Driving through from Grand Lake to Estes Park was such a fun roadtrip!
The Rocky Mountains form one of the world’s longest ranges, in a nearly unbroken stretch from Alaska to below the nation’s southern border. Rocky Mountain National Park preserves a small but important neighborhood within this range.
Due to COVID-19, you currently need to reserve a timed-entry permit to enter the park within a 2-hour window at recreation.gov. Alternatively, you can wait until after 3pm to enter the park (excluding Bear Lake Road). A limited amount of permits will be released daily at 5pm for the following day.
We didn’t know about this, and were unable to reserve a permit when we got there at a little before 2pm. We decided to just stop for a snack and explore Grand Lake before entering the park at 3pm.
A 1-Day Pass is $25, so we opted to get the Annual Pass for $80 (2021). That way, so-long-as we visit national parks four days out of the year, it’ll be worth our while! Learn more about annual passes for military & seniors.
Never Approach Wildlife
Keep a safe distance from wildlife – it’s the law. All animals at Rocky are wild and unpredictable. Stay at least 25 yards from moose, elk, and other animals. Stay at least 100 yards from bears and mountain lions.
Never feed wildlife, including birds and chipmunks. It’s illegal and makes the animals unhealthy. You could also be bitten, scratched, kicked or tramped.
If you see a bear or mountain lion, stop and calmly back away. Never turn your back or run away. Stand tall and raise your arms to look large. Pick up small children.
If stopping a vehicle to view wildlife, pull completely off the road – with all four wheels past the white line.
Weather & Altitude
Lightning regularly strikes in Rocky. No outdoor place is safe when lightning strikes. Check the forecast before heading out. Plan activities so you can quickly return to your car if a storm begins. If hiking, plan to return to the trailhead before noon. Return to the trailhead immediately if you hear thunder.
Altitude sickness affects many visitors every year. Symptoms include headache, nausea, fatigue, dizziness, vomiting, and even unconsciousness. Altitude can also aggravate pre-existing conditions like heart & lung disease. Take your time, drink water, eat, and rest. The only cure for altitude sickness is to go to a lower altitude.
In many places, you’re allowed to walk on the tundra with special care.
- Make sure you’re not in a tundra closure.
- Walk on rocks or bare spots. Try not to step on the plants – even though they’re small, they may be decades to centuries old!
- When traveling off-trail in a group, spread out so you’re each taking your own path.
- Don’t grind your feet as you walk. These plants face many challenges with the wind, intense solar radiation, and short growing season.
Nature’s Knife Edge
To ascend Rocky Mountain National Park’s Trail Ridge Road is to escape into a beautiful oasis. The road leads up to a fragile alpine realm, the tundra. Most animals hibernate or migrate during the harsh winters, and no trees can live there. Despite the brief, six-week growing season, plants survive. Many tundra flowers track the sun to maximize their intake of light, required for photosynthesis.
Rocky Mountain National Park is host to 360-degree views of astonishing peaks, lakes, fields, canyons, forests, and meadows spread over 400 square miles. The Rockies’ spine divides the continent into two watersheds: one flows west to the Pacific, the other east to the Atlantic.
On the park’s drier eastern side, snow blows in from the wetter west and replenishes the few remaining glaciers… all rest in cool, dark valley cirques – or bowl-shaped depressions. Higher summer temperatures since the 1990s have caused the glaciers to melt back. On the park’s west side, in the Never Summer mountains, the Colorado River begins as a tiny stream fed by snowmelt. Downstream, it will provide water to 40 million humans.
Thrust skyward by Earth’s forces 40 to 70 million years ago, then sculpted by multiple glacial episodes, the Rockies are “new” in geologic terms. In 2009, Rocky Mountain National Park, a small neighborhood within this vast mountain range, became one of the nation’s “newest” designated wildernesses under the 1964 Wilderness Act. Wilderness is a gift to people today and to future generations. The designation protects forever the land’s wild character, natural conditions, opportunities for solitude, and scientific, educational, and historical values. In wilderness, people can sense being a part of the whole community of life on Earth.
