Rocky Mountain National Park is one of Colorado’s many gems for hikers, wildlife lovers, and adventure seekers. There are many ways to experience the Park, but RVing Rocky Mountain National Park should be on your national parks bucket list.
Why Visit Rocky Mountain National Park in an RV?
Visitors from all over can enjoy the different ecosystems of the Colorado mountains while having the option to see a variety of high alpine wildlife. From thick pine forests and beautiful open meadows to high rocky peaks and bare alpine tundra, exploring the park allows travelers to escape city life and enjoy the Colorado wilderness.
There are several RV-friendly campgrounds within the park, making for a perfect place to basecamp for a few days. Visitors in longer RVs and trailers may be restricted on certain roadways, but overall, the park is fairly accessible to most vehicles.
When to Visit Rocky Mountain National Park
Rocky Mountain National Park is open year-round: 365 days a year, 24 hours a day. However, access to the park changes drastically depending on the season. When the park starts to receive snow, high-elevation roads close, limiting visitor access.
The most popular time to visit is during the summer and fall, from the months of May through October, with the peak times being June through August. Timed entry reservations are required to access the park during the high season from late May to mid-October.
They can be made on the 1st of the month for the following month. This is when most of the park is open to visitors as the snow has melted off the higher-elevation roads.
Rocky Mountain National Park in the Spring
In the spring, a lot of Rocky Mountain National park is inaccessible due to snow. It is a popular time for mountaineers to climb the icy and snowy peaks once the snowpack has consolidated. Skiing during this time is popular as well for that reason. Hikes lower down start opening up later in the season, and visitors have the chance to see some of the wildlife babies around the park.
Rocky Mountain National Park in the Summer
The main time to visit Rocky Mountain National Park is in the summer, which also happens to be its most popular time to visit. The many trails allow a variety of activities. Backpacking, hiking, fishing, wildlife viewing, and climbing are popular pastimes during the summer.
If hiking in the high peaks, or going past treeline, pay attention to the weather. Daily afternoon thunderstorms are not uncommon. A rule of thumb is to be off the high peaks and back at the trailheads by noon.
Rocky Mountain National Park in the Fall
Rocky Mountain National Park dazzles in the fall. Leaf peeping is a popular pastime in Colorado from mid/late September through early October. Rocky Mountain is a popular place to view the fall colors as the aspens change to brilliant golds and oranges.
Another draw to the park in the fall is to hear the bugling sounds of the elk. Rocky Mountain has a large elk herd that travelers have a high chance of seeing while visiting. During the fall, the elk bugle during their mating season, and it is an incredible experience to hear.
Rocky Mountain National Park in the Winter
From as early as mid-October through March, Rocky Mountain turns into a winter wonderland. Many trails become inaccessible to folks without the correct winter hiking gear. Cross-country skiers, backcountry tourers, and snowshoers enjoy the large amounts of snow the park receives.
Hidden Valley, an abandoned ski resort in the park, is popular amongst backcountry skiers and snowboarders, especially on powder days. Here, sledding is also a popular pastime.
Folks traveling to Rocky Mountain in the winter should be aware of avalanche danger within the park, depending on the trails they are going. Talk to rangers at the visitor centers to learn where to go and where to avoid.
Where to Stay
If staying inside the park, timed-entry reservations do not need to be made, but camping reservations must be made months in advance. Here are the four main RV-friendly campgrounds in the park:
- Timber Creek Campground: Max Vehicle Length: 30 feet.
This campground sees little shade due to beetle kill pine (a parasite the pine trees in Colorado are prone to) and old burn areas from wildfires.
- Moraine Park Campground: Max Vehicle Length: 40 feet
Moraine Park is the only campground in the Park that’s open during the winter. During this time, sites are available on a first-come, first-served basis.
- Glacier Basin Campground: Max Vehicle Length: 35 feet
A popular site, this campground can host bigger groups at its group sites, though RVs and trailers are not allowed in the group sites.
