A Popular Place∼
There is so much to be said about Rocky Mountain National Park! With an average of over 3 million visitors a year, the park is well known and visited often. People come back to this park over and over again (myself included) to see elk, deer, moose and big horn sheep. They also come for the mountain vistas, alpine lakes, backcountry wilderness and wide open valleys that encompass the 415 square miles of the park.
Trail Ridge Road
Another big draw for Rocky Mountain National Park is Trail Ridge Road. Not only is it the highest paved road in any National Park in the entire United States, but it is also absolutely spectacular! This road climbs to over 12,000 feet in elevation and crosses the Continental Divide as it connects the east and west sides of Rocky Mountain National Park.
This scenic road traverses the side of Longs Peak, which sits at an elevation of 14,259 feet (not even close to being the highest in the state), and takes drivers through a tundra well above tree line. This is a great area to spot big horn sheep. The views from Trail Ridge Road are simply breathtaking! You literally feel like you are on top of the world!
Alpine Visitor Center
Sitting close to the top of Trail Ridge Road is the Alpine Visitor Center, which is the highest visitor’s center in the entire National Park system. When you step out of your vehicle here, be prepared to be cold! This is true for even the hottest days in the summer in other areas of the park. Also, keep in mind that Trail Ridge Road is often closed for long periods of time during the winter months. Check the Rocky Mountain National Park website for updates on road conditions and closures.
Visitors to Rocky Mountain National Park can drive throughout the park to see healthy populations of both deer and moose, but the large elk herds are what makes the park famous and can be seen throughout the year. Visiting Rocky Mountain National Park in late September through early October and catching the elk in their annual rut is perhaps the best time to be in the park.
Annual Fall Rut
One of my favorite spots for seeing elk in the fall is Moraine Park, which sits on the east side of the park. It is a large valley that stretches for miles and often has plenty of elk roaming in the open space. During the annual rut, the bull elk bugle and fight over the female cow elk to establish dominance. If you are staying anywhere close to the park or in the park, you will often hear the elk bugling throughout the night.
Don’t forget that early morning and close to dusk is always your best chance of seeing the rutting elk. Fall in the Rockies is also when the beautiful aspen trees turn colors. The park is full of aspen, which makes for an even more magical experience.
The town of Estes Park, which sits on the east side of the park, is a popular destination in its own right and is seen by many as the gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park. This town hosts an Elk Fest around the end of September each year, coordinated around the annual elk rut. The town is a bit touristy with all of its’ shops, restaurants and ice cream parlors, but you can often spot elk wandering around town, lounging on the golf course, or crossing its’ many roads and causing traffic jams. So, take the time to check it out as well!
On the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park sits the town of Grand Lake. While Grand Lake is not as popular as Estes Park, it does sit in a valley with the headwaters of the Colorado River and is one of the best places to spot moose. Again, early and late is the best time to spot moose. The west end of the park also includes the Holzwarth Historic Site, which gives tours of structures preserved from the Holzwarth family who homesteaded the land in 1917.
As I said previously, Rocky Mountain National Park is extremely popular and hosts an incredible number of visitors each year. Within its boundaries you will find 5 visitor centers, 5 campgrounds with 585 available sites, and 100 historic structures. You can also find accommodations in either Estes Park or Grand Lake.
There is so much to do within Rocky Mountain National Park besides driving the roads looking for animals. There are an enormous number of hiking trails, both long and short, and some near lakes and streams. For the more adventurous, there are hundreds of miles of backcountry trails leading to alpine lakes high in the mountains.
Get More Info
Check the Rocky Mountain National Park website for even more activities and adventures in both summer and winter. The park can get crowded in the middle of the day and parking can get crazy, but the park offers shuttles to take visitors to the more popular places in the park.
A Must See
This park really does have it all! I will continue to enjoy this park for years to come as I often visit Colorado to see my sons and their families. If you haven’t taken the time to visit Rocky Mountain National Park, put it on your bucket list. You won’t be disappointed!