Rocky Mountain National Park
|Big Thompson River in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado (Willard Clay/Photographers Choice/Getty)|
Rocky Mountain National Park is a national iconits rugged mountains carve out a skyline that captures the American imagination and serves as both protector and passageway to the west. One-third of the park is above timberline, the 14,259-foot flat-topped summit of Longs Peak included, there are 71 peaks here that top out above 12,000 feet. All in all, there is enough snowcapped rock, wind-whipped tundra, and thin air to make a marmot giddy.
The problem is the siren song of all this alpine scenery is so strong that at times the park can seem overrun by pilgrims. Trail Ridge Road offers visitors thrilling views, covering 48 miles between Estes Park on the park's east side and Grand Lake on the west. Eleven miles of this high highway travel above treeline, the elevation near 11,500 feet where the park's evergreen forests come to a halt. As it winds across the tundra's vastness, it reaches its high point at 12,183 feet. Three million people visit Rocky Mountain National Park each year; old-timers among the surging population along Colorado's Front Range tend to opt for the much less visited national forests around RMNP when they're looking for solitude.
Or at least that's what they'll tell you, with a wink. The truth is, there's just too much spectacular country here for a mountain fanatic to stay away from. And when you slip off the beaten path, there's solitude aplenty. This is a 415-square-mile chunk of Rocky Mountain highs, latticed by approximately 370 miles of hiking and walking trails that weave up steep rocky trails, over alpine tundra, past high-mountain lakes, and through aspen groves, spruce forests, and meadows peppered with columbine. If you're looking to connect with your inner mountain man, you couldn't pick a better place.
Hike the Old Ute Trail
Ever noticed that most hikes start with a brutal uphill slog? Here's one that turns the tables. The Old Ute Trail begins at an elevation of 11,250 feet and descends to 8,250 feet. You'll find the trailhead just off Trail Ridge Road below the Forest Canyon Overlook. The trail served as a highway for Ute Indians who traveled from village to village along the Continental Divide. As you walk across the barren windswept slope of Tombstone Ridge, you will have a view of Longs Peak towering above the tundra to the south. And keep in mind, every effortless step you take down will be an arduous step back upunless you plan on hiking the six miles down to Upper Beaver Meadows.
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Rock Climb the Diamond
Some climbers claim that the 900-foot Diamond cliff is the best alpine wall in the United States. The diamond-shape granite wall sits atop the east face of Longs Peakevery inch of the sheer face is above 13,000 feet. With more than 35 climbing routes, the left side of the wall lures free climbers that scale Ariana D7 and Yellow Wall. The nailing routes of the overhanging right side include Diamond Star Halo, Steep Is Flat, and the Dunn-Westbay.
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Drive along the Highest Highway in the World
Trail Ridge Road snakes its way through alpine tundra for 50 miles between glacier-sculpted peaks. It crosses the park from east to west and then drops into the Kawuneeche Valley, where the north fork of the Colorado River flows. The road travels for 11 miles above 11,000 feet and for four miles above 12,000 feet. The road's highest point12,183 feet above sea leveloccurs between Lava Cliffs and Gore Range. As you drive through the heavens, you absolutely must stop at Rainbow Curve, Many Parks Curve, and at Forest Canyon Overlook. The one caveat? Try this drive on a weekend in August and you'll be breathing more exhaust than crisp, clean mountain air.
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Watch Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep at Horseshoe Park
A natural mineral lick near Sheep Lake lures bighorn sheep to Horseshoe Park, where you can observe them from the parking lot. Black bear, moose, bobcat, coyote, deer, weasel, and muskrat also frequent the wet meadows around Moraine Park and Horseshoe Park.
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Cross-Country Ski along the Colorado River Trail
The Colorado River Trail allows Nordic skiers to explore the region's stunning winter landscape while catching a glimpse of the state's mining history. Skiers can slide onto the trail at Timber Lake trailhead at the end of the plowed road. Markers will guide you north along the river for about two miles before you pass the ruins of abandoned miner cabins. After another two miles, you will find yourself in the former mining boomtown of Lulu City.
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Fly-Fish for Greenback Cutthroat Trout in the Roaring River
Fly anglers will have to do some hiking to reach the Roaring Riverthe requisite 1.5-mile hike starts at an elevation of 8,500 feet at the Lawn Lake Trailhead. A steep 800-foot climb gets you to 9,300 feet and a chance to drop some flies on the Roaring River for greenback cutthroat trout. Boulder fields along the Roaring River make it difficult to get stable footing, which means this a rugged and challenging fishing experience.
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Tour Trail Ridge Road for Some Serious Cycling
Do you have the legs of Lance Armstrong? You'll need them to cycle up the 3,700 feet of vertical from Estes Park. But if you're capable, by all means make the tripafter 15 miles, you'll find yourself cycling among the Gods at an elevation of 12,000 feet. This four- to six-hour ride is demanding and geared for the intermediate-to-advanced cyclist. Once you're on top, you'll be rewarded with ten miles of rolling alpine highway. And of course it's downhill from there3,400 feet to Grand Lake!
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Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication