With 77 mountain peaks at more than 12,000 feet above sea level, it’s not just the views that’ll leave you breathless in Colorado’s most-visited national park.
Rocky Mountain National Park has one of the most diverse ecosystems of any national park due to its range in elevation. From the meadows near the entrances at 7,600 feet above sea level to the highest point (Longs Peak at 14,259 feet), the park is home to varied flora and fauna. You can often see elk at the visitor centers, it’s not uncommon to see moose while hiking, and you’ll almost definitely see marmots munching on snacks in the alpine tundra. Rocky Mountain National Park is a very special place.
It’s also usually very busy — hence the “most visited” description. The park can feel like a literal zoo in the peak summer months. You’ll see license plates from all over the country packed into the large parking lots at the trailheads. You might even wonder why you decided to visit if you find yourself in a conga line heading up to some scenic alpine lake.
But there are lesser-known ways to find solitude in the massive park. Check out the best off-the-beaten-path things to do in Rocky Mountain National Park below to ensure you can find a place (nearly) to yourself in the park.
1. Bike on the Highest Highway in the Country
Trail Ridge Road is North America’s highest elevation continuously paved road. It traverses the alpine tundra of the park for 48 miles between Estes Park and Grand Lake — 11 of those miles are completely above treeline. For about six weeks every year, Trail Ridge Road is open to cyclists but closed to motorists. This means you can ride this incredible traverse without the dangers posed by out-of-state distracted drivers.
As you might expect, this is no easy feat. If you start in Estes Park at 7,522 feet above se level, you’ll climb 4,600 feet to the highest spot on the road at 12,183 feet. You’ll be moving slow — there’s 35 percent less oxygen than at sea level. Deep breaths mean something way different up there.
2. Catch the Sunrise at Dream Lake
There are several reasons to make the short hike to Dream Lake, but regardless of why you go, you’ll want to visit early in the morning. Due to the short and relatively easy walk from the trailhead, it’s a popular hike. To avoid the hordes of tourists, get there well before sunup and take advantage of the solitude. You might even see a few moose lingering around the water’s edge. If you’re feeling like the two-mile hike isn’t quite enough, you can head further up the trail to Emerald Lake.
3. Climb Up a Waterfall
There are 31 named waterfalls in Rocky Mountain National Park. Most are near the trails, but Timberline Falls is the only one directly on a trail. But don’t freak out: it’s not a raging waterfall that will sweep you downstream. Depending on the season, it might just be a trickle with an easy climb, or it may be ice-covered and require crampons and ice climbing gear.
If you make it the four miles to the falls, the trail immediately after the climb heads into some of the most beautiful scenery the park. At the top of the waterfall, you’re only another half-mile to Lake of Glass and the majestic Sky Pond. You won’t regret ascending the waterfall once you visit those iconic Rocky Mountain water features.
4. Get Some Diner Coffee Before a Hike
Before heading out on an all-day adventure, make sure to stop in at Notchtop Bakery. And no, it’s not some creative wordplay to get the diner’s name: it’s named for the park’s Notchtop Mountain. But “top notch” is exactly how most people describe the menu here. Their menu is wonderfully simple: order the “Mummy Mountain” hash or Texas sandwich for some truly fantastic food.
5. Hear the Haunting Crescendos of Resident Elk
Every year from mid-September to mid-October, elk descend from the high country to the park’s montane meadows for rut season — a.k.a. breeding season. “Rut” comes from the Latin word for “roar,” which you’ll agree is quite an apt choice of words once you hear the bull elk bugles.
The best places to hear these hauntingly beautiful sounds and view the bulls in sparring matches are Moraine Park, Horseshoe Park, and Upper Beaver Meadows. They’re most active during the early evening. You’ll usually find local guides in the area giving information to all the tourists — you won’t be alone for this activity.
6. Rock Climb The Diamond
Many visitors attempt to hike up Longs Peak, a prominent and recognizable feature in the park. Of the 15,000–20,000 people who attempt the hike every year, only about half make it to the summit. Rocky Mountain National Park is an unforgiving landscape with frequent storms that seemingly come from nowhere. Altitude sickness is also a serious threat for people visiting from sea level.
But thrill seekers with a taste for adventure will want to put climbing Longs Peak’s Diamond face on their list of things to do. The Diamond has more than 30 routes — the most popular is the Casual Route. Be sure to check in advance which routes require a specific permit, or check out a reputable guide service like Denver Mountain Guiding to help get you up the mountain.
7. Compete with the Bears for Fresh Fish
Several species of trout call Rocky Mountain’s waterways home, including the native greenback cutthroat trout. From mid-June to mid-October, you can get yourself a fishing license and see a different side of Rocky Mountain National Park. The best places to catch a big one are Onahu Creek, Spirit Lake, and Baker Creek (on the west side) and Mill Creek, Black Lake, Sprague Lake, Roaring River, and The Loch on the east side. If you don’t know how to fly fish, check out Kirks Flyshop for a guided expedition.
8. Experience the Inspiration for “The Shining”
As you approach Rocky Mountain National Park Via Estes Park, you’ll see a grand white building with a red roof. It’s the Stanley Hotel, and it towers above the town. Most notably, it was the inspiration for The Overlook Hotel in Stephen King’s famed novel. You can park and visit the hotel at your own pace or take a guided tour, but staying at the hotel is the best way to experience it.
If you’re like Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson’s character) and you’d “give anything for a drink,” look no further than the Whiskey Bar. It’s scarily reminiscent of the bar from the movie, but – spoiler alert – the bartenders and drinks are a tad more real. If the atmosphere freaks you out too much though, feel free to saunter over to any of the other three restaurants within the hotel.
9. Dip Your Toes in the State’s Largest and Deepest Natural Lake
Grand Lake sits closer to the western border and visiting it is one of the best things to do in Rocky Mountain National Park, especially as you get to drive over the Continental Divide. At over 500 surface acres, Grand Lake creates plenty of space for the water sport of your choosing. You can rent both motorized and non-motorized water vessels at the Grand Lake Marina, fish from the banks, or simply walk along the boardwalk (great for kids!) Make sure to stop in the quaint town of the same name on the northwest shores of the lake.
10. Visit the Highest Visitor Center in the Country
A trip to Rocky Mountain isn’t complete with a visit to the Alpine Visitor Center. It’s the highest of its kind in the entire National Park Service, sitting at nearly 12,000 feet above sea level. There are several very interesting exhibits on the park, knowledgeable staff to answer questions, and incredible views of alpine tundra and hungry marmots. It’s also home to the only eatery within the park (try the pulled pork sandwich!)
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