Top 10 Things to Know About Rocky Mountain National Park: PHOTOS

by Jon D. B.

Colorado is home to four national parks: Rocky Mountain, Mesa Verde, Great Sand Dunes, and Black Canyon of the Gunnison. But it’s the former that has become a lasting symbol of the American West’s legacy.

The origins of this land as part of the U.S. stretch back to 1803, when what is today Rocky Mountain National Park (ROMO) was acquired during the Louisiana Purchase. Over 100 years later, it would become a U.S. national park before the National Park Service was even founded.

Today, ROMO stretches a whopping 415 square miles, encompassing 265,761 acres in total. And all that land holds remarkable stories, perseverance, and diversity as #10 on our Top 10 illustrates.

10. There’s a Whole Lot More to the National Park than Just Rocky Mountains

Views while ascending and descending the Rocky Mountain National Park’s Alpine Visitor Center, in Grand Lake, Colorado, on July 18, 2017. It is the highest visitor center in the National Park System. (Photo credit: Getty Images archives)

ROMO is, of course, famous for showcasing the Rocky Mountains. But the park is incredibly diverse outside of craggy, towering peaks. Head to the subalpine for remarkable evergreen forests. Pristine lakes, rivers, and creeks run throughout the park. Wildflowers paint the meadows and fields in abundance.

Views while ascending and descending the Rocky Mountain National Park’s Alpine Visitor Center, in Grand Lake, Colorado, on July 18, 2017. (Photo credit: Getty Images Archives)

And then there’s the alpine tundra ecosystem, a seemingly-barren land above the elevation where trees can grow in Colorado (over 11,500-feet above sea level). You can see this divide for yourself, alongside much of this magnificent landscape, from the highest viewpoint in the National Park Service (above).

This is ROMO’s Alpine Visitor Center. Views from the AVC are unparalleled in the park. From here, you can see the Mummy Range, the Fall River Valley, Trail Ridge, the Never Summer, and Medicine Bow range.

9. Trail Ridge Road: America’s Highest Continuous Paved Highway

Rocky Mountain National Park, Trail Ridge Road from near Lava Cliffs. (Photo by: Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

One of the best ways to take in this diversity is the park’s historic Trail Ridge Road. Reaching just over 12,000 feet, it is the highest continuous paved highway in the United States. At the time of its completion in 1932, it was hailed as a “scenic wonder road of the world,” and holds up to this moniker today.

Take to Trail Ridge Road for pristine mountain views and one of the best drives in the NPS system. Traversing this 48-mile stretch allows visitors to climb over 4,000 feet in elevation in mere minutes. The road connects historic Estes Park on ROMO’s east side to Grand Lake on the west, and is a highlight of the Rocky Mountain experience.

8. Rocky Mountain Provides Primo Wildlife Watching

Elk resting on mountain top in Rock Mountain National Park. (Photo by John Greim/LightRocket via Getty Images)

For many, Rocky Mountain National Park is a premiere wildlife watching destination. Famous for its elk and bighorn sheep, ROMO is also home to moose and other terrific megafauna. In total, park lands are home to over 60 species of mammals alone. Black bears and mountain lions call the park home, too, so be sure to abide by park wildlife safety.

Birders will also find plenty to keep them busy here. 280 bird species have been recorded in the park. Fascinatingly, only one reptile makes its home in the park: the garter snake.

But the undisputed champion is the insect family, with thousands of species calling the Rocky Mountains home. A surprisingly large number of butterflies populate the park and can be seen alongside bountiful wildflowers.

Sadly, grizzly bears and wolves were exterminated from the ROMO area by hunters, poachers, and the U.S Government as the 20th century closed in.

There’s one animal that’s become a famous park resident that shouldn’t be, however.

7. Mountain Goats are Not Native to Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain goat (Oreamnos americanus) female foraging in rocky slope of mountainside. (Photo by: Arterra/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The one species that’s become associated with the park that shouldn’t be is the Rocky Mountain mountain goat. Despite its name, this is a harmful invasive species. Like Grand Teton, ROMO hosts hunting of mountain goats to prevent their decimation of the native bighorn sheep through disease and habitat/resource competition.

It’s the awe-inspiring bighorn sheep, instead, that are the symbol of Rocky Mountain National Park. Around 400 reside in the park, so you’re sure to see one of these giants during your trip. At up to 300 pounds, these heavyweights are the largest of wild sheep.

6. The Majority of the Park is Designated Wilderness

Two Perseid meteors (L&R) are seen near the Andromeda Galaxy (2nd-R) and the Milky Way (C) over Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado in the early morning hours of August 12, 2018. (Photo by STAN HONDA/AFP via Getty Images)

In total, an astounding 250,000 acres of Rocky Mountain National Park was designated as wilderness by Congress back in 2009. This move came to protect the wild beauty of the park’s mountains, meadows, forests, waterways, alpine peaks, and tundra.

