Rocky Mountain National Park sampler

A list of some of our favorite spots in one of the nation’s most beloved parks

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A view from Arapaho Peak.
Courtesy of Alan Apt

This summer is the 100th anniversary of the creation of the National Park Service. It is a great excuse to visit the natural wonderland of Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP). True to its name, RMNP has more than 100 mountains over 11,000 feet in elevation, and many that are 12,000-13,000 feet, with the monarch — Longs Peak — at 14,259 feet. The park is more than a peakbagger’s paradise; it has something for everyone regardless of age or ability. It has sparkling lakes, babbling brooks, cascading waterfalls, meadows full of wildflowers, bugling elk, grouchy moose, chipmunks, bears, mountain lions, bobcats and countless other wild creatures to commune with at a safe distance. There are level, easy, wheelchair accessible trails to stroll on with baby buggies, and peaks to summit on strenuous climbs, and everything in between. Admission will be free the weekend of August 25 to 28 to celebrate the anniversary. It is usually $25 per carload of people for one week. Prepare for all kinds of weather — it can change quickly and dramatically at these heights — and take enough food, and especially water, if you are going on long hikes.

If you are going to the main part of the park, start at the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center and look at the 3-D model of the park and its hills and mountains. You can get advice from rangers, and find out when and where free ranger led hikes and talks will be taking place. You can also enjoy a video overview of the park.

Here is a RMNP sampler of places you can enjoy on your tour.

Wild Basin

This often over-looked part of RMNP is actually the closest to Boulder County and Denver. It is just north of Allenspark on the Peak to Peak Highway (CO-7). It’s a magnificent glacier-carved, riparian valley that churns with white water cascades and waterfalls in the spring and early summer. The valley also has abundant shade for warm summer days. Take an easy hike to Calypso Cascades, or more challenging hikes to Finch, Pear, Ouzel or Bluebird lakes.

McGregor Ranch

This is a great place to visit in spring or early summer when the higher reaches of the park are still snowbound or muddy.  It is much lower in elevation so the snow melts and the trails dry out much earlier. You can stroll on the Cow Creek Trail and enjoy sweeping views of Longs Peak, and watch technical rock climbers scaling the dizzying heights of the Lumpy Ridge rock formations. You can also hike up over erosion sculpted sandstone and granite rocks to pretty Gem Lake, or take the more challenging hike out to Bridal Veil falls.

Hike up erosion sculpted sandstone and granite rocks to Gem Lake.
Hike up erosion sculpted sandstone and granite rocks to Gem Lake. Alan Apt

Moraine Park

This beautiful meadow has one of the best mountain backdrops on the planet. Elk love this grassy meadow as much as people. It is off of Bear Lake Road and features a very popular campground that is full most of the summer, so reserve a space early. Visit the natural history museum on the east side, and then hike the easy South Lateral or Tuxedo Park trails that border the moraine on the north and south and enjoy the views. Try the gently climbing Cub Lake Trail to see pristine lakes or Fern Lake for a longer hike.

Trail Ridge Road

There are few drives in the U.S. or the world that can match the stunning mountain scenery of Trail Ridge Road as it climbs to 12,000 feet. You can bike it if you don’t mind dodging cars and motorhomes, or hike it before the road opens on Memorial Day. Do get out of your car and explore the trails that overlook Forest Canyon or hike on the east or west sections of the Ute Trail. You can hike up 3,000 feet on the east section from Beaver Meadows if you don’t want to drive, and enjoy the rock formation of Tombstone Ridge on the way to 12,000 feet.

Summits

If you want a scenic but easy summit, hike up 1,000 feet to the top of Deer Mountain, a few miles from the Beaver Meadows entrance and enjoy spectacular views of Longs Peak to the south and the Mummy Mountains to the west and north. Turn around whenever you wish for an easier trek with children. If you want a mountaineering experience, try to summit the very popular Flattop Mountain (12,324 feet). Prepare for all kinds of weather and take enough food and water for a full day to climb 2,834 feet over the 9-mile round trip route from the Bear Lake trailhead. You can also continue on for a total of almost 18 miles and end up in Grand Lake, after crossing the Continental Divide.

Arrive very early or take the shuttle for parking.

Bear Lake is a great place for some family bonding.
Bear Lake is a great place for some family bonding. Courtesy of Alan Apt

Grand Lake

If you drive over Trail Ridge Road you will end up on the Grand Lake side of the park. You can enjoy the relatively small stream that is the beginning of the mighty Colorado River with an easy family stroll on the Coyote Trail. The East Inlet Trail is a great route for more extensive outings of any length. You can take a short family stroll to Adams Falls, and then enjoy the scenic East Meadow that is another half mile beyond. You might have to share the dazzling riparian view with moose or elk. If you have more vitamins in your legs, you can continue on to a series of pristine lakes, starting with Lone Pine and ending with the Fifth Lake on high.

There are many other adventures on both sides of magnificent and magical Rocky Mountain National Park. The rangers at the visitor centers can regale you with the infinite possibilities. But whatever you do, take your time, breath deeply, look and listen.   

Alan Apt is the author of Afoot and Afield, Denver, Boulder, Fort Collins, and Rocky Mountain National Park, 184 Spectacular Outings in the Colorado Rockies.

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