- Aspenglen Campground: Max Vehicle Length: 35 feet
Aspenglen is a smaller campground compared to others. There is no dump station here, so visitors should plan accordingly.
Staying Outside the Park
Reserving a spot in the park can be very difficult, especially if visiting during the high season. If you’d like more amenities, need a spot for a longer RV, or cannot make a reservation within the park, check out these nearby campgrounds.
- Elk Meadow Lodge and RV Resort: Located in Estes Park, Colorado. About 5 minutes from the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center
- Spruce Lake RV Resort: Located in Estes Park, Colorado. About 5 minutes from the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center
- Riverview RV Park: Located in Loveland, Colorado. About 40 minutes from the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center.
- Winding River Resort: Located in Granby, Colorado. About 5 minutes from the Kawuneeche Visitor Center.
- Manor RV Park: Located in Estes Park, Colorado. About 5 minutes from the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center.
Tips for your Camping Stay
- Book campsites through Recreation.gov starting in November of the year prior. Here are the links to each reservable campground:
- There are no hookups for RVs or showers inside the park. Visitors who have solar showers must use solar shower stalls.
- Cellphone reception is limited within the park. Consider a signal booster to improve whatever service you can get through your provider.
- Generators are allowed during certain hours in certain sites. While making a reservation, the website will say what is allowed at your camp area.
- If backpacking, wilderness permits must also be obtained in advance.
- Follow campfire restrictions. In the summer, a lot of Colorado may restrict or completely ban campfires, depending on how dry and how high the fire danger is. This will be posted upon entering the campground. The hosts on-site will also know whether you can use a portable firepit during your stay.
- You may be required to store your food in provided storage lockers. Check-in with the host. This prevents bear break-ins.
How to Get Around Rocky Mountain National Park
Rocky Mountain National Park covers 415 square miles of different environments. There is a lot to see, and visitors can access the park via one of three entrances. Most enter from the east side of Rocky Mountain, near Estes Park, either by Beaver Point or Fall River Road. The other entrance is on the western part of the park, near Grand Lake.
During the summer and fall, the road connecting the two sides is open, allowing visitors to drive over mountain passes. Though all vehicles are allowed on the main Trail Ridge Road, folks may not be comfortable driving this portion.
The roads are fairly steep and narrow, with a decent amount of switchbacks. Visitors not used to driving mountain roads may find this section to be a bit intimidating. Go slow and stay in lower gear while descending.
Places to Go
When RVing Rocky Mountain National Park, there are some must-visit places to get to know the area. If it’s your first time visiting, stop by one of the many visitor centers to learn more about the park before heading out onto the popular trails and many sites it has to offer.
The Visitor Centers
There are four visitor centers guests can stop in to learn more about the park’s history, get a National Park Passport stamp, and learn about the trail conditions and weather, as it is always changing in the park.
- Beaver Meadows Visitor Center
- Alpine Visitor Center
- Kawuneeche Visitor Center
- Fall River Visitor Center
Depending on the season, some visitor centers may not be open. The Alpine Visitor Center is closed from mid-fall to the end of spring.
Holzwarth Historic Site
History buffs may enjoy a stop at the Holzwarth Historic Site. The historic site offers a glimpse into what life looked like in the area in the late 1800s through 1900s. It changed purpose throughout the years, but the buildings are kept with some original furnishings.
Daily tours are led throughout the summer, with the buildings open to the public. While visitors may visit and walk around the grounds any time of year, visitors can only go inside the buildings during the summer tours. Hiking around the grounds is about a 1-mile round trip walk.
Moraine Park Discovery Center
The discovery center is another historic building that is only open during the summer season. Rangers give information on the park while the building holds exhibits for guests to learn more about the park and its history.
