With towering peaks, glaciers and lakes, there is so much to see and do in this park that spans the Continental Divide in the Colorado Rockies!
In this article...
For our first National Park Unit of Season 3, we had a special guest - Diana's brother Jānis whom we had picked up at Denver International Airport 2 days prior. Jānis would be joining us for the next 2 weeks as we explored some of the best National Parks that Colorado has to offer.
After a couple days to acclimate to the elevation, it was time to get going!
So on a sunny morning in mid-July last year, we left the RV park in Denver, CO and headed towards Rocky Mountain National Park - unit number 27 on our quest to visit ALL the National Park Units in the US.
Since Jānis was only with us for 2 weeks, we had planned an action-packed itinerary, starting with four nights camping at Glacier Basin Campground inside Rocky Mountain National Park.
Our drive from an RV park on the west side of Denver, CO near I-70 to the East entrance of Rocky Mountain National Park was a little over 60 miles. With the trailer in tow, it took a little under 2 hours on the winding roads up through.
Rocky Mountain National Park itself is about 40 miles northwest of Boulder, CO and a similar distance south-southwest from Fort Collins, CO.
The park itself is huge though, so bear that in mind while planning your visit!
Not only does Rocky Mountain National Park cover a vast area - 265,000 acres or 414 square miles - but it's also a particularly diverse environment.
The park spans the Continental Divide. Rivers to the west of this line drain to the Pacific, whereas rivers to the east drain to the Atlantic.
Furthermore, it is one of the highest National Parks in the US, with elevations ranging from 7,860ft up to 14,259ft at the top of Longs Peak. Excitingly to us, after recently having driven on the highest paved road in the US (at the summit of Mt Evans), Rocky Mountain National Park plays host to the highest through-road in the country - Trail Ridge Road which reaches 12,183ft.
The park is split into five geographical zones.
On the west side is Region 1, where moose roam in vast meadows. Region 2 is the Alpine region, known for stunning panoramic views and tundra. The wilderness of Region 3 contains the Mummy Range of mountains, found in the northern area of the park.
Region 4 is the heart of the park - and is where we, like many visitors, spent most of our time. Characterized by easily accessed trails with stunning views of mountains, forests and lakes, it's no surprise that this area is so popular!
Lastly, Region 5 is home to the highest peak in Rocky Mountain National Park - Longs Peak, standing at 14,255ft.
Flora & Fauna
In an environment as diverse as this, it should come as no surprise that it is home to a huge variety of plants and animals.
There are over 300 hundred species of birds, including eagles, hawks, vultures and owls, as well as some unique species such as the white-tailed Ptarmigan that we saw while hiking.
The park is also home to 67 mammal species - from the tiny Pika and Yellow-Bellied Marmot up to Black Bears, Mountain Lions , Bighorn Sheep and Elk.
Moose are now common in the park too, but that wasn't historically the case. Conversely, grizzly bears, wolves and bison used to be found here but were locally extirpated (i.e. made extinct) in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Plants too, thrive in this varied topography. From the wildflowers in the grassy meadows to the alpine flowers hiding in the tundra, there is more to Rocky Mountain National Park than just the forests!
National Park Designation
The land now known as Rocky Mountain National Park was acquired by the US government in 1803 as part of the Louisiana Purchase.
While the harsh winter conditions in the mountains prevented grazing, hunters were drawn by the lure of bears, deer and elk. Water was intercepted from the stream source of the Colorado River and diverted for irrigation and ranching in nearby Fort Collins during the homesteading era in the 1860s. Then in the late 19th century came the tourists.
Around the turn of the 20th century, while Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir and Gifford Pinchot led a national conservation and preservation movement, the Estes Park Protective and Improvement Association promoted similar goals at a local level.
Years of local efforts and lobbying Congress in the face of opposition from the mining and logging industries ultimately proved successful. On January 26, 1915, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Rocky Mountain National Park Act.
Today, Rocky Mountain National Park is the 3rd most visited National Park in the country. In 2018, it attracted over 4.5 million visitors - lured by the magical landscapes, and brought in with its convenient access to nearby cities and transport infrastructure.
Glacier Basin Campground
We chose to stay at Glacier Basin Campground, inside the park on the east side - south down Bear Lake Road once you come in through the Beaver Meadows Entrance Station.
