Rocky Mountain National Park
Experience a natural high in an American wonderland
Within 415 square miles and crossing three distinct ecosystems, Rocky Mountain National Park encapsulates everything that makes America’s stony backbone special. Sparkling alpine streams, high-altitude glacial lakes, dense forests and rugged peaks galore—the towering Long’s Peak stands at 14,259 feet—are all part of Colorado’s natural crown jewel.
Most of the three million visitors who come every year start at the picture-perfect mountain town of Estes Park, three miles from the park’s eastern edge. From here, the only route through the park is the Trail Ridge Road, offering 48 miles of astonishing countryside as it follows an old Indian path across the Continental Divide. Threading through a mountainous wonderland, it tops out at 12,183 feet before reaching Grand Lake, the park’s western entrance.
In between are over 350 miles of hiking trails that lead to the park’s splendid backcountry of meadows, surging streams and waterfalls, and some of the park’s 150 lakes. Bear Lake, served by a shuttle bus in season, is a popular starting point for the highly scenic trail to Emerald Lake; the hiking route to Glacier Gorge and the not-to-be-missed Mills Lake Trail start nearby. The Continental Divide Trail, one of the country’s most important long-distance treks, threads the park from north to south. Wildlife abounds, from elk, moose and bighorn sheep (the park’s unofficial emblem) to the elusive mountain lions, bears and coyotes, and different wildflowers bloom every month from May to August.
While there aren’t any places to stay inside the park, Estes Park is home to the Stanley Hotel, inspiration for Stephen King’s The Shining (parts of which were written when the author was staying in room 217). This grand 1909 lodge sits on a promontory overlooking the town and has historic ambience (including a ghost expert on staff—ask him about room 418) and sweeping views of Lake Estes. A more intimate experience awaits at the Romantic RiverSong Inn, with 10 rooms set among 27 acres of pines and spruces and a rushing stream. The amiable innkeepers are authorised to conduct the marriage ceremony for anyone interested; give it some thought during your outdoor massage by the mountain stream.
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Trip idea text ©Patricia Schultz. For contact information about the places mentioned and many more USA trip ideas, see Patricia Schultz's blockbuster book.