Rocky Mountain National Park is for adventurers. For explorers. For romantics. It’s a place to experience the ultimate adrenaline rush and the soul-cleaning effects of nature. This September, the park–which spans 415 acres in Colorado near Denver, Boulder and Fort Collins–celebrates its 100th birthday. We have a few ideas for how to toast the old chap.
Timber Creek Campsite — Photo courtesy of Grand Lake Chamber
Spend the night
Choose between 585 drive-in campsites and nearly 200 backcountry sites, where you can sleep under the stars. Moraine Park Campground has deer and elk, and feels remote though it’s not far from the road. Timber Creek on the western side of the park, near Grand Lake, is first-come-first-serve and has an amphitheater for weddings. And the Long Peaks site has plenty of trees for shade and hanging a hammock.
Get in Shape
The park has 355 miles of hiking trails, and the best ones aren’t exactly easy to tackle. Lumpy Ridge to Gem Lake is short, but steep enough to get you winded. Mount Ida is relatively unknown, but easy to access from the Poudre Lake Trailhead at Milners Pass and offers 360-degree views of the surrounding mountains and lakes below. But to really make Rocky proud, try your legs at Long’s Peak, the tallest mountain in the park at 14,259.
Downtown Estes Park — Photo courtesy of Jennifer Boyer
Play in Estes
Estes Park is one of the few gateway towns into the park, and it rises to the challenge of entertaining the millions of visitors, who flow through the town annually. The famed Stanley Hotel, which inspired The Shining, and the cute boutique-filled downtown make Estes worth the stop, but it’s some of the latest additions that’ll make you want to stick around–Open Air Adventure Park with aerial obstacle courses for thrill-seekers, and this fall, the town welcomes Elkins Rocky Mountain Whiskey, where you can salute the Rockies with a shot of moonshine.
Cruise down Trail Ridge Road
As the highest continual highway in the U.S. (reaching 12,183 feet), the park’s Trail Ridge Road spans 48 miles and crosses the continental divide. Along the way, pass the Alpine Tundra, glaciers and enough photo stops to turn this into an all-day trek. You’ll see folks turning around at various points, but push forth and ride the whole stretch to Grand Lake. Be sure to budget in a couple hours to get back; there are no shortcuts or bypasses.
Find Hidden Ruins
In 1879, Lulu City thrived as a mining town. Now all that remains are old cabins, foundational structures and other small remnants of the Wild West. Archeology and history buffs will love the relics, and everyone will love the view and the sound of the modest creek that runs along the town, eventually feeding into the mighty Colorado River. Access Lulu through the Colorado River Trailhead.
Bear Lake — Photo courtesy of Ben Grey
Take to the waters
Glacier-fed icy blue waters are among the park’s most gorgeous features. While the water is way to cold for most, finding yourself lakeside is enough to feel refreshed. Bear Lake is the most popular and has relatively smooth trails. On the western edge of the Park, Grand Lake offers sailing with views of the park, as well as the country’s only cemetery operating inside a national park. Most don’t venture into the northern edge of the park for Mirror Lake, but it’s worth the effort.
A visitor’s center is hardly worth the mention, unless–as is the case at Beaver Meadows Visitors Center–it has Frank Lloyd Wright’s touch. In 1967, Taliesin Associated Architects, a firm the celebrated architect created to carry on his work after his death, debuted the COR-TEN steel beauty to be the park’s headquarters. Pop in to watch a film about the park and get your picture made in front of the historic landmark.
Elk dominate the landscape, but there are more than 1,000 species in the park, which means that every turn lends a chance for an encounter of the wilder kind. Moraine Park is your best bet for seeing one of the 3,000 elks and 800 bighorn sheep that roam the park.
Catch Your Dinner
Although most of the lakes in the park are restricted to catch-and-release, there are nearly 20 waterways where it’s legal to keep your catch. Trout is the most bountiful fish in the park, and fly-fishing is the sport of choice. Novices are wise to sign up for guided fishing trips with Kirks Flyshop in Estes Park.
Never Summer Mountains — Photo courtesy of Adam
Chill Out–Any Time of Year
The park is plenty cold and snowy most of the year (in winter, track down Hidden Valley to find a sledding hill complete with a warming station). But the magic of mountains that soar thousands of feet about sea level is that you can find snow year-round. In the Never Summer Mountains area of the park, you can play in patches of snow while wearing shorts in 70-degree weather in the middle of July.