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Why Go to Rocky Mountain National Park

At 265,000 acres, Rocky Mountain National Park isn't the country's largest national park, nor is it the most-frequented with about 4 million annual visitors (compared to Great Smoky Mountains National Park's more than 11 million visitors). But there is something definitively magical about RMNP, which rises 12,183 feet into the Colorado sky. The main attraction is hiking its 350-some miles of trails that wind through pine and spruce forests, glittering alpine lakes, swaths of wildflowers and if you're lucky, some elk or bighorn sheep. And maybe it's the thinner atmosphere that goes to visitors' heads, but even the most jaded report feelings of awe and wonder after a day or two of breathing in that refreshing mountain air. 

When it's time to come back down to earth, or at least down to an elevation of 7,500 feet or so, visitors can devour some homemade ice cream, take a spooky tour of the Stanley Hotel or simply meander through the delightful village of Estes Park. Plus, fellow Colorado hot spots – Boulder and Denver – are each just a short drive away. 

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Rocky Mountain National Park Travel Tips

Best Months to Visit

The best time to visit Rocky Mountain National Park is from June to September when the snow is (mostly) melted and the hiking trails and attractions are accessible. Still, these four months are also the most popular times to visit, so if you'd rather experience RMNP in relative isolation and while wearing snowshoes or cross-country skis, visit between the months of October and May. Whether snow or sunshine, the park is open to the public 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, though some parts may be inaccessible. 

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What You Need to Know

  • Wear layers With this national park's high elevation, travelers can get hypothermia anytime of the year, even in the summertime when thunderstorms cause temps to drop drastically. Be prepared by wearing water-wicking layers.
  • Go early and stay late With fewer tourists and more wildlife activity, early mornings and late afternoons are some of the most magical times to visit the park, locals say.
  • Enroll kids as Junior Rangers Pick up Junior Ranger activity booklets from any of RMNP's visitor centers and inquire about participating in ranger-led programs. They're free!

How to Save Money in Rocky Mountain National Park

  • Pack a picnic Instead of racking up restaurant tabs, pack a picnic and enjoy it at RMNP's largest picnic area Endovalley, which also offers lovely views of Fall River Pass. You'll find grocery stores in the nearby communities of Estes Park and Grand Lake.
  • Fill your car If you're traveling with a group, ride together in one vehicle so you can split the national park entrance fee among the group (a one-day vehicle pass costs $20).
  • Camp out Accommodation rates rise during peak season (June to September), but you can save some cash by pitching a tent at campgrounds, such as Aspenglen, Glacier Basin and Moraine Park. Just make your reservation in advance.

What to Eat

Although there are a limited number of dining establishments inside Rocky Mountain National Park, nearby Estes Park offers 70-some restaurants, which serve up a range of cuisines. You'll find a handful of fine dining establishments, including the traveler-favorite Twin Owls Steakhouse, but most of its restaurants are casual yet tasty spots. To refuel after a long day on park trails, travelers should head to Elkhorn Avenue in Estes Park for just about any kind of cuisine. For instance, Antonio's Real New York Pizza & Deli is a great spot to dine in or takeout, Nepal's Café is a prime place to fill up on Indian-Nepalese dishes, while Peppers Mexican Grill is beloved for its buffalo nachos. 

For ice cream and milkshakes, try Flavors of the Rockies, Hayley's or Laura's – all on Elkhorn Avenue and all recommended by recent travelers. To get your caffeine fix, check out Elkhorn Avenue's Kind Coffee and Inkwell & Brew, or Coffee on the Rocks on Moraine Avenue. And to sample a major Colorado food group, travelers can head to Lumpy Ridge Brewing Co. or Estes Park Brewery for a craft beer. 

There are also more than two dozen picnic sites for visitors to enjoy the great outdoors while they're chowing down, such as the popular Endovalley. Plus, many of these picnicking spots also contain restrooms. Visitors can stock up on picnic fare at grocery stores in Estes Park or Grand Valley. 

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Safety

Rocky Mountain National Park is home to herds of elk and bighorn sheep, but it also has a population of mountain lions and black bears. Although attacks are very rare, the National Park Service recommends visitors hike in groups since these animals are less likely to grow aggressive when faced with multiple people. Campers should also stow all food in food lockers if available or in airtight, bear-resistant containers. Ticks also pose a risk, and since these can be carriers for disease, it's important to do nightly tick checks after a day on the trails. 

Rising from 7,800 feet to 12,000 – even 14,000 feet in some places – RMNP is a high-elevation park and if you don't give yourself time to adjust to the thinner atmosphere and lower oxygen levels, you could run the risk of getting the headaches, nausea and disorientation characteristic of altitude sickness. Along with taking a day or so to acclimate to the high altitude, you should make sure to consume plenty of water and food to ward off symptoms.

The weather in RMNP is highly variable. To avoid being caught off-guard, pay attention to the weather report (especially afternoon thunderstorms in the summer or heavy snow during the winter). The NPS also warns that wintertime visitors planning on cross-country skiing should be aware of the risks of avalanches, and should consider completing an avalanche training from places like the Colorado Avalanche Information Center before hitting the trails. For more safety tips, consult the NPS website .

Getting Around Rocky Mountain National Park

The best way to get around Rocky Mountain National Park is by car. Having your own wheels gives you the most freedom to come and go as you please. Still, the park's free shuttle is a good option too, as it runs routes to many – but not all – of the park's most popular trails and attractions during the summertime high season. 

To reach Rocky Mountain National Park, many travelers fly into Denver International Airport (DEN) and either rent a car and drive the 80-some miles northwest to Estes Park or take the Estes Park Shuttle, which runs frequent routes from the airport to Estes Park for $45 one-way and $85 round-trip. There is no public transportation available between the airport and the park.

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