I thought I had it all doped out. Before I go anywhere, I read maps, websites and reviews. I could tell you sixteen facts about our destination on the drive there. But it was dumb luck, not planning, that led to our best visits to Rocky Mountain National Park.
Colorado Trip Tips: Visiting Rocky Mountain National Park
1.) The late bird gets the parking spot. We always begin with the best of intentions. We're going to pack the car the day before so that we can get up, get going and be on the road before 10.
This never happens.
Inevitably, we have to stop at the Boulder REI for something on the drive north from Denver. Or Target. Or both. And we usually need gas and more sunscreen and firewood. Then we need to walk the dog again, and somebody inevitably has to handle an email or a phone call. Soon, traffic is thicker and after it's 1 o'clock in the afternoon before we're really aiming the car toward the park.
But late is better than never here. Because after 3 p.m., the line of vehicles waiting to enter Rocky Mountain National Park has dwindled, and parking at the wildly popular Bear Lake Trailhead is much more feasible. As long as you're not going above treeline or making a long trek, this leaves plenty of time to get in a good hike.
I suppose you also could get up really early and snag a parking spot at the trailhead before 8. We're night owls, though, and driving up from Denver, so the odds of that happening aren't good. Who knew that a late start could be a saving grace?
2.) For major views with minor effort, hike Dream Lake. I give my kiddo credit on this one. Seems this was the most frequent spot for envy inducing selfies out of Rocky Mountain National Park on Instagram, and she wanted to check it out. We can say 10/10 we'd do it again. In fact, we have. The incline is modest; the trail is clearly marked, firm and wide; and the views are the stuff of postcards.
On our first trek, we were almost entirely alone, so we could stop and gawk at the majestic sunset transformation. (See Item 1 above.) It was the Friday of Memorial Day weekend, so there was still snow at the top that prevented us from getting through the last 100 yards to Dream Lake. So we returned with the nieces and extended family a few weeks later and chose that hike again because, at just two miles, it was manageable for little legs (Nymph Lake, below, is on the route too and a possible turnaround if necessary). The small pocket of remaining snow at the top was charming for a June snowball fight, while the breathtaking view was unimpeded and unmatched.
3.) Glacier Basin Campground is a great spot to buy firewood. In addition to starting late, we somehow always cram the car to the roof, even if we're just visiting Rocky Mountain National Park for the day. Camp chairs, backpacks, boots, the dog, the dog crate, coolers, warm clothes for after sunset...it's so bad that the kid in the back seat has never seen out of the windows on this trip. Ridiculous, but true.
So it's pretty great to get firewood at our destination. Not only does it save me the angst of watching wood chips work their way into every crevice of the car's interior, but it also serves the environmentally friendly purpose of preventing non-native creepy crawlies from hitching a ride into sensitive terrain.
The campground has a small store just inside the gate. It's generally open 6-8 p.m. for firewood sales, and the nice park service people working at the booth at Glacier Basin (hello, Park Ranger Jessica!) seem happy to let you pull through and pick up a few bundles. Bring cash, and don't park in front of the camp store shed, or the less-nice woman selling the firewood will scold you.
(Remember to only make a fire in an approved fire ring and to fully extinguish it before you leave or go to sleep. We really, really don't need more wildfires in Colorado. Also, check out Pull Start Fire for an easy-peasy way to light your merry camping blaze.)
4.) Take your marshmallows to Upper Beaver Meadows Trailhead. Trying to be the hostess with the mostest when my entire family visited, I carefully researched picnic areas in Rocky Mountain National Park to determine which was most scenic, with the best tables and best bathrooms. We packed our hot dogs and beans and headed to Hidden Valley, which did, in fact, meet all of the criteria outlined above.
But it lacked one very important feature: There were no fire rings.
We had nearly resigned ourselves and the extremely disappointed kids to a fast-food dinner somewhere in Estes Park and were driving out of RMNP when I suggested a last-ditch detour to the Upper Beaver Meadows Trailhead. We bumped down the dirt road with heavy hearts, expecting one more wild goose chase, only to round the final curve and see redemption in the form of rusty rings clustered under a clump of trees.
Sure, the bathrooms were pit toilets. And there was no burbling stream or new metal tables. But we were able to roast our marshmallows and toast the family's final evening in the Rockies around a cozy crackling fire while the setting sun wrapped rays of gold around purple peaks on the horizon.
Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the most popular in the country, and for good reason. I still pinch myself every time I visit and see elk having lunch in a meadow or round a curve with a view that doesn't seem real. But that beauty can draw crowds, and the sheer size of the park means a misstep could cost precious hours driving around.
So unless you have several days to spend immersed in exploring, try our accidental Colorado trip tips for visiting Rocky Mountain National Park. And let us know if you discover some of your own. (Especially if they don't require us to get up early.)