Rocky Mountain National Park, Estes Park, CO
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Rocky Mountain National Park, Estes Park, CO

This "park in the sky" will take your breath away.

Destination Guide

Copyright NPS/E. Skeen

There's a good reason they call this park "breathtaking." Climb to the top of Long's Peak and you'll see why. (Hint: It's not just the drop-dead views). At almost three miles above sea level, Long's Peak is a huffer and puffer.

Drive up Trail Ridge Road, get out of the car and walk 50 feet on level ground. You'll be winded, just checking out the panoramic views of surrounding peaks along this famous, 50-mile route, the highest highway in the US, crossing the Continental Divide.

Sure, the air is rarified up there. But even for those with limited lung capacity, a trip to Rocky Mountain National Park is a must. And after a day or so, altitude will be a gasp of the past.

Walk The Walk

This is a day-hiker's park. Many of the 355 trails are a manageable 5-10 miles roundtrip. And the scenery is varied enough to keep it interesting; you'll weave through spruce forests, over alpine tundra and past high-mountain lakes. The only downside: most trails start with a brutal uphill climb. Here are some of the most popular routes:

Rock Climbing, copyright Craig
Luebben/Fort Collins CVB

  • The Loch. If you're looking for a great "photo op," hike the easy, mile-long Albert Falls trail to The Loch. You can drive there too, but beware: Since this is one of the most popular spots in the park, traffic can be a headache. And you might have trouble parking. Instead, take the free shuttle bus that runs down Bear Lake Road. If you hike, bring plenty of water and sunscreen; the trail is exposed to sun all day.
  • Bear, Nymph, Dream and Emerald Lakes. One of the most popular and crowded trails is the one leading to four magnificent lakes. The trailhead begins at the end of Bear Lake Road, where you'll see the first lake. The trail from Dream to Emerald gets a little rough and steep, but shouldn't pose problems for those in good shape. From Emerald Lake, watch climbers scale Hallett Peak along the canyon's southern wall. Once again, shuttle service to the trailhead is recommended.
  • Old Ute Trail. The mountain goats in your group will appreciate this moderate, 6-mile roundtrip hike, which begins at 11,250 feet and descends to 8,250 feet. The trail once served as a highway for Ute Indians, who traveled from village to village along the Continental Divide. From the barren slope of Tombstone Ridge, there is a great view of Longs Peak towering above. Don't be deceived. The trail down is a piece of cake. But you have to hike back up! Note: In winter, many lower-elevation trails on the park's east side can still be hiked. Those on the west side at higher elevations are generally buried in snow.

Mammals, copyright NPS/RMNP
Take the High Road

Even if your young ones don't have the lung capacity to tour this "park in the sky" by foot, they can get the same Rocky Mountain high along Trail Ridge Road, the highest highway in the US.

Trail Ridge crosses the park from east to west over 50 miles of glacially carved alpine tundra. For 15 miles, you'll ride above 11,000 feet; somewhere between Lava Cliffs and Gore Range it reaches its highest point-12,183 feet. Set aside at least 4 hours to see all the sights. Our favorites include:

  • Rainbow Curve. You'll get a panoramic view of the surrounding mountains and peaks, including Mount Chapin, Mount Chiquita, Mount Fairchild, Hagues Peak and Bighorn Mountain.
  • Many Parks Curve. Witness the spectacular scenery left behind after glaciers scoured the canyon below.
  • Forest Canyon Overlook. Check out the surrounding peaks and Big Thompson River that runs more than 2,500 feet below. Here you'll also catch a glimpse of busy marmots and pikas (small guinea pig-like mammals) darting about the rocks. Carry a jacket. It has been known to snow at the overlook, even during the summer!

Wild Things

Better than a zoo, Rocky Mountain Park is a veritable Wild Kingdom. Your little ones will shriek with delight upon spotting elk, mule deer, black bear, coyote, mountain lion, bobcat, mountain goats, bighorn sheep and moose roaming wild and free. Have cameras ready but proceed with caution. Remember to keep your distance and avoid making any sudden movements or sounds.

One of the best places to view wildlife is the open meadows of Moraine and Horseshoe Parks. You'll hear the wild yipping of coyote, and see deer, bobcat, raccoon, muskrat, porcupine, fox, black bear, and weasel. During the evening hours, beavers are easy to spot along streams. Keep your distance! It may be tempting to enter the meadow, but it's safer to observe these furry friends from your car in the Moraine and Horseshoe parking lots.