This absence of human activity throughout the majority of the park also means very little light pollution, making ROMO a fantastic Dark Skies stay. Camp in the park at night for brilliant views of the stars and our Milky Way Galaxy (above).

To keep the entire park pristine, even in developed areas, visitors should always abide by NPS’ Leave No Trace principles.

5. Don’t Dismiss a Winter-Weather Excursion

People walk near the Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.(Photo by Kevin Moloney/Getty Images)

Most visitors come to ROMO in the summer, and we’d never advise against it, as it is a truly beautiful time in the park. But winter weather brings a true change of scenery.

Visiting in the off season means far less people surrounding you. This makes for treks through silent forests powdered with pristine snow. The park’s gorgeous lakes, too, completely change to thickly-iced wonders.

During winter weather in ROMO, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and sledding are also great ways to experience all that the park has to offer in winter.

4. Rocky Mountain National Park’s Tallest Peak

Colorado, Rocky Mountains National Park, View Of Longs Peak. (Photo by Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Want to witness the tallest mountain peak in ROMO? That distinction belongs to Longs Peak, the 14,259-foot wonder. Longs Peak provides a true challenge for mountaineers, but is just as gorgeous from below.

Helicopter flies by close-up of Longs Peak during the operation on Emerald Lake trail in Rocky Mountain National Park. (Photo By Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Surprisingly, Rocky Mountain isn’t the best park for towering peaks, however. Even in Colorado alone, Longs Peak is only the 14th highest peak in the state.

3. The Continental Divide Trail

Climbers help each other at the beginning of the Homestretch with the majestic view of the park and the continental divide behind them. (Photo By Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

The Continental Divide sounds important and impressive, and that’s because it is certainly both. Visitors can travel a 30-mile-long stretch of this North American boundary via the Continental Divide Trail. This trail runs right through the middle of the park, and splits it into its Eastern and Western sections.

Hundreds of thousands flock to the CDT each year, and it remains one of ROMO’s most popular attractions. It gives visitors the opportunity to walk along the actual Great Divide: the “border” that runs the tops of the Rocky Mountains.

Colorado, Rocky Mountain National Park, Continental Divide Sign. (Photo by Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The Great, or Continental Divide, determines whether the waters of North America flow West or East. This, as the ROMO sign above shows, means park waters will either flow as Pacific Ocean drainage to the west, or Atlantic Ocean drainage to the east.

2. Indigenous Peoples of the Rocky Mountains

The seven great Cheyenne and Arapaho chiefs in Denver in 1863 to negotiate with the governor of Colorado, United States of America, drawing by Janet Lange (1815-1872), Journal of geography, travel and costumes, Volume X, Issue 2, July 9, 1868. (Getty Images Archives)

Like the majority of northern North America, the land that is now Rocky Mountain National Park was inhospitable for thousands of years due to the last major Ice Age. Humans entered ROMO lands around 11,000-years-ago, utilizing the valleys and mountains.

In the last several thousand years, Indigenous Americans would live in and travel through this stretch of Colorado extensively. The Ute tribe favored the green valleys of the area, alongside tundra meadows, and pristine lakes, though it was never a place they called a permanent home.

The Arapaho, Cheyenne, Comanche and further Indigenous Tribes lived and traveled through these lands as well as the Ute. When European settlers came to Colorado, the Utes dominated the area. And they did so until the late 1700s, with the introduction of horses and firearms by Euro-American immigrants drastically changing the Indigenous framework of the Rocky Mountains.

For a complete and fascinating history of Rocky Mountain’s Indigenous Peoples, see NPS’s breakdown here.

1. How Rocky Mountain National Park was Formed

Trail Ride at Rocky Mountain National Park ca. early 1900s. (Photo by: HUM Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

By the year 1900, decades of ranchers, hunters, miners, and homesteaders settling Colorado began to bring in tourists. At the same time, the national conservation movement (led by Theodore Roosevelt) had begun preserving America’s vast wildernesses.

This led to the creation of Estes Park via the Protective and Improvement Association. But it would be Enos Mills, a naturalist, nature guide, and lodge owner, who championed the creation of the nation’s tenth national park, Rocky Mountain National Park, in 1909.

“In years to come when I am asleep beneath the pines, thousands of families will find rest and hope in this park,” Mills wrote. After years of lobbying, writing, and political maneuvers, Mills got his wish on January 26, 1915 when President Woodrow Wilson signed the Rocky Mountain National Park Act.

For more on these early years of U.S. national parks, see An Outsider’s Quick History of the National Park Service next.