Below 9,000 feet
The montane ecosystem is the park’s gateway whether you enter from Grand Lake, Estes Park or Wild Basin. On warm, south-facing slopes, the ponderosa pines will greet you with their sweet fragrence. The open, sunlight-dappled forest of tall (up to 150 feet) trees feeds and shelters the tassel-eared Abert’s squirrel.
Chokecherry, currant, and juniper bushes sustain many animals, insects, and birds. Beavers and otters work and play in the montane’s streams. Elk, one of the park’s larger mammals, gather here to rut in fall. They eat the aspen trees’ soft inner bark and shoots, and leave a calling card of abraded aspen trunks. On cooler, north-facing slopes, forests are dense with Douglas-fir and lodgepole pine.
9,000 to 11,400 feet
Snow that falls in the alpine zone blows down to the subalpine, creating a wet ecosystem with over 30 inches of precipitation annually. Sharp-tipped, pungent Engelmann spruce and flat-needled fir trees prevail, reaching 100 feet. The understory supports shrubs like blueberry, wax currant, huckleberry, and Wood’s rose. Wildflowers like arnica, fairy slipper, twinflower, and purple elephant’s head colonize open meadows.
On the park’s southern edge, the water ouzel, or American dipper, defies rushing streams to dive for food. Downy and hairy woodpeckers, bold Steller’s jay, and the yellow-rumped warbler share the woods. Look for the pocket gopher and golden-mantled ground squirrel.
Above 11,400 feet
Extremely thin soil, striping ultraviolet light, drying winds, and bitter cold define life on the tundra. Many plants hug the ground in dense mats, preserve moisture with waxen leaf surfaces, or trap warmth against stems and leaves with hairs.
Animals also must adapt or die. Marmots store fat, then draw upon their reserves as they hibernate. Bighorn sheep graze here in summer, but migrate to lower elevations in fall, like many other species in the park. The resilient white-tailed ptarmigan is an exception. This bird stays in the alpine zone all winter and is warmed by feathered eyelids, nostrils, legs, and feet.
Legacy of Stewardship
Native Americans lived on and cared for this land for centuries. As human numbers and uses grew, people recognized that preservation was needed. Many passionate advocates for a park emerged, including naturalist and guide Enos Mills (1870-1922). He led the push for a wilderness park. Mining, grazing, and logging interests lobbied for a national forest where commercial activities could continue. In 1915, Congress dedicated Rocky Mountain National Park.
Influential Estes Park resident Mary King Sherman (1862-1935) also campaigned to establish the park. She promoted outdoor education, citing better health, and an increased sense of civic duty as benefits. Her ideas are cornerstones of the National Park Service today.
Long before anyone envisioned a Rocky Mountain National Park, Isabella Bird (1831-1904) published A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains: One Woman’s Travels Through the Rockies of Colorado and Wyoming in the 1870s. Her book helped make others aware of the region’s rugged beauty and “unprofaned freshness” and paved the way for preservation. In 1873, a fur trapper called Mountain Jim helped Isabella Bird climb Longs Peak. He was one of many who traveled to the Rocky Mountains in search of natural beauty or bounty.
Native Americans preceded all others in this wild place. Tools, pottery, and rock piles whisper of human presence over 10,000 years ago, when Paleo-Indians seasonally hunted and possibly traded here. Later, Ute, Cheyenne, and Arapaho bands came to these mountains. They probably wore the path now known as Trail Ridge Road, leaving few other traces. Over one million people now pour into the park in a six-week period each summer. Nearby urban areas affect how the park is managed. Decades of fire suppression created dense undergrowth, which only increased the treat to surrounding communities and caused changes in forest composition. Over 35 invasive plant species now mingle with natives.
To better understand these and other challenges, the park has set aside areas for science and research. The park is also home to the Continental Divide Learning Center, where education and research programs focus on park resources. Now in its second century, Rocky Mountain National Park will continue to preserve natural systems and cultural stories for generations.