Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) became the United State’s 10th national park in 1915. With more than 100 peaks reaching elevations of at least 11,000 feet, pristine alpine lakes, miles of hiking trails, and abundant wildlife, RMNP now attracts over 4.5 million visitors each year.
The majority of RMNP‘s 4+ million annual visitors arrive between Memorial Day and the end of September. Long lines of vehicles waiting to enter the park, crowded parking lots, and a general strain on the environment in and around RMNP have led to a timed entry system in effect from May 28 through October 11, 2021. Two things are required: a Timed Entry Permit or a reservation with a service plus a Park Pass or Entrance Fee. If you are planning to visit more than a couple of National Parks, purchase an America the Beautiful Pass to save on individual park entrance fees. Veterans, Gold Star Families, and Senior Passes are also available for those that qualify.
More than ever before, if you’re traveling during the summer, it’s important to plan ahead. The Estes Park Visitor Center offers some great suggestions for beating the summer crowds in RMNP.
Most park visitors stay in Estes Park, a small tourist-oriented town located just outside of RMNP. Estes Park is a 90 minute drive from the Denver airport. Hotels, restaurants, shopping, outfitters, and other businesses catering to tourists are located in Estes Park.
The first time I visited Estes Park, I arrived in June without reservations and found an affordable hotel room on the scenic Fall River. Crowds were non-existent and free parking was widely available in downtown Estes Park. I drove in and out of RMNP several times a day and rarely saw other people except at visitor centers. Those days are long gone. If you show up in Estes Park without hotel reservations, your options will be limited at best. Crowds of tourists are the norm between May and the end of September. Plan ahead, know what to expect and you can still have a wonderful time.
Here are a few things to know before you arrive:
Traffic and Parking
On weekends and anytime during the busy summer months, expect bumper-to-bumper traffic in Estes Park. Elkhorn Avenue and Moraine Avenue are often extremely congested since the bulk of tourist-oriented restaurants and shops are found along these two roads. Traffic frequently backs up with vehicles trying to enter the RMNP Beaver Meadows Entrance (Moraine Avenue/Highway 36). I use the Fall River Entrance (Fall River Road/Highway 34) which is usually far less congested.
Parking has become a major concern for residents, business owners, and tourists. Estes Park has both free and paid parking available in convenient downtown locations. Paid parking is in effect from May 28th through October 17th. Parking is $2.00 per hour and can be paid via the phone app or at kiosks. There is a free parking garage located near the Estes Park Visitor Center at 500 Big Thompson Avenue. From there, you can use the free seasonal shuttles that travel throughout town.
Be prepared to wait whether you are entering RMNP, shopping at Safeway or dining at a busy downtown restaurant. Businesses in Estes Park are experiencing staffing shortages (just like the rest of the country) and patience is key.
Weather in the mountains is changeable. In the summer, be prepared for chilly mornings, hot sunny afternoons, and thunderstorms. Snow often falls well into May in both Estes Park and RMNP. Elevation changes inside RMNP mean you may start off wearing shorts and t-shirts and need cold weather gear as you travel on Trail Ridge Road. The weather at the Alpine Visitor Center is almost always windy and cold even in the summer. Snow covered trails are common at higher elevations even during June and July.
Elk, mule deer, moose, bighorn sheep, bears, and other wildlife are abundant in the Rockies. Elk roam freely throughout Estes Park. I’ve seen them in parking lots and walking down the middle of Elkhorn Avenue early in the morning. Keep your distance from all wild animals. Several people have recently reported that they were “charged” by elk while walking in and around downtown Estes Park. Elk are large wild animals – don’t approach them. If you are out walking and see one, don’t move in closer to get a better photo. Make sure there is no trash or food left in your vehicle – bears may try to break in and get it. Keep your campsite free of trash and food debris. And remember, it is illegal to feed any wild animals inside RMNP.
Health and Safety
Estes Park is 7,552 feet above sea level. Low humidity can make hot summer days feel cool. Drink more water than usual, use plenty of sunscreen and watch out for altitude sickness. Many visitors find themselves suffering from altitude sickness and don’t take enough time to acclimate before heading to even higher elevations inside the park. Altitude sickness can be extremely dangerous so learn to recognize the symptoms, take precautions, and give everyone in your group time to acclimate especially before heading to the summit at the Alpine Visitor Center.
