Wildlife, Mountains, and Alpine Lakes, Oh My!

2020 GUIDE TO ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK

We recently visited Rocky Mountain National Park for six days. We had an absolute blast exploring this natural playground. As a disclaimer, it is extremely important to research ahead of time in the age of COVID-19. Be sure to look up the local health ordinances for guidance at the time of your visit. Make sure to get your reservations to the park early, wear your face coverings, and WASH YOUR HANDS. If you are experiencing any symptoms or have a known exposure to COVID-19, stay home! We recommend road-tripping over air travel for the foreseeable future. Check out our van build guide to see how we travel throughout the United States in our self converted camper van. On that note, in this post we will explain in this post how to make the most out of your trip to Rocky Mountain and the changes to expect due to COVID-19. Click here for more information on our tips and tricks for all National ParksLet’s dive in!

WHERE WE STAYED

We stayed in National Forest land outside of Rocky Mountain National Park. We prefer dispersed camping for many reasons. First of all, it is free! We are able to keep our dog off leash at camp. Finally,  it is much easier to social distance camping in the woods than at a crowded campground. There are several options for dispersed camping both on the east and west side. We split our time between the two. Our campsite on the east side of the park was about 20 minutes south in Roosevelt National Forest. Our campsite on the west side was about 15 minutes south in the Arapaho National Forest. Depending on what you want to do on the park, you can decide which side you want to stay on. Check out our post for more on how we find free campsites.

Campsite in Roosevelt National Forest
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COVID-19 CHANGES

To limit the spread of COVID-19, the National Park Service has made some adjustments to their operations. Below are some of the biggest differences in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Timed Entry System

To help reduce the number of people in the park, Rocky Mountain National Park has started a timed entry system. The majority of the spots are released on the first day of the month for the next 30 days. A small number of passes are held and released 2 days before the date of visit. You can make reservations here. If you have a National Park Pass, it is $2 to make a reservation. If you do not have a pass, you will pay your entry fee online plus a $2 reservation fee costing you $27 total. We recommend purchasing a National Park Pass if you plan on staying more than 2 days. We were able to snag 6 AM reservations for 1 week worth of entry. If you can, 6 AM is the ideal time. You can enter and exit any time after 6 AM if you have that slot. If you get a later time, you are not able to enter any earlier than your reservation. The timed entry does not apply before 6 AM or after 5 PM. For this reason there were a lot more early risers than normal in the park! If you do forgo the timed entry and arrive before 6 AM, you are not able to exit the park and come back. Though the national park is unable to monitor it, it is discouraged to try to beat the timed entry. The timed entry is put in place to reduce the number of visitors in the park to 60%. Please do your best to get a reservation.

Face Coverings

The State of Colorado has issued guidance recommending the use of face coverings when within 6 feet of other people, this includes the outdoors. We wore face coverings on all trails in Rocky Mountain National Park. When passing people on trails, it is almost impossible to stay 6 feet apart. Keep your face covering up when passing others to reduce the risk of transmission. We found that about 70% of people were wearing face coverings.

Hiking with Face Coverings

Services

Services in the park were more limited. The visitors center is open however they are limiting the number of people in the buildings and the exhibits are closed. There are tents outside of the visitor center where you can talk with a ranger. Restrooms were open but some water sources at trail heads were closed. We carry water in our van so this was not an issue but something to keep in mind if you do not.

Shuttle System

We opted to avoid the shuttle as enclosed spaces are one of the highest risk for transmission. There are less shuttles and each shuttle is limited to 15 people, this makes the wait much longer. Instead, we opted to get to trail heads early to ensure we got a parking spot. Bear Lake and Glacier Gorge Trail head was filled up most days by 7 AM! Much of this has to do with people entering early to beat the timed entry system. If you prefer not to shuttle, we recommend getting to the park early.

SCENIC DRIVES

If hiking is not your thing, there is PLENTY to see in Rocky Mountain National Park from the seat of your car. Below are the best two drives in the park.

Old Fall River Road

Beginning on the east side of the park, Old Fall River Road is a one way dirt road that was the first automobile road to take visitors to the high country of Rocky Mountain National Park. The road is narrow and has sharp turns, it is not recommended for vehicles over 25 feet long. It is meant to be driven slow, speed limit is posted at 15 miles per hour. Chasm Falls is an easy roadside waterfall to view. The road ends at the Alpine Visitor Center. We highly recommend taking this route for a more peaceful nature drive!

