8 Must-See Attractions in Rocky Mountain National Park

May 3 – 9, 2020 is National Travel and Tourism week. Given our current travel restrictions in the United States, the U.S. Travel Association decided on the theme of ‘the Spirit of Travel cannot be broken.’

Since I heard the theme, I’ve been contemplating what the ‘spirit of travel’ means to me. I ran across this quote from novelist Anita Desai.

“Wherever you go becomes a part of you somehow.”

Anita Desai

That’s it. I feel that a part of me is missing right now. The part of me that likes to travel, explore, find adventure, and plan trips. In a world where I can’t go to the grocery store without a face mask on, it seems silly to miss travel as much as I do. But, I do!

Must-See Attractions in Rocky Mountain National Park

It’s comforting to think the places you love become a part of who you are. In honor of travel week, I put together a list of must-see attractions in Rocky Mountain National Park.

This list includes the places I feel best represent the diverse landscapes of Rocky Mountain National Park. I chose spots that are accessible to most travelers (you don’t have to walk 10 miles to see them). Together, they showcase the dynamic spirit of Rocky Mountain National Park.

Bear Lake

Bear Lake is a popular destination in Rocky Mountain National Park. The lake sits at 9,475 ft in elevation. Behind the lake, you can see an open view of Hallett Peak. Our kids love walking the half mile loop around Bear Lake. Starting from the Bear Lake trail head, hikers can access destinations like Dream Lake, Emerald Lake, and Hallett Peak.

Bear Lake

Alberta Falls

You can hike to Alberta Falls from Bear Lake, but the shortest route starts from the Glacier Gorge trail head. The hike to the waterfall is less than a mile. After enjoying the magnificent waterfall, you can continue on to Mills Lake, The Loch, or even Sky Pond.

Alberta Falls

Moraine Park

Moraine Park is one of our favorite places in RMNP to spot herds of elk. The Big Thompson River winds through the valley. Compared to other areas of the park, Moraine Valley is lower in elevation, so we typically choose hikes in this area when we are acclimating to high altitude. I recommend a hike to The Pool which leaves from the Fern Lake trail head or a hike to Cub Lake which starts at the Cub Lake trail head.

Hike to Cub Lake in RMNP
Moraine Park

Gem Lake Trail

The Gem Lake trail begins at the Lumpy Ridge trail head. This area has unique rock formations that attract skilled rock climbers. This trail offers views of the Estes Valley and Rocky Mountains that are stunning. Another hike we enjoy in the Lumpy Ridge area is the Black Canyon trail.

Views from Gem Lake trail in Rocky Mountain National Park

Wild Basin

The Wild Basin of Rocky Mountain National Park feels a bit more rugged. You will find towering trees, vibrant wildflowers, and waterfalls. From the Wild Basin trail head, you can hike to Copeland Falls, Calypso Cascades, and Ouzel Falls.

Calypso Cascades

Trail Ridge Road

Trail Ridge Road is a scenic highway that connects Estes Park, Colorado to Grand Lake, Colorado. Along the way, there are several places to pull off to take in the sweeping views of the tundra. On this road trip, you will reach over 12,000 ft in elevation! The Alpine Visitor Center is a great place to stop for a restroom break, snack, souvenir shopping, and to learn more about the unique landscape.

Ute Trail – from Trail Ridge Road

Adams Falls

Adams Falls is located on the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park near the town of Grand Lake, Colorado. The hike to Adams Falls is only .3 miles each way. There is a viewing deck for visitors to see the falls from. From this spot, you can continue on to beautiful destinations like the East Meadow.

Adams Falls

Longs Peak Viewpoint

Take a drive down Highway 7, and you will come to a vantage point of Longs Peak that is worth stopping to appreciate. At 14,259 feet in elevation, Longs Peak is the highest summit in Rocky Mountain National Park. 

Learn more about Travel and Tourism week here.

Learn more about the destinations mentioned in this article

Bear Lake: Bear Lake, Dream Lake, Hallett Peak

Alberta Falls: Alberta Falls, Mills Lake, Sky Pond

Moraine Park: Moraine Park, Cub Lake, The Pool, Fern Falls

Gem Lake: Gem Lake, Black Canyon Trail

Wild Basin: Copeland Falls, Calypso Cascades and Ouzel Falls, Finch Lake TH

Trail Ridge Road: Alpine Ridge Trail, Ute Trail

Adams Falls: Adams Falls and East Meadow, (video)

Longs Peak: The Keyhole

Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the places I am missing most. It is a part of me. Ocean views, mountain town, bustling city, desert landscape… what destination are you missing most? I hope you share in the comments.