Sheep’s Lake Information Station
The parking lot is open 24 hours a day, but the information station is open only during the summer. For RVers traveling to view wildlife, Sheeps Lake is a great place to try and catch sight of some of the animals that Rocky Mountain National Park is home to. Bighorn sheep, moose, elk, deer, and black bears are often visible in this area.
One of the top attractions in the park, Bear Lake is a .6-mile round-trip hike. The trail is a wheelchair-accessible path designed for hikers of all abilities. Interpretative signs along the trail teach about the Park and its history.
The Bear Lake area is a good starting point for many popular hikes within Rocky Mountain. This is one of the most popular areas in the Park, and so the parking is full very early on in the summer and fall. Arrive early or plan on taking a shuttle.
Lily Lake Loop
This accessible, flat path is about 0.8 miles round trip and gives beautiful views of Longs Peak and Meeker Mountain, two of the highest peaks in Rocky Mountain National Park. The Lily Lake Loop has benches and picnic tables to take in the views and is a popular fishing spot.
Things To Do in Rocky Mountain National Park
Discover a few outdoor activities to enjoy during your visit.
One of the most popular ways to enjoy Rocky Mountain National Park is by trekking on one of the many hiking trails in the park. There are over 300 miles of trails within Rocky Mountain, so hikers have many trails to choose from for their adventures.
- Ypsilon Lake: This 9-mile round trip hike takes visitors around some of the park’s best scenery, ending at a gorgeous forested lake surrounded by peaks. The elevation gain is over 2,000 feet, so folks looking for a more difficult, all-day hike will enjoy this trail.
- Dream Lake: This easy 2.2-mile round trip hike passes by the popular Nymph Lake, and hikers can continue on to Lake Haiyaha or Emerald Lake from here. Surrounded by peaks, this hike truly is a dream.
- The Loch: This trail is a little over 6 miles round trip with 1,000 feet of elevation gain before reaching the popular lake, one of three in the system known as Loch Vale. Hikers will pass by Alberta Falls on the way to The Loch.
- Lake Haiyaha: For hikers looking for a shorter adventure, the beautiful Lake Haiyaha is a popular outing. A little over 4 miles round trip, Lake Haiyaha provides views of other popular lakes along the way: Bear, Nymph, and Bierstadt.
- Chasm Lake: While the trailhead to the lake is technically in the park, visitors actually start hiking outside of the park’s entrance. It’s over 8 miles round trip with about 2,400 feet of elevation gain and starts in the forest before ending at the base of Longs Peak, the tallest peak in the park at over 14,000 feet, and a gorgeous alpine lake.
- Alberta Falls: A popular hike, this easy trail is 1.2 miles round trip and takes hikers up to the beautiful 30-foot falls. Many folks enjoy lunch and photos here, and it’s a trail for folks of all abilities. The trail leads to other popular hikes in the park.
There are a couple scenic drives that visitors can do while RVing Rocky Mountain National Park depending on the vehicle they are driving. Colorado boasts two of the highest roads in North America.
The awe-inspiring Trail Ridge Road is one of them. The road is open only during the summer months, as it’s buried beneath feet of snow during the winter. It connects the east and the west sides of the park and is known as the “Highway to the Sky.”
The road starts at the bottom of the park, in meadows and pine forests, taking visitors along some of Rocky Mountain National Park’s best views. This is one you won’t want to miss.
The road is North America’s highest paved road, going up into the alpine tundra. During a cloudless night, parking up at the lot for the Alpine visitor’s center provides amazing views of the stars.
Old Fall River Road offers great views of Colorado’s high country and is a less traveled road for motorists. Vehicles must be shorter than 27 feet long, and trailers are not permitted. The road is gravel and is one-way. This is a nice option for those looking for fewer crowds.
Guided Tours and Ranger Programs
Ranger-led programs are a fun way to learn about the park and its history. These programs are seasonal, so stop into the nearest visitor center to learn more about what programs are currently being offered. Programs are led from both the east and the west sides of the park, along with the Alpine Visitor Center.
