Stand Atop the Continental Divide
Rocky Mountain National Park might not be one of the largest parks in the system in terms of acreage, but it is an incredibly popular tourist destination. Year after year, many adventure-seeking visitors come to scale the rock faces of Longs Peak, or hike its high country. In winter, the park’s snowbound western slopes are a haven for off-piste skiers. For these stalwart nature-lovers, the challenges of altitude and solitude only add to the park’s mystique.
Yet, Rocky Mountain National Park has much to offer the more casual traveler. Its scenic byways rise gradually above the tree line, awarding views of the park’s diverse mountain ecosystems from the comfort of your car. Easy day hikes abound with waterfalls, lakes, and opportunities to view wildlife, and several of the park’s campsites accommodate motor camping.
The great care that’s been taken to balance the competing demands of park preservation and accessibility is readily apparent at Rocky Mountain National Park. While it might not boast the grand scale of larger parks like Yellowstone, the park is user-friendly yet wild at heart.
Activities in Rocky Mountain National Park
With 355 miles of trails ranging from leisurely lake loops to strenuous summit trails, there’s a lot of ground for hikers to cover in Rocky Mountain National Park. Day hikes to lakes and waterfalls are great for families, offering opportunities to view wildlife and visit some of the park’s historic structures. Seasoned backpackers will enjoy exploring the high country and the trails along the Continental Divide. No matter what your skill level, there are many popular hikes in the park.
Keep in mind that since Rocky Mountain National Park is a high altitude region with elevations ranging from 7,500 to more than 12,000 feet, visitors coming from lower altitude areas will need to take and precautions to adjust. This means drinking lots of water — which you should be bringing plenty of, since the park has limited facilities — as well as resting frequently and not skipping meals.
Every year, thousands of people attempt to summit the park’s dominant geological feature, the towering Longs Peak. Although it is by no means a hike, the Keyhole Route is the easiest way up. Other climbs can get very technical. Experienced climbers might appreciate the snowbound route up the Trough from Glacier Gorge trailhead. There’s also a variety of tough, technical ascents on the peak’s northeastern face, a 900-foot granite slab known as the Diamond.
No matter what level of skill you boast, two dangers remain constant on this and other trails above the tree line — lightning and other climbers. Lightning strikes are common and intense; and if they hit a climber, they are most often fatal. Popular routes mean more climbers; more climbers mean increased potential for falling rocks. You don’t have to tackle Longs Peak: There are lots of rock challenging climbing sites around the park, many with bivouac sites.
Visitors to Rocky Mountain National Park’s backcountry must acquire a backcountry permit if they are planning to camp in the park overnight. Reservations cost $20 during peak season, and spaces are limited. The high-elevation regions of the park pose special hazards to travelers, including variable weather and risk of lightning strikes, particularly during the summer months when afternoon thunderstorms are common. If you’re going to trek the high country during July or August, make sure to get below the tree line by the afternoon.
It’s best to familiarize yourself with the park’s backcountry guide before planning a trip to the wilderness. There is a printable version with maps as well, but keep in mind that trail conditions are constantly changing due to a variety of factors, from weather to fallen trees to beetle infestation control. Make sure to check in with a ranger upon entering the park.
The Continental Divide National Scenic Trail runs through Rocky Mountain National Park. In 1997 the park adjusted the route to incorporate a new extended loop that runs through 30 miles of some of the area’s most spectacular scenic vistas.
While there aren’t any lifts in Rocky Mountain National Park, die-hard skiers gravitate to the park every winter to take advantage of its diverse and challenging conditions. Snow conditions can vary greatly depending where in the park you decide to go. The west side typically gets more snow overall, achieving adequate coverage of even early in the winter. This makes it prime ground for alpine touring, a hike-to-ski regimen that may be familiar to off-piste skiers. But remember, this isn’t a resort — it’s a good idea to book a guided tour, especially if you’re new to this demanding variety of winter sport.
The eastern side of the park is generally drier than the west, receiving less snow in the average season, particularly at elevations below 9,600 feet. Wind pushes snow into drifts, leaving some areas exposed. Therefore, any skiing that’s available is bound to be extra challenging. However, the patchy snow cover means that the east is ideal for winter hiking, especially at lower elevations. You might not even need snow shoes to traverse some of the trails. Ranger-led walks and snowshoe tours are available as well.