Guide for Things to do in Estes Park, Colorado This Winter – 1 Day Itinerary

breakfast at a local coffee shop

The first thing on my mind when I wake up on a cold winter morning is drinking a warm cup of coffee. Our day started in downtown Estes Park at our favorite local coffee shop, Kind Coffee. I featured Kind Coffee when I wrote about the Best Places to Have a ‘Cup of Cheer’ in Estes Park. My girls were delighted to get hot chocolates. Along with our coffees, I ordered oatmeal and my husband enjoyed a breakfast burrito.

sledding in rocky mountain national park

The highlight of our day was going sledding as a family. After breakfast, we headed into Rocky Mountain National Park towards Hidden Valley. It is the only place within the park where you are allowed to go sledding. We were immediately hit with a strong blast of winter wind when we opened the doors to our SUV. We bundled up and started walking up hill to find the perfect sled run. Thankfully, the tall pines blocked the gusts. We flew down the hill on our little blue sled. We took turns – I was secretly competing with my husband to see how far I could make the sled go.

sledding at hidden valley in rocky mountain national park

Winter Hike at Lily Lake

After everyone had enough sledding, we decided to head over to Lily Lake for a short winter hike. The lake was mostly frozen over, but not solid. The wind made a marble pattern across the top. We enjoyed views of Longs Peak, the highest mountain in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Lily Lake frozen in ice. Views of Longs Peak, the highest mountain in rocky mountain national park

lunch

For lunch we went to my husband’s favorite sandwich shop. Scratch Deli makes fresh, delicious sandwiches. We took our meals back to our cabin and enjoyed lunch around our table. After lunch, we rested for awhile. We took showers and changed out of our snow gear. The girls happily played with each other, but refused to nap.

afternoon scenic drive around estes park

We decided to carry out our secret nap plan. An afternoon drive is a great way to explore the surrounding area. We saw a large herd of elk near our cabin. The girls drifted off to sleep as we cruised along the curvy mountain roads.

herd of elk in rocky mountain national park

shop estes park

In the late afternoon, we headed back to downtown Estes Park to go shopping. Cliffhanger Used Books is my favorite place to shop. I picked out three novels and several children’s books. Our total was under $20. Proceeds benefit the Estes Valley Library.

wine tasting in estes park

Happy with my deals, we walked further down the block to do a wine tasting at Snowy Peaks winery. The girls enjoyed their colorful play room and got to pick out a special rock from their treasure chest after they cleaned up the toys that entertained them while we sipped local wines.

family dinner in downtown estes park

For dinner we headed to a restaurant that has become a family-tradition, Mama Rose’s. The girls shared a milk flight and enjoyed spaghetti (our oldest) and meatballs (our youngest).

mountain retreat

After a full day, we headed back to our cabin. On a short trip, it’s hard to decide what to fit in. I hope our winter 1-day winter itinerary is helpful for anyone planning a trip to Estes Park this season. If you have any questions or suggestions, please comment below.

Alpine Ridge Trail

The drive up to the Alpine Ridge Trail is an adventure. If you begin on the East side of Rocky Mountain National Park, you have the choice of driving up Old Fall River Road or Trail Ridge Road. Both routes are inside of Rocky Mountain National Park, so you need to purchase a park pass.

Old Fall River Road

We opted for the Old Fall River Road route where you can go one-way, and that is up. The road begins near the Endovalley picnic area and leads to the Alpine Visitor Center and the Alpine Ridge Trail. The gravel road is eleven miles long. You can expect tight turns and slow speeds. (The speed limit is only 15 mph.) The road is open seasonally and can close at any time for poor weather conditions. It’s a good idea to check the National Park Service’s Road Status Report before heading up. You can avoid crowds and afternoon storms by starting early.

Chasm Falls

One of the highlights along the road is Chasm Falls which is hidden from view. There is a small pull-out with enough room for a handful of cars to park. The trail leading down to the viewing deck is short and steep. If you can find a spot, Chasm Falls is worth stopping for. I included it as one of our best waterfall hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Chasm Falls off of Old Fall River Road

above tree line

Old Fall River Road takes you above the tree line. The views from this road are spectacular. Many times on our journey we have spotted elk. Eventually you connect to the parking lot of the Alpine Visitors Center where parking is competitive.

