Driving across the vast plains of Kansas and Eastern Colorado, their sudden apparition looms like a mile-high mirage. For a flatlander, the first view of the Rocky Mountains is astonishing, but it's nothing compared to a complete immersion in the wonders of a Rocky Mountain landscape, the crown jewel of which is Rocky Mountain National Park. Alpine lakes, snowcapped peaks, meadows filled with wildflowers, crystalline mountain streams, majestic elk and bighorn sheep, midsummer days fresh enough to hike through the woods without breaking a sweat – it's enough to make one pack up and move west.
Outdoor Activities: In the warmer months, climbers scale famous cliffs and crags with names like The Diamond and Alexander's Chimney. Horseback riders make their way along the 260 miles of trails designated for stock animals, where you may also encounter the occasional llama, mule or burro packing in a party's gear. Fly fishermen flock to Fall River and Roaring River; birdwatchers comb Lumpy Ridge with their scopes and binoculars. Kids young and old accompany the rangers in guided talks.
In the wintertime, it's a whole different landscape, with a different approach to exploring it. Out come the snowshoes, sleds and skis; ranger-led guided snowshoe walks and cross-country ski expeditions can be a great way to venture out of your comfort zone with the support you need. Or you can go all-out with a horse-drawn sleigh ride; one outfitter even offers hot cocoa sleigh rides and a dinner sleigh.
Staying Around the Park: Campers be aware, this park is very popular and open campsites fill up quickly. Reservations are available for three of the five campgrounds: Moraine Park, Glacier Basin and Aspenglen. Campsites are $20 per night in the summer and $14 during the off-season. Moraine Park Campground is the only one open during the winter. Moraine Park is popular for the abundance of wildlife that frequent the meadow near the campground, including elk, mule deer and coyotes.
Unlike many national parks, there is no lodging inside the park. Estes Park has a wide variety of lodging options; the fully stocked Solitude Cabins, for example, offers wildlife viewing and a covered patio with a grill. Stonebrook Resort on Fall River is another popular choice, with a Trip Advisor certificate of excellence. Then there's the grand old Stanley, listed on the National Historic Register; this hotel served as Stephen King's inspiration for "The Shining."
Iconic Features of the Park: Longs Peak, the only "fourteener" in Rocky Mountain National Park, has called to mountaineers the world over since it was summited by the explorer who gave it his name in the 1820s, Major Stephen Long. Picturesque Bear Lake, which reflects Longs Peak in its placid waters, is another spot beloved by many.
Alberta Falls, a beautiful mountain waterfall in the Bear Lake area, is reachable by a short and very popular hike, 0.9 miles one way. Sprague Lake in the Bear Lake area is another beautiful sight, with a nice 0.5-mile stroll around the lake with beautiful views of Hallett Peak. The Colorado River Trailhead on the west side of the park near Grand Lake is another good spot, and special in that the headwaters of the Colorado River begin here.
Park Wildlife: Observing the plentiful elk, bighorn sheep, mule deer, moose and other wild creatures in these parts is the park's most popular activity. It's easy to see why; it's not hard to do, even from the seat of your car.
Elk and mule deer can be seen year-round in the park grazing in the meadows, especially at the edge of the forest and at dawn and dusk. Bighorn sheep are mainly clustered around Sheep Lakes, where you may observe them particularly in late May through June.
Moose can be seen grazing on the willows at the edge of the Colorado River, particularly in the Kawuneeche Valley. Pikas and marmots like the rocky areas at the higher elevations; listen for the short, high-pitched bark of the pika and you'll know where to look.
Water ouzels dip in and out of waterfalls – especially Ouzel Falls – and fly up and down the mountain streams. You'll know there's one nearby when you hear its call, similar to the quick, sharp clatter of two stones together.
Warning: As much as you might like to share some delicious morsels with some of these winsome creatures, don't do it. Habituation to human food makes it hard for them to survive the difficult winters and creates all sorts of other problems.
Hiking at the Park: Whether you're up for the climb of a lifetime or a relaxing lakeside stroll, you'll find it here. With 355 miles of trail and a huge variety of elevations and difficulty levels, this park offers outstanding opportunities for all kinds of hikers. Regardless of the difficulty level, prepare yourself for the altitude; acclimate yourself, protect yourself from the strong sunlight and drink plenty of water.
The signature climb here is undoubtedly Longs Peak, but it's not for beginners. Talk to a ranger or others who have done so before you attempt it.
An easier climb with equally thrilling vistas is Hallett Peak, also quite strenuous at 10 miles with an altitude gain of 3,240 feet. Your rewards will come at the Dream Lake Overlook and further up at the summit, where you'll have panoramic views of Glacier Basin, Bierstadt Lake and Sprague Lake.
If that's too much, the 4-mile Ute Trail is a great hike with plenty of panoramic views, but without the steep climb. The 3.5-mile hike to Emerald Lake is a bit steeper, taking you into the Tyndall Lake Gorge and past the beautiful Bear Lake, Nymph Lake and Dream Lake along the way.
For the whole family, the ¾-mile Lily Lake Loop is perfect, offering beautiful views of Longs Peak and Mt. Meeker and a few great picnic spots.
A great, detailed website of best hikes in the park is here; there have been many trails impacted by the severe flooding of 2013, however, so check the park service trail list and/or speak to a ranger to be sure.
Park Drives: Trail Ridge Road, the park's awe-inspiring "highway to the sky," as it's been called, offers 48 miles of sweeping panoramas; pikas and ptarmigans, bighorn sheep and grazing elk can often be seen here, and it's one of the few places in the lower 48 that Arctic-like tundra can be reached by car. You'll be in good company if you take this road during the high season, sharing the road with hundreds of thousands of other motorists. Don't get in a hurry; take your time, take advantage of the numerous pullouts and stop to smell the fresh mountain air and experience all this designated All American Road has to offer.
The Old Fall River Road, the park's other most popular drive, will be closed to vehicles this year due to flood damage – once construction begins, the road will also be closed to pedestrians and cyclists. Instead, park staff recommend the spectacular Peak to Peak Scenic Byway which lies outside but the section between Allenspark and Estes Park skirts the park.
For any questions, the public is invited to call the park's Information Office number, (970) 586-1206. "It is staffed with live people," says park spokesperson Kyle Patterson, from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.