Colorado is such a cool place to explore, with its laid-back, outdoorsy atmosphere, so it’s no wonder it’s home to one of the country’s most effortlessly rad spots: Rocky Mountain National Park. Home to challenging summit hikes like Longs Peak and Twin Sisters Peak, you don’t have to be a pro mountain climber to enjoy a visit to the Rockies. Scenic drives, leisurely trails, and loads of culture in nearby Estes Park make it easy to experience the best of Rocky Mountain National Park. Here are some suggestions for a first-time visitor to the Rockies.
Rocky Mountain National Park
Colorado’s crown jewel has to be Rocky Mountain National Park. With an abundance of unforgettable views, a wealth of wildlife and vibrant flowers, there’s a little something for everyone. To top if off, Rocky Mountain National Park offers world class hiking trails for both the experienced and those just looking to get their nature fix. With the mountain landscape offering new views around each bend, over each hill, and across each valley, you could easily spend weeks exploring all that this special park has to offer. But even if you’re new to the experience of delving into the Rockies, there are plenty of hikes and scenic drives that are great for easing into this epic park.
Bear Lake Road
Open year-round (a rarity in the Rockies, especially once winter arrives), Bear Lake Road offers a little piece of everything the Rockies has to offer as it takes you from Upper Beaver Meadow to the lake. You’ll be able to enjoy the scenery as you cruise the route. There are a few overlooks where you can stop off and soak up the views or even enjoy a picnic, and you’ll even find some great trails along the way. The hike around Bear Lake is especially gorgeous… even during the winter, when you can cross country ski the trail! Tip: During the summer, this is a popular route and parking can be hard to find, but there’s a shuttle that will take you to and from the lake, which means that you can really relax and enjoy the ride.
Coffee on the Rocks
Nothing prepares you better for an incredible hike in the Rockies (or anywhere, really) than a premium cup of java. Locally owned, Coffee on the Rocks is the perfect place to start your day with its incredibly welcoming staff and family-friendly vibe. Off the main strip of Estes Park, this quiet joint has seating both indoors and out (near the creek and offering views of the aerial tram), so you’re more than welcome to choose your own adventure as you quench your caffeine fix. This is also a nice place to pick up snacks and sandwiches if you want to have a picnic in the park.
Estes Park Aerial Tramway
Since 1955, Estes Park Aerial Tramway has welcomed over 3 million visitors, providing them with a “true view from the top.” The Tramway takes you on a journey up Prospect Mountain, leaving you to sit back and soak in the breathtaking view in the comfy gondola. At the summit, you’re clear to roam freely and for as long as you like, so take in the views and snap that perfect family selfie before you take the ride back down.
Estes Park Pie Shop & Bakery
If you’ve got a sweet tooth, this is the one place you cannot afford to miss. Estes Park Pie Shop and Bakery offers a wide range of your favorite baked goods, and they’re always served with a smile. Rumor has it that they just might have the best pie in all of Colorado. Find out for yourself as you enjoy a slice of pie and some coffee in the retro diner atmosphere… they bake up some adventurous fruit pies, along with other fun options like s’mores pie and lemon meringue, so you might want to order more than one slice!
Alpine Visitor Center
As the highest service center in the entire National Park System at just under 12,000 ft, Alpine Visitor Center is the perfect place to stop and add to your photo collection. Located at the intersection of Trail Ridge Road and Old Fall River, the center offers a gift shop, bookstore, a place to grab a bite to eat. You’ll also find a handful of exhibits dedicated to the incredible and unique alpine tundra ecosystem. It’s a great spot to visit before setting out on a hike so you can identify various plants and animals along the way, and even grab a map or consult with a ranger on the best trails to see!
The Alpine Visitor Center closes during the winter, as snow makes roads inaccessible, so plan accordingly!
Alberta Falls is ane of the most popular hiking destinations in the Rockies for good reason. The trail to Alberta Falls offers a glimpse of mixed pine forest and aspen groves on the path to witness the majestic 30-foot waterfall. Rich in history and great views, this beloved trail is well worth the trek. Round trip, it’s less than two miles, and it’s pretty easy terrain to cover. You can find the hike at the Glacier Gorge Trailhead near Bear Lake Road.
Old Fall River Road
The first auto route in Colorado National State Park, traveling down this 11-mile road will instantly transport you back into the early 1920’s when it first came about. It remains an impressive feat of engineering, and one the park’s best scenic drives. Along the route, you’re bound to witness elk in their natural habitat while also taking in some incredible views of the mountains. It’s mostly unpaved but is less windy than the also-popular Trail Ridge Road. Whichever you choose to cruise, these scenic drives are an awesome way to experience the rugged Rockies beauty, especially if you’re a less-experience mountain climber or hiker.
Lulu City Ghost Town
Founded in 1879 in the Never Summer Mountains on the premise of untapped silver potential, Lulu City Ghost Town, gives you a look into the dreams and aspirations of past generations. The town ultimately dwindled, despite a two-year boom that peaked with 40 cabins and numerous businesses, as the result of overly optimistic mining potential. It was short-lived and totally abandoned by 1885, as most citizens left for the nearby settlement of Dutchtown. Keep an eye out for the 3 unchanged cabins that remain in the Lulu City Ghost Town. It’s a little longer hike, at 6.8 miles round trip, but it’s a great way to experience the park’s off-the-beaten-path side.
Holzwarth Historic Site
Founded in 1917 by John Holzwarth Sr. as a cattle ranch, the Holzwarth Historic Site gives you an inside glimpse into the budding tourism industry of the Rockies during the 1920’s. Tucked away in the mountains, you’ll have access to wonderful views, a little history, and unguided horseback rides, if you so choose. Explore the old miner’s cabin and Holzwarth’s taxidermy workshop and learn what life was like in the mountains at the turn of the century! It’s an easy side trip off Trail Ride Road and is bound to be fascinating.
Packed with world-class trails, and even better views, Rocky Mountain National Park has something for nearly anyone who steps foot in this historic park. Whether you spend just a few hours or a few days exploring the park’s impressive size and beauty, you will come away with memories lasting a lifetime. Enjoy the fresh mountain air, rugged beauty, and adrenaline-pumping hikes and drives, whether you’re an experienced outdoorsman or an avid beginner!
KOAs in the Area
Estes Park KOA Holiday
Denver West / Central City KOA Holiday