Alpine visitors center

The Alpine Visitors Center is a great place to use the restroom, shop for souvenirs, take pictures, grab a snack, and ask park rangers any questions you have about the tundra. It’s usually noticeably colder and windier at this altitude, so we add on a layer of clothing before walking around.

If you are looking for a fun and inexpensive activity/souvenir, my girls enjoyed picking out postcards for their friends back home at the gift shop. There is a post office in downtown Estes Park where you can purchase stamps and send them.

Alpine Ridge Trail

alpine ridge trail by alpine visitor center in rocky mountain national park

I’ve always noticed people hiking up the Alpine Ridge trail, but this was the first time we decided to make the hike up. It helped that we had a warm day with low winds.

trail ridge road leads to alpine visitor center and alpine ridge trail in rocky mountain national park

The hike is only .3 miles each way. Concrete stairs climb to the top. You start at high elevation and end up at even higher elevation, so even the short distance is a cardio challenge. My 4-year-old was able to make it on her own, but my 2-year-old got to ride on her Dad’s shoulders. I appreciate that the National Park Service places educational signage along the trail to help explain what you are looking at, why you are out of breath, and what they are doing to protect the natural environment surrounding us.

old fall river road leads to alpine visitors center

From this perspective, you can see Old Fall River road winding up the mountain.

wildflowers in rocky mountain national park tundra

The wildflowers were blooming on the tundra which is a delicate landscape. This area is roped off to encourage crowds to stay on the path.

views from alpine visitor center and alpine ridge trail

There were several groupings of large rocks that my girls enjoyed climbing on.

elevation is 12,005 feet above sea level on alpine ridge trail

The elevation at the top is 12,005 ft. above sea level. You can see for miles! I’m happy we took the time to take the small trek up the trail. It was something our whole family enjoyed. If you like this tundra hike, I also recommend reading our post on the Ute Trail.

Trail Ridge Road

We took Trail Ridge Road back down the mountain towards Estes Park. This trail is far less rustic than Old Fall River Road. We enjoyed views of the mountains and spotting a herd of elk playing in the snow.

Rocky Mountain Animal Game

I can’t see a hawk without saying ‘5 points!’ out loud. When I was a kid we took long family road trips from Kansas City, Missouri to Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and California. We filled the hours in the car by playing games. My favorite was the ‘animal game’ where we would spot animals and get points. Now that I’m a parent, I’ve adopted the game for all the animals we might see during our trips to the Rocky Mountains.

Animal Game Rules:

1. The first person who says the name of the animal they see out loud claims the points.
2. You can’t multiply your points when you see a herd, but for animals with antlers such as deer, elk or moose you can say both ‘male moose’ and ‘female moose’ which doubles your points.
3. You can get points for the same type of animal, but it has to be a newly spotted animal not belonging to the same herd.

We’ve assigned points based on how often we’ve seen animals in the Rocky Mountains.

Mountain Lions – 100 Points

We’ve never seen a mountain lion on our trips to Rocky Mountain National Park, but we have seen signage to be aware that they can be in the area.

Bear – 50

My husband is the only one in our family who has seen a bear (or two). He heard loud rummaging noises around the garbage near our old condo and spotted two large bears looking for late-night snacks. The complex immediately put in better bear-proof trash receptacles to make sure the bears weren’t drawn back to the area.

Male Moose – 25 & Female Moose – 25

A moose wading out in chilly waters of Sprague Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park
A moose wading out in chilly waters of Sprague Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park

We’ve spotted moose in several locations in Rocky Mountain National Park including Sprague Lake, the Cub Lake trail, Kawuneeche Valley and in the Wild Basin. We’ve also seen a herd near Brainard Lake Recreation Area. It seems like the easiest way to spot a moose is to watch for large groups of cars pulled over on the West Side of the park. A male moose is called a bull. This name serves as an appropriate reminder to give them space when you see them.

Male Bighorn Sheep – 25
& Female Sheep – 25

A bighorn sheep crosses the road near Sheep Lakes in Rocky Mountain National Park
A bighorn sheep crosses the road near Sheep Lakes in Rocky Mountain National Park
A bighorn sheep on Fall River Road in Estes Park, CO
A bighorn sheep on Fall River Road in Estes Park, CO

Sheep Lakes is located near the Fall River Entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park. It is the only spot where we have seen a bighorn sheep inside the park. We have also spotted them driving down Fall River Road and along scenic Highway 34 on the route to Fort Collins, Colorado from Estes Park. We have never seen rams dueling and think that should be worth an extra 50 points if you want a bonus opportunity.

