Rocky Mountain National Park is the third most visited national park in the United States and with good reason. This 415 sq. mile park has 60 mountains over 12,000 feet (3650m), 350 miles of hiking trails, hundreds of mountain lakes and abundant wildlife. Over a third of the park is above tree line. Here you will find a tundra environment similar to that found above the Arctic Circle. There is so much beauty to photograph here you may not want to leave. In late June and early July you may find wildflowers blooming in the lower meadows and in the alpine tundra. In late September and early October the aspen trees turn vibrant yellow while bull elk fill the air with the sound of their bugles. In February and March the mountains are covered in a thick blanket of snow. To enter Rocky Mountain National Park you will need to have your own vehicle and you will need to purchase an entry pass at the entrance station. These run about $30 per vehicle for a week’s access. The park is open all year round and does not close at night so you can head into the park at any time. As much as possible, try to stick to the trails and if you head off trail try to walk on durable surfaces such as rocks and dirt rather than on vegetation. Do not enter any area that is marked as a “restoration area”. In the national park it is not permitted to approach wildlife or to take anything you find out of the park.
Rocky Mountain National Park is divided by a large mountain range into an eastern side and a western side. You will find most of your opportunities on the east side and so may find it helpful to stay in or around the town of Estes Park. You’ll want to spend several days to a week to really experience the park. Spend one morning photographing sunrise at Sprague Lake. Follow this with a hike from Bear Lake up to Nymph, Dream and Emerald Lakes to check out the various photo options for future mornings. Then take a drive over Trail Ridge Road all the way to Grand Lake to experience the tundra and get a sense of the scale of this park. This will give you a good overview of what is available to easily photograph. Then come back and focus on photographing your favorite of these areas. If you have more time or are more adventurous, plan a backpacking trip via the Wilderness Office. Just about every backcountry lake in the park is fabulous for photography.
To visit Rocky Mountain National Park you will need to rent a car from the Denver International Airport. While there are shuttles that come occasionally to Estes Park, the public transportation into the park is currently quite limited and only operates during the busy summer months. It unfortunately does not start early enough to get you into the park for sunrise or late enough for sunset. It also only covers a small area of the park. The drive from the Denver airport to Estes Park is about 1.5 hours. The mountains can be very harsh and violent places and every year we have several deaths as well as many people who get hurt or lost and need to be rescued. It is vital that you always let someone know where you are going each day, when you plan to return and that you stick to your plan. I also suggest using a satellite tracking system/emergency locator beacon if you plan on hiking in the wilderness, particularly if you are hiking alone. During the summer months we typically get violent storms every afternoon. As a general rule of thumb you should not be above tree line after noon as lightning is a major killer. Be aware that while the temperature in Denver could be over 90F, in the mountains it could be icy cold and windy. Always prepare for winter weather even in the summer. Rocky Mountain National Park has the highest average elevation of any national park in the United States with its lowest point being around 7,800 ft (2377 m) and its highest point being 14,259 ft (4346 m). Because of its high elevation most people who visit from lower elevations find that breathing and exertion is much more difficult for the first few days while their body adjusts. Some people actually get altitude illness with headaches, difficulty sleeping, and loss of appetite. This can generally be mitigated by drinking a lot of water prior to and after arrival. If you find that these symptoms become more severe during a hike, do not ignore them as they will only get worse and could become life-threatening. Instead descend to a lower elevation until the symptoms go away.
Estes Park weather forecast
Bear Lake weather forecast
Grand Lake weather forecast
Estes Park, Grand Lake and Rocky Mountain NP webcams
Clear Sky forecast for Rocky Mountain National Park
Colorado Avalanche Information Center
Rocky Mountain National Park official website
Plan your visit to Estes Park, Colorado
Erik Stensland’s website
Estes Park events