In addition to the businesses discussed below, Estes Park Mountain Shop, 2050 Big Thompson Ave., Estes Park (tel. 866/303-6548 or 970/586-6548; www.estesparkmountainshop.com), sells and rents equipment and has an indoor climbing gym. The company offers fly-fishing and climbing instruction and guided trips in and around the national park. It also offers a kids' outdoor adventure program in half- and full-day sessions.
As in most national parks, bikes are not permitted on the trails, only established roads. Bicyclists here will, in most cases, share space with motor vehicles along narrow roads with 5% to 7% grades. However, bikers still enjoy the challenge and scenery. A free park brochure provides information on safety, regulations, and suggested routes. One popular 16-mile ride, with plenty of beautiful mountain views, is the Horseshoe Park/Estes Park Loop. It goes from Estes Park west on U.S. 34 past Aspenglen Campground and the park's Fall River Entrance, and then back east at the Deer Ridge Junction, following U.S. 36 through the Beaver Meadows Entrance.
Rentals are available from Estes Park Mountain Shop, 2050 Big Thompson Ave., Estes Park (tel. 866/303-6548), for about $40 to $60 a day. Tours are available at Colorado Bicycling Adventures, 184 E. Elkhorn Ave., Estes Park (tel. 888/586-4129 or 970/586-4241; www.coloradobicycling.com). The company offers guided downhill trips in the park for $55 to $155 per person (ages 10 and over only).
New Venture Cycling (tel.970/231-2736; www.newventurecycling.com) offers guided downhill and off-road tours in and around the park for $75 to $150 per person.
Climbing & Mountaineering
The Colorado Mountain School, 341 Moraine Ave., Estes Park, CO 80517 (tel. 800/836-4008; www.totalclimbing.com), is an AMGA-accredited year-round guide service and the sole concessionaire for technical climbing and instruction in Rocky Mountain National Park. The school offers a wide range of programs. Among those I recommend are the 2-day mountaineering class for $475 and guided group hike up Longs Peak starting at $275 per person. The school also offers lodging in a hostel-type setting for $25 per person per night, with closures in fall and spring. Be sure to stop at the ranger station at the Longs Peak trailhead for current trail and weather information before attempting to ascend Longs Peak.
Four species of trout are fished in the park: brown, rainbow, brook, and cutthroat. Anglers must get a state fishing license and are permitted to use only artificial lures or flies. About a half-dozen lakes and streams, including Bear Lake, are closed to fishing; a free park brochure lists open and closed waters, and gives regulations and other information.
Many of the national park's trails are open to horseback riders. Several outfitters provide guided rides inside and outside the park, including a 1-hour ride ($35) and the very popular 2-hour rides ($50). There are also all-day rides ($120, including lunch), plus breakfast and dinner rides and multiday pack trips. Recommended companies include SK Horses (www.cowpokecornercorral.com), which operates National Park Gateway Stables, at the Fall River entrance of the national park on U.S. 34 (tel. 970/586-5269), and the Cowpoke Corner Corral, at Glacier Lodge, 3 miles west of town, 2166 Colo. 66 (tel. 970/586-5890). Hi Country Stables (www.colorado-horses.com) operates two stables inside the park: Glacier Creek Stables (tel. 970/586-3244) and Moraine Park Stables (tel. 970/586-2327).
On the park's west side, a 2-mile section of the North Supply Access Trail is open to snowmobiles. It leads from the park into the adjacent Arapaho National Forest. This trail leaves U.S. 34 just north of the Kawuneeche Visitor Center and follows County Roads 491 and 492 west into the forest. Contact park visitor centers for current information.
Wildlife Viewing & Bird-Watching
Rocky Mountain National Park is a premier wildlife-viewing area, especially in fall, winter, and spring. Look for large herds of elk in meadows and on mountainsides. During the fall rutting season, park volunteers called the Rocky Mountain National Park Elk Bugle Corps are stationed at elk-viewing areas in the evenings to help people get the best views while not disturbing the animals -- elk are often just 30 or 40 feet away.
Park visitors also often see mule deer, beavers, coyotes, and river otters. Watch for moose among the willows on the west side of the park. The forests are home to an abundance of songbirds and small mammals; particularly plentiful are gray and Steller's jays, Clark's nutcrackers, chipmunks, and golden-mantled ground squirrels. You also have a chance of seeing bighorn sheep, marmots, pikas, and ptarmigan along Trail Ridge Road. For detailed and current wildlife-viewing information, stop by one of the park's visitor centers and check on the many interpretive programs, such as bird walks.
The Rocky Mountain Conservancy offers a wide variety of seminars and workshops, ranging from 1 full day to several days. Subjects vary but might include songbirds, flower identification, edible and medicinal herbs, painting, wildlife photography, tracking park animals, and edible mushrooms. Rates are $35 to $125 for half- and full-day programs and $175 and up for multiday programs.
