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Park of the Week: Rocky Mountain National Park

Within over 400 square miles of granite-based wilderness, this park offers 60 mountains over 12,000 feet, 150 clear lakes, 450 miles of mountain streams, and abundant wildlife, all just 75 miles from Denver.

With over 416 square miles of granite-based wilderness, the Rocky Mountain National Park offers you 60 mountains over 12,000 feet high (the tallest is Longs Peak, at 14,259 feet), clear lakes (some 150 of them), mountain streams (450 miles of them), forests, and wildlife, all just 75 miles northwest of Denver, and open daily year round. You should drop by a visitor center before exploring the park, to find out what activities and events are scheduled, among other reasons. There are nine visitor centers, four of them open year round. There are several free shuttle bus routes, operating in summer between many trailheads, Moraine Park Visitor Center and two campgrounds, Moraine Park and Glacier Basin. There's also a summer "Hiker Shuttle" between the town of Estes Park (Visitor Center) to the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center in the park.

The park was created in 1915 (the tenth national park) the official history here says. Most civic leaders, including the Denver Chamber of Commerce and the Colorado Mountain Club, supported its creation, while in general, mining, logging, and agricultural interests opposed it. Unlike parks such as Yellowstone, Glacier, and Grand Canyon, this park never had a railroad serving it. Roads have been a priority since its inception, many being hewn out of the wilderness during the Depression-era projects of the Civilian Conservation Corps during the New Deal 1930s. Among the park's many trend-setting steps was the licensing of the nation's first female nature guides in 1917. Among other accolades, the park is the highest national park in the US, with an elevation from 7,860 feet up to the top of Longs Peak. About a third of the park is above tree line (around 11,200 to 11,500 feet).


Because of the variety of its natural beauty, maybe the best thing you can do here is just to drive around the park, hitting such highlights as the Trail Ridge Road or the Old Fall River Road, both following the mountain crossing routes first trod by the Ute and Arapahoe tribes. The new Trail Ridge Road (1926-1932) is the highest continuous highway in the United States, reaching a maximum height of 12,183 feet, and is generally considered one of America's most scenic highways, only 48 miles in length. The maximum grade on the road does not exceed 7%, they say. It is contiguous with the Ute Trail much of the way. The Old Fall River Road was built between 1913 and 1920, and is an unpaved single-lane road -- it is open during good weather and there are some restrictions (no RVs, etc.). It's one way -- up hill -- the return being on the newer Trail Ridge Road.

Specific sites to look out for include the Moraine Park Museum, also a visitor center, lodged in an older building (1923), with its own short nature trail. The museum is on the National Register of Historic Places. You might like a former dude ranch, the Holzwarth Trout Lodge Historic Site, open summer only, with guided tours. One of the best of many trails is the Tundra World Nature Trail, a 30-minute hike of half a mile.


Outdoors, you can go fishing, climbing and mountaineering, biking, hiking (on 350 miles of trails), wildlife viewing, camping, and horseback riding, to mention only a few activities. Some trails are accessible for travelers with disabilities. Please note that, at the park's high altitudes, some people have trouble exerting themselves, so allow time to get used to the altitude, especially if you have breathing or heart problems.

The flora and fauna vary wildly, with bighorn sheep, ptarmigan, coyote, and elk, among other species, to entertain you when spotted. Be careful around any mountain lion or bear you may see.


There are dozens of ranger-led programs in summer, relating to alpine activities, wildlife and plants. In addition, there are special children's programs and those relating to the Junior Rangers. Other programs concern astronomy, walks and hikes. There are occasional free movies, and many trails and tours are designed to be family-friendly, as well.


You pay a fee of $20 for your automobile and its occupants, good for seven consecutive days. If you walk in or come by bicycle, motorcycle or moped, the fee is $10 per person, not to exceed $20 per vehicle, also good for seven consecutive days. There is also an annual pass for $35 and you can use the national passes covering all national parks and federal recreational lands.


The number of visitors in 2003 was over 3,000,000, making it the sixth most visited park in the country. The estimable Frommer's National Parks of the American West says the best time to come is September through mid-October. Another fine guide is Frommer's Rocky Mountain National Park.


The official website of the park is

The site of the park-related Rocky Mountain Nature Association is

A good commercial site is