Our visit of Rocky Mountain National Park (often abbreviated RMNP) marked the beginning of our new life waking up everyday before sunrise, and becoming experts in fighting the summer crowds in National Parks.
Rocky Mountain National Park is really, really beautiful. But RMNP is really crowded. The park —which is actually the “nationalized” section of the very long Rockies mountain range— gets 4.5 million visitors a year. More than 2/3 come during summertime, with a peak in July, exactly when we were there. Yup, I confirm that it is a busy place. Fortunately, if you start hiking more than 2 miles, you can eliminate 95% of the visitors, who are mostly doing the scenic drive only (pictured below).
Camping in Rocky Mountain NP during High Season (without any reservations)
If you go to RMNP in the summertime, every ranger will tell you it’s impossible to find a free campsite and every campground will post a sign that they are full, at any time of the day. We actually found campsites inside the park (in Moraine and Glacier Basin) but we had to change sites every day. It’s important to manage an online reservation before heading to any of the campsites. Usually, between 3 pm and 9 pm, there were some cancellations online for the following night and one or two spots were released, so we checked the booking platform frequently and we booked as soon as we saw a free spot. Also, it was easier to find availability outside of the park especially on road 7 towards South.
Hiking in RMNP: You snooze, you lose
In order to hike 9-12 miles in one day in RMNP during the summer, you must set the alarm clock at 4.30 am and get to your trailhead by 6 am. There are thunderstorms every afternoon in summertime making it dangerous to hike after 1 pm. Some trailheads get completely full at 6.30 am (specifically Bear Lake and Longs Peak in our case). To add to the difficulty, as I explained, it’s hard to find a campsite in the park exactly near your trailhead, so you have to be smart and find what’s available in the park the day before . We stayed a total of five nights and we did only two long hikes, because we needed so much flexibility (just to get network we had to drive 20 km). Of course if you like backpacking in the backcountry, this eliminates a problem, but you must know that campfires are forbidden and nights get really cold up there.
I know all of this sounds like a painful experience, and it sort of was. It was hard to monitor the campground reservation page every day to catch a last-minute cancellation, it was hard to wake up so early, driving to the trailheads still wearing pajamas. Since we’re not technically on vacation, we don’t mind, but I could not imagine doing this on a typical 1-week American vacation and I don’t recommend this to anyone on a regular schedule in the summer, unless bookings have been made one year before. We were greatly rewarded for our efforts by the most magnificent mountain landscape we’ve ever seen.
Hiking Bear Lake to Fern Lake
We completed two 10-mile day hikes, among the most beautiful hikes of our lives. The first one was Bear Lake to Fern Lake. We arrived at 6 am in Bear Lake and the parking lot was already getting full. The light at Bear Lake was unbelievable at this time of the day. This is when you can catch the perfect reflection in the lake.
Despite the hundreds of people at the trailhead, there was no one on our hike, I think everyone was going to other places. We saw a yellow-bellied marmot. It stayed here on the trail, living its life for at least 10 minutes before I stepped a little too close and it ran away. It was really awesome to share a moment of the day of the marmot.
There was snow. At some point, it got so bad that we got disoriented, but we found the trail.
At the highest point (10700 feet), the views are dramatic.
We saw a gorgeous mountain lake, lake Odessa.
Cute things live up there.
Near the end of the trail the landscape was just rocks and mini canyons.
In order to get back to our car, we took the free RMNP shuttle. We found this trail fairly easy, if we forget about the “lost in the snow” adventure. It took us 7 hours but we stopped a lot on the way.
Hike to Chasm Lake from Longs Peak Trailhead
This hike is probably the most beautiful lake hike in RMNP. It’s really awesome because you go through the tundra, there are some very dramatic views and the lake is really stunning. I had a sensation of vertigo near the lake because you can see tiny climbers on the side of the huge cliffs. The light is very “raw” and the height makes you feel somewhat dizzy. It’s not unpleasant, but it’s a strange, unusual sensation.
Ever hiked in Rocky Mountain National Park? We loved it so much we might go back, so tell me about your favorite hikes!