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Photo courtesy © James Frank - jamesfrank.com

Visit Rocky Mountain National Park

Experience nature this fall at one of the most popular parks in the United States—it’s in your own backyard.

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When we took our two boys camping for the first time, I picked Moraine Park Campground solely for the flushable toilets. I was newish to Colorado, and I didn’t know much about Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP), a 415-square-mile reserve claiming some of our nation’s most unique subalpine and alpine environments. Years later, Moraine is still my family’s favorite place for a campout, and Rocky Mountain National Park is our go-to spot for an easy, outdoorsy day trip. The experience is especially memorable on a crisp September day, when bull elk bugle in the meadows and changing aspen leaves brighten the mountainside.

Get Your Bearings

First things first: RMNP has two entrances. Access the park from the east (Estes Park) or west (Grand Lake) side. Both offer ample opportunity for wildlife viewing, leaf peeping, and fall hiking. From Denver, Grand Lake is a longer drive than Estes Park, but families who head west are rewarded with shorter lines at the entrance station.

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Be Prepared

At its lowest points, the park sits roughly 7,800 feet above sea level—though some points reach more than 12,000 feet. “Make sure to give yourself time to acclimate to the altitude,” says public affairs officer Kyle Patterson. Hydrate, even when temperatures are cool, and pack plenty of layers during fall visits. If you’re traveling with kids, carrying snacks is always a good idea.

Arrive Early

RMNP is the third most visited national park in the United States, with more than 4.5 million tourists annually. From May through October, the park draws big crowds from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. most days, meaning you’ll likely encounter full parking lots, congested roads, busy trails, and long wait times at entrance stations. What’s more, park staff restricts vehicle access in three specific areas during peak times: the Bear Lake Road corridor, the Wild Basin area, and Alpine Visitor Center. A little planning makes a trip with (impatient) children way more enjoyable. In September, when visitation is 50 percent higher on weekends, explore during a weekday, schedule permitting. “Hiking early or late is important,” adds Patterson, encouraging families to utilize trails before 10 a.m. or after 3 p.m.—keep an eye on the weather forecast.

Hit the Trails

With more than 300 miles of trail, it’s hard for active families to get bored. Introducing your children to hiking? Try the Coyote Valley Trail, a flat and stroller-accessible mile-long trek along the Colorado River, on the park’s west side. The trailhead for the Holzwarth Historic Site is located 7.4 miles north of the Grand Lake entrance; this 1-mile out-and-back footpath crosses a meadow and ends at a historic dude ranch. The hike to Cub Lake—departing from Moraine Park—is a fantastic intermediate hike for families, meandering 2.3 miles (one way) to a scenic lake.

Hear Elk Bugle

With bighorn sheep, moose, and elk, RMNP’s “large-animal” population draws tourists worldwide. There are 60 species of mammals, not to mention oodles of birds, amphibians, fish, and insects. In the fall, though, it’s all about the bull elk that bugle—or call—during mating season. As temperatures begin to drop, elk are often visible in the meadows at Moraine and Horseshoe parks, and in the Kawuneeche Valley. (Park staff at entrance stations can point you in the right direction.) “The best times to watch elk are during dusk and dawn,” says Patterson. She suggests dawn, since dusk is a much more popular viewing time.

Start Your Engine

When I’m immersed in nature, the last thing I usually want to do is get in my car. But the 48-mile drive between the east and west sides of the park, along Trail Ridge Road, is worth it for the unparalleled views. The highest continuous paved road in the United States, there are plenty of overlooks where families can stop to stretch their legs while observing the park’s unique tundra. The 1-mile round-trip hike on Toll Memorial Trail, accessible from Trail Ridge Road, is always a fun trek. The top-of-the-world views, spanning a variety of mountain ranges, will inspire you to make this iconic park a regular family destination.

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Check it Out:
1000 U.S. Hwy. 36, Estes Park.
Need to Know:
While certain roads and facilities may be closed seasonally, the park is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. There are several visitor centers throughout the park; hours vary by location and season, so check online for details.
Cost:
It’s $25 for a single-day automobile pass—or consider purchasing an annual pass for $70. Save time at the gate by buying your pass in advance online.

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