Fall in Rocky Mountain National Park

I’ve gathered some of my favorite pictures taken during the beautiful autumn months in Rocky Mountain National Park. Fall is one of the best times to visit Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park to witness the golden aspens, enjoy the crisp-cool weather, and experience the elk rut.

Fall Festivals

The city of Estes Park has events taking place throughout the fall including the Elk Fest and the Pumpkins & Pilsners Festival. (more)

Haunted tours

The Halloween season is the perfect time to visit one of Estes Park’s most famous landmarks, the historic Stanley Hotel. The hotel offers a variety of tours, including a guided night tour where you can explore the setting that inspired Steven King’s book, The Shining. (kids must be 8+)

Crowds in Rocky mountain National park

I’m not alone in my love for fall in Rocky Mountain National Park. I recently saw a statistic from the National Park Service that said 7 of the top 10 busiest days last year occurred on September weekends.

Fall weather and road conditions

Going back through our fall pictures, I remembered that we have seen quite a lot of snow even in early October. The contrast of the bright yellow aspens with the pure white snow is striking, but snow can affect road conditions. If you are planning to drive up Trail Ridge Road, you can find information on road conditions and closures here.

Aspen lined tree leading to Alberta Falls in Rocky Mountain National Park
Trail leading to Alberta Falls
October snow - walking along Estes Park Riverwalk
October snow – walking along Estes Park Riverwalk
Golden aspens in Rocky Mountain National Park
Golden aspens
Fall in Rocky Mountain National Park looking towards Hallett Peak
Views looking towards Hallett Peak
Elk in Estes Park, Colorado
Elk in downtown Estes Park
Elk Rut season in Rocky Mountain National Park
Elk Rut Season
Fall Hike to Gem Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park
Hike to Gem Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park
View of Longs Peak on a crisp October morning
View of Longs Peak
Autumn views in Rocky Mountain National Park
Autumn views in Rocky Mountain National Park
Sprague Lake
Sprague Lake
Sunrise from Mary's Lake resort in Estes Park, CO
Autumn sunrise from Mary’s Lake resort in Estes Park, CO
Historic Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado
Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado

Serene Family-Friendly Walk Around Lake Irene in Rocky Mountain National Park

Lake Irene is located off of Trail Ridge Road approximately 5 miles south of the Alpine Visitors Center. This peaceful lake is one of our favorite spots in Rocky Mountain National Park to eat a picnic lunch.

Amenities include a small parking lot, restrooms, and several picnic tables.

Lake Irene is located off of Trail Ridge Road approximately 5 miles south of the Alpine Visitors Center.

You can take an easy stroll around the lake.

Lake Irene Overlook trail

A little beyond the lake you will find signage pointing to an overlook.

Lake Irene Overlook

From the overlook, you can see a meadow with mountains in the distance. I’ll admit that this view isn’t the most spectacular you will find in Rocky Mountain National Park, but the competition here is world-class.

Quiet place within rocky mountain national park

The area is lush and green.

Lake Irene offers family-friendly hiking destination

Although the trail is not accessible for wheelchairs or strollers, the short hike does not gain much elevation. Our preschooler was able to walk most of the .8 mile distance on her own.

the trail around Lake Irene is surrounded by pine trees

With some help from Dad.

Kids cross over wooden bridges on the trail that goes around Lake Irene

Our two-year-old also enjoyed walking for portions of the trail. For our young family, Lake Irene offers a serene spot to enjoy lunch and just enough adventure to ensure the whole family is having a fun and memorable experience.

Lake Irene is located on the West side of RMNP. Here are some additional posts that feature destinations in this section of the park:

4 Great Reasons to Visit Grand Lake, Colorado with Kids

A Perfect Picnic at Coyote Valley

Peaceful Hike to East Meadow in Rocky Mountain National Park

A Trail Less Traveled: Hollowell Park to Mill Creek Basin in Rocky Mountain National Park

It’s official – we have been away from Rocky Mountain National Park for far too long! But the count-down is on because we reserved our cabin for a trip at the end of May. In anticipation, I’ve been taking a look back through our family’s hiking journal and came across a hike that I haven’t shared before.

Hollowell Park

Back in May of 2016, we ventured to Hollowell Park because it was an area in RMNP that we had never explored. We hoped it would be a good place to hike with our toddler during the spring season when some higher altitude hikes are still covered in ice and snow. The Hollowell Park turnoff is approximately 8,300 ft in elevation according to the park’s website. In comparison, Bear Lake is 9,475 ft.

I took a picture of the sign at Hollowell Park to give myself a visual of all the destinations you can hike to including Cub Lake, Bierstadt Lake, and Bear Lake. Hiking from Hollowell Park is not the most direct route to these popular attractions, but it could be a good alternate route to avoid some of the crowds during peak visitor season.

Hikes from Hallowell Park in Rocky Mountain National Park

Mill Creek Basin

We decided to hike to Mill Creek Basin, which is a less popular destination in the park. Our hike was 1.9 miles each way which began in an open grassy area and climbed an additional 600 feet of elevation through towering pines.

The trail followed a mountain stream called Mill Creek. Several snowy patches remained on the trail along with muddy portions caused by recent snow melt. We crossed over a small wooden bridge to get to the Mill Creek Basin, a meadow with aspens which I imagine are even more beautiful in autumn.

Hallowell Park in RMNP Rocky Mountain National Park
Hollowell Park – Open meadow with views of Rocky Mountains
Deer in Rocky Mountain National Park's Hallowell Park
Deer on the hillside
Mill Creek flows in Rocky Mountain National park
Mill Creek
Hallowell Park trails to Mill Creek Basin, Bierstadt Lake, Bear Lake and Cub Lake.
Trail signage points to Mill Creek Basin, Bierstadt Lake, Bear Lake and Cub Lake
Wooded trail leading to Mill Creek Basin
Towering Pines
Small wooden bridge crossing Mill Creek
Small wood bridge crosses Mill Creek
Mill Creek Basin
Mill Creek Basin
Mill Creek melted snow
Snow in May

Avoid Crowds in Rocky Mountain National Park

If you are interested in additional trails that we think are good for avoiding crowds in Rocky Mountain National Park, I wrote a post about the Glacier Creek trail here.

Spring Hiking in RMNP

Spring can be a tricky season to visit Rocky Mountain National Park because the weather varies day-to-day. Here are some additional lower elevation hikes you might consider:

Best Hikes Under 5 Miles

The hike to Mill Creek Basin was just under 4 miles round trip. When we plan hikes for our young family, we typically aim for hikes that are similar in length. We broke down some of our favorite family-friendly ‘short hikes’ with details to help plan your adventure in the pages linked below:

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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