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Colorado Mountains: RMNP via Trail Ridge Road

Colorado Mountains: RMNP via Trail Ridge Road
Glorious Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado!

A Rocky Mountain National Park Escape… 

In July, I became bedraggled — a bedraggledom born from changing the hundredth diaper, packing the thousandth lunch, and grading the ten thousandth essay. (No lie! I can show you the math.)

Panting, I whipped open a cheap flight search engine and spurred it into motion. To where could I escape for a two day slap of wake-me-out-of-this-grind adventure, paying less than the price of three days of double daycare?

In which town did I have a friend with an open couch? What visual would contrast with Boston enough to snap me out of my funk?

Visit Rocky Mountain National Park, CO! Tips on RMNP Colorado Mountains day trip itinerary by car: Trail Ridge Road, Alpine Visitor Center, & Sprague Lake hike. #colorado #rmnp #rockymountains #hiking #nationalparks
Those mountains don’t look like Boston…

The answer glowed gold in its discount fare glory:

Colorado Mountains! RMNP!

For those not in the know, RMNP stands for Rocky Mountain National Park, which sits 90 minutes from Denver. With 415 square miles, 100 peaks over 12,000 feet, popularity with more than 4 million visitors a year, and 300 miles of hiking trails, that park would be a dream to visit. Even better (and money-saving), I had several friends in nearby Boulder, CO I was longing to see!

What luck: The flight to DEN was bargain basement cheap. I booked it, pulled more strings than a shag carpet to arrange childcare, then set off on a voyage of renewal via mountains…

Flexing bicep muscles in Colorado Mountains: RMNP
The Rockies gave me my strength back.

From Denver, CO to Boulder, to Estes Park

Giddy from the budget plane ride, I touched down, plopped my backpack at the house of my friend Oliver (of Havana, Cuba travel fame) in Boulder, and we set off to Estes Park: the “Gateway to the Rockies“.

In addition to stuffing a turkey sandwich in my mouth, I spent most of my time in Estes Park snapping photos of signs with the word “Estes” on them and texting them to my father-in-law who is named… Estes! (Yes, you may remember him from our Watkins Glen State Park, NY episode.)

Sprague Lake: easy hike in the Colorado Mountains of RMNP.
Sprague Lake: a lovely, easy hike in RMNP.

Driving into Rocky Mountain National Park

Satiated with Estes-themed photos and turkey, we I revved up Oliver’s truck to enter RMNP. Because it was July and high season, going was slow. Expect an anticipation-amassing wait to enter the gates, friends… but the good news is that once you’re in the park, driving is clear.

Let’s talk about this “driving” business for a moment, as it pertains to nature. Now, I’m all about cheat-summiting mountains by motoring up them (as we gleefully did in El Yunque and Mount Greylock), but for some reason, I was shocked by the amount one can see via car in Rocky Mountain National Park.

In fact, just as those rocky rocks of mountains in RMNP are historic, so are the roads that wind through them. Let’s take a mosey through the facts behind those scenic-as-heck roads…

Visit Rocky Mountain National Park, CO! Tips on RMNP Colorado Mountains day trip itinerary by car: Trail Ridge Road, Alpine Visitor Center, & Sprague Lake hike. #colorado #rmnp #rockymountains #hiking #nationalparks
Magenta flowers of Rocky Mountain National Park.

Starting the Loop: Old Fall River Road

Since neither Oliver nor I relish backtracking, my friend decided we would make a loop: Drive in via Old Fall River Rd., stop at the Alpine Visitor Center, then go back on Trail Ridge Road, with a short hike around Sprague Lake. (See the RMNP map here.)

Now, a note about Old Fall River Road: They’re not kidding about the “old” part. Created in 1920, this 11-mile gravel motor path has more switchbacks than the udon noodles my daughter dropped on the floor last night.

There are no guard rails, the speed limit is 15 miles per hour, and the path is only open July through September. As the National Park Service charmingly states, “Old Fall River Road is not for the impatient.”

RMNP: Colorado mountains
There’s a reason over 4 million people visit RMNP each year!