Hiking & Backpacking
Park visitor centers sell U.S. Geological Survey topographic maps and guidebooks, and rangers can direct you to lesser-used trails. Keep in mind that all trails here start at over—sometimes well over—7,000 feet elevation, and even the easiest and flattest walks will likely be tiring for those accustomed to lower elevations.
One particularly enjoyable (and easy) hike is the Alberta Falls Trail from the Glacier Gorge Parking Area (.6 mile one-way), which rises in elevation only 160 feet as it follows Glacier Creek to pretty Alberta Falls.
Starting at Bear Lake, the trail up to Emerald Lake offers spectacular scenery en route, past Nymph and Dream lakes. The .5-mile hike to Nymph Lake is easy, climbing 225 feet; from there the trail is rated moderate to Dream Lake (another .6 mile) and then on to Emerald Lake (another .7 mile), which is 605 feet higher than the starting point at Bear Lake.
Among my favorite moderate hikes here is the Mills Lake Trail, a 2.8-mile (one-way) hike, with a rise in elevation of about 700 feet. Starting from Glacier Gorge Junction, the trail goes up to a picturesque mountain lake, nestled in a valley among towering mountain peaks. This lake is an excellent spot for photographing dramatic Longs Peak, especially in late afternoon or early evening.
In the Wild Basin unit near Allenspark, the Ouzel Falls Trail, 2.7 miles one-way, is a great moderate hike as well; floods took out a bridge in 2013, so continuing to Ouzel Lake might be impossible. Casacade Falls, near Grand Lake, is a 3.5-mile waterfall hike that is also highly recommended, especially in fall. From Grand Lake, the East Inlet Trailhead will get you on a 0.6-mile round trip to Adams Falls, or further along, the picturesque hike to Lone Pine Lake, 5.5 miles one-way.
If you prefer a more strenuous adventure, tackle the 8-mile (one-way) Longs Peak Trail, which climbs some 4,855 feet along steep ledges and through narrows to the top of Longs Peak.
Backcountry permits (required for all overnight hikes) can be obtained at Park Headquarters and ranger stations (in summer) for $20 from May to October, free from November to April. For information, call tel. 970/586-1242. There is a 7-night backcountry camping limit from June to September, with no more than 3 nights at any one spot.
Skiing & Snowshoeing
Much of the park is closed to vehicular travel during the winter, when deep snow covers roads and trails. Snow is usually best January through March. A popular spot for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing in the park is Bear Lake, south of the Beaver Meadows entrance. A lesser-known area of the park is Wild Basin, south of the park’s east entrances off Colo. 7, about a mile north of the community of Allenspark. A 2-mile road, closed to motor vehicles for the last mile in winter, winds through a subalpine forest to the Wild Basin Trailhead, which follows a creek to a waterfall, a rustic bridge, and eventually another waterfall. Total distance to the second falls is 2.8 miles. Along the trail, your chances are good for spotting birds such as Clark’s nutcrackers, Steller’s jays, and the American dipper. On winter weekends, the Colorado Mountain Club often opens a warming hut at the Wild Basin Ranger Station.
Before you set forth, stop by a visitor center for maps, information on where the snow is best, and a permit if you plan to stay out overnight. Rangers often lead guided snowshoe walks on winter weekends. Among shops that rent snowshoes and skis is Estes Park Mountain Shop, 2050 Big Thompson Ave. (tel. 866/303-6548 or 970/586-6548; www.estesparkmountainshop.com). Daily rental costs $5 per pair of snowshoes or $15 for cross-country skis.
The best place to camp for those visiting the national park is in the park itself. Although you won’t have the modern conveniences of commercial campgrounds (see “Camping,” in the Estes Park section) you will have plenty of trees, an abundance of wildlife scurrying by your tent or RV, and a true national park experience. The park has five campgrounds with a total of almost 600 sites. There are 245 sites at Moraine Park; another 150 are at Glacier Basin. Moraine Park, Timber Creek (98 sites), and Longs Peak (26 tent sites) are open year-round; Glacier Basin and Aspenglen (54 sites) are seasonal. Camping in summer is limited to 3 days at Longs Peak and 7 days at other campgrounds; the limit is 14 days at all the park’s campgrounds in winter. Arrive early in summer if you hope to snare one of these first-come, first-served campsites. Reservations for Moraine Park and Glacier Basin are accepted from Memorial Day to early September and are usually completely booked well in advance. However, any sites not reserved—as well as sites at Timber Creek, Longs Peak, and Aspenglen—are available on a first-come, first-served basis. Make reservations with the National Park Reservation Service (tel. 877/444-6777, or 518/885-3639 for international callers; www.recreation.gov). Campsites cost $20 per night during the summer, $14 in the off-season when water is turned off. No showers or RV hookups are available.