There is no shortage of things to eat in Estes Park ranging from typical fast food places (Subway, McDonald’s, Dairy Queen) to a wide variety of locally owned and operated restaurants. Penelope’s Burgers & Fries, Twin Owls Steakhouse, Bird & Jim, Ed’s Cantina, and Smokin’ Dave’s BBQ are just a few popular options. The always busy Safeway is the primary grocery store in Estes Park. In addition to all of the groceries, water, and other supplies you need, they have a gas station with decent prices. Get a Safeway loyalty card (it’s free) to ensure you get all of the discounts available.
There is a surprisingly wide variety of lodging to choose from for a relatively small town. From chain hotels, condos, cabins, campgrounds, and locally-owned motels, there are plenty of options for both couples and large families. Estes Park has become a busy destination year-round so book well in advance for the best deals.
Estes Park is a town that likes to celebrate with both large and small events happening throughout the year. Town-sponsored events including Jazz Fest, Autumn Gold, Elk Fest, Fall Back Beer Fest, and the Rooftop Radio are popular with both residents and visitors. During the summer, you can expect to find a variety of activities including classes at the Art Center of Estes Park, the popular Cowboy Sing-Along with Brad Fitch in Bond Park, a farmer’s market and more. Join the Estes Park News Facebook page to keep updated on local happenings.
If visiting Rocky Mountain National Park isn’t enough to keep you and your family busy, Estes Park has plenty of other options. Ride-A-Kart and Mustang Mountain Coaster are popular activities for families traveling with kids. The Estes Park Aerial Tramway has been operating since 1955 and takes passengers to the top of Prospect Mountain. There are numerous outfitters located in Estes Park that will take you fishing, horseback riding, rock climbing, or on a jeep tour. Shopping, spa treatments, and golf are also popular activities. The Lake Estes Marina offers a variety of rentals including kayaks, canoes, bikes and pedal carts. Fans of The Shining flock to The Stanley Hotel for ghost tours. There are plenty of ways to spend your time and money in Estes Park.
RMNP has more than 350 miles of trails which lead to mountain lakes, waterfalls, and breathtaking views for hikers of all ages and fitness levels. Many trails become extremely congested in the summer and fall. The hike around Bear Lake has become so popular that a park shuttle is needed to reach the trailhead during peak season. If you start your hike before 8 a.m. or after 3 p.m. you’ll likely have a better experience. No matter how long or short your hike is, carry plenty of water and prepare for changing weather conditions. Sturdy boots or shoes and hiking poles are essential on more challenging trails. Use the attached map to locate hikes that are right for you. Pets are not allowed on trails inside RMNP but there are a number of dog-friendly trails in the Estes Park area.
A short drive leading south out of Estes Park is the Peak to Peak Scenic Byway (Highway 7) which crests at Lily Lake and offers views of Mount Meeker, Longs Peak and Twin Sisters. This stretch of Highway 7 borders RMNP, past the Wild Basin Entrance and continues to the tiny town of Allenspark where Highway 7 turns east. There are several convenient places along the way where you can safely stop and take photos. Many people make the drive just to photograph Saint Catherine’s Chapel on the Rock in Allenspark which must be one of the most scenic chapels in the world.
Old Fall River Road within RMNP is a one-way gravel road from Endovalley to Alpine Visitor Center. It’s usually open from late June/early July into September. If you’d like to travel at a slower pace (15 mph) to the summit with far less traffic, the views are great. I’ve traveled this road in a Toyota Prius so no special vehicle is needed but you do need to take your time and watch out for potholes. If you don’t like switchbacks and gravel roads, stay on Trail Ridge Road.
Trail Ridge Road begins in Estes Park on Hwy. 36 (Moraine Avenue) and leads into RMNP’s Beaver Meadows Entrance. This stretch of scenic driving is only open during the summer months into early fall. The route climbs from 7,800 feet to more than 12,000 feet at it’s highest point. The Alpine Visitor Center gives you the option to turn around and head back to Estes Park or you can spend the day driving to Grand Lake and back. Trail Ridge Road is usually open from around Memorial Day until late September or early October, depending on snowfall. Call the Trail Ridge Road Status Line at (970) 586-1222 or check the park website for updates on opening dates and road closures.