Rocky Mountain National Park has 72 named peaks above 12,000 feet of elevation. Long's Peak at 14,259 feet, is the northernmost of the so-called "fourteeners" in the Rocky Mountain chain. Earth forces thrust the Rockies skyward 70 million years ago, but many of the exposed granite rocks in the park are much older. Three major glacial episodes sculpted the scenery that inspired citizens to persuade Congress to designate this a national park in 1915. In 2009 Rocky Mountain National Park was also given an added layer of protection as designated wilderness. As defined by the Wilderness Act—a wilderness, in contrast to those areas where man and his works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain. As Wallace Stegner, the noted author and environmentalist said, "We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look at it. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope." Go directly to the Rocky Mountain Photo Gallery.
Within the park you will encounter three distinct ecosystems: Alpine, Subalpine, and Montane. Alpine tundra occurs above treeline, usually about 11,400 feet, where the climate is extremely harsh. Only specialized plants and animals thrive because of the fierce wind, bitter cold, thin soil, and intense ultraviolet light. The subalpine ecosystem lies between 9,000 and 11,400 feet. The climate is characterized by long, cold winters, short, cool summers, and a high annual precipitation. It is the highest, windiest, and snowiest forest. As you enter the park, you are entering the montane— a land of pine forests and beautiful mountain meadows. This ecology resides below 9000 feet. Open stands of ponderonsa pine dominate the drier, sunny slopes of the montane. Mature trees can reach 150 feet and 400 years. Humans first began living in this area 10,000 years ago. The Ute, or Mountain People, were dominant here beginning 6000 years ago.
There are two main ways to reach Rocky Mountain National Park. The park resides in north-central Colorado approximately 75 miles from Denver. If you are coming from the south or west, take US Hwy. 34 through Granby and Grand Lake, CO to the Kawuneeche Visitor Center and Grand Lake entrance station. If you are coming from the east or north, you will enter through Estes Park, CO at the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center on US Hwy. 36 or the Fall River Visitor Center on US Hwy. 34. The main road through the park is known as the Trail Ridge Road and is also Hwy. 34. Bear Lake Road, or Hwy. 36, travels through the southeastern part of the park. The far northern and southern areas of the park are true wilderness and are only accessible on foot.
The high country of Rocky Mountain National Park is noted for extreme weather patterns. Shaped by elevation, slope, and exposure, these patterns can change rapidly. Temperatures are often moderate at elevations below 9,400'. At higher points, like Bear Lake, Trail Ridge Road, or Longs Peak, it may snow even in July. A wide variation between day and nighttime temperatures is also typical of mountain weather. Summer days in July and August often reach 70-80° F. and drop into the 40's at night. Spring comes to the montane environs in late April, although snowfall is not uncommon at this time of year. Unpredictable weather alternates between warm and cold, wet and dry. In June, spring is just reaching the subalpine country, while summer is on the plains. Wildflowers begin blooming at lower elevations in late April or early May. Many trails are still covered in snow. In late May, Trail Ridge Road opens for the season. On the alpine tundra wildflowers bloom from late June to early August. Afternoon thunderstorms and wind are normal patterns. Always be prepared for temperature drops of 10-20 degrees. September and October bring clear, crisp air, blue skies, and generally dry weather. An early snowstorm may occur. Aspen leaves start changing colors in mid-September. Elk mating season begins in September and continues through most of October. Trail Ridge Road usually closes for the winter by mid-October.
The Internet Brothers have visited Rocky Mountain National Park a couple of times, first in 1980, most recently in July 2009. On this recent two day visit we enjoyed the Trail Ridge Road, a hike from the Alpine Visitor Center, dirt road driving on the Old Fall River Road (the original park scenic drive), and a fabulous day hike on the Long's Peak Trail to Chasm Lake.
The first day we entered the park from the southwest at the Grand Lake entrance station and caught all the overlooks between there and the Alpine Visitor Center. From the visitor center we hiked up the Alpine Ridge Trail, a terraced ¾ mile round trip that climbs 200 feet. Be warned the summit is above 12,000' so you may experience altitude sickness or difficulty breathing. It is also recommended to have a jacket and wool cap even in summer because it will be windy and chilly. We continued along the Trail Ridge Road to West Horseshoe Park where we took the Old Fall River Road back up the steep traverse to the Alpine Visitor Center again. On our 2nd pass back down to montane level, we enjoyed the afternoon sun on the sights at the various overlooks. The southern park road takes you through Moraine Park and on to Bear Lake. A quiet evening walk around the lake completed our day.
On day two, we arrived at the Long's Peak trailhead just past dawn for our climb up to Chasm Lake, a roundtrip hike of 8.4 miles starting at 9,400' with 2,360' elevation gain. With both of us in our mid-fifties, we aren't the quickest hikers, but we are steady. We cleared the treeline in about 90 minutes and entered another world as the rest of the hike went up and over the alpine tundra. The rocks, wildflowers, and scenery were amazing. There is one spot where you can see Denver, 75 miles away. After 3½ miles, you reach the trail fork where Chasm Lake goes to the left, and those going all the way up Long's Peak will take off to the right. Next we passed the Peacock Pool and Columbine Falls. Both are simply stunning. We reached Chasm Lake after four hours. The last ¼ mile was the steepest and toughest; there wasn't much trail. Feet and hands were required to navigate the steep boulders. Some would say Chasm Lake is ugly because it is stark and grey. There is no vegetation because of the alpine climate. To us, sitting below the east face of Long's Peak, it was the rewarding conclusion of a beautiful morning. We enjoyed a picnic lunch, then spent the next 2½ hours hiking back down to the trailhead. Highly recommended.
One sad note to report. If you have spent any time in the Rocky Mountains from Canada to New Mexico in recent years, you know about the pine beetle epidemic. Since 2006, these bark beetles have been infecting and killing the pines all the way up to 11,000 feet. Rocky Mountain National Park has not been spared. These beetles are native insects that have shaped the forests for thousands of years. The park's priorities for mitigation of the effects of beetles are focused on removing hazard trees and fuels related to the protection of life and property. There is simply no effective means of controlling a large beetle outbreak in such a vast area as the park's backcountry. So when you go, realize that there will be a lot of dead trees, but accept that this is all just part of nature doing its job. There are still many, many beautiful sights for all to see.
Proceed to the Rocky Mountain National Park Photo Gallery
National Parks Conservation Association — The gradual, accelerated warming of our planet will have disastrous consequences for America's national parks. But all is not lost. Although the situation seems dire, NPCA's report, Unnatural Disaster, says we can still halt the most severe effects of climate change if we take action now. The national parks offer a unique opportunity to draw attention to America’s priceless resources at risk, and to showcase opportunities to act to protect them.