The campground has 150 sites, although 73 are tent only and 13 are group sites. The maximum RV length is 35 feet and the campground is only open seasonally during the summer. None of the sites have any hookups, but there is a dump station (with potable water) on site.
We lucked out and managed to book a site just a few weeks before our trip - one of the reasons that we visited during mid-week. It was a great base for exploring the park!
With 4 nights in Glacier Basin Campground, that gave us our arrival day plus 3 more full days to explore. We wanted to make the most of it!
We drove to Rocky Mountain National Park on Sunday morning, arriving at the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center just outside the park in late morning. Even though it was busy, we had no problems parking our RV in the parking lot.
Beaver Meadows Visitor Center
The Visitor Center itself was very busy - I lined up to speak with an NPS staff member about our plans for the week ahead while Diana stamped our Park Passport.
We always speak with the NPS staff when we arrive at a new National Park. Not only do they have the latest information on conditions in the area, but they can give you some great tips.
For example, Rocky Mountain National Park is so busy that the parking lots at the more popular trailheads fill up early. We learned the best times to arrive to make sure we didn't have problems!
Glacier Basin Campground
Armed with the information we needed and a plan for the days ahead, we headed over to the campground - about 6 miles from the Visitor Center.
We were camping in site D133. Like most, this was a small pull-out on the side of the road for the truck and trailer, with some space near a fire-pit and a tent-pad too. We didn't need the tent-pad, but we noticed a lot of campers were there with just a car and tent.
It was Jānis's first time seeing us set up the trailer, so we took our time and showed him the whole process.
Once the RV was set up, it was time for lunch!
As well as being able to enjoy the beautiful views, one of the nicest things about camping inside the park is that there are often trails leading directly from the campground.
Glacier Basin was no different, so we decided to have an afternoon stroll down to Sprague Lake.
The Sprague Lake Loop Trail starts from the group section of the campground, and it's a little over half a mile down an easy trail to Sprague Lake.
Since arriving, Jānis had made it clear he wanted to go swimming somewhere in the park - he was in training for a triathlon so this would be great experience. We had checked with the staff at the Visitor Center and confirmed that yes, you can swim in Sprague Lake. We did warn Jānis that it would be very cold though!
So once we reached the lake, we began hiking its circumference, looking for a good spot for him to go swimming. And he did! The water was predictably freezing but he stayed in a few minutes - apparently it was very refreshing!
We continued our lap around the lake before heading back to the campground. The whole hike was 2.4 miles with about 150ft of elevation gain. If you're staying at Glacier Basin Campground then this hike is well worth doing.
The rest of the afternoon we spent relaxing - walking around the campground showing Jānis the different types of RVs, as well as just sitting around outside the RV.
That evening we walked over to the auditorium in the campground for one of the Ranger-led Evening Programs.
There, we learned some of the history of the park and some of the challenges that the NPS faces with its dual role to both protect the park and open it for public enjoyment.
The talks aren't on every night, but check to see if there is something on while you're there as in our experience they're usually well worth attending.
Our plan for Day 2 was simple - drive the Old Fall River Road, stopping at view points and trailheads along the route. Then, we'd continue through the park to Grand Lake so Jānis could do some more swimming.
We set out from the campground just after 9am.
Our first stop of the day was at Alluvial Fan. We parked at the East Alluvial Fan Trailhead and hiked the short trail to the waterfall.
The Alluvial Fan was created when the Lawn Lake Dam broke, and a major flood swept through in 1982. A trail and bridge were built, but were destroyed in 2013 by another flood.
We saw signs indicating trail work was still underway, but we had no problems getting there.
Old Fall River Road
A mile or so after the Alluvial Fan Trailhead, the road becomes unpaved - this is the start of Old Fall River Road. This section is one-way only (heading uphill) and is only open from early July until September.
While much of the road is lined with trees, when the trees break the views are incredible! We stopped a couple times to soak in the views and take some photos.
Chapin Creek Trail
Further up Old Fall River Road, we pulled in near the Chapin Creek Trailhead. It wasn't easy to find parking, but we managed to tuck our truck off the road to avoid causing a blockage.
