YOUR BEST DAY IN THE PARK
Hike Emerald Lake. Arrive by 8:30 a.m. to nab a parking spot at Bear Lake. The 3.6-mile round-trip hike wades through wildflowers and passes Nymph and Dream Lakes on the way to Emerald, which is surrounded by spectacularly jagged peaks. nps.gov/romo or 970/586-1206.
Picnic in Moraine Park. People aren’t alone in loving Moraine Park’s vast, mountain-framed meadows: Elk commonly graze here beside the watery curves of the Big Thompson River. Unpack a lunch and linger over the interplay of peaks and wildlife.
Drive the Fall River/Trail Ridge Loop. Starting from Horseshoe Park (where bighorn sheep are commonly spotted in May and June), make the leisurely drive up Fall River Road, a bogglingly scenic dirt and gravel byway that lacks guard rails--so max speed is 15 mph. Top out at paved Trail Ridge Road and turn left, rolling across open tundra to the Rock Cut turnout. Make the easy, one-mile round-trip hike along the Tundra World Nature Trail with its wildflowers at 12,000 feet, then follow Trail Ridge Road down to Horseshoe Park to close the 28-mile loop. nps.gov/romo or 970/586-1206. Please call ahead to make sure roads are passable, even in summer.
YOUR BEST 3 DAYS IN THE PARK
Lakes, waterfalls, wildlife and summits make this an unforgettable three-day itinerary.
Paddle Grand Lake. Avoid the long lines at the park’s east side entrances by beginning your tour at Grand Lake, just outside of the park's western boundary. Stop by Trail Ridge Marina to rent a stand-up paddleboard or kayak, then float across Grand Lake’s vast azure waters. Mornings, the rising sun spotlights the Never Summer mountain range to the west. From $25/hour; trailridgemarina.com; 970/627-3586.
Hike Adams Falls. One of the easiest waterfalls to visit (0.6 miles round trip) also happens to be the most impressive: This lively curtain of water tumbles through a narrow, 55-foot-high gorge. Access the path from the East Inlet trailhead beside Grand Lake. nps.gov/romo or 970/586-1206.
Go moose-spotting. Bullwinkle’s buddies favor the marshes dotting the Kawuneeche Valley, where grassy meadows unfurl beneath the steely summits of the Never Summer Range. Look for elk and coyotes along the easy, mile-long Coyote Valley Trail. nps.gov/romo or 970/586-1206.
Drive Trail Ridge Road. Time to head for the high country: Leaving the Kawuneeche Valley, Trail Ridge Road climbs steeply to Farview Curve, a scenic overlook that lets you peer across the vast, U-shaped glacial valley you just left. Continue across the Continental Divide (many visitors snap a photo at this road sign) then roll onward across treeless tundra for 28 miles before descending to Estes Park, on Rocky Mountain’s east side. nps.gov/romo or 970/586-1206.
Hike Sky Pond. Arrive at Glacier Gorge trailhead by 5 a.m. to nab parking (or plan on taking the free shuttle from the park’n’ride at Glacier Basin) for the 10-mile round-trip hike to Sky Pond. Start by admiring gushing Alberta Falls, then continue past several glacial lakes before arriving at Sky Pond, shimmering below the 13,000-foot-high towers marking the Continental Divide. nps.gov/romo or 970/586-1206.
Go horseback riding. Tuckered out from the Sky Pond trek, you’ll be ready to let a horse do all the work of carrying you through high-alpine scenery. Trail rides from Moraine Park Stables meander through meadows favored by elk herds. From $60; May-Oct.; sombrero.com or 970/586-2327.
Climb Longs Peak. Most hikers need 12 hours (round trip) to reach this 14,259-foot summit. To avoid afternoon lightning above treeline, start your quest by 4:30 a.m. The grueling journey gains 4,800 feet over 7.5 miles, but more than 10,000 determined pilgrims tag this iconic peak each year—meaning you stand a good chance of joining their ranks. nps.gov/romo or 970/586-1206.
Or picnic on a cliff. If you lack summit fever, try “cliffnicking” instead. Kent Mountain Adventure Center lets greenhorns sample the thrills of Rocky Mountain’s big-wall mountaineering by leading climbing trips to porta-ledges suspended 40 to 100 feet off the ground. Enjoy lunch here (from $425, food included), or make it an overnight (from $800 per person, all gear and food provided). kmaconline.com/cliff-camping-colorado or 970/586-5990.