Rocky Mountain National Park is the crown jewel in a state known for its grandeur and scenery. It’s a paradise for anyone who loves sweeping vistas of craggy, snow-capped peaks rising from wildflower-covered tundra. The unparalleled natural beauty makes it the perfect setting for a wild adventure. But it’s no hidden gem or local secret—it’s the fourth-most visited national park in the country. So it can be a challenge to find solitude – especially on a weekend in high summer. Parking lots fill up quickly, and many of the shorter hikes to lakes, falls, or overlooks see a lot of foot traffic. But we have some good news. The park is more than 358 square miles, providing plenty of space for you to get off the beaten path.
Here are a few tips to nailing your own visit to the park.
Get an Alpine Start
Getting an early start isn’t a bad idea as afternoon storms often bring dangerous lighting. This season, the National Park is requiring timed entry permit reservations to enter the park through October 11. There are two types of reservations available. One permit is for the Bear Lake Road Corridor, which will include the entire corridor and access to the rest of the park. This reservation period is from 5 am to 6 pm. The second permit is for the rest of Rocky Mountain National Park, excluding the Bear Lake Road corridor. This reservation period is from 9 am to 3 pm.
If looking for actual solitude, consider leaving even earlier. If a 4 am start sounds painful, know this: there is literally nothing else in the world that can compare to hiking alone above the trees as the first light barely touches the surrounding peaks. It’s breathtaking (literally, treeline is above 11,000 feet!), humbling, and life-changing.
Conversely, hike in the afternoon. This advice comes with a serious asterisk though—Only attempt a hike if the weather is perfect, and do not even think of attempting an actual peak or venturing into the backcountry this late in the day. Know that afternoon thunderstorms usually tend to form in the early afternoon. If the weather is good by noon, it may be clear. But they can develop incredibly quickly and seemingly out of nowhere, so always keep an eye to the sky. A short hike in the evening also can be a lot of fun, as the thunderstorms tend to clear out in the afternoon. If you do this, take precautions for cooler weather, and bring a headlamp.
Know When to Go, And When Not To
If at all possible, plan visits during the week when the park is significantly less crowded. According to the Park Service, weekdays in September are half as crowded than during the weekend. Especially try to avoid holiday and free weekends. The remaining free weekends this year for all national parks are August 25, September 25, and November 11.
Use All Available Shortcuts
Both the Beaver Meadows and the Fall River entrances have webcams so visitors can view the current lines and vehicle flows. That helps with planning.
The best trick is to not worry about parking and just go straight to the park and ride and catch shuttles from there on the Bear Lake route or the Moraine Park route. Check the schedule here.
Have a Plan B
Estes Park has several lifetimes of adventure within striking distance. Take a stroll around the scenic and peaceful Lake Estes, check out the wildflowers and towering cliffs of Lumpy Ridge, or gaze at the panoramic views of Mount Meeker, Longs Peak, and the Continental Divide from the dramatic summit of Lily Mountain. Of course, enjoying all the events in town should make every visitor’s to-do list when in the area. Art and nature walks, concerts, shops, and a world of fantastic food options await.
Other ideas include exploring further afield in Roosevelt National Forest, taking a climbing or flyfishing lesson or hopping on a horseback or ATV tour. Or, if you're up for it and experience, target a destination beyond three miles of the trailhead. Dayhiker crowds tend to dissipate the farther down the trail you go.
Enjoy The Ride
Rocky Mountain National Park welcomed a whopping 4.5 million visitors in 2018, so there’s a decent chance you won’t be alone. And, truth be told, there's a joy in that too. Meet someone new who came from far off to enjoy this amazing scenery and mountain air. Be courteous, hike with a smile, and have fun.
BOOK YOUR TRIP TO ESTES PARK NOW.
Written by Shaine Smith for Matcha in partnership with Visit Estes Park and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to email@example.com.