Rocky Mountain National Park


When Thomas Jefferson authorized the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, few United States citizens realized the Rocky Mountains existed. Now over three million people visit Rocky Mountain National Park annually, and its peaks symbolize the American West for many others. With a rugged terrain soaring over 14,000 feet, it's hard to believe this land once lay underwater, the floor of a shallow sea. The process of mountain-building began 530 million years ago and continues today. Tectonic forces crumpled Earth's crust, slowly forcing wrinkles of rock upward. Once exposed to the elements, erosion began. The mountains we see today are being carved beneath the knives of wind and water. Long before Native Americans and French fur trappers moved into the mountains, countless species of birds, plants, and mammals found homes within the three distinct ecosystems characterizing Rocky Mountain National Park. At lower elevations, pine and fir forests of the Montane ecosystem cover the slopes and shelter coyote, deer, and squirrels. Above 9,000 feet, fir and Englemann spruce dominate the subalpine landscape. At 11,500 feet, alpine tundra takes over. Fully one-third of Rocky Mountain National Park features this extremely fragile ecosystem of meadows covered with lichens and wildflowers no bigger than the end of a finger. In 1860, Joel Estes and his son Milton were the first U.S. citizens to settle the area. They built a cabin in what became Estes Park. By 1909, naturalist Enos Mills recognized that the area's resources were worth preserving from further human encroachment. He began the campaign to set aside the region as a national park. In 1915, President Woodrow Wilson created Rocky Mountain National Park, which now encompasses almost 416 square miles and features 40 miles of the Continental Divide. Even though only one-eighth the size of Yellowstone, Rocky Mountain hosts slightly more visitors per year. Beckoned by the scenic drives and miles of trails set amongst spectacular peaks, people of all ages come to the park to enjoy exploring the west's natural wonders. What to see and do: If you have only one day to spare, a drive along the 50-mile Trail Ridge Road (closed during winter) will introduce you to most major features of the park. Trail Ridge Road is America's highest continuous paved road. Start your day at either Estes Park on the eastern side or Grand Lake on the western side. Close to both towns you'll find visitor centers where you can watch introductory films and pick up important park information. Stop at Moraine Park Visitor Center for natural history exhibits. Winding your way upward through the park's three ecosystems, you'll have plenty of chances to stop at picnic areas or scenic overlooks such as Farview Curve. When you reach the 11-mile stretch of road snaking through the famous tundra landscape of Rocky Mountain, be sure to stop at Rock Cut or Forest Canyon Overlook. With the Rockies in full view, you can take a short walk on paths through the tundra, home to plant life otherwise not found outside the Arctic. Close to the road's highest elevation of 12,183 feet, the Alpine Visitor Center offers exhibits on tundra ecology as well as a welcome snack bar. Be sure to drink plenty of water and watch for signs of altitude sickness, such as headaches and feeling lightheaded. Expect to spend the entire day driving slowly, stopping at waysides, and absorbing the grandeur surrounding you. Other scenic drives include the Old Fall River Road (open from July to September), which is one way, uphill, and Bear Lake Road. Most nature enthusiasts insist that the best way to appreciate Rocky Mountain National Park's resources is by hiking or horseback riding along the park's 360 miles of trails. Eighty percent of the trails are open to horses, and several liveries, both within and outside Rocky Mountain, will help you saddle up. If you bring your bike, you must stay on paved roads. Day hikers enjoy several levels of difficulty.


1000 Highway 36
Estes Park, CO 80517


40.38665900, -105.52358200
Visit Website
(970) 586-1206

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