Last year was the 100th year anniversary of our National Parks, and as I starting planning a summer snowboarding trip for my 30th Birthday I figured why not also hit one of the parks along the way. So my husband and I jumped on a plane for a long weekend and ended up at Rocky Mountain National Park. It was a quick weekend, but a great escape from the office and everything that needed to be done at home. After the trip, I figured why no put together some tips for others looking for a quick getaway, so here they are. Keep in mind, we tend to prefer more of a rustic and secluded experience so my suggestions below would be best appreciated by those wanting to avoid the crowds and have a little peace and quiet.
While the park likely hits its peak numbers in July and August (typical vacation season), visiting in late spring gives its own unique experience. The trails aren’t as crowded, the roads aren’t as congested and seeing the transition of seasons is absolutely beautiful. We went the first week of June, and one of the things I enjoyed the most was the Tundra section, the highest section of the park accessed easily by Trail Ridge Road. Usually a vibrant flowery paradise, the Tundra was still in full on winter mode, complete with 13 feet snow banks. As a huge fan of winter, this was heaven to me. There’s nothing quite like finishing a hot sweaty hike in 70 degree weather one minute, and then traveling 20 minutes up the road where there’s snow on the ground, the winds are kicking and the temperature drops 20 degrees. Just seeing the “roads may be icy” signs made me giddy. What’s cool too is that the main roads of the park are shaped like a lower cased “n”, so staying on the West side of the park, to get to the hikes we would drive up out of the warm weather, across through the Tundra section and back down into normal weather again. We’d go summer-winter-summer multiple times throughout during the day. We did find some trails and one road to be closed due to snow, but for us a little snow on the trails and in the mountains just made the park that much more beautiful.
Stay on the West Side Of Rocky Mountain National Park
Rocky Mountain National Park has 5 campgrounds, 4 of which are on the East side of the park. It’s easy to see why this is the case, as most people will enter the park from the popular tourist town of Estes Park. The little town sits in the shadow of Rocky Mountain National Park’s peaks and boasts plenty of hotels, restaurants, and gift shops. Some of the more popular hikes are also on the East side of the park. Overall, what we found is that this makes for a very crowded experience both in and out of the park. Travelling into Estes for supplies (or ice cream) we were met with traffic and congestion and when we returned to the park midday had to wait in line behind about 20 cars to enter back in. Even the hikes on the East side were pretty busy. One morning we went to Alberta Falls, an easy and very popular hike at around 11:00 am, and both the parking lot at the trailhead and the shuttle parking lot (which held about 100 cars) were already full. While the wait was worth it, and the hike was beautiful we figured out that we preferred the West side of the park, a much more quiet experience. We stayed at Timber Creek Campground, which was first come first serve. Except for some Elk grazing on the empty sites, the park was never full while the others had been fully booked when we arrived.
Grand Lake, a small town down the road, with a few restaurants, grocery and gift stores offered a much more laid back experience when supplies were needed. Getting back in to the park was much easier too as there were no lines and often no one was even at the booth. Hikes on the west side were less crowded, we never found ourselves in a trail of cars, and we were greeted by moose almost every time we left our campsite.
Dress in Layers
As I mentioned above, we visited in early June and this meant variable weather conditions throughout the park as well as throughout the day. A run through one of our average days would better illustrate this. Mornings were chilly and we slept in base layers. When we’d emerge from our tent we’d put on flannels or insulators until the sun started to make its way over the peaks. Morning to midday hikes would start off in light jackets and pants only to later be traded for shorts and tank tops. In the afternoon we’d drive back up through the tundra and would need to throw jackets back on. If we went back down to Grand Lake for dinner or an after dinner hike we got warm again and short sleeves without the jacket seemed more appropriate. Back to the site for the sunset and fire and we were back to base layers, flannels or insulators and beanies. Fortunately, each item wasn’t worn long so we could wear all the same things the next day.
Last advice? Just go!
I think when most people think about National Parks they think they need to have a ton of time to “make it worth it”. Rocky Mountain National Park is not really like that. You can absolutely spend a long weekend, escape the hustle and bustle of home life and see plenty of what the park has to offer. Some parks feel overwhelming, but Rocky Mountain doesn’t. You’ll notice that I didn’t mention many specific hikes or must see attractions. That’s not because it doesn’t have them, but to me Rocky Mountain just isn’t really that kind of park. We didn’t do one hike that wasn’t amazing or scenic and we enjoyed the random hikes we stumbled upon just as much as the busy “shuttle to” hike. Perhaps it was the timing or that we were seeking out the less trafficked sections of the park but to me visiting Rocky Mountain was a peaceful and relaxing way to get the National Park experience. So find your long weekend and try and visit one of our National Parks this year. Even if it’s only a short trip, it’s always worth it.