Top photo: A moose feeding along the Cub Lake Trail
Though only one-eighth the size of Yellowstone National Park, Rocky Mountain National Park receives just as many annual visitors. Despite the shocking statistic, there are plenty of ways to find seclusion and abundant wildlife within its boundaries. One tip: Go before the busy season.
There’s simply too much to do and see in Rocky Mountain National Park, just outside Estes Park, Colo., 1.5 hours from Denver. Plus, each season brings about new activities and attractions, like backcountry skiing and wildflower blooms.
We visited just before the busy summer season, with snow still on many trails and the popular Trail Ridge Road closed. Though the crowds were thinner, our activities were limited and the trails more strenuous due to ice and snow.
If you’re planning a visit, consider going in May but note the limited access and winter conditions.
Editor’s note: This article is part of our #NationalParksFieldTrip series, written by GearJunkie editor Kyle Nossaman as he and his wife visit national parks during a full year on the road. They visited Rocky Mountain National Park in May 2018.
We visited the park in early May, which is before campground reservations can be made. We crossed our fingers for an open first-come-first-served campsite at the only open campground, Moraine Park, and lucked out. If you plan to visit and stay in the park between May 24 and early October, you will need to reserve your campsite up to 6 months in advance on recreation.gov. There are three reservable campgrounds in the park and two first-come-first-served ones.
To spend a night in the backcountry, we opted for reserving a wilderness permit in advance to secure our ideal route and camp spot. A few Google searches made it clear that the Bear Lake Area was a must-visit, and we picked a spot at the end of a trail near a high-alpine lake. If you have a specific backcountry location in mind, we’d recommend reserving a permit in advance for security. You can check current wilderness campsite availability here.
If you’re indifferent or unsure about where you want to explore, the Wilderness Office does issue permits for walk-ins based on availability. They can help with recommendations and planning.
Upon entering the park, we stopped in the Beaver Meadows visitor center for trail recommendations and conditions. They gave us a helpful “winter trails” map and some much-needed gear tips, like where we’d need traction devices. Plus, we picked up our reserved backcountry camping permits. With the Trail Ridge Road closed from mid-October to Memorial Day, we were limited to the east side of the park.
Rocky Mountain National Park: Best Adventures
1. Cub Lake Trail Up to Fern Lake (Past Fern Falls)
The Cub Lake Trail, which forms a loop with the Fern Lake Trail, can be accessed right from the Moraine Park campground. It starts at a lower elevation than the Bear Lake Area trails do, so the trail was dry until we neared the high-alpine lakes. Along the way, we spotted a massive herd of elk in the Moraine Park meadow and a moose feeding in a mellow river.
Cub Lake was nice, though sadly scarred from beetle infestation and forest fires. We passed The Pool on our way to Fern Falls, a gigantic, rushing, snowmelt-fed waterfall that flows a few feet from the trail. The trail began to get icy at that point, so we donned our traction devices for the climb up to Fern Lake. Surrounded by towering peaks, Fern Lake is a quintessential alpine lake that was well worth the 12.8-mile round-trip loop from the Cub Lake trailhead.
2. Backcountry Camping at Sky Pond
We reserved our backcountry camping permit in advance to ensure a night high in the Bear Lake Area, up around Sky Pond. With the winter trails map, mandatory bear canister, and snowshoes in tow, we started from the Glacier Gorge trailhead (elevation 9,240 feet) on a 4.9-mile hike up to Sky Pond (elevation 10,900 feet).
The mix of 1,660 feet of elevation gain and snow-covered trails was enough to turn our 4.9-mile hike into a 4-hour and 15-minute (scenic) trudge. The trail winds past Alberta Falls and was well-trodden up to The Loch. From there, the final 2 miles were not designated on the winter trail map, which we discovered meant mandatory snowshoes, buried trail signs, and unclear paths.
After scrambling up the frozen Timberline Falls, we arrived at Sky Pond, our destination for the night. Surrounded by Taylor Peak and its glacier, the view from the frozen lake was our welcome reward. We set up our tent in the wind, cooked dinner in a nearby rock cave, and enjoyed the view to ourselves.
We woke to a brisk, 30-degree morning and made our way back to the trailhead in a quick, downhill 2 hours.
NOTE: Wilderness camping requirements are different in the winter vs. the summer. More places are open to backcountry camping because the snowpack protects the ground from being impacted by use. Camping near Sky Pond is strictly prohibited from May 15 to October 1.
3. Bear Lake Area (Dream and Emerald Lakes)
From the Glacier Gorge trailhead in the Bear Lake Area, you can quickly access incredibly scenic alpine lakes. Even in early May, the trail to Dream and Emerald Lakes was crowded but still worth the time and effort. Dream Lake is 0.8 miles one way from the trailhead, with Emerald Lake another 0.7 miles beyond. The trails were icy, and we wore traction devices for easy footing.
Later in the summer, consider hopping over to Lake Haiyaha while you’re in the area.
4. Moraine Park Campground
Moraine Park is one of the most scenic campgrounds we’ve ever stayed in. Overlooking Longs Peak and the nearby meadow full of elk, it’s a great place to chill and rest after a long day on the trail. Book a site in advance if visiting from May 24 to mid-October.
Tips and Tricks
If you’re visiting in early May (or before), have waterproof boots, traction devices, and snowshoes at the ready. There are several outfitters in nearby Estes Park that rent snowshoes. Especially if you plan to go beyond the designated, hardpacked “winter trails,” snowshoes are a must. You’ll find yourself post-holing without them.
Additionally, take note of the winter trails map, which differs from the standard park trail map. Trails beyond those listed on that map will not be hardpacked and are difficult to follow due to buried trail signs and various snowshoe paths.
Treat yourself to an espresso drink at Coffee on the Rocks in Estes Park. It’s about 2 miles outside the park and has ample outdoor seating along a nice little pond. Grab a specialty coffee, use some Wi-Fi, and fuel up for your big day.
Drink ample water. Most of the park is above 8,000 feet of elevation, with many hikes going beyond 10,000 feet. Help keep altitude sickness at bay by drinking plenty of water, at least one gallon a day. Be on the lookout for signs of altitude sickness and don’t push your limits.
What We Wish We’d Known
We’d read online about Chaos Canyon, a popular bouldering area near Lake Haiyaha. On MountainProject.com, it does say that the bouldering season doesn’t begin until early June, but we optimistically dragged our crash pad and climbing shoes up to the lake in hopes of a morning bouldering session.
Unfortunately, snow blanketed the area, making the trail to Chaos Canyon difficult and the scramble between boulders dangerous. We were out of luck, with many of the bouldering routes still under snow. Wait until early or mid-June to check it out.
Hiking is hard and very slow in the snow. A 4.9-mile trail took us 4 hours and 15 minutes in the winter conditions, a distance that would typically take us about 2 hours. Beyond designated “winter trails,” we tacked on extra mileage trying to stay on course in the deep snow, without clear trails to follow. Add time and mileage into your estimations when embarking on a winter hike.
Rocky Mountain National Park isn’t a one-visit destination. We’re making plans to return and explore a different section of the park during a different season. Its labyrinth of trails, mountain vistas, high-alpine lakes, and raging rivers allows for an endless array of recreational opportunities that we didn’t have the time or ability to take on, like rock climbing, fly fishing, and peak-bagging.
Denver is an easy flight from most cities, and the park is only a few hours’ drive from there, making it an excellent long-weekend destination. Get out there when you can, and if you’ve been before, visit again in a different season for new experiences.