Visiting Rocky Mountain National Park

Tundra along Trail Ridge Road - Rocky Mountain National Park

Tundra long Trail Ridge Road – Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the crown jewels of the national park system in the United States. Located about an hour northwest of Denver, Colorado, it is an easy day trip from the Denver area or a wonderful place to spend a week or even a month or more. There is just something about this place and its wide, sweeping wilderness. If you love the mountains, visiting Rocky Mountain National Park should be high on your travel list.  It’s 415 square miles of wilderness in the heart of the Rocky Mountains and boasts soaring mountain peaks, windswept tundra, wooded mountain paths, sparkling lakes, waterfalls and an abundance of wildlife.

Nuthatch watching my camera.

Nuthatch watching my camera.

 

I’ve been blessed to have visited this place six times, and it never gets old. It has gotten into my soul. Every time we visit, I think of the many things I wanted to share with friends and family should they happen to come. So….here are some photos along with a few tips that we have learned over the years.

Reflection at Nymph Lake - Rocky Mountain National Park

Reflection at Nymph Lake – Rocky Mountain National Park

Highlights of this amazing place:

  • Trail Ridge Road- If you only have one day to see the park, or even part of a day, this is the “don’t miss”, absolute top item on the list! You can spend a week in the park, drive Trail Ridge Road every day, and see something new. The weather and the light changes constantly. During the summer, this is where you are MOST likely to see large numbers of elk during the day, although you can see them anywhere in the park. See my post that details more about Trail Ridge road  HERE.

    Tundra along Trail Ridge Road - Rocky Mountain National Park

    Tundra along Trail Ridge Road – Rocky Mountain National Park

  • Old Fall River Road – This one way dirt road runs parallel to Trail Ridge road and it is only open from early July to September, depending on the weather conditions. It is a bit shorter way to the top, but you must go slow. We often went to the top via this route, and worked our way back down Trail Ridge road. Be aware that longer vehicles  over 25 feet can’t go up this way (don’t plan to pull your RV up if you are just driving through the park). The road is narrow and there are really sharp turns. It is definitely worth the drive up, however. It is also the route to see Chasm Falls and access the Chapin Creek Trailhead (beautiful hike!).

    Old Fall River Road - Visiting Rocky Mountain National Park

    Old Fall River Road – Visiting Rocky Mountain National Park

  • Wildlife – Elk, moose, bighorn sheep and mule deer are among the largest of wildlife that make their home here. You are pretty much guaranteed to see elk when you visit, and they are found in many areas in the park. Mule deer are also very common. Chipmunks are everywhere, and pikas and marmots are seen frequently along the tundra areas.
    Bull elk along the road to Bear Lake.

    Bull elk along the road to Bear Lake.

    Our experience has been that bighorn sheep and moose tend to be more scarce, although you may luck out and see both on one trip. On our last trip, I had been bemoaning the fact that in all of the times we have been there, we had never seen a big horn sheep. Well, fortunately, I had also rented a longer zoom lens to bring, because we actually saw some along the craggy tundra near the top!  Of course, if my husband had not been scouring the landscape with his binoculars and I had not rented that “extra zoom” lens, I never would have gotten the photos I did. Another thing you can do is to ask a park ranger where the big horns are currently being seen. That will give you an idea of where to look. And, if you have binoculars, bring them along. My husband enjoyed finding things with his binoculars that we could not see with the naked eye.

Big horn sheep near the top of Trail Ridge Road - Rocky Mountain National Park

Big horn sheep near the top of Trail Ridge Road – Rocky Mountain National Park

  • On our last trip to RMNP last year, we also scored photos of big bull moose. We had decided to go to Sprague Lake for sunrise photos. The light changes so much and you can get totally different looking photos every time you go. We had walked our way around the lake, taking photos and enjoying the morning, and when I turned around, a big bull moose stood out in the water.  He stayed around long enough to pose for several photos. Thankfully, the zoom lens allowed us to stay a safe distance away.

    Bull moose at Sprague Lake - Rocky Mountain National Park

    Bull moose at Sprague Lake – Rocky Mountain National Park

  • Lakes – RMNP has an abundance of beautiful lakes, many of which are easily accessible. If you have people who are limited by physical or health conditions, have small children with you, or are just limited on time, some of these are easy to walk up to from a parking lot. Bear Lake and Sprague Lake are two of the most popular. They are incredibly scenic and just a short walk from the parking lot. You do need to be aware, however, that you can’t always drive yourself down Bear Lake road during the day. The road is often closed to auto traffic during busy summer days, requiring you to take the free shuttle bus. You can get around that by driving up early in the morning, or later in the evening. Check the park website for updates (see the link at the bottom of this post). Lily Lake is also right off of highway 7 along the edge of the park, and Lake Irene and Poudre Lake are on the western side of Trail Ridge Road.

