Road Trip to Rocky Mountain National Park

Find yourself in a Western frontier

Almost daily I find myself thinking not about time travel, but about time and travel. Now in my mid-50s, I can look back in time and recall cross-country road trips with my family in the 1970s, spending half of 1985 on a post-college backpacking trek across Europe, and taking off on my first of many motorcycle tours of the United States in 1987. I’ve embarked on hundreds of road trips that I can still visualize with crystal clarity.

I became so passionate about traveling that it became my career. While my friends were collecting stuff, I was collecting experiences. Now I see people from their late-teens and into their 30s are on a similar journey as they pursue adventures, not antiques. Millions of millennials—as well as a growing number of couples, families, and seniors—have realized life is a one-way trip, and they need to pack it full with some unforgettable experiences. For that, I recommend packing up for a road trip to Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park.

Wild in the country

My favorite American journeys are epic voyages of discovery that take me from one region of the US to the next, from one coast to the other. On those longer cross-country tours, it’s thrilling to watch the verdant green east of the Mississippi River give way to the golden fields of the Midwest, and then, down the road, seeing the most exciting visual of all as the Rocky Mountains appear on the horizon. The result of 80 million years of volcanoes, glacial erosion, and geological uplifts, the chain runs more than 3,000 miles north to south with elevations approaching 15,000 feet. While this daunting monumental range was enough to turn westward-bound settlers back in their tracks, today’s travelers don’t see them as an obstacle. Instead, they’re an invitation.

And the gateway to the West is Rocky Mountain National Park.

Courtesy of the National Park Service, more than 400 square miles of rugged wilderness have been preserved here, with an additional thousand-plus miles protected in adjacent lands. Aside from five visitor centers (only one of which, Alpine, has a seasonal snack bar), this is primarily a frontier where changing landscapes range from subalpine fir trees and alpine tundra to small glaciers and, near the peaks, permanent snowfields.

Come here and you’ll be in a wilderness where black bears, bighorn sheep, elk, deer, moose, coyotes, and cougars roam. Overhead are eagles, hawks, and nearly 300 other species of birds that inspired the Audubon Society to name the park a high-priority Global Important Bird Area. Countless streams course across the land, 150 lakes—including high-altitude alpine lakes—shimmer in the sunlight, and more than 70 named peaks reach above 12,000 feet. Amidst a palette of green are colorful wildflowers and snow-capped peaks.

And this land is your land.

Plentiful overlooks allow you to catch your breath before taking it away again with the beauty of majestic vistas.

East meets west

For me, the best part of a road trip is the sense of freedom it offers. As a motorcyclist, that sensation cranks up all the way to 11 when riding the Trail Ridge Road (US 34) across Rocky Mountain National Park. America’s highest continuous paved road ties together the two towns that anchor the park—Estes Park to the east and Grand Lake to the west. In the 50 miles between them, the road—built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps—ascends to its highest elevation at 12,183 feet.

What I love about this road is that it’s like paved adrenaline; a coiled spring that rises and falls, twists, turns, snaps, crackles, and pops with hairpin switchbacks and sharp angles. Heart-thumping sheer drops beside the road will make you want to hug the centerline even more tightly. Plentiful overlooks allow you to catch your breath before taking it away again with the beauty of majestic vistas.

Why is this road so amazingly kinetic? Credit one of the park’s most prominent natural wonders: The Continental Divide—the backbone of America. The Trail Ridge Road crosses the divide at Milner Pass (elevation 10,758 feet) so you’ll see the point where rains falling in the west eventually reach the Pacific, while rains on the east drain into rivers and drift to the Atlantic. Further adding to the park’s appeal, cutting across these rugged peaks are 30 miles of the 3,100-mile Continental Divide National Scenic Trail. With altitudes ranging between 8,000 and 11,500 feet, the thin air, tough terrain, and unpredictable weather make this hike a strenuous challenge for any traveler.

The story of the rest

Even off the trail, never forget that you are in an expansive wilderness where, aside from the road and rest areas, not much has changed in the last few thousand years. I found this out when I realized there’s something missing in this park.

I’ve been to Yosemite National Park. I’ve been to Yellowstone, Death Valley, Grand Canyon, and Zion national parks. I’ve stayed in each of them, but I’ve never stayed at Rocky Mountain National Park. That’s not because I didn’t want to. It’s because—unlike other national parks where you can find simple conveniences like food and lodging—this park remains largely as nature intended, and that means there are no hotels.

For me, that’s a challenge. When I’m on the road, I can be pushed to the limit from dawn to dusk, but after that I want a cold beer and a warm bed. But if you’re the type of explorer ready to stay the night, you’ll have to be ready to do it at one of five campgrounds or, if you’re an experienced adventure traveler, at one of dozens of wilderness camping areas where you can pitch a tent in the shadow of a mountain peak, among boulders on a rocky plain, or in the shade of fir trees beside a tranquil lake. You’ll have to apply for a wilderness camping permit before you set off into the backcountry, and if you want to reserve a spot for tent or RV camping in one of the park’s five campgrounds, do it well in advance since only three accept advance reservations: Aspenglen, Glacier Basin, and Moraine Park. The others—Longs Peak and Timber Creek—are first-come, first-served.

Whether you camp out or stay in Estes Park; whether you tackle the Trail Ridge Road on a bicycle, motorcycle, or in the comfort of a climate-controlled car; or whether you set off to find solitude on trails that lead into the thick forests, you’ll find much of the beauty of Rocky Mountain National Park is in its ability to accommodate travelers of every stripe.

Remember this: As long as you’re ready to fill your life with as many enriching experiences as possible, at Rocky Mountain National Park, you’re in the right place.