Beginners Guide

If you have never been to Rocky Mountain National Park, we have some good news: the 100-year-old national park hasn't changed much. With its rolling tundra, stoic mountain peaks, glacier-carved valleys and abundant wildlife, the same things that made this place special in 1915 when it was declared a national park continue to make it special today. But with the park's staggering 416 square miles, it can seem a little daunting to know where to start.

We have some more good news: we've compiled all the visitor info you need to make your first visit a breeze with this beginner's guide to Rocky Mountain National Park.

The Lay of the Land

Rocky Mountain National Park has two distinct halves, which are connected by the highest continuously paved road in North America: Trail Ridge Road. No trip to the park is complete without driving the 48-mile road in its entirety. However, it is important to note that the road is closed in winter due to snowpack.

The eastern slope of the park includes such notable attractions as Longs Peak, Moraine Park, Bear Lake, Wild Basin and Sprague Lake, and as a result, it is the more heavily trafficked side of the park.

The western slope of the park features Colorado's largest natural lake (Grand Lake), an expansive valley riddled with moose and elk (Kawuneeche Valley), the headwaters of the Colorado River, and more than a dozen backcountry valleys perfect for horseback and hiking excursions.

Where to Stay

The park's two main gateway towns — Grand Lake and Estes Park — are not short on hotels, motels, inns, bed-and-breakfasts and vacation rentals. As a result, either works as a great basecamp for your first adventure. Grand Lake's accommodations offer the added bonus of access to such outside-the-park attractions as Shadow Mountain Reservoir, Lake Granby, the Indian Peaks Wilderness, Winter Park/Fraser and Hot Sulphur Springs. Nearby, Granby and Kremmling also offer a variety of authentic Colorado lodging options, and they are only a short drive from the park.

If you are looking to camp, the park offers five campgrounds of various sizes, with all but the Longs Peak Campground accommodating RVs. The Timber Creek Campground on the west side of the park lies in the heart of the Kawuneeche Valley, and its spacious 98 camp sites are peaceful and scenic.

When to Visit

Rocky Mountain National Park offers plenty of contrast from one season to the next. Summer (generally Memorial Day to Labor Day) is peak visitor season for good reason — trails are snow-free, the park's wildlife is active, and the wildflowers are in full bloom. Reservations are advised for all accommodations during this season.

But ask a local or frequent visitor to the park, and they will tell you that autumn (generally Labor Day to mid-October) is their favorite time of year. While you may see an early snow storm during this season, you are more likely to see the aspen trees and tundra grasses turning their vibrant shades of gold and red, and you are also likely to hear elk bugling during their annual rut season. Trails often remain accessible, and most campgrounds remain open.

In winter, Trail Ridge Road (which connects the eastern and western halves of the park) is closed due to snowfall, and the park sees little visitation. But for outdoor enthusiasts looking to cross-country ski or snowshoe, the park's valleys and trails are a sublime winter wonderland where you can see fresh animal tracks, frozen waterfalls and snow-covered peaks.

What to Do

There is a good chance that once you've visited Rocky Mountain National Park, you'll start planning a return visit. There is just so much to see and experience.

Here are some related articles to help you plan your first (and repeat) visit.

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