Driving Rocky Mountain National Park- A Rookies Guide
Contributed by Robert Stauffer
During a recent vacation in Colorado, we decided to take a drive through Rocky Mountain National Park, on the Trail Ridge Road. Rocky Mountain National Park has a ton of activity and adventure options, but we were actually on a business vacation, so our schedule was limited to one day. Driving Trail Ridge Road is actually on of the most popular things visitors do in the park. A one day drive allows time to get out at and explore a bit at prime viewing locations, and read all of the historical information signs.
We stayed in Fort Colllins, which is about an hour away from Rocky Mountain, but there are other places to stay closer to the park, if visiting the park is the main objective of being in the area. The most popular is Estes Park. There is also camping available in Rocky Mountain National Park itself. Rocky Mountain National Park is also very close to Denver, and makes a great out of the city day trip for people visiting the Colorado capital city.
Our drive from Fort Collins was a bit of an adventure in it's own right... winding mountainous roads, with a beautiful flowing creak, that apparently would have preferred to be a raging river..
Estes Park is only a few miles from the entrance of Rocky Mountain National Park
Estes Park is often referred to as the Gateway to the National Park, and it leads you to the Trail ridge Road. It is a touristy town, with plenty of shopping and restaurants. We did not partake in that aspect of Estes Park, but it was a good place to stop for drinks and snacks for the drive up the mountains.
It is important to take plenty of water and a bunch of snacks along when going up the mountain. Restrooms are also pretty sparse, so take that into consideration.
On a crucial note-
Before taking the drive through the entire route is to make sure you have plenty of gas, and that your vehicle is in good shape!
The drive time itself depends entirely on how much you stop for pictures and breaks. They say to allow for 4-6 hours to go the length of Trail Ridge Road. The kicker is, if you are not staying in the park, or on the other side, you have to reverse the trip to get back to the park entrance. If you go all the way to Grand Lake to make the turn around, allow 2 hours for that, if the weather is good.
Be prepared for the occasional heard of elk to cross the road to slow you down. You WILL stop. Guaranteed.
On a funnier note-
If you have an assistant driver (i.e. a person in the passenger seat who is frightened by winding roads with big drop offs along side), you may want to give them a sleep mask and some ear plugs. Do this for yourself, so you do not have to hear the gasping and complaining!
Be mindful of the weather!
We made our drive through Rocky Mountain National Park in July. there was still snow up in the mountains, so planning the timing of your trip is critical. The main road through the park, Trail Ridge Road, is actually closed from October 15, through Memorial Day weekend. There is more snow and hazardous driving conditions in the late spring and early summer, and sometimes in early fall major storms can close down the entire drive.
The park is open all year round, for other activities, BUT, if you want to make the full drive through, you should always check the forecast ahead of time, at http://www.weather.gov/ and search Trail Ridge CO, AND, you should stop at the visitor's center inside the park for any last-minute warnings before heading up.
If driving the Trail Ridge Road is not what you are looking for, there are lots of other things to do in Rocky Mountain National Park. For example, there are over 300 miles of trails, from easy wildflower walks, to places like Gem Lake and Bridal Veil Falls. There are more challenging hikes that lead to some stunning views of some incredibly high peaks and crazy rock formations.
Bicycling, horseback riding, ranger led activities, and star-gazing treks are also available. Many of these can be arranged through the park website given below.
You could also try your hand at fly fishing, bird watching, naturalist tours, or photography classes. The Rocky Mountain Conservancy offers tours, guides and classes for many of these activities inside the park. Ask about these at the visitors center if you are interested.
If you want a little more of an adrenaline rush than the winding roads offers, you may want to try the rope bridges and zip lining that is available at Open Air Adventure. Rock climbing classes are another option. If you visit in winter, there are sledding and cross-country skiing locations available in the park, but you must provide your own equipment.
We had other business to attend to in the Fort so for us, a day spent driving the Trail Ridge Road, was what our schedule allowed, and it was awesome.
Driving Rocky Mountain National Park is a wonderful family experience that takes some prior planning (although not too extensive,) that leaves pictures and memories that will last a lifetime.
Be sure to check out all 50 of our pictures in the fantastic gallery, Road Trip through the Rocky Mountains!!
- Park entrance is $20.00 per vehicle for a single day. But, for $30, you get vehicle entrance for a full week, if you are staying in the immediate area.
- Pets are allowed in the park, in common areas, but must be on a leash at all times.
- Fishing in the park requires the purchase of a license for anyone over 16 years. Check with a ranger to get one.
- Although marijuana is legal in Colorado, it is NOT legal in Rocky Mountain National Park, which is under Federal jurisdiction.
- There are numerous campground options available in the park for both tent and RV camping. During July and August all sites are typically full by early afternoon, so plan accordingly.
- For more detailed information about all available activities, rules and regulations, and park maps, see National Park Service, Rocky Mountain.
- For more information about local other area activities, and photographs of the park, see RMNP.
On the opposite end of the park, at the Western entrance, is Grand Lake. Grand Lake is obviously named for the beautiful glacial lake it lies on, which is the source of the Colorado River. This is another option for lodging, dining, and other entertainment.
And of course, if you are visiting Colorado's beautiful capital city Denver, there are a million options for other activities. Be sure to read the Denver Travel Guide for all of the fantastic choices.
If you are in Colorado, a visit to Rocky Mountain National Park is a MUST. Make the trip, and I strongly advise that you take the Trail Ridge Road Drive!!
Check out our full gallery now, Road Trip through the Rocky Mountains.
Better yet, PIN this article for later.
About the Author: Robert Stauffer is a former US Marine who served in Desert Storm. He is also a 16 year veteran of the US Postal Service. Robert, his wife Sherry, and son Kyle enjoy traveling together, and someday hope to retire in Colorado.