    Early morning at Sprague Lake.

    Early morning at Sprague Lake.

  • There are many beautiful lakes tucked away in the mountains that many don’t see because it takes some effort (hiking) to see them. Two of the most incredible lakes that will take some effort to get to are Dream Lake and Emerald Lake. Last time we were there, I took my own advice and got out on the trail. Always after that beautiful morning light, we set out before sunrise for Dream Lake. Huffing and puffing (well, I was, not my husband), we got there just after sunrise. It was so worth it! Dream Lake lived up to its name. When the morning light hits the mountains, it bathes it in a beautiful alpine glow.

    Dream Lake just after sunrise – Rocky Mountain National Park

    After taking dozens of photos, we decided to go on further to Emerald Lake. Again, so worth it! When we came over the rise, it was hard to believe what we were seeing exactly. The reflection of the water in the early morning light created a mirror reflection so real, it looked like a giant space in front of us. I still think they should have named it Mirror Lake. We spent a while there, and it was interesting to watch how the scene and the reflections changed as the sun rose higher.

 

Morning reflection at Emerald Lake.

Morning reflection at Emerald Lake.

Suggestions

  • The two best times of day for seeing wildlife and for photography are morning and evening. Those “golden hours” have the best light, and the wildlife tend to be out and more active then. Also, there are fewer people out and about at that time. Reflections on the water are great in the early morning. The park is a photographer’s dream, but some planning and preparation can help get the great shots. Plus, it is hard to describe how different the landscapes can look in the early morning versus the middle of the day.

    Sunrise on the trail to Dream Lake - Rocky Mountain National Park

    Sunrise on the trail to Dream Lake – Rocky Mountain National Par

  • Go hiking and get out in it if you possibly can. Take a stroll around some of the park’s several easily accessible lakes. Sit, listen and absorb the peace and the beauty. Because of the size and scope of the park, most visitors spend the majority of their time riding in their vehicles, but truly, you will be cheating yourself if you don’t get out on a trail for at least a short while.
  • Don’t overlook the details! From tiny fragile flowers on the tundra, to tiny animals, they are all amazing in their own way.

    Chipmunk - Rocky Mountain National Park

    Chipmunk – Rocky Mountain National Park

  • When everyone else is clogging up the park in the middle of the day, you might decide to do your shopping or take advantage of one of the restaurants in Estes Park. The majority of the crowds sleep a little later, converge on the major attractions during the middle of the day, and then crowd in town in the evening for shopping and hitting the restaurants. We tried, whenever possible, to eat earlier at the restaurants for dinner (4:30 – 5:30) and then go back into the park for the “evening show”. Try to get into the restaurants  in the normal dinner hour and you may wait up to 2 hours for a table.

    Marmot - Rocky Mountain National Park

    Marmot – Rocky Mountain National Park

  • Dress in layers! Be prepared to wear everything from shorts to coats, especially driving TRR.
  • Be considerate! You will enjoy your visit a lot more.
  • This place will make you want to take a LOT of photos. In fact, you might find yourself constantly snapping trying to capture what you see. If you don’t have the “nice camera” or lens that you would love to have, you can always consider renting one for the trip. It really is worth it. See my post about that here.  The most frustrating thing that I  found is that, no matter how beautiful of a photo you capture, it just is not the same as being THERE. You take the photo and when you look at it later, you know. Still, taking great photos when you are there are part of “keeping it” for later.
  • Check the park’s website for daily updates about what is going on in the park. Road and trail closures can change from one day to the next. See the link to the park’s website below.
waterfall at alluvial fan - Rocky Mountain National Park Colorado

Alluvial Fan – Rocky Mountain National Park – Colorado

Things to be aware of:

  • There are restrooms in the park, but for the most part, they are NOT flush toilets. The locations are noted on your park map that you get when you pay your entrance fee.  It is the basic thing everyone needs to know, right? Plan accordingly!
  • Make sure you have a full tank of gas before you take the drive up TRR. There are NO places to get gas inside the park.
  • Take some sort of rain gear (ponchos, jackets) with you at all times because the weather can change very fast . Don’t be fooled by the sun shining when you leave your camp, cabin or hotel room. I highly suggest bringing some sort of dry bags to keep things like electronics and camera gear protected out on the trail. Check out this post on some bags that would be great to use for that purpose !
  • Be aware that your cell phone service will not work in most areas of the park.
Creek reflection - western side of Rocky Mountain National Park

Creek reflection – western side of Rocky Mountain National Park

 

Resources to help you out:

 

I hope you get to go!!

