Rocky Mountain National Park
By Radu Marculescu
Established by Congress in 1915, Rocky Mountain National Park is the crown jewel of the Colorado Rockies and one of the icons of the American West. Since the end of nineteen century the park has been called "America's Switzerland". The ecosystems of the park, recognized as one of the most beautiful parks in the world, have been included in the United Nations "Man and Biosphere" program as an international Biosphere Reserve. Visited by three million people each year, Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the most crowded places in the National Park system.
With an area of 415 square miles, the park is located 65 miles north-west of Denver. One-third of the park is above timberline and inside of its borders are 71 peaks above 12,000 feet, including the 14,255-foot summit of Longs Peak . This rugged park is the highest national park in the Unites States which unveils the incredible splendors of Rocky Mountain sky-highs.
Rocky Mountain National Park features snow-capped peaks, very steep cliffs, meadows with tiny and brilliant alpine flowers, alpine lakes, waterfalls, forested moraines, aspen and ponderosa pine forests, deep canyons, sub-alpine valleys, and mountain creeks and rivers. The park is home to 900 species of plants, 281 species of birds and 60 species of mammals. Most common animals are bighorn sheep, elk, mule deer, beaver, black bears, moose, coyotes, cougars, fox, marmots, chipmunks, golden eagles, hawks, peregrine falcons, ptarmigans and pikas. Accessible for hiking and walking year-round, the park has 359 miles of trails ready to be explored by hikers, backpackers and horseback riders of any ages willing to experience Rockies’ majestic wilderness. During the winter months snowshoeing and cross-country skiing are the main wilderness activities. The park's peak visitation is in June and July when the alpine tundra wildflowers are in bloom.
One of the park's magnificent features is Trail Ridge Road, an All-American Road, and the highest continuous paved road in the United States. The road reaches an elevation of 12,183 feet to the top of the Rockies doted with summits soaring to more than 12,000 feet. The road meets the Continental Divide at Milner Pass. A drive up on the Trail Ridge Road takes you in a matter of minutes to 11,000 feet above the tree line to the alpine tundra, a fragile ecosystem most common in the arctic regions of Alaska.
Traveling along Trail Ridge Road winding through mountain, sub-alpine and alpine climatic zones to the heart of the park, the 48-mile road provide countless and breathtaking panoramic overlooks of spectacular Rocky Mountain National Park landscapes. Trail Ridge Road which follows the trail once used by the Indians to cross the mountains is a busy traveled road in the Rockies . Each summer 2 million people drive up Trail Ridge Road to enjoy it.
Except the road which is open from June to (weather permitting) mid October, Rocky Mountain National Park is open 24 hours a day year-round. In any season the park is gorgeous. There are many park recreational activities for everyone to enjoy. They include camping, hiking, backpacking, horseback riding, mountain biking, rock climbing, mountaineering, fishing, wildlife viewing, wildflower viewing, ranger-led park walks, photography, stargazing, sledding, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.
The park has six visitor centers staffed by park rangers. The park headquarters/Beaver Meadows Visitor Center is a National Historic Landmark located on U.S. Highway 36 at the east entrance of the park. The visitor center has a documentary film about the park. The Moraine Park Museum is located in Moraine Park about 2.5 miles southwest of Park Headquarters. The Lily Lake Visitor Center is located south of Estes Park on Colorado Highway 7. It has information on hiking trails and park’s wildlife. The Fall River Visitor Center is located in the east part of the park on U.S. Highway 34. It has information about wildlife viewing, fishing, hiking, camping and backcountry activities. At the west entrance of the park is Kawuneeche Visitor Center. The Alpine Visitor Center is located atop the Fall River Pass and accessible in summer from either east or west entrances. It has comprehensive information regarding the alpine tundra ecosystem.
If you are looking for a good vacation in Rocky Mountain National Park, below are some suggestions:
- Plan to stay a minimum of two weeks;
- Acquire a map of the park and topographic maps of the places you want to explore;
- Use an internet connection or a travel company to book transportation and lodging well in advance;
- If you want to spend several days exploring the park, make the town of Estes Park your vacation headquarters. There are a lot of beautiful places to go and see. Estes Park is 7,522 feet above sea level and 60 miles northwest of Denver, at the eastern entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park.