The Toilets of Rocky Mountain National Park

After several hours where we deliciously mixed mini-hikes (the highlight being Chasm Falls) with driving, we made it to the Alpine Visitor Center. What a spot! What views! We drank it in with our eyes and souls… then realized we’d also literally drank so much water that we needed to use the toilets.

Fun facts about the more than 260 toilets in RMNP which the staff cleans daily: according to the NPS site, there are volunteer positions open to help scrub those mountainous loos! So epic.

However the amazingness does not cease there. Regarding the backcountry composting commodes of RMNP, the National Park Service explains, “There are park employees who spend as much as 75% of their time during the summer hiking with two llamas to the toilets to shovel them out (and pack out the waste).”

WHAT?! I have been known to love on a llama and alpaca farm or two, but I never imagined a toilet llama brigade existed! But I’m sure glad they do.

Looking at the view of Colorado mountains in RMNP
Thinking pensively about RMNP’s lavatory llamas.

Educational Resources about RMNP for Teachers

How did I know all these succulent tidbits about the toilets and loo llamas of Rocky Mountain National Park? Why the NPS has kindly assembled a treasure trove of RMNP educational resources for teachers!

Like the famed Fallingwater House in Pennsylvania, it turns out that RMNP offers teacher residencies. It also offers workshops, field trips, professional development, learning resources for remote study, and more.

If you’re a teacher like me, do explore those opportunities. If funding is an issue and RMNP doesn’t cover all costs, there are a number of teacher scholarships such as Fund for Teachers, which can sometimes pay for travel professional development. (Yes, that’s a link to my other site, which focuses on teacher travel!)

Visit Rocky Mountain National Park, CO! Tips on RMNP Colorado Mountains day trip itinerary by car: Trail Ridge Road, Alpine Visitor Center, & Sprague Lake hike. #colorado #rmnp #rockymountains #hiking #nationalparks
Trail Ridge Road is the famous and stunning backbone of RMNP.

Trail Ridge Road: Backbone of RMNP

We waved goodbye to the Alpine Visitor Center and turned the truck onto Old Fall River Road’s flashier, smoother, and higher-up cousin: Trail Ridge Road! You may know this route from its distinction of being the highest continuous paved highway in America.

Completed in 1932, the 48-mile road reaches 12,000 feet in elevation, and according to the Department of the Interior fact sheet, has motorists climb 4,000 feet in minutes. You may want to pack some sucking candy or gum for your ear popping.

Visit Rocky Mountain National Park, CO! Tips on RMNP Colorado Mountains day trip itinerary by car: Trail Ridge Road, Alpine Visitor Center, & Sprague Lake hike. #colorado #rmnp #rockymountains #hiking #nationalparks
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A Warning about Wildlife: Keep your Distance

Rocky Mountain National Park is teeming with wildlife, including the fellow I photographed, above. Talking to friends, some of their favorite memories of RMNP are of just sitting and watching animals for hours.

That said, it has come to my attention that national parks are having a big problem lately with people trying to get too cozy with the fauna, especially with the aim of getting crazy photos. Don’t do it! Animals are animals, not dolls to cater to shenanigans, and pain can ensue if this truth is not acknowledged.

Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado
Look at the angle of that slope…

An Easy, Scenic Hike: Sprague Lake

Moving on to less potentially painful and more delightful points. As we closed the driving loop via Trail Ridge Road (passing such magical names as “Lava Cliffs”, “Rainbow Curve”, and “Hidden Valley”), Oliver asked, “Do you have energy for a short, nice hike?”

Now, we’d been in the car most of the day, and I was ashamed to admit that, despite the fact that I was getting fatigued, I really hadn’t walked further than a few trots to a photo pose spot. “Let’s do it,” I declared, glad we’d have at least one hike under our belt from this whirlwind tour, and that my workout plans would remain at least partially intact.

Oliver turned right on Bear Lake Road and rolled us up to Sprague Lake, named for Abner Sprague who, in 1939, was the first person to pay the $3 admission fee to enter RMNP. This lake offers a half-mile walk on a level, lovely circuit, and I’d highly recommend this spot for visitors of more impaired mobility, or of generations (young or senior) who want a doable jaunt. Do watch your timing, however, as we arrived in the thick of families parking to picnic, and it was difficult to snag a spot.

