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Travel Guide To Rocky Mountain National Park

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Sunset at the Rocky Mountain National Park

This is a guide on how to have an epic adventure at Rocky Mountain National Park. This guide is meant for people of all abilities. When I say people of all abilities I mean those with disabilities, those with physical or mental limitations, and those who don’t have any limitations at all. I like to find hikes and activities that accommodate everyone.

When to visit

Peak season 

Locals from the RMNP area say that the peak season goes from around June to October. These are the peak season months because due to the high elevation of the Rockies the snow comes early and leaves late. That being said, after visiting in the winter I was told by a lot of the locals that it’s a great place to visit all year long. However, they said that during July and August it is sometimes unbearable to leave their house to have to wait in a grocery line for 45 minutes.  That is one of the cons that was mostly talked about. The tradeoff is that the Trail Ridge Road is open during peak season. It is one of the main roads in the park when it is open and it has phenomenal views. I hope to go back and visit this park in the future.

Off Season

The beginning of the off season is when I visited this beautiful park, around the end of October/early November. It was GORGEOUS! It is a little bit harder to travel in snow through the Rockies but it was so worth it.

What to bring

Along with your regular traveling needs these were a few things that we did not regret bringing.

Hiking Boots/Trail shoes – You won’t need these on all of the trails, but you’ll be grateful for waterproof hiking boots if you’re planning on hiking during the winter. They will definitely keep your feet warmer and make your trip a lot more enjoyable.

Spikes – If you are going to be doing any hiking during the off season you NEED spikes, crampons, or microspikes. There may be some trails that you won’t use them, but it’s always better to be safe than sorry. On one of the trails we hiked we saw people attempting it and they were slipping and falling all over the place. They weren’t even able to continue on because they had no traction on the snow and ice.

Layers – Quick tip for hiking in RMNP on the off season: the more layers the better. The winds in Estes Park and the park itself gusted up to 60 mph. While we were visiting we wore layers and carried extra layers with us to prepare for more chilly weather and we did not regret it. You can always take off layers if you need to but you can’t put more on if you don’t have them.

Where to visit 

This is the breakdown of what we did on our trip to Rocky Mountain National Park. I have a list of what to see in Estes Park and then a list of what to see in the actual park.

ATV adventures 

I had only been on ATV adventures to the desert but the ATV adventure we went on just a short 20 minute drive from Estes Park was awesome! All the views of the Rockies are incredible and taking an ATV can take you to some awesome hidden gems that you wouldn’t normally see from the main road. We did a half day rental of a 4 seater Polaris RAZR from Estes Park ATV Rentals (Click here).  They gave us five hours with the ATV and a truck and trailer to pull it to our destination. Essentially 3 hours of off-roading and 1-2 hours of travel time to get to where you want to explore; the travel time all depends on where you want to explore. They were completely self guided experiences but the rental place did provide us with suggestions, maps, and a GPS in the truck. We didn’t have any issues with time but it’s always a good idea to not cut it close and be late in returning the ATV.

Stanley Hotel 

This hotel was very cool. It is known as the hotel from the Shining. Most don’t know that this is actually not the hotel where it was filmed but where Stephen King was inspired to write the book. While we were there we did a night tour and visited the Whiskey bar. I got the Red Rum Punch which was perfect. Tip for visitors, especially those coming from places with little to no elevation: the elevation can cause alcohol to hit you differently so if you’re a lightweight like me or have a strong drink it may affect you differently so remember to drink responsibly and be careful out there.

Sprague Lake

This lake is beautiful anytime of day but I highly recommend it at sunrise. It is phenomenal. This lake and Bear Lake get quite busy so I suggest going early to beat the crowds. Sprague Lake is a popular spot for spotting beautiful moose. Remember that these are wild animals and to keep yourself and your family safe. Sprague Lake also has a wheelchair accessible trail around the lake that is 0.8 miles. There are some wheelchair accessible campsites along the trail as well. If you are interested in more of my favorite wheelchair accessible trails check out my blog post here.

Bear Lake

This is one of the most popular lakes in RMNP.  One of my biggest tips I always suggest is getting into the park early so you don’t have to worry about crowds and full parking lots.  One pro of this trail is that it is accessible too wheelchairs. It is a trail for all abilities. The trail itself is 0.7 miles long.

