Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) is located in Estes Park, Colorado about an hours’ drive north of Denver. The park is supposedly the third most visited national park in the country with a bit more than 4.5 million visitors per year. OUCH! That’s not something we enjoy and usually something we avoid at all costs. I hadn’t been there in a number of years and we thought it was time we should go back and spend some time. What else have we got to do?
We made plans last year for RMNP but then coronavirus hit and our plans got derailed and park campground reservations were canceled when the parks closed around the country. Eventually they opened up again and before we knew it we were in Colorado at Estes Park and now the National Park was a reservation system for day use entry (and campgrounds).
I tried for a number of days to get a reservation for day use entry to no avail. Suddenly one day I got one! And I got another one for the next day. WOW! I grabbed them. It cost $2 to make a reservation on www.recreation.gov and since we had the InterAgency Pass for National Parks we didn’t have to pay an entry fee. It is a timed entry reservation system with a 2 hour window for entering the park. Perfect! We figured if there were long lines to get in then we just wouldn’t go. It was only $2!
The National Park website said they were only allowing less than half of their normal daily visitors into the park and with a timed entry (and us arriving early in the morning) this meant the park was actually much less full than you would normally experience on a summer day. We had many parking lots to ourselves. It was incredible and unbelievable. It turned out to be the best time to visit the park. Who would have thought?
A Note: You can enter the park before 6am and after 5pm without a reservation. That actually might have been a better choice but we are not early birds!!!
There are multiple entrances into RMNP from Estes Park. On the first day we entered from the Fall River Visitor Entrance. We arrived about one minute early and were one of the first people into the park for that time slot. We decided to spend our time driving the Trail Ridge Road along Highway 34 up to the Alpine Visitor Center which sits at an elevation of 11,796 feet.
The Trail Ridge Road is about 48 miles long between the east and west entrances of the park. Eleven miles of the road are above the treeline (above 11,500 feet) and is the highest paved road in the US. The views are stunning but the weather is known to change abruptly and the wind can be quite forceful. We lucked out and had perfect weather. The road reaches an elevation of 12,183 feet and crosses the Continental Divide at Milner Pass. There are a variety of pull offs and spectacular scenery and many possibilities of seeing elk, bighorn sheep, marmots, and other wildlife.
Alpine Visitor Center offers a snack bar, a gift shop, a bookstore, restrooms, and beautiful tundra scenery. This is the location of the Old Fall River Road which is an 11-mile long one way uphill gravel road with a speed limit of 15 mph. It is very narrow and has many switchbacks. It looks like a terrific road to drive but we did not get a chance. Maybe next time! And it is probably terrific in the fall with the leaves changing color.
On the way back out of RMNP we stopped at Horseshoe Park to read about the Bighorn Sheep herds in the park. The sheep will come down to the meadows to graze on the grasses in spring and early summer and need to cross the highway. The park rangers will help control traffic at that time to aid in reducing stress to the sheep. We were there in August so we did not witness the sheep crossing nor did we see any. Note to self: return in spring.
We did see an elk herd while at Alpine Visitor Center, another herd along Trail Ridge Road, and more marmots than we care to remember up above the treeline at every stop.
Another entrance into RMNP from Estes Park is Beaver Meadows Entrance which we took the next day and drove down to Bear Lake, parked, and did some hiking around Bear Lake and Alberta Falls. We continued to explore after that to Sprague Lake and Glacier Basin. The Bear Lake area of the park had many more people in it that we had experienced the previous day. It was the same time of day that we went and neither day was a weekend. Oh well.
Bear Lake is a rather small alpine lake but very scenic and sits at 9,450 feet. It is at the end of the road and is the start of many trails ranging from easy to difficult. There is a very short trail (just less than a mile) that circles the lake and is a good starting point. Views of Hallett Peak and Longs Peak can be seen around the lake.
We continued on hiking after Bear Lake and decided to head to Alberta Falls without having any idea what to expect. It was a lovely hike and we made it to the falls but as we started our return the trail got more and more crowded. Time to leave!
Sprague Lake is another lake along Bear Lake Rd and sits at 8,200 feet. It is a very shallow 13-acre lake that used to house a resort owned by Abner Sprague who was an expert guide. The lodge operated from 1910-1940 and used to sit in today’s parking lot (where we parked). There is a nature trail around the lake and many people were canoeing and fly fishing and enjoying the beautiful summer’s day. We enjoyed our lunch at the picnic tables in the day use area while watching park rangers and volunteers preparing to restock the water.
It was a nice time of year to be in RMNP (August) but of course, the fall colors would probably be even better. We enjoyed ourselves and we were glad it wasn’t as crowded as normal. It was a great trip.