Best time to visit: Late Spring through Early Fall
Recommended Hikes: Dream Lake, Moraine Park, Bierstadt Lake, Sprague Lake
Ideal For: Hiking, Wild-life Viewing, Backpacking, Camping, Mountain Climbing, Horse-back Riding, Auto-Touring, Boating
Where to stay: On the East side of the park
Rocky Mountain National Park has towering peaks, lush meadows, and picturesque lakes. An extensive network of hiking routes go deep into the mountains, especially on the east side of the park. The Trail Ridge Road, which connects the east and west sides of the park, opens at the end of May each year. The park is open year around, but winter access is only to lower elevations. Higher elevation hiking routes will be covered in snow into the summer.
Must See Attractions:
Moraine Park - Rocky Mountain National Park has a huge elk population, and they love to hang out in Moraine Park. A "park" is basically a really big meadow. The female elks congregate here in great numbers to graze and nurture their young throughout the summer, while the males stay on the fringes, preparing for the fall breeding season. Its really impressive to see them all here, bring binoculars!
Sprague Lake - This is a tranquil lake with great views of mountain peaks rising up in the distance. There is an awesome, leisurely foot-path that goes around the lake, with a nearby parking lot and shuttle stop which makes it easy to access for all ages.
Bear Lake - a really popular lake at the end of Bear Lake Road on the east side of the park. It is the starting point for several hikes which lead to other lakes and waterfalls in the area. Parking here fills up early; if the shuttles are running when you visit, it's worth using them to avoid the hassle of parking.
Trail Ridge Road - Open summer ONLY - Trail Ridge Road runs along a spine of Rocky Mountain peaks to connect the west and east sides of the park. There are numerous viewpoints to stop at, and also the Alpine Visitor Center which sits at an elevation of almost 12,000 feet. The road opens each year at the end of May (Memorial Day Weekend) and closes down for the winter in mid-October.
Wildlife in Rocky Mountain NP is abundant - Look for elk, deer, and black bears at the lower elevation meadows and bighorn sheep on the rocky high elevations near Trail Ridge Road. Male elk are dangerously aggressive during the fall breeding season and they will charge if you get too close. Proper food storage is required at all times to protect the park's black bears.
Many higher elevation hiking routes will have snow on them well into the summer - bring hiking poles for increased stability on the snow.
Arapaho National Recreation Area is just outside the park's western boundary - there are several big lakes here where motor-boating is permitted.
Estes Park is a town just outside the park's eastern boundary. There are hotels, restaurants, and grocery stores here.
Drinking water is available at most developed areas of the park, including visitor centers and campgrounds. Bring your water bottle to fill up.
There is shuttle service that runs from Moraine Park to Bear Lake during summer and fall. There is no charge to use the shuttles - it is included with the park entrance fee.
Where to Stay:
If you are interested in hiking and wild-life viewing, the most opportunities are on the east side of the park. There are major campgrounds on the east side, one of which is reservable in advance online here. Hotels in Estes Park are a good place to stay if you are not interested in camping.
If you are interested in motor boating, you will want to stay on the west side of the park, near the Arapaho National Recreation Area.
Hiking in Rocky Mountain:
Dream Lake - This is a pretty short hike that leaves from the Bear Lake area on the east side of the park. Dream Lake has an impressive backdrop of mountain peaks and the trail to get here also passes Nymph Lake. This hike can be extended to include Emerald Lake and Lake Haiyaha. Read more about this hike here.
Bierstadt Lake to Hollowell Park - This is a good long hike that is off the beaten track. You can park at Hollowell Park and take the shuttle up to the Bierstadt Lake stop. The first part of the hike is a climb up to Bierstadt Lake which is secluded and picturesque. The trail down to Hollowell Park from here is rocky but all downhill, and Hollowell Park is a nice endpoint to the hike. Bierstadt Lake can be done as an out and back hike as well - read more about it here.
Cub Lake - A popular hike that leaves from Morraine Park. I recommend doing the Morraine Park section but not necessarily continuing on to Cub Lake. The first mile of this hike circles the perimeter of Morraine Park which is great for seeing elk. However, Cub Lake is not as pretty as many other Rocky Mountain NP lakes, so I do not recommend hiking to Cub Lake as an endpoint.
There are many hikes I haven't done in Rocky Mountain NP - I recommend researching more online or asking at the visitor centers if you are planning a trip.
Parts that I missed:
All of the higher elevation hiking - due to too much snow when I visited in May. Some hikes to consider if you visit in late summer include Sky Pond, Glacier Gorge, and Fern Lake.
Wild Basin - This is a more remote section of the park in the south-eastern corner of the park. There are no services here or drinking water, but a network of out-and-back hiking routes.