Awe-inspiring sights come easy to Rocky Mountain National Park. Elk gather in herds on the east side, while moose patrol the other. In between are bighorn sheep, mountain lions, and black bears. And that’s just the wildlife. The 265,807-acre park, located in northern Colorado, offers some of the best access to high-alpine terrain in the country, thanks to Trail Ridge Road—the highest paved highway in America—which tops out at a 12,183-foot peak, one of more than a hundred in the park taller than 11,000 feet.
The lower elevations, below 9,000 feet and referred to as the montane, are dominated by broad, grassy meadows filled with more than 350 miles of trails. The subalpine environment, from 9,000 and 11,000 feet, is comprised of natural lakes, boulders, and evergreen forests, and the majority of trails meander through these breathtaking landscapes. And at 11,000 feet, the alpine ecosystem begins: trees give way to windswept tundra, craggy peaks, and cirque glaciers, and the crowds dissipate, leaving you with the “roof” of the park mostly to yourself.
Rocky Mountain National Park is the third most visited park in the country, and it’s only getting more popular—visitation hit record numbers in 2019, pulling in nearly 4.7 million people. Parking lots in scenic areas like Bear Lake fill up before breakfast, and Trail Ridge Road is packed with minivans and RVs by 10 A.M.
If you have your heart set on seeing some of the park’s signature features, accept that crowds are part of the experience. If you want to minimize interaction with those crowds, get started as early as you can—essentially before dawn—and head to Grand Lake, on the western side; roughly 80 percent of all visitors enter through Estes Park, on the eastern side. If parking lots are full, don’t fret; the park has a good shuttle system that will take you to popular trailheads. Use it.
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