Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park is a national icon — its rugged mountains carve out a skyline that captures the American imagination and serves as both protector and passageway to the west. One-third of the park is above timberline, the 14,255-foot flat-topped summit of Longs Peak included; there are 71 peaks here that top out above 12,000 feet. All in all, enough snowcapped rock, wind-whipped tundra, and thin air to make a marmot giddy.

Trail Ridge RoadProblem is, the siren song of all this alpine scenery is so strong that at times the park can seem overrun by pilgrims. Trail Ridge Road, in particular, is one of the few spots in the world where you can sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic at an altitude of 10,000 feet. Three million people visit Rocky Mountain National Park each year; old-timers among the surging population along Colorado’s Front Range tend to opt for the much less visited national forests around RMNP when they’re looking for solitude.

Or at least that’s what they’ll tell you, with a wink. The truth is, there’s just too much spectacular country here for a mountain fanatic to stay away. And when you slip off the beaten path, there’s solitude aplenty. This is a 415-square-mile chunk of Rocky Mountain highs, latticed by some 370 miles of hiking and walking trails that weave up steep rocky trails, over alpine tundra, past high-mountain lakes, and through aspen groves, spruce forests, and meadows peppered with columbine. If you’re looking to connect with your inner mountain man, you couldn’t pick a better place.

Hike the Old Ute Trail

Ever noticed that most hikes start with a brutal uphill slog? Here’s one that turns the tables. The Old Ute Trail begins at an elevation of 11,250 feet and descends to 8,250 feet. You’ll find the trailhead just off Trail Ridge Road below the Forest Canyon Overlook. The trail served as a highway for Ute Indians who traveled from village to village along the Continental Divide. As you walk across the barren windswept slope of Tombstone Ridge, you will have a view of Longs Peak towering above the tundra to the south. And keep in mind, every effortless step you take down will be an arduous step back up — unless you plan on hiking the six miles down to Upper Beaver Meadows.

More on >> hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park

Rock Climb the Diamond

Some climbers claim that the 900-foot Diamond cliff is the best alpine wall in the United States. The diamond-shape granite wall sits atop the east face of Longs Peak — every inch of the sheer face is above 13,000 feet. With more than 35 climbing routes, the left side of the wall lures free climbers that scale Ariana D7 and Yellow Wall . The nailing routes of the overhanging right side include Diamond Star Halo , Steep Is Flat , and the Dunn-Westbay .

Drive along the Highest Highway in the World

Trail Ridge Road snakes its way through alpine tundra for 50 miles between glacier-sculpted peaks. It crosses the park from east to west and then drops into the Kawuneeche Valley, where the north fork of the Colorado River flows. The road travels for 11 miles above 11,000 feet and for 4 miles above 12,000 feet. The road’s highest point — 12,183 feet above sea level — occurs between Lava Cliffs and Gore Range. As you drive through the heavens, you absolutely must stop at Rainbow Curve, Many Parks Curve, and at Forest Canyon Overlook. The one caveat? Try this drive on a weekend in August and you’ll be breathing more exhaust than crisp, clean mountain air.

Watch Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep at Horseshoe Park

A natural mineral lick near Sheep Lake lures bighorn sheep to Horseshoe Park where you can observe them from the parking lot. Black bear, moose, bobcat, coyote, deer, weasel, and muskrat also frequent the wet meadows around Moraine Park and Horseshoe Park.

Cross-country Ski along the Colorado River Trail

The Colorado River Trail allows Nordic skiers to explore the region’s stunning winter landscape while catching a glimpse of the state’s mining history. Skiers can slide onto the trail at Timber Lake trailhead at the end of the plowed road. Markers will guide you north along the river for about two miles before you pass the ruins of abandoned miner cabins. After another two miles, you will find yourself in the former mining boomtown of Lulu City.

Fly Fish for Greenback Cutthroat Trout in the Roaring River

Fly anglers will have to do some hiking to reach the Roaring River — the requisite 1.5-mile hike starts at an elevation of 8,500 feet at the Lawn Lake Trailhead. A steep 800-foot climb gets you to 9,300 feet and a chance to drop some flies on the Roaring River for greenback cutthroat trout. Boulder fields along the Roaring River make it difficult to get stable footing, which means this a rugged and challenging fishing experience.

Trail Ridge Road

At least 60 mountains in the park exceed 12,000 feet—the football field-size summit of Longs Peak is the highest at 14,255 feet—and more than 100 square miles of the park rise above timberline. Once you stop to survey the glacier-carved scene of peaks and valleys, evergreens and wildflowers, you’ll forget all about the burning in your legs and lungs.

Tour Trail Ridge Road for Some Serious Cycling

Got the legs of a Lance Armstrong? You’ll need ’em to cycle up the 3,700 feet of vertical from Estes Park. But if you’re capable, by all means make the trip — after 15 miles, you’ll find yourself cycling among the Gods at an elevation of 12,000 feet. This four to six hour ride is demanding and geared for the intermediate-to-advanced cyclist. Once you’re on top, you’ll be rewarded with ten miles of rolling alpine highway. And of course it’s downhill from there — 3,400 feet to Grand Lake!

Losing your breath at high elevations is a small price to pay for breathtaking scenery. On your next bike trip, explore the rarefied air of Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park, where you can get high on the Rockies (of course), as well as 650 miles worth of the Continental Divide, and the highest continually paved road in the United States, Trail Ridge Road.

Cycling On the Road

If you like to climb, check out Bear Lake Road—this 20-mile out-and-back ascends 1,500 feet in just eight miles. If that’s not enough of a workout for you, challenge your quads on one of the many hiking trails that fork off the road.

Narrow, winding, and mostly uphill, Bear Lake Road takes you on a tour of the park’s most picturesque scenery: The road passes through Moraine Park, flanked by mountains and glacial deposits, and it follows the cascade of Glacier Creek among aspen, fir, and lodgepole pine trees. The best views await you at Bear Lake, elevation 9,475 feet. Gaze upward over Technicolor-blue lakes to the Continental Divide, where Hallett Peak (12,713 feet) and Flattop Mountain (12,324 feet) rise among the giants. Many peaks still bear glaciers, kin to the carvers of the region’s valleys and ridges.

Note: Since the road is narrow and the park is popular, get an early start or go late in the day to avoid the heaviest traffic.

Mountain Bike? Hit the Trail

This next 30-mile loop lets mountain bikers combine the dizzying height of Trail Ridge Road with the car-free joy of Old Fall River Road. From September to July, Old Fall River Road is closed to cars, but not to bikes—if the dirt and gravel are dry and clear of snow, you’re good to go. An autumn ride adds the bonus of fall color.

Old Fall River Road is a serious sustained climb at high elevation along a narrow, winding road. The montane and subalpine trees that border the route give way to Alpine tundra. You’ll gain almost 3,600 feet over 11 miles before you hit Fall River Pass (11,796 feet). The last few miles before the turnaround point are great for spotting wildlife, such as elk, pikas (small, rabbity creatures), and marmots. On the ride back via the pavement of Trail Ridge Road, there’s one last climb to make. Grind up to the route’s high point (Gore Range, 12,183 feet), check your brakes and your helmet, then sit back and enjoy the ride.

We suggest: Be sure you’re properly acclimated before tackling this ride.