Rocky Mountain National Park, RMNP, is the crown jewel of Colorado’s great outdoors. Covering some 415 square miles, the park lies north and west of the Denver area. Of course, the park envelopes part of the Rocky Mountains mountain range that runs from Canada down across virtually the entire width of the United States, finally petering out somewhere in New Mexico.
Within Rocky Mountain National Park are 17 peaks higher than 13,000. The highest mountain in RMNP is Long’s Peak, with a peak elevation of 14,255, making it one of Colorado’s famed “14ers,” mountains with a top elevation above 14,000 feet. But, there is more to Rocky Mountain National Park than just high mountain tops.
Much of the park’s land has an elevation of just 7,500 to 9,000 feet. While, still most defiantly mountainous, the terrain and scenery at this elevation can be beautiful and lush. In addition, it is packed with all manner of animals including, elk, bears, wildcats, several species of deer, moose, beavers, and the official state animal of Colorado, bighorn sheep. Recently, Canadian Lynx were also reintroduced to the park, as part of a national effort to repopulate the Lynx’s former habitat within the United States.
Trail Ridge Road
One of the favorite ways to enjoy Colorado’s largest national park is by taking a scenic drive over Fall River Pass on Trail Ridge Road. In addition to consistently being named one of America’s most scenic drives, Trail Ridge Road holds the distinction of being the highest paved road in the U.S.
There are numerous places along the road to pull off and take in the beautiful mountain scenery. Watch for signs designating scenic viewpoints. The twisty nature of the mountain road can make it hard to see these areas until drivers are right on top of them, so the signage warning, is the best way to ensure that you don’t miss anything, while not having to jam on your breaks and crank the steering wheel to avoid missing it.
Near the summit of Trail Ridge is the Alpine Visitor Center on Fall River Pass. The visitor center itself sits at 11,796 feet. The large wooden sign outside makes a favorite tourist photograph and a great keepsake souvenir of any traveler’s visit to the Rocky Mountains.
The full drive is 48 miles long and takes around 3 hours for those used to driving in the mountains, and a bit longer for “flatlanders” or those from areas without any hills or mountains. Trail Ridge Road is only open during the summer months. During the winter, snowfall and wind make it impossible to keep the road open. Highway crews try to get the road open by Memorial Day each year. It usually closes sometime in October when the snow drifts start to overmatch the plows.
Trail Ridge begins as branch off of Fall River Road which passes through the Fall River Entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park. It is also designated as U.S. Highway 34. It winds its way up the mountains until Milner Pass which sits astride the Continental Divide. From there, it runs back down to the Southwest side of the park and the Grand Lake Entrance.
To get to the road from Denver, visitors head for Estes Park. Estes Park is a small mountain town whose primary purpose is to be the town next to the national park entrance. For the most part, it is composed of a main street and two or three blocks extended outward on either side. However, there are some great little pockets of charm, beauty, and fun to be explored. These include the Stanley Hotel, made famous by the movie The Shining — the good one with Jack Nicholson. The exterior shots of the sinister Overlook Hotel are of the Stanley Hotel, though the interior of the hotel was not used for the movie which was shot on a Hollywood movie set.
The quickest way to Estes Park is to take I-25 northbound to U.S. 36 (a.k.a. Boulder Turnpike). Travel on U.S. 36 through Boulder and Erie. The highway then winds its way all the way up to Estes Park.
Numerous signs in Estes Park point the way to Rocky Mountain National Park and the nearby Fall River Entrance.