Emerald Lake

This was one of my blood, sweat, and tears trails, minus the tears maybe because it was my birthday haha. In the off season you want to bring great trail shoes and microspikes. There are two lakes on the way to Emerald Lake called Nymph Lake and Dream Lake. Even if you can not make it all the way to Emerald Lake I promise this trail will not disappoint. It has gorgeous views of the Rockies the whole way. Beware that this trail is listed as moderate, but those not used to the elevation should be cautious.  For myself I usually struggle with my legs because of my Cerebral Palsy disability, but on my way up I had a harder time with getting out of breath with the mix of the cold and elevation instead of issues with my legs.

Trail Gems

While driving around exploring the park we enjoyed a few trails that I like to call hidden gems.  Go for a drive in and see what beautiful trails you can explore. We drove around some meadows and pulled off and went up a trail a bit to turn the corner to a gorgeous landscape. We still don’t know what that trail was called but just a short 30 minute flat trail got us to some pretty amazing views. This reminded me to slow down a little and remember to live in the moment.

Trail Ridge Road

The majority of this road is closed from mid-October to Memorial Day. This is the road that gets you to the other side of the park to Grand Lake, which is also a popular town to stay when visiting this beautiful park. When the road is closed, you can drive a small portion almost up to Rainbow Curve. There you can walk back a little ways to see some of the most gorgeous overlooks viewing the Rockies. There are many points showing you pictures and locations of the peaks.

Moraine Park 

This area is great to visit in the early morning right as the sun comes up to check out the wildlife.  You will most likely see elk and maybe even a moose or two. We also checked out the Upper Beaver trail while exploring the area. This trail was 1.1 miles. We only did a part of the trail because we were meeting friends at Sprague Lake but it was beautiful. It was also VERY windy. Many of the locals told us that the wind is pretty common, but especially in the off season. During the time of year we went it made it bitterly cold. If you have trouble with your balance already, like I do, make sure to bring trekking poles, hiking sticks, or someone to hold on to because the wind can definitely blow you over.

Visitor Centers

When I visit every park I have to stop by the visitor centers to get a stamp in my passport book. Passport To Your National Parks Book is sold online and at most of the national parks. It’s a passport book showing national parks and national monuments where you can add your stamps as you go. You can collect stamps at each of the visitor centers as well as stickers that have fun facts for each park. The visitor centers are also great spots to stop when you need to warm up or need another wheelchair accessible place to explore. I visited Beaver Meadows and Fall River visitor center on my trip to RMNP.

Where to stay

Are you a camper? Glamper? Or Lodger? I am usually a camper, but since most of my visits are in the off seasons at National Parks, especially in colder weather, I like to find deals on great lodges.

I loved our stay in the Murphy’s River Lodge in Estes Park. Murphy’s River Lodge is along the beautiful Fall River that goes through Estes Park. We stayed in a King River Room with a balcony. Staying here in any season will not disappoint. We weren’t able to sit on the balcony for too long because of the temperatures, but one evening we could hear elk right outside our balcony. We were able to safely view them from our balcony and they were just across the river from us. There were around 20 of them just walking around and it was such a cool experience.

The two things I loved most about this lodge were the balcony next to the river and the hot tub. The hot tub was really nice to relax in after a long day of hiking. They also have a continental breakfast that was the perfect on the go breakfast for heading out for our morning adventures.  They have very affordable prices for any couples or families looking to save money, and it’s so much better than I could have imagined for the price .

Where to Eat 

The first thing to know is that Estes Park is a very touristy area. Most of the locals are retirees so in the off season most things close early. Make sure to do your research and plan accordingly; we got in around 9 and the only thing that was open was Dominos. Here are a few of the spots that we enjoyed when they were open during the day:

The Rock Inn 

I highly recommend this restaurant. My husband loved the beef stroganoff. The server recommended it and it was definitely amazing. I got the Southwest chicken bowl and it was a little spicy for me, but I don’t do too well with spicy usually. It was really good, despite the heat. The restaurant itself has a cozy, lodge-like feel to it.

Twin Owls Steakhouse 

This was a bit on the more pricey side but since it was my birthday we decided to celebrate another year and an awesome day of hiking a rough trail for me to Emerald Lake. I definitely recommend them and our waitress was so kind. She gave us awesome recommendations, was quick with our needs at dinner and we just had an awesome connection with her.

You Need Pie

It’s a little crazy that we went to You Need Pie and didn’t leave with any pie haha but I promise you won’t be disappointed. We went to this adorable café and diner for breakfast. I got the half plate of biscuits and gravy and my husband got one of their popular plates, the Amalia’s 5 Star Special.

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