Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Insta-guide to Rocky Mountain National Park

Planning your first trip to Rocky Mountain National Park? Or maybe you just want to make the most of your time in Colorado's most-visited parkland? Here's what you need to know first, but what the official NPS website won't tell you (or will make you frustratingly dig through dozens of pages to find!):

Rocky Mountain National Park (ROMO)

Why go? Rocky Mountains scenery doesn't get much more classic than this, from alpine tundra spackled with wildflowers to skyscraping peaks and gem-like lakes. Megafauna including moose, elk and bear all inhabit the park, which sits atop the spine of the Continental Divide. The park encompasses Longs Peak, one of Colorado's vaunted 14ers (summits over 14,000ft high).

Easiest access? The park's most popular eastern entrances are just over a 2-hour drive northwest of Denver, Colorado; Estes Park is the nearest gateway town. Far fewer people approach the park from the west, just over a 2-hour drive from the Winter Park ski resort area; the nearest gateway town is Grand Lake. The two sides of the park are connected by Trail Ridge Rd (peak elevation 12,183ft), which is only open from late May until mid-October, weather permitting.

How to beat the crowds? ROMO gets over 3 million visitors per year, ranking right behind the USA's three most popular national parks (Grand Canyon, Yellowstone and Yosemite). Most people visit ROMO during July and August, so plan your trip for the shoulder months of June or September. Check to be sure that Trail Ridge Road will be open - don't miss those dizzying alpine panoramas!

Best day hikes? If you've got limited time, short leg-stretcher hikes you won't regret taking include the Coyote Valley Trail alongside the Colorado River; the Tundra Communities Trailhead, near the Alpine Visitor Center; and the chain-of-lakes hike, connecting poetically named Dream, Nymph and Emerald Lakes. Tip: Trailhead parking for these lakes is extremely tight, so save yourself the trouble and instead hop on the free, ecofriendly park shuttle, which runs from late spring through early fall.

Best wildlife-watching spots? On the park's west side along the Colorado River, look out for moose. Marmots and pikas are common in the alpine tundra off Trail Ridge Rd, where you may also spot herds of elk in high-altitude meadows during summer (the elk move to lower elevations from autumn through spring). Bighorn sheep graze around Sheep Lakes (duh) on the park's east side.

Park highlights honestly worth making time for? Even if you have to wait in line for a parking space, stopping at the seasonal Alpine Visitor Center is memorable, if not just to take photos then at least to catch your breath and acclimate to the 11,800ft elevation. If you're driving back and forth across the park and the Old Falls River Rd is open, take the 11-mile backcountry ride over Falls Pass, navigating hairpin curves with no guardrails. The dirt road is so narrow that one-way traffic sometimes backs up for 20 minutes while gawkers take roadside photos.

Which campgrounds may have last-minute availability? NPS campgrounds on the park's east side fill up fast, and reservations are essential for most in summer. If you show up early in the day, you may find first-come, first-served sites still available at Glacier Basin Campground or tent-only Longs Peak Campground. Otherwise, head over to the park's west side and pitch your tent by the Colorado River at Timber Creek Campground, which is open year-round and doesn't take reservations. Otherwise, take a look at USFS campgrounds and free dispersed camping in nearby national forest areas.

Affordable alternative base camp outside the park? Estes Park is an overcrowded gateway town with traffic headaches and non-stop crowds in summer (and a very disappointing brewpub). You could day trip to the park from Denver or Boulder, but it'd be a really loooong day to drive over Trail Ridge Rd and back again. Although Grand Lake is the closest gateway town to the park's west entrance, save big bucks in summer by renting a ski condo in Granby instead. Bonus: staying on the park's west side puts you near Hot Sulphur Springs Resort for a long, very hot soak after a hard day's hiking in the mountains.

Any hazards? For safety tips on everything from lightning to black bears, click here.

Have more tips for visiting Rocky Mountain National Park? Let us know by posting a comment below. Thanks!

Photos: Rocky Mountains National Park (Michael Connolly, Jr.)

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