Chapin Creek Trail ascends to a ridge before descending along Chapin Creek. Even in mid-July, sections of the trail were covered in deep snow and had to be carefully traversed.
We had no real plan on how far along the trail to hike. However, as we climbed closer to the ridge, clouds began to form. We passed several hikers coming the other way who were coming down from the high points due to the clouds.
During summers in Colorado, afternoon thunderstorms are commonplace, and being exposed in high areas can be very dangerous.
We decided to follow the example of the other hikes and descend back to the truck - better safe than sorry!
Alpine Visitor Center
At the top of Old Fall River Road is the Alpine Visitor Center - the highest visitor center in the National Park Service at 11,796ft above sea level.
The parking lot was very full and we had to drive around a couple times and then get creative to park our long truck!
It was lunchtime so we ate our lunch sitting on the benches outside - enjoying the views down the valley.
Inside the Visitor Center are an array of exhibits and display signs. We learned that the treeline (the highest elevation at which trees can grow) is about 11,400ft in Rocky Mountain National Park. So as you look around, that's a useful indicator on how high the mountains are!
After lunch, we then hike the short Alpine Ridge Trail that starts next to the Visitor Center. This short but steep 0.5-mile trail climbs about 250ft in elevation to a small peak near the Visitor Center.
This alpine tundra is carefully managed to showcase many of the plant varieties that grow here, and we enjoyed learning their names and reading more about them.
Plus, the views from the top are predictably stunning!
In our continuing quest for somewhere that Jānis could go swimming, we chose to head down to Grand Lake - a small town just outside the park boundaries named after the lake upon whose shores it sits. Along the way, the road crosses the Continental Divide as it passes through the park.
We found somewhere to park near the lake, and to our surprise, there were lots of people out on the water. Note I said "on" not "in" the water - other people were on kayaks or stand-up paddle boards.
Jānis didn't hesitate and jumped straight in - with more than a few curious onlookers commenting on how cold the water must be! And apparently it was!
Despite the cold water, it was an otherwise nice sunny day so we decided to treat ourselves with an ice cream at a nearby cafe.
Trail Ridge Road
By mid-afternoon, it was time to begin heading back to the campground - it's around 46 miles from Grand Lake back to Glacier Basin Campground.
The route took us back through the park along Trail Ridge Road - the highest paved through-road in the US reaching 12,183ft.
We stopped near the highest point to take some photos, before continuing. Unfortunately, as large as the park is, a combination of its popularity and few roads mean traffic can be a real problem.
And that's exactly what we ran into. It took us an hour and 15 minutes to drive the 23 miles from the top of Trail Ridge Road back to our campground.
But while the clouds rolled in, obscuring the panoramic vistas as we sat in traffic, a herd of elk was grazing near the road - never a dull moment!
After a busy day of exploring, we were exhausted - and we had big plans for the next day! So we relaxed back at camp and enjoyed watching the sun set over the snow-capped mountains.
We set the alarm early because we wanted to hit the trails before the crowds.
Our goal for the day was to hike to the top of Hallett Peak which stands at 12,713ft above sea level.
We left the campground early and drove 4 miles down the road to the Bear Lake Trailhead. We arrived at 6am and although there were plenty of parking spaces available we were by no means the first there. It's a huge parking lot, but according to the Rangers, it usually fills completely by 8am!
The parking lot is at around 9,500ft so we had at least 3,000ft of climb ahead of us - and we wanted to be safely down from the top before afternoon thunderstorms could roll through.
From the trailhead, we followed the path to the shore of Bear Lake, which we followed for a short distance before the climb started.
Over the next few miles we climbed up through the trees, winding our way through the forest. There weren't many other people on the trail, and by walking quietly we were able to look (and listen) our for wildlife.
Sure enough, we stumbled upon a Dusky Grouse with a chick following her across the trail - so cute!
As we reached the edge of the treeline, we could see trees with branches on only one side. These are known as banner or flag trees - the branches growing only on the side better protected from the prevailing wind.
With the trees below us, incredible vistas began to open up - mountains stretching for tens of miles all around!
While the summer sun meant it was warm enough to hike in shorts, there were still many patches of snow on the ground. In fact, some areas keep the snow year round, such as Tyndall Glacier.
