America’s highest, continuous, paved road in Rocky Mountain National Park is a powerful draw.
When planning your trip to Rocky Mountain National Park, knowing what you want to see and experience will help to determine when to visit this park. About 1/3 of Rocky is above timberline, where the trees stop growing and the tundra begins. Having access to this amazing part of Colorado is pretty special.
There is one road, Trail Ridge Road, that travels from the east side of the park, across the tundra for about 11 miles at the elevation of just over 12,000 feet, to the west side of the park.
1. Pick Your Season
Drive Through Snow Tunnels In Spring
If you want to experience this road, then you need to plan on visiting when it’s open-late May to early October, weather depending.
When the road does first open, one of the coolest things to see are the walls of snow that line the road. These walls can get up to 30 feet in some places. Driving up the road with these walls is almost like driving through a tunnel. It’s really amazing. But lots of snow means less wildlife. The elk don’t migrate to the higher elevations until the snow clears in the summer.
Summer Wildflowers and Wildlife
July and August are the hottest months. The snow has generally melted, and the tundra comes alive with wildflowers and wildlife. During these summer months the elk have moved up to the higher elevations and can generally be seen in the open areas. It’s a beautiful time in the park. Summer days also brings crowds. July, August, and September are the busiest months in the park. Trail Ridge can be crowded and travel can be slow. But, it’s a national park so relax and enjoy the incredible scenery.
Make sure to plan a visit to the Alpine Visitor Center. It’s near the top of Trail Ridge on more of the west side. It’s the highest visitor center in all of the national parks. The views are amazing.
2. Plan Ahead For Peak Months
Old Fall River Road is open July 4 to early October. If you are in the park during those months, this road is definitely worth the drive. It’s the original road in the park and a 9-mile, one-way road. It comes out at the Alpine Visitor Center. Driving up Fall River and then down Trail Ridge will give you a full view of the park.
Bear Lake Road area is the most popular place in the park, so plan ahead. If you want to hike to one of the many lakes in that area, go early. Like 5 or 6am early. The parking lot at Bear Lake can fill up by 7 or 8am during the busy months. There is a free shuttle if the parking is full. This shuttle is great to use if you want to do a point-to-point hike like Bear Lake to Bierstadt trailhead (great for fall aspen) or Bear to Sprague Lake (incredibly pretty and downhill). These hikes are a wonderful way to get out and see this area.
The Fall Rut
The months of September and October belong to the elk. This is their rut season and people make a point of visiting the park just to hear the elk bugle. The Kawanecche Valley, on the west side, and Horseshoe meadow on the east side, are favorite places to hang out and watch for elk.
In the winter months, the park is much quieter as Trail Ridge Road is closed. The lower roads through Horseshoe Meadow and up to Bear Lake are open, unless Mother Nature unloads a huge amount of snow. Hiking trails turn into snowshoe trails and the blanket of white creates a quiet peace that hardy adventurers can enjoy.
3. Can’t Fit It All In? Consider Spending A Couple of Nights
When planning your visit, know that there is no lodging in the park. There are campgrounds and a few can take large RVs. Most will take reservations at https://www.recreation.gov. The only place to get food, or refill your water bottle is at the store next to the Alpine Visitor Center. It’s open when Trail Ridge Road is and also sells souvenirs. For lodging in Estes Park, plan that ahead as well. It’s very unlikely to pull into town during the busy months and find a hotel or condo available.
The town of Estes Park hosts the eastern entrance to Rocky. True to its name, this mountain town sets in a valley surrounded by jagged peaks of the mountains in the Front Range. This view makes an impressive statement! During the busy summer and fall months, there is live music, festivals, farmers markets, and patios to enjoy. There is something going on most weekends all year round in Estes Park!
Grand Lake hosts the western side of the park. This quaint little town is nestled along the shores of Colorado’s largest natural lake, and has shops, lodging, and restaurants. This side of the park is much quieter and less crowded.
4. Continue Exploring in Estes
After your day seeing the park, the town of Estes Park is worth visiting. Rich in history (the town is over 100 years old and several businesses have celebrated 80 + years in business!), this town has lots of shops and a variety of good restaurants to choose from.
No trip to Estes Park is complete without picking up house-made taffy at Estes Park’s Original Taffy Shop (located on West Elkhorn with the cool, original blue and white sign).
If you want more on local history, flora or fauna, Macdonald Bookshop (celebrating their 90th year in business) has hard-to-find books that Enos Mills wrote. They also have books on wildlife and wildflowers along with the best sellers of today. Estes also have several local breweries, a distillery, and a winery.
5. Take a GPS Audio Driving Tour Guide For Your Car
Ready to Hit the Road? If you want to get an even better experience while on this amazing road, check out the GyPSy Guide Rocky Mountain National Park Driving Tour App.
It provides a guided audio tour, so you can learn even more about the area as you drive. Don’t miss a thing on your drive. All commentary plays automatically and the apps work offline, so no data or cellular signal is required after download.