Coyote – 25

A fox prowling for food near Rocky Mountain National Park
A fox prowling for food near Rocky Mountain National Park

We’ve spotted coyotes a couple of times during the winter months in Rocky Mountain National Park. We watched a handsome coyote prowling for its food near the Beaver Meadows Entrance. We saw another sitting proudly looking over the valley near the Moraine Park Discovery Center which was closed for the season.

Fox – 20

One snowy morning, we hiked around Lily Lake and spotted a fox in the woods. I didn’t get a picture, but the image stands out in my mind as a special moment.

Marmot – 20

A marmot near Twin Sisters Peaks
A marmot near Twin Sisters Peaks

We spotted this marmot on a hike up Twin Sisters Peaks. We’ve also seen marmots basking near Timberline Falls, in the Alpine Tundra on the Ute Trail and even at Emerald Lake (which surprised me).

Pika – 20

A pika calling out in Rocky Mountain alpine tundra
A pika calling out in Rocky Mountain alpine tundra

Pikas also live in higher elevation. You can see them running around busily collecting food. I usually hear a pika call out before I see them because they are small and blend in well with rocks.

Eagle – 20

An eagle rests near Lake Estes in Estes Park, CO
An eagle rests near Lake Estes in Estes Park, CO

It’s always exciting to see our nation’s bird. We spotted this eagle near Lake Estes.

Owl – 20

If you want to spot an owl, a good place to look is right behind the library in downtown Estes Park, CO. Even with this clue, you will have to search hard because the family of owls that live here blend in so well to the rocky surroundings.

Snake – 10

Snake near Lily Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park slithers throw wildflowers
Snake near Lily Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park slithers throw wildflowers

To be honest, I’m scared of snakes and I don’t care to see them on our hikes. It makes me feel better knowing that snakes in Rocky Mountain National Park are not poisonous. We’ve spotted them near Lily Lake and on our hike through the meadow towards Cub Lake.

Male Elk – 5 & Female Elk – 5

Elk spotting is common while driving through Rocky Mountain National Park
Elk spotting is common while driving through Rocky Mountain National Park

It feels wrong to make elk spotting worth only 5 points in this game, but they are so prolific in Rocky Mountain National Park and Estes Park, Colorado that you might not have to leave your vacation rental to see one. No matter how many times I see elk, I still get excited. They are beautiful, but it’s good to remember they are massive animals (often with big antlers) and you need to give them space. I used my camera’s zoom to get this picture.

Elk rut in Estes Park, Colorado
During elk rut season in Estes Park, Colorado the bull elks duel

Elk rut season is in October. It’s exciting to hear the distinctive elk bugle calls and see the bull elks fighting for their harem – a group of female (cow) elk. When you see a scrimmage like this, you can add 10 bonus points.

Male Deer- 5 & Female Deer – 5

Deer standing right outside our front door in Estes Park, CO

Like elk, deer can be seen all over Rocky Mountain National Park and around town in Estes Park, CO.

Chipmunk – 5

Chipmunk in Rocky Mountain National Park

Sometimes I feel like we see too many chipmunks. Just kidding cute little fellow! But for real, these guys will steal your picnic.

Hummingbird – 5

Hummingbird near Big Thompson River in downtown Estes Park, CO

Sweet little hummingbirds are fun to watch while I’m enjoying a meal out on the patio at restaurants along the Estes Park Riverwalk. I’ve also seen them on the Homer Rouse trail and near Lily Lake.

Hawk or Turkey – 5

Turkey traffic jam in Estes Park, CO
Turkey traffic jam in Estes Park, CO

We’ve seen turkeys crossing the road in Estes Park and also on my horse back riding tour into Rocky Mountain National Park.

Trout – 5

Trout swimming in The Loch

Trout are good at blending into the rocks of mountain lakes like The Loch and Sprague Lake. Earn 10 bonus points if you catch one, just make sure you get a permit first.

At the end of your trip you can add up all the points each person earned by spotting wildlife in Rocky Mountain National Park. Final step: Start planning your next trip back to the mountains for a redemption round.

Do you play your own version of the animal game or have any other road trip favorites?

Government (is still) shutdown

I had so much fun writing this lighthearted article about animals that I hesitate adding to the conversation about how the government shutdown is affecting the national parks. Unfortunately, the past three weeks have taken a toll. Here is a recent article from Westworld that helped me understand some of the impacts I wouldn’t have considered. The article also has some suggestions on how people can help.

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