The park contains over 350 miles of hiking trails, ranging from short, easy walks to extremely strenuous hikes that require climbing skills. Trail difficulty can also vary by time of year -- the higher elevations usually have snow until at least mid-July. Many of the park's trails, such as Longs Peak, can be either day hikes or overnight backpacking trips. Hikers are strongly advised to discuss their plans with park rangers before setting out.
Tips from a Ranger
The ease with which visitors can experience the many faces of Rocky Mountain National Park helps make it a special place, according to former park spokesman Dick Putney.
There are other alpine tundra areas in the United States, but you usually have to do a lot of hard hiking, Putney says. "What makes Rocky Mountain National Park unique is that Trail Ridge Road takes you up to the tundra -- above tree line -- in the comfort of your car; you can see plant and animal communities that, if not for this park, you would have to go to the Arctic Circle to see."
Those willing and able to hike can see plenty of tundra country. Putney suggests having a friend drop you off at the Ute Trail turnout on Trail Ridge Road, where you can hike the 6 miles down through Forest Canyon to Upper Beaver Meadows. He says this canyon is among the wildest in the park, adding that the hike along its steep side provides spectacular views of the canyon and Longs Peak, the park's tallest mountain.
Another hike that Putney recommends is the 2-mile (one-way) Gem Lake Trail, on the park's east side. "When you're going up that trail, there are several places to look across the Estes Valley to Longs Peak, and the lake is a wonderful spot for a picnic," he says. Those who want to work a bit harder will be well rewarded on another of Putney's favorites, the East Inlet Trail on the west side of the park. "Once you get up there a couple of miles and gain some elevation, you look back toward Grand Lake and think you're in Switzerland."
Longs Peak, at 14,259 feet elevation, is the northernmost of Colorado's famed "fourteeners" (mountains that exceed 14,000 ft. elev.), and it's a popular hike. "You don't need technical climbing gear once the ice is gone, usually by mid-July," Putney says, adding that hikers may have some physical problems with the altitude at first. "It's wise to give yourself at least a couple of days to acclimate before tackling Longs Peak." He also recommends that high-elevation hikers drink plenty of nonalcoholic fluids, eat regularly, carry energy bars, take it slow, and listen to their bodies. Another tip for hikers is to spend time discussing their plans with rangers in the park's Backcountry Office before setting out. "We'd much rather spend time with them beforehand to try to get to know their abilities and expectations, and advise them where to go, than be called out on a search-and-rescue mission."
One activity that many visitors miss out on is viewing the night sky, says Putney. He suggests taking a picnic supper and stopping at one of the Trail Ridge Road view points after dark, when most park visitors are in their motel rooms or campsites. "We don't have any light pollution here," he says. "You think you can just reach up and touch the Milky Way. You can see satellites, and the Perseid meteor shower in August is something you won't soon forget."
Putney says the easiest method to avoid crowds, even during the park's busiest season, is to take off down a hiking trail, since most visitors remain close to the roads. "The farther you go up the trail, the fewer people you'll encounter," he says. He adds that another sure way to escape humanity is to visit in winter and explore the park on snowshoes or cross-country skis.
And when would he visit? "Fall -- from September through mid-October -- is the best time," he says. "Days are warm and comfortable, nights are cool and crisp, there are fewer people than in summer, and the aspens are changing. You can see hundreds of elk and watch the bulls bugle as they protect their harems from the other bulls. But it might snow!"
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.