Featuring 150 lakes, more than 300 miles of hiking trails, scores of mountains taller than 12,000 feet and thriving flora and fauna, Rocky Mountain National Park is truly a breathtaking sight to behold. First opened in 1915, the enormous national park within the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains is celebrating its Centennial, with a variety of events through September 4. While the celebration began last September, there is no better time to visit Rocky Mountain National Park. This informational guide will introduce you to travel, dining and lodging options, in addition to some of the park’s highlights.
The closest airport to Rocky Mountain National Park is Denver International Airport (DEN). Visitors arriving here have a number of ground transportation options into Denver, including car rentals, hotel shuttles and taxi services. Only one shuttle service, Estes Park Shuttle, provides direct transportation to Estes Park, the eastern gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park.
The California Zephyr Amtrak train provides daily service to Granby, the western gateway city, located south of the Grand Lake entrance to the park. Visitors arriving in Granby can find lodging, dining and car rentals.
Greyhound Lines provides service to both Denver and Granby. Day tours are also available from Denver via Gray Lines Tours and the Colorado Sightseer. Additionally, Alex Rocky Mountain Tours offers a driving tour from Estes Park. Lastly, the city of Estes Park operates a free shuttle service during the summer that connects with Rocky Mountain National Park’s free shuttle buses.
Travelers can reach the park by taking U.S. Highway 34, 36 or State Highway 7. Motorists can expect to drive 1.5-2 hours from Denver via Highway 36 to Estes Park or via Highway 34 to Granby. There are three entrance stations to the park. Motorists must be mindful of wildlife that may appear on the road.
Related: Travel Guide To Denver, Colorado
Regular entrance fees are $20 for automobiles and are valid for seven consecutive days, including the date of purchase. Entrance fees for pedestrians are $10 per person, in addition to visitors on bicycles, motorcycles and mopeds. Additional information on annual passes for seniors, active military members and other options can be found online.
Upcoming free entrance days are the National Park Service’s Birthday on August 25, National Public Lands Day on September 26 and Veterans Day, November 11.
A complete set of rules and regulations are posted online, including information on dogs, cats and other pets, overnight camping and fishing.
Rocky Mountain National Park operates two seasonal and two year-round visitor centers, including the park’s headquarters at Beaver Meadows Visitor Center. Additionally, Moraine Park Discovery Center and Sheep Lakes Information Station are open seasonally. The Holzwarth Historic Site is open year round, although there no access to the interior of the buildings in winter. Informational brochures and maps can be found at any visitor center and online. One other visitor center, Lily Lake, is closed indefinitely.
Although most visitors enter the park via personal motor vehicle, the recommendation is to take advantage of the free park shuttle bus within the park or the free shuttle service from Estes Park to save on gas and auto expenses, in addition to lower vehicle emissions and congestion inside the park.
Where To Stay
There are no overnight accommodations in Rocky Mountain National Park. However, the park has five campgrounds with reservations strongly recommended during the peak summer months. Visitors who wish to backcountry camp in the park must obtain a backcountry permit. Backcountry campers are advised to observe the “Leave No Trace Behind” guidelines.
Because of the absence of lodging inside the park, many overnight visitors will stay in Estes Park where there are several options to stay. The most famous hotel in Estes Park is the historic Stanley Hotel, which served as Stephen King’s inspiration to his 1977 bestseller “The Shining.”
Located next to the Alpine Visitor Center, the Café at Trail Ridge offers made-to-order sandwiches, salads, soups, snacks and an assortment of beverages. Adjacent to the café is Trail Ridge Coffee, offering gourmet coffee and tea, along with small items like muffins, scones and fruit salads.
Plenty of other dining options can be found outside the park in Estes Park, Grand Lake and Granby. Recommended dining in Estes Park include Smokin’ Dave’s BBQ and Taphouse, Ed’s Cantina and Grill and Cascades Restaurant at the Stanley Hotel.
Rocky Mountain National Park offers a wealth of outdoor activities, including hiking, mountaineering, horseback riding and fishing. During the winter months, cross country skiing and snowshoeing are among the most popular activities.
In observance of the 100th Anniversary, Rocky Mountain National Park will host a number of Centennial events through September 4, including Centennial hikes, seminars and ranger programs.
Trail Ridge Road
Reopened just in time for summer, Trail Ridge Road connects Grand Lake on the western slope to Estes Park to the east. Extending 48 miles, the road is the highest continuous paved road in the country, reaching a maximum elevation of 12,181 ft. near Fall River Pass. Motorists can enjoy seeing native wildlife such as elk and bighorn sheep and spectacular views of the Rocky Mountains, including Longs Peak. One of the top highlights along the “highway to the sky” is at Milner Pass, where the road crosses the Continental Divide, the hydrological divide of the Americas. Information on other scenic roads within the park can be found online.
Visible from most anywhere in the park, Longs Peak is a popular destination for mountain climbers. The most prominent summit in the park, Longs Peak is also the northernmost “fourteener” (mountain with an elevation of 14,000 feet or higher) in the Rocky Mountains and a mecca for climbers from all over the world. However, even the easiest route to the summit may be too difficult and dangerous to access for the average visitor. The most popular route is the historic Keyhole Route, but has a very low success rate in reaching the peak.
One of the most popular hiking and picnicking destinations within the park, Bear Lake lies at an altitude of 9,475 feet and offers some of the most spectacular views in the park. The trailhead begins near Beaver Meadows Entrance Station, one mile west of the park’s headquarters. Visitors can also take the park’s free shuttle, with daily service beginning mid-June, then operating to mid-October.
The park’s headquarters also serves as the most popular visitor center in the park. First opened in 1967, the building is a National Historic Landmark and was designed by Taliesen Associated Architects, the prestigious firm founded by Frank Lloyd Wright.
Located in the headwaters of the Colorado River near the western gateway to the park, Grand Lake is the largest and deepest natural lake in Colorado. A popular spot for year-round activities, the lake offers boating and hiking during the summer and cross country skiing and snowmobiling in winter. The Grand Lake Cemetery, established in 1892, is one of the few active cemeteries in the country located within a National Park.
Randy Yagi is a freelance writer covering all things San Francisco. In 2012, he was awarded a Media Fellowship from Stanford University. His work can be found on Examiner.com Examiner.com.