Old Fall River Road in Rocky Mountain National Park
Old Fall River Road

Trail Ridge Road

This is THE drive to do in Rocky Mountain National Park. It takes you from one side of the park to the other and will bring you to 12,183 feet of elevation at it’s highest. It boasts the distinction of being the highest continuous paved road in the United States. This road is closed from mid-October to Memorial Day due to snow. There are several spots to stop for scenic overlooks. Keep your eye out for wildlife, we saw several herd of elk on this road! The Alpine Visitor Center is along this road at over 11,000 feet of elevation. Fun fact, trees do not grow over 11,400 feet of elevation. Plants at this elevation have about 6 weeks of growing time each year, we happened to visit just as the alpine flowers were blooming, it was brilliant. Just past the Alpine Visitor Center is Medicine Bow Curve, on a clear day, you can see over 45 miles away to Wyoming!

Elk on Trail Rodge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park
Elk on Trail Ridge Road
View from Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park
View of Alpine Lakes from Trail Ridge Road
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EAST SIDE/BEAR LAKE AREA

This is the most popular area of the park, and the most packed with trails. We had some of our favorite hikes here. You will want to get here early if you want a parking spot, otherwise you will have to opt for the shuttle. We will go into our favorite trails we were able to squeeze in, however there are many more! On our next visit, we hope to see Odessa Lake and Bierstadt Lake.

The Loch, Lake of Glass and Sky Pond

Fair warning, this trail is not for the faint of heart! We promise you it is worth it though. The trail starts at Glacier Gorge, however there is very limited parking at this trail head. If you are unable to score a parking spot here, you are able to start at Bear Lake, just add 0.1 to your mileage. The trail is 9.2 miles, with a shortcut through the Fire Trail however, you can shave about 1.2 miles off in total. This is not an official trail, we found it on the map on Maps.Me and Gaia. If you use GPS routing you will be able to see the turn off, it is not marked so it is difficult to know without GPS. The trail will take you right before the junction for Mills Lake and is decidedly less steep as the official route as it hikes along the east side of Glacier Knob. We did not take the Fire Trail on the way out because we wanted to see Alberta Falls. We were able to shave some time off on the way back by taking this route. The trail was well maintained and we had no issue.

Alberts Falls on the Sky Pond Trail at Rocky Mountain National Park
Alberta Falls

On the official trail, 0.5 miles in, you will see Alberta Falls. The first lake you will come to is The Loch at 2.8 miles. This alpine lake is stunning, there is a peninsula you can hike to to get a beautiful view of the lake. Continuing down the shore, we were able to catch a nice reflection of the mountains in the lake.

Reflection of the mountains in The Loch at Rocky Mountain National Park
Reflection of the mountains in The Loch

Another 0.6 miles in, there is a branch to go to Andrew’s Tarn and Andrew’s Glacier. Another day, we would love to take the time to hike there. If you do make the trek, the side trail will add 2.6 miles. We decided to push on to Lake of Glass. Before you reach this lake, you will encounter the biggest obstacle of the hike, Timberline Falls. You will be hiking up a waterfall, yes you heard that right UP A WATERFALL! The rocks, thankfully, are not very slippery, but we recommend you take your time through this portion.

Timberline Falls at Rocky Mountain National Park
Timberline Falls, the waterfall to scramble to get to Sky Pond
View of the Loch in Rocky Mountain National Park
View of The Loch from above

After the waterfall scramble, you will be rewarded with the beautiful Lake of Glass, and ultimately Sky Pond! The water at Sky Pond is crystal clear as it is fed by Taylor Glacier. To the right you will see the iconic Sharkstooth Peaks. We recommend sitting and having lunch here while taking in the views. To get back to the trail head, you will go back the way you came, the descent is much easier, however remember to take your time down Timberline Falls! 

