Readers’ Choice: Rocky Mountain National Park, Mapped
Colorado has four astonishing natural parks, each one with its own charm. But to find the best in the state we turned to our readers.
The choice was clear: Rocky Mountain National Park wins the state crown. An impressive 56.7 percent of people voted for this park, with Mesa Verde coming in second.
Spanning 415 square miles, the gigantic park simply has too much to do. Here are the essential spots you definitely don't want to miss.
A Map of the Best Things to Do in Rocky Mountain National Park
Use this Rocky Mountain National Park map to plan a grand trip filled with lakes, wildlife and, of course, mountains.
Alpine Visitor Center
Visitor centers aren't usually exciting spots within national parks. But this is the highest of all centers in the country, and it's surrounded by Alpine mountains that spend much of the year covered in snow.
The center is one of the best spots along the scenic Alpine Ridge Road, which crosses the Continental Divide. Plus, you can also start the short and sweet Alpine Ridge trail right from the center.
One of the most striking waterfalls in the park, Chasm is also popular because of its accessibility. To see it, you won't have to sweat it out on a hike.
Instead, drive along Old Fall River Road, and stop at the Chasm Falls viewpoint. From here, you'll enjoy all of the scenery without the hard work.
Rocky Mountain National Park has so many gorgeous lakes, you could spend an entire trip just checking each one off your list. We like Gem Lake for its relative calmness. Unlike others in the park, this one doesn't get as many visitors, despite its obvious physical qualities.
To get here, you'll have to do a moderate 3.5-mile hike. Don't worry, the views along the way are so worth it.
Forest Canyon Overlook
While driving Trail Ridge Road, you'll have the opportunity to stop and take in the surrealness of the Rocky Mountains. Make sure you stop at Forest Canyon Overlook, a star in the overlook show.
It towers at about 11,700 feet above the ground, granting visitors views of Longs Peak, Hayden Gorge, Gorges Lake and more.
Given the national park's altitude, hiking can be challenging, even for fit people. While you get acclimated to the height, you find easy hiking trails at lower altitudes. One of the best is to the top of Deer Mountain.
Located near Estes Park, the mountain is easy to get to. A 6-mile (roundtrip) hike will get you to the peak, from where you'll see Morraine Park and the famous Longs Peak.
Estes Park Aerial Tramway
Yes, yes, the point of visiting a national park is to immerse in nature. But, sometimes, that's just not possible for different reasons. Luckily, not being able to head out into the wilderness doesn't mean missing out on Colorado's best national park. Instead, take the aerial tramway up to the top of Prospect Mountain.
The ride is about $16 for adults and takes less than four minutes. Once at the summit, you can hike several easy trails or enjoy the panoramic views from the cafe.
Easily the most-visited and well-known lake in all of Rocky Mountain National Park, Bear Lake is a must-see spot. It's very easy to get to it from a nearby parking lot, and the trail around it is completely flat.
As an intro to the park or a hike with small kids, it's absolutely ideal. Plus, the views you get from it are amazing — prepare to make many people jealous on social media.
Unlike Bear Lake, Sky Pond doesn't get as much attention as it should. The main reason for this is that it takes a lot of work to get here. The strenuous 9.5-mile is made even harsher by the altitude. Many people simply don't have it in them.
But those who can push themselves enough get to cross through waterfalls, rivers and alpine lakes, all while enjoying incredible views of the Rocky Mountains. Of course, the best is saved for last. As you come up to Sky Pond, you'll see its dark emerald water contrast with the dark rock formation known as Shark's Tooth because of its jagged sharpness.
Colorado has 58 Fourteeners, or mountains whose peak rises over 14,000 feet. Longs Peak may just be the most coveted one, with hiking enthusiasts drooling over the possibility of making it to its 14, 259-foot summit.
To do so, you'll have to do a 15-mile hike that is best left to experts. Much of the way will be in snow or ice, so proper equipment and training are necessary. Of course, there are no rules that say you have to make it to the top. If you want to see why our readers chose Rocky Mountain as the best park in the state, you can hike part of it and get some truly unbelievable scenery.
Grand Lake isn't exaggerating with its name. This large body of water gives its name to a small town that's surrounded by Rocky Mountain National Park on all sides. You can easily access it from this town located on the park's west side, renting equipment for paddle boarding and other water sports. Or you can get to it from inside the park.
As far as wilderness goes, this is one of the most "civilized" parts of the park. But because of its size, you are also likely to find a spot where there is quiet. In fact, animal sightings are fairly common, so keep on the lookout for elk and moose.