Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the best locations for outdoor adventures like hiking, camping, horseback riding or white water rafting! It is located between the towns of Estes Park and Grand Lake, Colorado and is home to many peaks, like the Long’s Peak and Southeast Longs (also known as The Beaver). In this article I will share some of the needed tips for someone who is going to the Rocky Mountain National Park for the first time!
Planning Your Trip to the Rockies
You will need quite a bit of preparation before your trip, especially if you are going to camp like we did. We camped for a week at Moraine Park Campground and it was amazing! We didn’t even have to leave our campsite to see wildlife like wild turkeys, chipmunks, or deer at any time of the day or beautiful views of the mountains. But of course, we did leave and we hiked over 8 miles every day to see breathtaking views of the mountain tops, waterfalls, and fields of flowers. While we were exhausted, we were really happy to be prepared for the elevation change and had all of our gear with us! Here are some of my tips for your first visit to Rocky Mountain National Park!
1.Reserve Your Camping Spots Early
The Rockies are very famous and more than 3 million people visit the park every year. If you are planning on camping, you will need to reserve a spot well in advance (like several months) especially if you are going in July or August. Also, it’s the best time of the year to visit, since the weather is not too hot or cold and most of the snow has melted to make your hikes a little easier. We had to reserve our camping spots in Moraine Park Campground 6 months in advance and all of the best spots (on the A loop) for August were already reserved.
2. Make a List of What You Want to See and Do
I am all about lists, so it may not come as a surprise, but knowing what you want to do will maximize your time while you’re there. You need to know distance, altitude, elevation gain, weather forecast, and trail conditions to always be safe when you are hiking.
If you put together all of the activities you would like to do, it will help you reserve everything in advance and not worry about calling in and making reservations when you have no service. (The service will most likely be very spotty on your campground or as soon as you enter the park.)
3. Pick the Right Season to Go
Choose the right season to visit Rocky Mountain National Park to be ready for the weather, road closures, and crowds. We visited the park in early August and while the weather was perfect for hiking, there were a lot of people in the park and parking was very difficult. All roads, trails, and campgrounds are open in the summer. In additional to clear and warm days, you will get to see wildlife everywhere.
If you go earlier in the summer, there will be some snow at higher altitudes. The trails can be harder to hike, but it will not be crowded and you will get to see breathtaking views of snow-melt waterfalls. Not all roads and trails will remain open, so be sure to check the Rocky Mountains Current Conditions page for updates.
4. Exercise Before You Go
Some hikes you might want to take will be challenging. Try to run a few times a week before going on your trip. This will help you feel a lot better when you are hiking and prevent possible injuries.
5. Pack Well for Your Trip
I put together a great list of things you will absolutely need on your next hiking/camping trip! Among other things, don’t forget to to bring binoculars (here’s a really great pair). They are great for spotting wildlife (or rock climbers). Also, always bring a rain jacket – it will be raining in the afternoons. When we went on our trip, it rained several times every day and we were happy we all had our Marmot rain jackets. I made a camping packing checklist, where you will find everything you will need on your camping trip in one place, use it to save time when packing.
When You Arrive to the Rocky Mountain National Park
When you arrive, there are still a few things you need to know to stay safe and mindful of others.
6. Start With Lower Elevation Hikes
You will experience elevation change when you arrive, so it will be harder to exercise. You will get tired a lot faster from hiking and it will take you a couple of days for your body to adjust. Also, remember that some hikes are better for families than others. Don’t bring your kids on a hike that is too hard. No one will be happy!
Some of the hardest hikes we really enjoyed: Bear Lake to Fern Lake, Sky Pond and Mount Ida hike along the Continental Divide. My personal favorite was the Ouzel Falls hike, it had 3 amazing waterfalls, beautiful forested trails and lots of wildlife!
7. Carry Water With You
And snacks, and a camera/phone, also a first aid kit, and more water. It’s harder to hike at the higher elevation, the best thing to do is carry a small backpack with you for all of your gear. I go more in-depth on the must-haves in this article.
8. Be Ready for the Weather
If you are hiking in June, there will be snow on the ground. There is even seen it snow in August. The weather can be crazy in the mountains, so always be mindful of the weather and have a rain jacket and good waterproof hiking boots on you.
9. Go Early or Go Late
Go early in the day! This is probably the most important tip if you are hiking in the Rocky Mountain National Park. You will have a completely different experience if you are in the park before the crowds, the higher temperatures, and afternoon showers. It is very dangerous to be exposed to the rain on top of mountains in the middle of the day because of high chances of lightning. The animals are out in the morning, and you really feel like you have the whole park to yourself. How early? We left between 6 and 7:00, but even if you get there by 8:00 you will be ahead of a lot of people.
The peak time for Rocky Mountain is 10am to 3pm, so go before 10am or after 3pm, you’ll find parking, avoid the crowds and rain. The park receives 50% more visitors on weekends than on weekdays, so make Saturday or Sunday your rest day or go for a harder hike if you would prefer less people.
10. Take Advantage of Rocky Mountain National Park Services
When you enter the park, you will be given a park newspaper. It will tell you the schedule of the ranger programs.There are plenty of ranger-led programs about various topics, including photography, wildlife, and astronomy. It’s a really fun way to learn more about the park!
Enter your kids into the junior ranger program. There are activity booklets for different ages, and you can pick up the books at the visitor centers. Once they complete the booklet, they take an oath and become an official junior ranger. It is a very fun way for them to learn about the great outdoors and enjoy the trip even more. If your kiddos are taking part in the junior ranger program, a lesson from a ranger is one of the requirements, so you could do one of the lessons with them!
11. Use the Shuttle Service
From May to October, the park runs a shuttle service and you can get as far as Bear Lake and Moraine Park all the way from Estes Park with just one transfer! In the summer, parking lots can fill up as early as 6am. In Fall and Spring, the lots are full at 10am. Using the shuttle service is also a great way to get back to your car if you decide to take a one-way hike. Just don’t forget to check when the last shuttle leaves to prevent being stranded.
12. Slow Down
Give yourself more time to enjoy the scenery, to find wildlife, and to discover that little bit of detail that others missed. Most importantly, give your body time to adjust to the environment. The number one killer in Rocky Mountain National Park is the heart attack, followed by falling. The average altitude of the trails is around 9,000 to 10,000 feet above sea level. Listen to your body, and obey it if it asks for rest, water, or food. When we went on our 9-mile hike up Mount Ida, it took us over 10 hours because we spent time having lunch, resting and enjoying the scenery.
13. Buy a Pass
If you enjoy visiting National Parks, you should get a yearly pass, it will save you money and will motivate you to get out more! If you are age 62 or older, and plan to visit more than a few national parks during your lifetime, buy a lifetime pass. It will get you into the national parks for the rest of your life for free! This is an excellent deal at the price of $80.
14. Be Aware of the Wildlife
If you do spot wildlife nearby, do not get out of your car or slow down the traffic. You can get that awesome picture from your seat. At some point during your trip, you will see someone walking toward an animal trying to get a close up shot. It is not safe for you or the others around you. The animals are wild, can run fast and are much stronger than you would expect.
15. Be Ready for the Elevation Change
I know I stated it a couple of times before, but make sure you are ready for possible altitude sickness – take the med kit with Ibuprofen in it as you may get headaches the first couple of days. Also, if you plan on drinking, you may want to be a little more careful than usual as you will feel the alcohol a lot faster than you would at lower elevation. For more things you will need to pack on your hikes, check out my hiking packing list!