2017 has become the year of the National Parks for me since they've recently become my new obsession. As much as I love traveling internationally, there is still so much for me to see within the United States (plus, it's so much easier when you're working with PTO schedules!) and I love using the National Parks as an excuse to explore more of it. So far, I've been to Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park (see my guide to both here!), and now Rocky Mountain National Park just this year and I'm hooked. Ri and my decision to head out west for 36 hours was a bit impulsive, but we couldn't resist once we heard Riley's brother Rob, Allie (from Her Postcard Life), and her brother Joe were heading out to Rocky Mountain National Park for a day.
RMNP is absolutely massive with 355 miles worth of hiking trails, making it far harder to accomplish in one day than some other national parks. Since we were cut short on time, we focused on the highlights. Check out my guide below for my top recommendations for a fun-filled adventure in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Trail Ridge Road
We entered the park through the Bear Meadows Entrance Gate, just outside Estes Park, CO and immediately began our tour of RMNP by driving 18 miles along Trail Ridge Road (fun fact: TRR is the highest continuous motorway in the United States!). We stopped at various scenic points along the way and were absolutely stunned with the views. Part of the drive was above the tree line and we all were fascinated watching the thermostat in the car drop as we ascended through the mountains. Trail Ridge Road guides you through three different ecosystems that are all equipped with different overlooks and trailheads. Some of our most notable stops along the way were:
- Many Parks Curve- While the views are absolutely beautiful from the first viewpoint, beware of the shocking metal fence along the edge! From the Many Parks Curve Viewpoint you can see 13 different mountains (one of which is over 14,000 feet!).
- Rainbow Curve- This viewpoint doesn't even require stepping out of your vehicle. There are bathrooms at this stop that came highly recommended by some of our group members. Take advantage of these bathrooms before you get deep into the park where restrooms are limited! From here you can spot 10 different mountains, Horseshoe Park, and the Hidden Valley, which is home to the beaver!
- Forest Canyon- You can really feel the temperatures dropping when you arrive at this viewpoint. The viewpoint is about .25 miles away from the parking lot and offers a few benches and picnic tables for you to enjoy your lunch with a view. We spotted our first elk of the day here! **Make sure you stay on the trails as this is a designated Tundra Protection Area.
- Rock Cut: Rock Cut is a rock formation that was cut through so that the road could be built for the national park!
- Lava Cliffs
- Iceberg Pass
- Gore Range: From the Gore Range you can spot the Never Summer Mountains (which originally shared a name with our final stop-- the Medicine Bow Curve). The Gore Range offers breathtaking views in the sub-alpine ecosystem. We were able to grab a parking spot and decided to stop here for lunch before continuing on our itinerary
- Medicine Bow Curve: This was our designated final stop. When we originally hopped out of the car, I was thrilled at the prospect of being able to see Wyoming (although, it was a cloudy day and storms were rolling in so I doubt we would have been able to see it anyway). Just as we were rounding the corner, we saw a giant elk feeding on the grass just a few yards away.
I was absolutely blown away by the amount of wildlife we saw in RMNP. At each of the different viewpoints, we saw a chipmunks, marmots, pikas (which I called mountain gerbils the entire day until learning the real name for them), and eventually some elk too. Keep your eyes open while on Trail Ridge Road and you may seem elk, black bears, moose, eagles, and bighorn sheep as you ascend through the mountains!
Nymph, Dream, and Emerald Lakes Hike
Since we were short on time, we decided we were going to do one long hike up to Emerald Lake. The hike was 3.6 miles round trip, which gave us the perfect opportunity to stretch our legs before the 90 minute ride back to Denver. Start this hike at the Bear Lake Trailhead and even make a pit stop at Bear Lake before beginning your trek up to Emerald Lake. The hike is fairly easy and is loaded with dozens of scenic mountain viewpoints and waterfalls along the way. You truly cannot go wrong with this hike-- just make sure you bring lots of water! Bonus points if you get to play in some of the leftover snow from the winter!
Tips & Tricks:
Make sure you bring water. Most of Rocky Mountain National Park is at high altitudes. It's important to stay hydrated even when you aren't hiking.
Pack lots of layers. You'll be ascending and descending to different altitudes throughout the day and temperatures can range 20 degrees.
If you're driving in from Denver, stop at a grocery store for packed lunches and a cooler before arriving in Estes Park. The options for lunch were limited and the store itself left a lot to be desired.
- Wear sunscreen. The sun is a lot stronger at high altitudes!