Favorite Spots at Rocky Mountain National Park

by on March 7th, 2015
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Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the few places in Colorado where visitors can safely gain access to the natural beauty of the Rockies. The park straddles the Continental Divide and covers three ecosystems: montane, subarctic and arctic. More than 50 different species of mammals have been sited in the park in addition to numerous bird and fish species.

The park enjoys four seasons, each with its own attractions. In summer visitors can hike at various elevations and enjoy the cool climate and wildflowers blooming throughout the park. RMNP enjoys a brief but vibrant burst of fall foliage in September and October, particularly when the aspen trees turn a bright gold. Winter is popular for snowshoeing and for spotting one of the parks signature attractions-the massive herds of elk that have come down from the mountains to graze in the valleys below. This article details a number of must-see destinations and attractions of Rocky Mountain National Park.

Trail Ridge Road and the Alpine Visitor’s Center: Trail Ridge Road, which connects Estes Park and the eastern entrance of the park with Grand Lake and the west side of RMNP is the highest continuously paved road in North America, rising at one point to 12,183 feet. There are numerous turnoffs to enjoy the spectacular views. The Tundra Communities trail allows visitors to enjoy a brief walk through the delicate tundra environment. In summer the area is covered with bizarrely shaped shrubs and wildflowers that bloom for a few months before the onset of winter.

In summertime you can also see the handful of animals adapted to the harsh arctic climate. Once, while eating a picnic lunch on a boulder along the trail, I noticed a curious chirping sound, which I at first took to be that of a bird. However, I soon noticed movement among the loosely strewn boulders. With my binoculars and field guide I was able to identify several pikas, small rabbit-like rodents with dense fur and tiny ears. At one point the pikas all scattered and took cover at the approach of the much larger yellow-bellied marmot, a large, tawny rodent resembling a ground hog.

The Alpine Visitor’s Center rivals the welcome center on the top of Pikes Peak as one of the more remote outposts of human civilization in Colorado. The visitor’s center explains the ecosystem of the tundra and gives fun facts about the extreme weather. The center also has a snack bar with amazing views and a respectable gift shop.

Bear Lake: The first time I visited RMNP my wife and I drove up to the Bear Lake trailhead at 9,475 feet. Bear Lake itself is a popular hiking destination with a flat, paved trail. The 1.8 mile Emerald Lake Trail, however, climbs an additional 605 feet and takes in a series of gorgeous glacial lakes. In the spring and summer time Nymph Lake is known for its profusion of lily pads and wild flowers. Dream Lake, a perfectly cigar shaped body of water, is popular with trout fishermen. Emerald Lake, at just over 10,000 feet, sits at the foot of the Continental Divide and is fed directly by a glacier.

A few nearby trailheads offer reasonably strenuous climbs and access to other beautiful scenery. This November I hiked Bierstadt Lake for the first time. It was an interesting study in contrasts as the switchbacks leading up to the lake are bathed in a warm southern sunshine. The top of the ridge is heavily wooded and in November was already blanketed with two feet of fresh snow. At 9320 feet, Bierstadt Lake was completely frozen over.

One of my favorite springtime hikes is up to Cub Lake. The Cub Lake trailhead is located on the same spur road as the Moraine Park campground. The trail to the lake is 2.3 miles long and climbs a manageable 540 feet. The lake itself is crystal clear and beautiful. The woods around the water are home to Stellar Jays and woodpeckers. Hiking beyond the lake you can follow a loop that will bring you by the Pool, a whirlpool of rapids descending from the Divide. In the spring as you walk along the high trail you can hear the sounds of rushing water everywhere as the snowmelt cascades down into the valley below. It seems as though the rock itself has sprung a leak.

Longs Peak: Longs Peak is the only 14,000 foot mountain in Rocky Mountain National Park. It’s a Colorado icon, immediately visible as the most dominant summit when you’re driving west from Denver airport. It also appears on the Colorado state quarter. The Longs Peak trailhead is located along highway route 7. According to friends who have hiked the mountain it takes about 6-8 hours to reach the “Keyhole” a notch a few hundred feet from the summit where many climbers turn back.

Armstrong, David M. “Rocky Mountain Mammals.” University Press of Colorad, 2008.
National Park Service, US Department of the Interior. “Rocky Mountain National Park Official Guide.”
Personal Experience

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