Snowshoeing is a popular way to explore in the winter. Ranger-led snowshoe walks are offered from January through March, and reservations can be made up to a week in advance. Spaces fill up fast, especially on warmer and weekend days. If you don’t have your own snowshoes, rentals are available throughout the town of Estes Park.
Horseback riding is allowed within the park. Over 260 miles are available for folks to ride, and for those who enjoy overnights, there are backcountry campsites designated for stock use. Those looking to get a guide can find horse-led tours in town.
Fishing is allowed within the park as well. A license must be purchased beforehand and can be purchased throughout shops in Colorado, online, or by phone. Some bodies of water do not allow fishing, and others are catch-and-release, so read about the rules and regulations before heading out.
What to Bring and How to Prepare
- Check road conditions. It can snow year-round in Colorado’s high country. Colorado has traction laws, and travelers must abide by these (or potentially face huge fines), which typically can go into effect anywhere from mid-September to the end of May.
- For winter visits, travelers must use chains, have snow-rated tires, or have all-wheel or four-wheel drive. Check out these safety tips for navigating mountain grades in an RV.
- Leave the dogs behind. Pups are not allowed inside the park.
- Observe the wildlife at a safe distance. Elk, moose, and bears are some of the wildlife you may encounter in the park. Don’t approach them. Both elk and moose can, and do, injure guests who get too close.
- If camping, keep food and trash locked inside the car or in the storage boxes provided at some campsites. Bears are very capable of breaking and entering into cars and camping tents.
- Check the weather and come prepared. The weather can change quickly. During monsoon season, being above the treeline can be scary with lightning.
- During the winter, snowstorms deposit snow quickly and cause the windy mountain roads to get icy. The temperature in the lower elevations at the park can differ significantly from the temperature in the upper elevations. Use a handheld VHF radio to get emergency weather alerts when you don’t have cell service.
- Plan on taking shuttles. Depending on the reservation time, unless you arrive extremely early in the day, you most likely will need to take shuttle buses around the park to access popular hiking trails. Planning on a certain hike but don’t want to deal with traffic? Reservations can be made to take the shuttle for certain hikes.
- Follow speed limits. The roads inside the park can be narrow and steep, with many switchbacks. Depending on the weather, they can get icy pretty quickly as well. It’s not unusual for a stray elk or two (or an entire herd) to cross the road.
- Read up on your hikes. Rocky Mountain National Park has beautiful but also deadly terrain. Every year, Search, and Rescue gets calls from people lost on routes.
- During the winter, snowshoeing and backcountry skiing are popular pastimes. Be careful and read up on avalanche conditions and know what trails and areas to avoid if going out in the winter.
Brief History of Rocky Mountain National Park
Rocky Mountain National Park, with its peaks and meadows carved by glaciers, was once home to the Ute tribes, who lived on the land until the late 1700s. The land the Park sits on today was acquired by the US government with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.
The fur trappers and explorers skirted around the area, avoiding the rugged peaks. It wasn’t until the 1860s that miners came in the hopes of finding gold. Small mining towns began to appear around the park’s edges, drawing visitors to the area.
In 1909 Enos Mills put forth the recommendation of creating the nation’s tenth national park. He spent years lecturing and lobbying across the United States. In 1915, Woodrow Wilson signed the Rocky Mountain National Park Act, establishing its National Park status.
During the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt created programs to put people to work. One of the programs, the Civilian Conservation Corps, worked in the park to build roads, trails, and buildings. During this time, more roads and buildings were added to the park providing more accessibility, especially for automobiles.
Upon the 50th anniversary of the park, visitor centers were added, and researchers flocked to the park’s outdoor laboratory. Eventually, old guest lodges were turned into campgrounds and parking lots, allowing more visitors to enjoy the natural beauty of Rocky Mountain.
Have you visited Rocky Mountain National Park? Share your tips and experience below!