The final climb is a steep scramble over rocks, but the views from the top make it worthwhile!
Although it was only about 11:30am, we were feeling pretty hungry. So we sat for a while, soaked in the views, and enjoyed a well-deserved lunch.
As you might expect, the way down was a little faster than the climb up! But we did stop to watch a Yellow-Bellied Marmot playing on the rocks.
By the time we reached the trailhead at the bottom, we had hiked 10.2 miles with just over 3,000ft of elevation gain. It took us 8 hours including a generous lunch break and plenty of photo stops too.
We made it back to camp at about 3:30pm - we were exhausted!
On our last full day in Rocky Mountain National Park, we had another big hike lined up - Chasm Lake.
We left the campground at 5:50am and drove 17 miles, arriving at the Longs Peak Trailhead parking lot at 6:30am. The main parking area was almost completely full - we just managed to sneak in a spot at the very end!
This is also the starting point for Longs Peak itself - the highest point in Rocky Mountain National Park standing at 14,259ft above sea level. It was named after Major Stephen H. Long who despite never climbing Longs Peak himself, led an expedition along the base of the Rockies in 1820.
The trailhead is at just below 9,500ft and Chasm Lake itself is at around 11,700ft - another big climbing day!
Similarly to the day before, we started by climbing up through the forest. The trail was fairly easy going though and we made good progress.
We crossed several bridges over streams bringing ice cold water down from the snow capped peaks.
Around 11,000ft the trees disappeared, the views opened up and we were hiking beneath beautiful blue skies. A curious Pika was playing near the trail, so we stopped and watched for a while but despite its performance, we didn't offer any food.
The steady climb was relentless, and our target was hidden from view. We had no choice but to keep hiking.
After about 3.5 miles, the trail leveled off, roughly following the contours of around Mount Lady Washington. Down below we could sea Peacock Pool glistening in the sunny summer weather.
Around a quarter mile from the top, there's actually a small privy - definitely not something we were expecting to see! From here the trail is really steep - we scrambled up the rocks to the top.
But once again, the views made it so worthwhile. Chasm Lake is nestled under Mount Lady Washington at Longs Peak, giving it a sense of isolation we hadn't felt out on the trail hiking up. We sat on the rocks around the lakeshore and enjoyed a well-deserved and leisurely lunch.
We had made good time on the way up, but as we started descending the weather turned - clouds rolled in and we felt some light rain.
We ended up hiking down with a gentleman called Allen - a resident of nearby Estes Park. He regaled us with stories of his many years visiting Rocky Mountain National Park, and how much it has changed. It was astonishing to hear how visitation has grown so much - being so close to Boulder, Denver and Fort Collins makes the park so accessible to so many.
At the bottom we swapped contact details, and after a brief look around the Ranger station, went our separate ways.
The Chasm Lake trail had been 8.8 miles with 2,562ft of elevation gain. It had taken us 6 hours 40 minutes, including almost 2 hours of stops - it was hard to tear ourselves away from the our lunch spot!
That evening we grilled some dinner outside and enjoyed our final night in the park.
Our time at Rocky Mountain National Park had come to an end. It was time to move on to our next destination: Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.
We had a long drive ahead of us - almost 350 miles - and with only one night camping at Black Canyon, the earlier we arrived the better!
Trail Ridge Road (with RV)
For our final drive through the park, we towed our trailer up along Trail Ridge Road. We stopped to take photos near the highest point on the road - at 12,183ft - the highest place our trailer has ever been, and possibly will ever go!
The truck did great - no complaining at all as it pulled our trailer up and over the Continental Divide, back down the other side and out of the park.
Rocky Mountain National Park is a magical place - and one that you could easily spend weeks exploring and still barely scratch the surface!
We spent just 4 nights camping in Glacier Basin Campground in the park, but we fell in love. From its majestic peaks to its sparkling alpine lakes, the bubbling streams to the vast tundra, there is so much to see here!
If you haven't been to Rocky Mountain National Park then definitely add it to your list. But be mindful of the impact that the increasing visitation has on the park, and do what you can to tread lightly.
If you enjoyed this blog post and still want to learn more, visit our dedicated Rocky Mountain National Park page with a map and links to lots more useful resources!
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