I’m going to be up front about this: Rocky Mountain National Park is very very crowded. Over 4.5 million visitors flock to this incredible land of soaring mountains, sapphire blue alpine lakes, and fantastic wildlife. Although the park has visitors throughout the year, Summer peaks with both local and international guests. Even during our visit in the month of October, parking lots filled to maximum capacity by 10am. In the summer, some parking lots fill by 6am! At Alpine Visitor Center, the bathroom lines were over 40 people deep. Campgrounds, although they are first-come-first-serve, fill up as early as 8am. Roads were congested with traffic and hikers press through the popular trails. One park ranger told me, during the shoulder seasons of Spring and Autumn, weekends are 50% or more crowded than weekdays.
Regardless of which season you visit Rocky Mountain, there are a number of things you can do to make your visit more fun and less hectic.
Tip 1: Plan Ahead Before Going to Rocky Mountain
If you stay in Rocky Mountains National Park for less than two weeks, I suggest making plans on what you want to see. Visit the Rocky Mountain website, download some maps, read a few guides. Make a list of what you want to see and do. Knowing what you want to do before you get there will maximize your “doing-it-time” and minimize your “sitting-around-figuring-it-out time” while you’re actually there. Here are my favorite links that I used to help me plan:
- Official Rocky Mountain National Park Service Website
- National Park Service Rocky Mountain Maps
- Rocky Mountain National Geographic Hiking Map
- Best Hikes Rocky Mountain National Park
- USGS Topographical PDF Maps
- Rocky Mountain Trail, Campground, and Backpacking Maps
Tip 2: Pick the Right Season to Go
Selecting the right season to visit Rocky Mountain National Park will determine weather, wildlife, road closures, trail closures, and crowds. For myself, I prefer fewer crowds, more wildlife, and decent weather. This is why we went to the park in October. For yourself, consider what kinds of things you want or do not want to experience.
Summer, June to September
According to Rocky Mountian Park Statistics June through September are peak visitor months. In 2016, July got over 900,000 visitors, while the other summer months get around 700,000 visitors on average per month! It’s hard to find solitude in the park during this season unless you go deep into the backpacking routes.
All roads, trails, and campgrounds tend to be open during the summer; that’s the main benefit of visiting during the summer. In additional to beautiful clear and warm days, wildlife is also rather abundant. At night the Milky Way fills the sky and air warm enough to sleep under the stars.
Spring, March to May
In 2016, the average number of visitors for each month in spring was about 200,000 per month. In March, there’s still enough snow for winter sports at higher altitudes. Not all roads and trails will remain open, check the Rocky Mountains Current Conditions page for updated info.
Spring is wet with snow runoff filling rivers and streams. Bull elk and buck deer drop their antlers. Spotted fawns stick, elk calves, and moose calves hide in the new green foliage. Bighorn sheep come down early morning and late afternoon to graze right along the roadsides near Estes.
Fall, October to November
Much like in the spring the average number of visitors to Rocky Mountain is about 200,000 visitors per month; most of them coming in October for the Elk Rutting season. During our visit in October, we had clear blue skies and crisp air with the occasional snow in the high altitudes. On the day we planned to drive along Trail Ridge Road to the east side of the park it snowed, and the rangers closed the road. Thankfully, we got to Old Fall River Road before the snow. Be sure to check for road closures on the Rocky Mountains Current Conditions page.
Let me say Rocky Mountian thrilled me in October! We saw herds of elk and caught the bugling of several elk bucks. The Aspen Gold Rush, where the leaves start to turn a bright golden color in late August at higher elevations and then work their way down to lower elevations in October, rewarded us with gold and amber riots of color. Sadly we left before the Bighorn sheep could stage their head-butting contests in late October and November. Best of all, the mild temperates allowed us to do strenuous hikes without overheating.
Winter, December to February
This is the low season of the park, with an average of 100,000 visitors per month. There is snowshoeing and cross-country skiing in the lower valleys. Downhill skiing at Eldora and Winter Park, and sledding at Hidden Valley. While brave souls can try their hand at winter mountaineering in the high country. Access roads will remain open and provide the winter traveler with a panorama of the high mountains.
There are limited services at campsites, so check before going. They do allow backpacking, but you’ll need a permit and a whole lot of skill. There’s a danger of avalanches, sudden snow storms, and hypothermia.
Tip 3: Use the Shuttle Service
From May to October, the park runs a shuttle service and you can get as far as Bear Lake and Moraine Park all the way from Estes Park with just one transfer. In the summer, parking lots can fill up as early as 6am. In Fall and Spring, the lots are full at 10am. I also suggest using the shuttle service as means to get back to your car if you decide to take a non-loop one-way hike. Also, don’t forget to check when the last shuttle leaves to prevent being stranded.
Tip 4: Go Early or Go Late
The peak time for Rocky Mountain is 10am to 3pm, so go before 10am or after 3pm, you’ll find parking and avoid the crowds. The park receives 50% more visitors on weekends than on weekdays, so make Saturday or Sunday your rest day and attack that hike on a Tuesday.
Tip 5: Go West Side for Solitude
I am a solitude and wilderness seeker. Occasionally, I need to get away from the swath of tourists and disconnect for a while. West of the Continental Divide sees fewer visitors than the east side. Moreover, fewer people also means more wildlife. Try Colorado River Trail on the west side of Trail Ridge Road across from the Timber Lake Trailhead, about 9.6 mi north of Grand Lake Entrance Station, you’ll gain access to nine backcountry sites. Furthermore, moose and bighorn tend to favor this side of the park, so that’s worth the visit. Be careful, Highway 34, also known as Trail Ridge Road, closes in the winter.
Tip 6: Give Yourself More Time
Give yourself more time to enjoy the scenery, to find wildlife, and to discover that little bit of detail that others missed. Most importantly, give your body time to adjust to the environment. The number one killer in Rocky Mountain National Park is the heart attack, followed by falling. The average altitude of the trails is around 9,000 to 10,000 feet above sea level. Listen to your body, and obey it if it asks for rest, water, or food. When we went on our 8-mile hike in the Bear Lake Corridor, it took us over 8 hours because we spent time resting and enjoying the scenery.
Hitch and I only got to stay at Rocky Mountain National Park for a week, before we moved south toward other destinations. I truly believe it takes at least a month immerse yourself in the abundant awesomeness of this park. To get a deeper experience, I would really enjoy visiting in winter, but not in the Airstream. I need a roaring fire to warm my easily frozen feet. If you decide to visit the Rocky Mountains, give yourself more time than just a week, you won’t regret it!