- Upon arrival at the Denver International Airport (DIA) rent a car and spend two nights in Boulder to get used to the altitude;
- Visit Park Headquarters situated at 7,800 feet elevation. It is located before the Beaver Meadows Entrance Station;
- While in the park, stop at all locations and look at glacier-carved summits and deep-verdant valleys splashed with wildflowers. During your visit, spend time to watch for the abundant wildlife. Be prepared for any kind of weather. Be aware about hiking and dehydration. Be aware about lightning hazards on exposed ridges. Start hiking early in the day! Avoid ingestion of water contaminated by Giardia;
- Take a scenic drive on Trail Ridge Road-day and night- using the official Rocky Mountain National Park map to identify the road major features. Along the road there are a number of significant points. Start traveling at Deer Ridge Junction, situated at 8,978 feet elevation, which is the East end of Trail Ridge Road. Visit Hidden Valley Area called the Snow Play Area, situated at 9,325 feet elevation, open year-round. Note that from Many Parks Curve Road situated at 9,691 feet elevation to Colorado River Trailhead Road situated at 9,090 feet elevation over the Continental Divide, the road is closed for the winter. Rainbow Curve at 10,875 feet elevation is a must stop for a view of Horseshoe Park, Alluvial Fan and the Beaver Ponds. Forest Canyon at 11,758 feet elevation is another must stop with panoramic view of Forest Canyon and the Continental Divide Mountains . Rock Cut at 12,178 feet elevation marks the highest point of the road. Next point, Lava Cliffs is situated at 12,135 feet elevation.
- Stop at Gore Range Overlook situated at 12,048 feet elevation which offers spectacular views of Never Summers Mountains. Stop at Alpine Visitor Center Store and Park Visitors Center situated at 11,799 feet elevation. Walk Alpine Ridge Trailhead. Pass Medicine Bow Curve elevation at 11,659 feet and cross the Continental Divide at Milner Pass with elevation 10,775 feet. Stop at Farview Curve situated at 10,148 feet elevation to capture scenic view of the Kawuneeche Valley, the Colorado River and the Never Summer Mountain range;
- Travel Bear Lake Road. This is one of the most scenic drives in Rocky Mountain National Park, which provides year-round visitor access to some of the most in demand park features. Drive from the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center off of Highway 36, take Trail Ridge Road for one mile, then turn left on Bear Lake Road;
- Visit Moraine Park Museum and use its hands-on demo of "How the Rockies were made";
- Explore the beauty of Horseshoe Park, nested in a large valley along Fall River Road . See the park from above. Stay by the roadside. Meadows of Horseshoe Park are closed to visitors. The park is home to elk, deer and bighorn sheep. Fall is the mating season for the elk. Many visitors are attracted to this area of the park during mating season to hear the elk bugle. Drive U.S. Highway 34 west from Estes Park through the Fall River Entrance Station and Horseshoe Park. See Sheep Lakes situated at 8,650 feet elevation. Look for Big Horn Sheep at the lakes. Get to West Horseshoe, a turnoff from U.S. Highway 34 at the western edge of Horseshoe Park towards Fall River Road . This road provides access to Lawn Lake Trailhead, the Alluvial Fan, Endovalley Picnic Area and Old Fall River Road, the first road to cross the Rockies. See and photograph Horseshoe Park Alluvial Fan. This is the legacy of the disastrous flooding of July 15, 1982 when the Hydroplant Lawn Lake dam failure instantly released a torrent of 39 million gallons of water down the Roaring River destroying most of Estes Park. At Deer Ridge Junction, drive east on U.S. Highway 36 through Beaver Meadows and the Beaver Meadows Entrance Station. On your way back, enjoy the spectacular views of the Front Range and Mummy Range;
- If you are in good shape, climb Longs Peak, Rocky Mountain National Park's most famous landmark. Camp at Longs Peak Campground before and after climbing Longs Peak . The campground, open year-round on a first come, first served basis, is situated nine miles south of Estes Park on CO Route 7, called Peak to Peak Road. The campground has 26-tent sites and is extremely crowded from late June to mid-September. Start the hike around 2 AM.
Rocky Mountain National Park is a magical vacation destination. No matter how often you go to this place, every time you will be astonished by its beauty.
Rocky Mountain National Park is an unending paradise!
Also see Grand Canyon National Park
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and Great Smoky Mountains