Meet the park. John Denver praised the Rocky Mountains for being the most euphoria-inducing peaks in America. After a visit to this national park, you’ll agree: It’s a high.
These 415 square miles reach altitudes that, in most states, would require an airplane. Longs Peak (the park’s only Fourteener) measures 14,259 feet, and 77 “lesser” peaks top 12,000 feet. Alpine tundra covers about a third of the park, and gazing across these treeless expanses you feel breathless with awe—and oxygen deprivation. The thin, high-altitude air makes hiking level ground feel like a workout, but a slow pace seems fitting, given the splendor of this scenery: Wildflowers bejewel the tundra grasses, snow fills the mountains’ wrinkles, and bighorn sheep roam the heights.
Hiking isn’t the only way to glimpse Rocky Mountain’s high-alpine vistas. Thanks to Trail Ridge Road (which traverses the park) visitors can tour the tundra by car. The paved, two-lane route remains above treeline for eleven panorama-blessed miles and carries motorists to 12,183 feet.
But some of the best views are reserved for those willing to do a bit of walking. The Continental Divide runs north/south through the middle of the park and creates two distinct zones: Trails on Rocky Mountain’s east side lead to the most spectacular lakes and peaks (including 14,259-foot Longs, reached via an exhausting 12-hour round-trip trek). But with 80 percent of all park visitors entering from the east, this side is markedly more crowded. The west side is better for solitude and wildlife: Moose congregate in the Kawuneeche Valley, and trails here lead to impressive waterfalls (such as Granite Falls and Cascade Falls).
Anglers should head to Moraine Park, where elk graze beside the trout-choked Big Thompson River. Peak-baggers will want to attempt lofty Longs, which is a bucket-list hike for many. Art appreciators must stop by Moraine Park Museum, which displays nature-inspired paintings created through Rocky Mountain’s artist-in-residence program.
More galleries await in the gateway town of Estes Park, which has become more sophisticated in recent years. Yes, souvenir and t-shirt shops remain prevalent along its strollable main drag, but these days, you’ll also find boutique inns, a distillery, a brewpub and attractive restaurants. And in Grand Lake, the gateway town serving Rocky Mountain’s west side, you can dine beside a mountain-ringed lake or paddle a kayak across azure waters.
Getting there. Rocky Mountain National Park is a 90-minute drive northwest from Denver.
When to go. Trail Ridge Road closes in winter, but generally opens on Memorial Day weekend (when cars tunnel through huge snowbanks lining the road). From November through April, snowshoers and backcountry skiers can access valley trailheads on the east and west sides of the park. July marks the peak of the high-alpine wildflower season. The elk mating season (when visitors can listen to bugling bucks) takes place from mid-September to mid-October.
Summer and fall is when most people visit the park (2014 notched a record-setting 3.4 million visitors). Parking lots at popular trailheads fill as early as 7:30 in the morning, so many hikers use the free shuttle serving popular east side trailheads. September weekends are even busier than July, so for fewer crowds, visit on a weekday or hit popular sites in the morning or evening: The greatest congestion takes place between 10 am and 3 pm.
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