Above treeline, you're in alpine tundra, a flower-rich meadowland. Many of the plants here are the same as those in other arctic and alpine areas of the world. And keep an eye out for yellow-bellied marmot, pika, elk and bighorn sheep. While exploring the tundra make sure to stay on the designated trails, as recovery from damage may take several hundred years.


Type of trip: Sightseeing, hiking

Best ages: 9 and up

Ideal trip length: 2-3 days

Distance: Boulder (37 miles), Denver (64 miles), Cheyenne, WY (88 miles)

Best time to go: Spring through mid-fall

Weather: 78/44 degrees in summer, 69/30 fall, 62/35 spring. Bring a jacket. It can snow, even in summer.

Lodging: Campground fees range from $10-14/night. Estes Park, at the entrance to Rocky Mountain, offers a variety of inns, motels, and bed & breakfasts, ranging from $72 to $125/night; $100 to $165/night for cottages and cabins. Make reservations at least 3-4 months in advance, earlier for summer visits.

Squirm factor: Some to a lot. Trails may be difficult for very young children; in summer, park traffic is bumper to bumper.

If You Go...

Horseback riding
in Estes Park,
copyright Peaceful
Valley Ranch

Rocky Mountains National Park. Off US Hwy 34, Estes Park, CO, 970-586-1206, Entrance fees: $10/vehicle, $5/pedestrian or cyclist, good for 7 consecutive days.

Trail Ridge Road, copyright NPS/RMNP

Lodging: For campground reservations call 800-365-CAMP, For a complete listing of lodging in Estes Park,

Contact: Estes Chamber Resort Association Visitor Center, 500 Big Thompson Ave. (US 34), Estes Park, CO, 800-443-7837; Estes On-Line (lodging information),

People Watching in Boulder

If you're headed to Rocky Mountain National Park from Denver, stop in Boulder on the way there or back. Just 45 minutes southeast of the park, this beautiful college town (University of Colorado is located here) is a great place to have lunch, people watch, or window shop on the Pearl Street Mall. There are also several wonderful family attractions:

  • The Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse, 1770 13th St., 303-442-4993. Have lunch or dinner at this beautiful teahouse. Handcrafted by more than 40 Tajik artisans, this unique establishment is a swirl of vibrant colors, patterns and furnishings.
  • Collage Children's Museum, 2065 30th St., 303-440-9894. Perfect for ages 9 months to 9 years. Some permanent exhibits include Marvelous Magnets, Face Painting, and Animation: How Movies Move. Admission: $3.50 2 and over, $2.50 age 1, children under 1 free. Open Wednesday through Saturday.
  • National Center for Atmospheric Research, 1850 Table Mesa Dr., 303-497-1000. Your future meteorologists will learn about weather phenomena, storms, climate, and the sun. Parts of Woody Allen's movie "Sleeper" were filmed at NCAR.
  • Boulder Reservoir, 5100 North 51st St., 303-441-3456. This is where locals and visitors come for boating, swimming or sunbathing. Admission: $5.00 adults, $2.50 seniors and children. Call ahead to reserve boats and equipment.

Boulder Chamber of Commerce, 303-442-1044,; Boulder Convention & Visitors Bureau, 303-442-2911,

The INSIDE Scoop

Favorite local spots:

Lazy B Ranch, 1915 Dry Gulch Road, Estes Park, 800-228-2116 or 970-586-5371 (reservations). Kids will love the live stage show and chuckwagon supper. Open spring through fall only.

Mountain Home Cafe, 457 E. Wonderview, 970-586-6624. Stop here for breakfast served all day long. Specialties include french banana pancakes and Arizona hashbrowns.

Penelope's World Famous Burgers & Fries, 229 W. Elkhorn Ave., 970-586-2277. Voted the "best burger in Estes Park" by locals, Penelope's features 13 different kinds of grilled sandwiches, old-fashioned malts and flavored sodas.

Best souvenirs: Rocky Mountains National Park Game, a trivia game about the Rockys featuring trails and attractions, as well as animal-shaped game pieces. Price: $15.95.

Annual events: For more information, visit

  • Rooftop Rodeos, Estes Park, June 2001. Enjoy a live rodeo show and parade at 7,000 feet.
  • Estes Park Jaycees Annual 4th of July Shoot-Out, Estes Park, July 4, 2001. Fun and games for the entire family, as well as a spectacular fireworks display.

Traffic alert: Spring and summer are peak season; so expect crowds and heavy congestion on roads. Take the free shuttle bus, which runs along Bear Lake Road and stops at most attractions and trailheads.