Sandy

 

About Sandy

My life revolves around my faith in Jesus Christ and chasing the dreams I believe He has placed in my heart.

Comments

  1. Thanks for this great post. We’re planning a trip here next year and this is exactly the kind of thing I’ve been looking for.

    • Hi Kim! You are absolutely going to love it! Hope the resources help. I will be adding a separate post on Trail Ridge Road soon.

  2. Great photos! I think the marmot is my favorite

  3. Beautiful imagery Sandy! I can see your passion come through in how you write about this place. Love the dream lake after sunrise picture

  4. Julia Elizabeth says:

    Wow your photos are stunning! I have a long list of National Parks I want to visit and Rocky Mountain National Park is definitely up there. Thank you so much for the tips, suggestions, and resources – they will definitely come in handy in the future 🙂

  5. My kiddos and I love exploring natural places. I would love to visit Rocky Mountain National Park with my family someday!

  6. VIsiting the Rocky mountains had never crossed my mind but it looks like an amazing place! it’s so green and gorgeous! perfect for a hike! xx corinne

  7. Wow, your pictures are amazing! I wish I was closer so I could go. That waterfall is breathtaking.

    • It is a long drive (18 hours) or a flight for us, too, but it so amazing we have been drawn back over the years many times. Thanks for stopping by!

  8. Rocky Mountain National Park has always been on the top of my bucketlist! I mean seriously, look at those views!!!

  9. makeamomsmile says:

    WOW this park is truly beautiful! It looks like you were so close to the animals

  10. Oh my goodness what an absolutely beautiful looking area, I would love to get to visit myself and take in the beautiful surroundings.

  11. This looks like a really serene spot to reconnect with nature. Sometimes we need to unplug and reconnect.

  12. What a beautiful place to visit with breathtaking scenery! I hope that when I go there, I will be able to see all the animals that you included in your post, especially the cute moose!

  13. Wow… These things just remind us how amazing our creator is and how much he loves us… I really wish to experience these soon as am free and buoyant enough for it. Thanks for the post

  14. Samantha Bye says:

    Incredible photos! They’re all so beautiful. The sunrise over Dream Lake looks like heaven on earth!

  15. It looks absolutely amazing out there. I remember doing hikes like this when I was younger. I really need to go out there and do some more again with my daughter. She would love it.

  16. It looks breathtaking. Cant believe you’ve been there six times, but with how amazing it looks I don’t blame you for going back. The photos are just incredible.

    • The different times we have visited have been spread out over about 15 years, and I have been there all but one of the times in the summer. Once I was able to visit with my brother in November and saw the bull elks in rut. Thanks for the comments on my photos!

  17. angrisk says:

    WOW! I just love our National Parks, and your pictures are a great reason why. All that beauty and wildlife the US holds I think is sometimes forgotten with all our big cities. But I love getting into nature. You sunset picture is aamazing.

  18. It looks so naturally beautiful and the wildlife is incredible. I’m thinking of the John Denver song as I read this post.

  19. wow!The pictures say it all.Truly breathtaking views from the national park.The wildlife is amazing and the natural landscapes are inviting!Hope you had great time there!

  20. urbansoulalchemy2013 says:

    These photos are absolutely stunning. I live in the Canadian Rockies, and have seen tons of wildlife, but never a moose. Someday!

    • The Canadian Rockies are for sure on my bucket list. I think we are going there next summer – really want to see Banff National Park and those fabulous lakes in that area. Thanks for commenting!

  21. Thanks for sharing such a breathtaking photos! Rocky mountain/Canadian Rookies is on my bucket list to do. I hope to go there with my family someday.

  22. You had an amazing shots! I hope to visit this places too. Love the Nymph Lake!

  23. These pictures look breathtaking. What a great place on earth!

  24. Wonderful pictures! Makes me want to go right now!

  25. Wow. Your photography is amazing. Beautiful work. Breathtaking photos. Looks like a beautiful and peaceful place to visit, several times. 🙂 Thanks for the great info.

  26. I’ve never been here but now I want to visit!!!

  27. Fabulous photos. We love in such a beautiful country. We are lucky…great post.

  28. This sounds like an adventure for me! I love how there’s such a variety of wildlife! The landscape and scenery is breathtaking!

  29. I haven’t been here because I usually only go to Colorado in the winter, but I’m missing out! I would love to explore the park and enjoy nature to its fullest.

    • Katie we have been to Colorado in the winter, too, and it is beautiful then as well. It is just a whole other kind of beautiful in the summer. Thanks for commenting!

  30. Cupping101 says:

    This is so interesting, hope i can visit that place.

  31. What a perfect weather for a dayhike. It seems that you really had a great time. You have great photos too!

  32. beautiful captures!

  33. Wow you made me dream! What a great photos!

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