Wildlife in Rocky Mountain National Park
Elk & Deer
Elk are some of the most commonly sighted animals in Rocky Mountain National Park, and there are several prime viewing locations on the parks’s east and west sides. In the east, look for them in Upper Beaver Meadows and Moraine and Horseshoe parks. In the west, elk can be spotted in Holzwarth and Harbison meadows, and throughout Kawuneeche Valley. Elk descend from their high country summer grazing grounds for mating season in September and October. At this time visitors can witness the bull elk competing for mating rights. This habit is usually preceded by a mating call — “bugling” — that can be heard during early morning hours.
Mule deer are also ubiquitous throughout the park, although that hasn’t always been the case. So-called for their long ears, the deer were once abundant in the region, but their numbers dwindled in the late 19th and early 20th centures due to habitat loss and hunting. A ban on the latter in 1913 helped jumpstart a comeback. The removal of predators from the park also aided the turnaround. Deer can be seen in open areas, where they graze on shrubs. During the summer, the animals move to higher elevations, often above the tree line.
Moose prefer the wetlands near the Colorado River’s headwaters in Kawuneeche Valley, on the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park. Interestingly enough, this isn’t a natural habitat for the lumbering giants. Historical records from the 1850s suggest that moose were only transient inhabitants of the region, and they weren’t at all common in the park until the late 1970s, after about two dozen animals had been introduced to the region from the Grand Teton area by humans.
Majestic bighorn sheep have seen their share of drama in Rocky Mountain National Park, having been rescued from the brink of extinction. While their numbers ran in the thousands when the first settlers came to Estes Park, hunting — the animals were prized for their magnificent horns, as well as their meat — and the introduction of domestic sheep devastated the bighorn population. Diseases like pneumonia and scabies, carried by the domestic herds, proved fatal for the wild ones.
By the 1950s all the lowland herds of bighorn sheep were gone. Only the high-country herds of the Mummy and Never Summer Mountains escaped obliteration. These herds flourished due to restrictions on ranching an hunting, and by the late 1970s, bighorn sheep had been reintroduced to their original ranges. Today, visitors can see bighorn rams butting heads on mountainsides during mating season.
History of Rocky Mountain National Park
While no visitor to Rocky Mountain National Park can deny its resplendent natural beauty — from towering mountains to serene meadows — the park owes much of its present state to human planning and management. Beginning with the lodge owners that guided the first tourists through the Rocky Mountain wilderness and maintained the area’s first trails and roads, human stewardship has factored heavily in the history of the park.
But the first forces that influenced the park were geologic. Rocky Mountain National Park was shaped by glaciers, and remained covered in ice until about 11,000 years ago. Fossil evidence suggests that the first humans in the area hunted mammoths, but were nomadic and did not establish permanent settlements. Even the Ute tribe, which made extensive use of the land in the present-day park into the 1700s, did so only seasonally.
European exploration of the region was primarily the province of fur trappers until the Pike’s Peak gold rush of 1859. Gold fever brought a wave of settlers, many of which turned to homesteading as gold fever faded. While the harsh Rocky Mountain winters soon proved that lifestyle inviable, white settlers continued to be drawn to the region for its breathtaking scenery and ample game hunting.
The idyllic wilderness was championed by the equally ascendant tides of conservation and tourism. There was an early and prevalent sense of local pride in the region, evident in the establishment of local conservation interests such as the Estes Park Protective and Improvement Association. Enos Mills, a local lodge owner, naturalist and guide — who is reputed to have scaled the 14,000-foot Long’s Peak more than 300 times in his life — was a leading advocate for the establishment of Rocky Mountain National Park.
Although opposed by industries such as mining and ranching, the park was established by President Woodrow Wilson in 1915. Its original area was just more than 358 square miles, and had little infrastructure other than what local lodge owners had already built. Increases in visitation behooved the construction of more and better facilities in the years following the First World War, which were further enhanced by projects of the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression.
In addition to building improvements like roads, trails and buildings, the early stewards of the park took an active role in managing the ecosystem by extinguishing wildfires, planting trees and controlling predators. While these early tasks did much to increase the accessibility of the park, and aid in the restoration of species such as deer and elk, they were flawed. For example, excessive predator control led to an unhealthily large, overly dense elk population.
Changes in park policies enacted in the 1960s and 1970s placed conservation efforts at odds with visitors’ desires for increased access to the park’s wilderness. In order to preserve the park for future generations, rangers had to find a way to manage the present one. This was achieved through the development of a permit system for backcountry access, camping restrictions and increased education efforts that continue to this day.