Sprague Lake in the Colorado mountains of RMNP
Sprague Lake, right before we got rained on.

What is Too Short a Visit to Rocky Mountain National Park?

As we drove out of Rocky Mountain National Park with the sunset, my head was spinning. Did I really just see all of that? A single scene from that park could be stared at for hours, yet we’d zipped through masterpiece after masterpiece of Mother Nature. Had we done it wrong by going so quickly?

The reality is no. I’m a mother of two kids, with two jobs, and had two days in the Denver area. I could either see what I could of RMNP in a day, or not see it at all. The visit was 100% worth it. WHEN I visit again, I will focus on going in depth in just one longer hike, but having this initial overview will serve me well to give a conceptual framework… and I’ll have the memories and photos from this flash visit forever.

RMNP has Colorado mountains galore
The layers of color and texture in Rocky Mountain National Park swirl the soul.

So what about YOU?

Have you visited Rocky Mountain National Park? What sage advice would you add to my rapid overview? Which hikes, overlooks, and activities do you most enjoy in RMNP? What should be people be aware of? If you’ve visited the Pacific Northwest, how do you feel the lakes and mountains near Bend, OR compare?

What about the surrounding region by RMNP? Is there a place nearby you’d recommend to stay? (I adored Boulder, and we were able to do one of the best Boulder hikes around.) Do you recommend fun towns to visit close to RMNP? Do share!

Visit Rocky Mountain National Park, CO! Tips on RMNP Colorado Mountains day trip itinerary by car: Trail Ridge Road, Alpine Visitor Center, & Sprague Lake hike. #colorado #rmnp #rockymountains #hiking #nationalparks
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World Wild Hearts

Wednesday 6th of November 2019

This is such a great article! We recently visited the Canadian Rocky Mountains ourselves and had the time of our lives. So many beautiful lakes and mountains, it's insane. We haven't been to the American Rocky Mountains yet, but after reading this article, we will definitely have to go soon! Probably next spring / summer once the snow melts again. What was your favorite spot in the Colorado rockies?

Lillie Marshall

Friday 8th of November 2019

Thank you! I didn't have one favorite spot in the Rockies -- just being there and traveling through a part of it was awesome!

jim corbett

Saturday 12th of January 2019

These pictures are just amazing. I am looking forward a trip, but after seen these pictures I think this will be my next destination most probably. I can't take my eyes off on these pictures, they are just beautiful and adorable. great photography. thanks for the great content and amazing pictures.

Lillie Marshall

Sunday 13th of January 2019

Thank you!

Katie Diederichs

Saturday 22nd of December 2018

I'll be thinking of this place the next time I need some place to go to and escape the hustle and bustle of the city. The park looks so beautiful! I'd love to stay here for more than a month! Haha.

Lillie Marshall

Saturday 22nd of December 2018

Yes! RMNP is a funny mix of highly populated (and popular) and total wilderness with no one in sight!

Sara Brooks

Monday 17th of December 2018

Also be aware that the weather can change in a hurry so be prepared for a snowstorm in July! The best plan is to have clothes readily available for 3 seasons! What may start out as a sunny warm hike can change quickly so be prepared for severe weather to come. (Lightning is a big risk!) Altitude sickness is also a real thing, so be prepared. Drink plenty of water. If you can spend a day at lower elevations than the 10,000 feet of RMNP, it is helpful. Be extra alert if you are coming from sea-level or have other health concerns. Cell phone coverage may be spotty so be extra-careful about letting people know where you are. It is beautiful! Expect crowds in the summer and fall during the aspen color change.

Lillie Marshall

Monday 17th of December 2018

Such important tips! Thank you!


Sunday 16th of December 2018

I love RMNP & Estes Park -- both are less than an hour from my back door. And I agree something about that mountain air is exhilirating.

Lillie Marshall

Sunday 16th of December 2018

Ahh! So lucky you're so close!

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