 feet. Visitors can see it from Mountain Overlook viewpoint and from the town of Estes Park on the edge of the national park. But if you’re wanting a wilderness view, you can also see it from Chasm Lake. Still not good enough? Make the trek to the top, braving the altitude and the elements. The only thing to remember is that Long’s Peak earns its name—the hike to the top and back clocks in at about 15 miles.
10. Nearby Towns
The two entrances into Rocky Mountain National Park are flanked by towns: Grand Lake and Estes Park. Both are small, charming mountain towns with a tourist draw of their own. We recommend you explore at least one of them on your trip to Rocky Mountain National Park or choose to stay the night in one of them as you visit.
Estes Park has a pleasant downtown area with shops, restaurants, and galleries. It also features a popular tramway that leads to a viewpoint over Estes Park. Families can play mini-golf or visit the rock museum while adults with time on their hands can go to a brewery, winery, or distillery.
Miles away in Grand Lake, visitors will have a more water-based good time. Head to the marina to hire a boat on the lake or just lounge on the lakeside beach in the intense mountain sun. A few yards away, walk into the downtown area for shopping, ice cream, and cafes. One of our favorite things about Grand Lake is Rocky Mountain Repertory Theatre, a professional theatre company that does performances throughout the summer.