Lake of Glass
Sky Pond with Sharkdtooth Peak at Rocky Mountain National Park
Sky Pond with Sharkstooth Peaks in the background
Sky Pond and Sharkstooth Peak
Sky Pond and Sharkstooth Peak

Epic Alpine Lake Hike

This was one of our favorite hikes! With some figuring on the map, you can link together five Alpine Lakes into one epic hike! Start out at the Bear Lake trail head. From there you can chose to do a loop of Bear Lake first or start off on your hike to the other lakes. The first lake you will see on trail is Nymph Lake about 0.5 miles on trail. This is the smallest lake on the loop, it has several lily pads which were just starting to bloom when we visited!

Nymph Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park
Nymph Lake with lilypads

Another 0.6 miles down the trail is Dream Lake. This lake was smooth as glass and crystal clear, Eric got tons of pictures of trout right through the water, he was definitely wishing he had his fishing pole (you are able to catch and release with a permit).

Dream Lake at Rocky Mountain National Park
Dream Lake
Reflection of trees in Dream Lake

Another 0.7 miles and 180 feet of elevation gain will take you to Emerald Lake. This lake is fed by Tyndall Glacier and sits below Hallet Peak. The water is incredibly calm and is, in fact, an emerald color.

Emerald Lake at Rocky Mountain National Park
Emerald Lake

From Emerald Lake, you will turn back the way you came. If you want to hike to Lake Haiyaha (and we recommend you do) you will branch off at Dream Lake. It is an additional 320 feet of elevation gain and 1.1 miles to the lake. As the trees open up, you can catch a glimpse of Bear Lake and Nymph Lake below you. This was one of our favorite lakes as there was a massive boulder field to play on! Lake Haiyaha is aptly named as it’s translation from Native American means “lake of many rocks.” To the left, you can see Otis Peak, and to the right, Hallet Peak, both towering above 12,000 feet. You can jump from boulder to boulder searching for the best view of Haiyaha (you really can’t go wrong though). After exploring Lake Haiyaha, you will double back and descend back to the Bear Lake parking lot. The hike in total is 5.6 miles, a pretty good deal to see five Alpine Lakes!

Lake Haiyaha in Rocky Mountain National Park
Jumping for joy at Lake Haiyaha

Sprague Lake

We stopped at this lake on a whim to have a picnic lunch and fill our water, boy are we glad did! We saw a bull moose having a snack and bathing in the lake! It was an absolutely unreal site, and one we will remember forever. The lake has a flat and accessible 0.5 mile loop with a gorgeous view of the mountains behind it. It has several picnic tables and makes for a great mid-day pitstop.

Moose in Sprague Lake with Mountain Backdrop
Moose in Sprague Lake at Rocky Mountain National Park
Moose in Sprague Lake

Tuxedo Park Picnic Area

Located between Sprague Lake and the Glacier Basin Campground, this was our favorite picnic area. It is right on the river and has many shaded picnic tables. We saw turkey and even a weasel with a fish in it’s mouth!

Tuxedo Park in Rocky Mountain National Park
Hanging out at Tuxedo Park
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WEST SIDE/ KAWUNEECHE VALLEY

The west side of the park is less trafficked and offers a great opportunity to see wildlife. There are some great, short, family friendly trails here. In addition there are longer trails that will lead you to waterfalls, peaks and alpine lakes. We did one big hike on the west side, in the future, we hope to see Granite Falls, as well as the alpine lakes on this side.

Big Meadows

This was our favorite spot on the west side of the park. We made a loop of the Onahu Creek Trail, the Tonahutu Creek Trail and the Green Mountain Trail clocking in at 7.6 miles. We saw very few other people on these trails which made for a very peaceful morning hike. We saw a bull moose in Big Meadows and a Cow Moose and baby on the Green Mountain Trail. The Onahu Creek Trail had a fair bit of elevation gain so if you just want to see Big Meadows, an out and back hike of the Green Mountain Trail may be better.

Moose on Green Mountain Trail in Rocky Mountain National Park
Cow and Baby Moose

East Inlet/ Adams Falls

The East Inlet Trailhead is located in the town of Grand Lake outside of the entrance to the west side of the park. There is a very popular 0.5 miles hike to Adams Falls. The trail continues on for 6.9 miles to several alpine lakes, this is for sure a hike we want to do in the future!

Adams Falls at Rocky Mountain National Park
Adams Falls

As you can see, there is a ton to do at Rocky Mountain National Park. With some planning in advance, you can help ensure a safe and enjoyable visit. We hope this guide has helped! Now get out there and Create Your Own Roadshow!

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