Rocky Mountain National Park

By Joanna Stensland

Image by Eric Stensland

An Accessible Mountain Wilderness for Young and Old

In 2016, Rocky Mountain National Park, or “Rocky” as it is affectionately names by locals, was the fourth most visited US national park with over 4 million visitors. An easy driving distance from Denver and the cities of Colorado's Front Range, it is popular both as a day destination and as an annual vacation choice. With its majestic mountains, abundant wildlife, diverse terrain and year-round activities, it attracts families, couples and individuals of all ages.

Geography and Environment

This spectacular park is divided into two distinct regions separated by the Continental Divide. The west side, bordered by the quaint little town of Grand Lake, tends to be more moist, with lush green forests and trails that meander by streams and brooks. Winter snowfall tends to be heaviest on the west side, although winter sport enthusiasts can enjoy backcountry skiing or snowshoeing in many areas. The entrance to the east side of Rocky is through the small town of Estes Park which sits below Longs Peak, the highest mountain in the park and one of Colorado's '14-ers', reaching 14,259 feet in elevation. The east side tends to have a drier climate but boasts many beautiful alpine lakes set against the backdrop of impressive granite peaks. With over 400 miles of hiking trails ranging from easy to extreme, there is no shortage of ways to explore this incredible wilderness. You can cross directly from the west side to the east side only in the summer when Trail Ridge Road, the highest continuous paved road in the United States, is finally cleared of its snow.


Many people come to Rocky Mountain National Park hoping to catch a glimpse of some of the wildlife that make this paradise their home. In the fall, the elk are in rut. The male elk with their impressive racks delight visitors with their distinctive bugle that can be heard across the meadows and valleys while they spar with other males to protect their harems. Moose, another large mammal of the park, are more frequently found in the grasslands of the west side. The wildlife of Rocky can be unpredictable and at times dangerous, and it is always advisable to give any large animal plenty of space, always watching from a safe distance. Visitors who respect the wildlife and their territory will often be rewarded by a truly unique and memorable experience. 

Other common large animals in the park are deer, big horn sheep and occasionally coyote. Even though black bear and mountain lion also inhabit regions of Rocky, seeing one is rare. That said, if you are hiking with small children, it is wise to take the extra precaution of keeping them close by on the trail. If you are coming with children, the RMNP Junior Ranger program is exceptional and children can enjoy many different and fun educational presentations. Stop in at one of the park's visitors centers for more information. 


Rocky Mountain National Park is a climber's paradise. With its dramatic peaks and rocky terrain, there is no shortage of world-class climbing routes. It is not an unusual sight to meet climbers on the trail with their ropes and crampons or large bouldering mats. Watching climbers on routes such as The Diamond on Longs Peak or above Emerald Lake on Mount Hallett can be a fun way to wile away a few hours.

If you are looking for activities that involve your feet firmly planted on terra firma, there are guided ranger walks and talks about the flora and fauna and different aspects of the park environment, as well as workshops on photography, picnics by picturesque lakes and not to mention the spectacular drive over Trail Ridge Road where you will feel like you’re on top of the world. In winter, snowshoeing is a popular activity on both sides of the park. The two bordering towns of Grand Lake and Estes Park also offer their own amusements. Estes Park, being the slightly larger town, boasts many family friendly activities, such as bumper boats, big slides, swimming, etc. A new recreation center will be completed sometime in 2018 expanding even further the offering of activities. Both towns have large lakes where you can walk, fish or sail. In Grand Lake, the lake has a stretch of sandy beach popular with families. You can also spend some delightful time wandering the art galleries and shops in both places. In Grand Lake be sure to stop by Studio 8369 and in Estes Park the “Images of Rocky Mountain National Park” gallery where you will see stunning images of the area.


The Ute and the Arapahoe were some of the first residents of the region. Then in 1819 Stephen Harriman Long, from the Army Corps of Engineers led an exhibition to the area and saw what looked like the highest peak of the area, a peak that was subsequently named “Longs Peak”. In 1859 Joel Estes was on a hunting trip with his son and discovered this region, where it appeared “no white man had been before us”. The following year he brought his family and settled in the area. Later, writers like Isabella Bird (“A Ladies Life in the Rocky Mountains”) made the area well-known. Rocky Mountain National Park was established in 2015 as the result of efforts by Enos Mills and others to preserve this wilderness.

Joanna Stensland has lived in Estes Park for 13.5 years with her husband Erik and son Luke. The accompanying photo is courtesy of Erik, who is a photographer with his own gallery in downtown Estes Park called Images of Rocky Mountain National Park. They all love to hike and explore the beautiful wilderness on their doorstep.