5 Ways to Avoid the Crowds in Rocky Mountain National Park

The mountains and resorts west of Denver may reach their peak visitation during the winter, but for the majestic peaks of Rocky Mountain National Park, northwest of the city, tourist season doesn't get into full swing until June. The park may be huge and full of secluded wilderness, but people tend to flock to the same well-known beauty spots. In fact, some people barely even get out of their cars, making the pull-off vista points on Trail Ridge Road discouragingly congested most of the time. Getting off the beaten path requires some extra research and planning, but it is well worth it to experience the awe-inspiring landscape in the sort of peace and quiet it deserves.

Get Up Early
Setting your alarm clock while on vacation might not sound very appealing, but if you do this even just one morning, you won't regret it. The influx of visitors seems to begin around 9 a.m., so if you plan to get into the park by 7, you'll feel as though you have it to yourself for a couple hours. Deer Mountain is a great place to head for an early morning hike. The trailhead is located close to the entrance, and the 6.2 mile roundtrip is doable in a short amount of time, while still giving you a vantage point over the park and the town of Estes Park from the summit.

Try an Alternative to Bear Lake Trailhead
Bear Lake is one of the most accessible, and most popular, attractions in the Park. Because it's so busy, most people park in the large lot a few miles before the trailhead and take the free park shuttle bus. However, there is in fact a lightly used trailhead right off this parking lot. The trail takes you up to lovely Bierstadt Lake, and from there you can head up towards the Mill Creek Trail, or keep going west to access the Flattop Mountain trail or even approach Bear Lake from the backside, if you've steeled yourself to join the throng.

Hike a Trail Outside Park Boundaries
While a foray into the heart of the park is certainly desirable, it's not as though the natural wonders and beautiful views abruptly cease at park boundaries. There are several hikes around the periphery that are just as breathtaking as those inside. Try Lily Mountain or Twin Sisters Peak, both located on the eastern edge of the park just south of Estes Park.

Visit the West Side of the Park
Because the Estes Park entrance to RMNP is more accessible from Denver and DIA, the eastern side of the park is noticeably more crowded. The town of Grand Lake, where the western park entrance is located, is smaller than Estes Park, but has a similar old-time summer resort feel. This lower-traffic area of the park offers a flurry of elk sightings and many lovely trails, including the mellow Colorado River Trailhead and the more challenging Timber Lake Trail.

Get a Backcountry Permit
Rocky Mountain National Park is a huge place, but you can only see so much of it from your car. So, if you're feeling a bit adventurous, reserve a backcountry pass and head off into the woods, where no cars can follow you. The park maintains its backcountry campsites beautifully, so if you're well equipped you'll feel that you have a safe and comfortable space to spend the night.

Julia O'Connor is a full-time editor and part-time freelance writer transplanted from Boston to Denver. She is thriving on the transition and has enjoyed the exploration of both cities and everything in between.

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