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 third-most visited national park in the country, after the Great Smoky Mountains and the Grand Canyon. 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
The popular parking lots can fill up by 8 am, so get to the park very early to almost guarantee a spot. Getting an early start isn’t a bad idea anyway as afternoon storms often bring dangerous lighting. The National Park Service keeps close track of visitation times, so they know when things get busy. It offers these suggested times to arrive at key trailheads in order to get a parking spot:
• Glacier Gorge Trailhead by 6 am
• Bear Lake Trailhead by 8:30 am
• Park and Ride by 10 am
• Wild Basin Corridor by 9:30 am
At these times, chances are good that there is parking available. 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 28, and November 11.
Use All Available Shortcuts
Many people don’t realize that you can purchase the entrance pass online. You still have to wait in line, but it does speed things up when you get to the front. Related to that, 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 take the shuttle from Estes Park. It runs from the visitor center in Estes Park and follows three routes through the park. Most people use Estes Park as a basecamp, making it very convenient. Best of all, it’s free to ride the shuttle (but you still need to pay the regular park fee). Start and stop times, as well as how often the shuttles run, vary depending on the route, so be sure to check the schedule. Also note that Bear Lake Road often closes once the park reaches capacity (follow Rocky Mountain National Park on Twitter to get alerts). When this happens, only the shuttles can travel on the road, which is another good reason to stick with the shuttles.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.