Rocky Mountain National Park:
I was 13 when I spent a long weekend in Colorado with my Dad. We drove through Rocky Mountain NP, visited Pike's Peak, and explored Denver. It was at that point I decided I was going to go to college in Colorado (spoiler alert: didn't happen) and started dreaming of returning to the beautiful state. It took me eleven years to get back.. and let me tell you, it was worth the wait!
Colorado is a popular tourist destination during all seasons, so we opted for the fall to avoid the busyness of the summer season and to see the autumn colors. It did make planning the logistics of the trip slightly tricky, as many of the campgrounds we would have liked to stay at were already closed for the season. However, we managed to find a place to sleep each night without much trouble. We drove to Colorado (after many times of crunching numbers of flying vs. driving) which was long, but also a lot of fun. Our first stop was Rocky Mountain National Park - where I first fell in love with Colorado.
Rocky Mountain National Park essentially has two parts - the eastern and western side of the park. The Eastern side is closer to Denver, making it more accessible but also busier. We stayed two nights on the east side, camping at Moraine Park Campground. It was nice, clean, and central to everything we wanted to do on that side. Bonus - we were able to hear elk bugling right from our campsite!
Rocky Mountain is Colorado's busiest national park - seeing 4.2 million visitors annually. It has five campgrounds across the park and covers 265,826 acres. Despite its size, much of that area is backcountry, leaving most of the visitors condensed into a few areas. We arrived on a beautiful Sunday morning in September and were advised to get there early if we didn't want to spend hours waiting in line to get into the park. We arrived around 7:30am and had no issues getting in. We started our day at the Alluvial Fans trail, a short trail up to a waterfall and beautiful views.
Trail Ridge Road:
Our next activity was driving up Old Fall River Road, a one-way & one-lane dirt road that snakes 11 miles up from the valley floor to the visitors center at 11,796ft. This road was first opened in 1920 and was the first auto road over the Rocky Mountains. Today, the park service maintains it, although there are no guard-rail and it boasts some pretty crazy views (and drops). There are no restrictions on the road, except for the 15MPH speed limit, and we managed in our 2WD Prius. I should mention there was a few tricky turns with huge potholes, but my husband navigated around them in our car just fine.
There were plenty of spots along the road to pull over to take photos and let other cars pass.
The valley in the far left of the photo is where the road began!
The Alpine Visitor Center, which sits at the pass of 11,796 feet.
Marmot Point Trail:As we reached the top of the road, there was a small off-road parking area for Marmot Point Trail (near that small lake in the photo). This 1-mile trail is short but steep and climbs a few hundred feet quickly. It was our first time hiking at high elevation and we definitely felt it, but the incredible views were well worth it. At the top there is awesome 360-panoramic views! The trail was also less crowded then the visitor center area, because it's only accessible by the one-way road.
Marmot Point from the parking lot.
We made a quick stop at the Alpine Visitor Center to stamp our NPS passports and learning more about the alpine terrain at the high elevation. The views from the couches were also nice for sitting and relaxing for a bit!
Old Fall River Road is one-way, so we took the popular (and paved, yay!) Trail Ridge Road back down into the valley to our campground. We took our time and stopped at overlooks along the way.
This is a Pika! An adorable small mammal that makes squeaks to communicate. We fell in love with them, they're precious little squeaky rock climbing fuzzballs.
One of the best parts of visiting in the fall was that the elk were in rut. For those (like myself) who don't know what that is, here's a brief synopsis: the male elk fight to show their manliness & power for the female elk. It involves loud bugling (elk call) and if you're lucky, an antler-to-antler match! The herds are constantly on the move, but there are a few reliable places to see them. Large, open areas (called "parks" in the Rockies) are where they usually like to be, and we saw some both nights in Moraine Park, right by our campground. In fact, we heard them bugling all night long!
The other way to find elk is to drive around the park and look for multiple cars pulled over on the side of the road. It may seem silly, but during the rut season, "elk jams" can be an issue in the park. At every spot we saw an elk gathering, there was a friendly ranger making sure everyone stayed a safe distance from the elk. Although they may look beautiful, full-grown male elk can weigh over 1,000lbs. The NPS requires wildlife viewing to be done from at least a distance of 75-feet away (approximately two bus lengths). It was incredible to watch these giant creatures, but be smart and safe when viewing wild animals.
We stayed two nights at Moraine Park Campground (east side) and one night at Timber Creek Campground (west side). Both were nice, had nicely spaced out sites and had shared bear boxes for every 2-3 campsites. There were no showers, but the bathrooms had running water and were clean. Moraine Park was close to the town of Estes Park, so we were able to run to town for groceries one night. We enjoyed our nights there and would stay again!
One of our favorite hikes was the Emerald Lake Trail. Check out that post for more information on the hike!
A short hike from the Bear Lake Trailhead is Alberta Falls. I'm not sure how long it was, but it wasn't hard and had pretty views.
Rocky Mountain NP: Western SideThe Continental Divide essentially splits the park into two halves. The western side of the park doesn't have as many high peaks, but it's also less crowded (and in my opinion) just as beautiful. We loved our time on the west side and our only disappointment was the lack of time we allotted for it.
We hiked four miles of the Colorado River Trail. It was mostly flat and parallels the river. It's supposedly one of the best places to spot a Moose, but we weren't that lucky.
Holzwarth Historic Site:
A short 1.3 mile hike will take you across the Kawuneeche Valley and into the woods to the historic site of what was once the Never Summer Ranch. During the summer, the inside of the buildings are open to the public. We were a little late for that, but enjoyed wandering around the old cabins anyway. It was fun to imagine what living here in the 1920's might have been like!
We ended our time in the Rockies near the town of Grand Lake. We parked at the Adams Fall trailhead, hiked up to the falls, and then hiked farther on the trail into the valley for a few miles. There were hardly any other people - it was so quiet compared to the eastern side of the park! We were bummed we didn't have more time to adventure on the west side, so we'll definitely build it into the itinerary the next time we visit.
The entrance fee to the park is $25 for a day, or $35 for a 7-day pass. Honestly, if you plan to visit any other parks in a year, I would purchase the NPS Annual Pass for $70. The Annual Pass covers entrance to all National Parks and covers some (but not all) tour fees at other NPS sites.
If you plan to visit during a busy season or weekend, be sure to make your campground reservations well in advance. RMNP was the only park that still took reservations so late in the season and we're glad we made them - the Moraine Park Campground was full both nights.
We would have loved to have a week in the park, but that just wasn't feasible with everything we wanted to see in Colorado. Three days was a nice amount of time to see a good bit, if we had more time we definitely would have tried to go backpacking at least one night. We also didn't do any really strenuous hikes in the park because we were "saving" our energy for Mt. Evans (our next stop). If we went back, I'd love to hike to more alpine lakes and get away from the more popular tourist spots. All this aside, Rocky Mountain National Park is gorgeous and well worth a visit!