Visiting Denver is a treat in and of itself. There’s the booming brewing industry, world-class culinary adventures, and vibrant nightlife. And for outdoor enthusiasts, the city’s bikeability and its gorgeous scenery make the Mile High City something of an oasis.
An added bonus for those looking to get in touch with their wild side: Rocky Mountain National Park is only a short drive away. If you decide to visit the park, you’ll be in good company, as its 4 million visitors last year made it the third most visited National Park in the country. And it’s easy to see why, with its 416 square miles filled with soaring peaks, varied ecosystems, and abundant wildlife.
So if you’re staying in Denver, you can take a day trip to explore all that the park has to offer — and still be back in the city before dinner. To help you make the most of your day, here are some suggestions for experiencing the highlights of Rocky Mountain National Park.
Take a hike on the south side
The Wild Basin entrance to Rocky is the closest to Denver, about 70 miles away, and is the best place to start if you want to accomplish the maximum amount of hiking during your trip. Visit the Wild Basin Ranger Station for a map and tips about seasonal wildflowers and nearby animals, and then set out on the Wild Basin Trailhead. Ambitious hikers can troop all the way to the crystalline Bluebird Lake — a 12.6 mile round-trip from the trailhead that grows strenuous as it climbs — or aim for any of the closer attractions at an easy to moderate level along the way.
The waters of the Calypso Cascades rush down granite cliffs about two miles into the hike, and the Ouzel Falls lie less than a mile beyond. Indian paintbrush, columbine, aster, and other wildflowers thrive along this waterway, and gaps in the forest reveal views of Mt. Meeker and Longs Peak, looming 14,259 feet.
Try this loop for an all-day driving adventure
If you want to see as much as you can of the park in one day, begin by driving to Estes Park. Stop at the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center for a map, and continue up Trail Ridge Road, a high-elevation highway that offers stunning vistas along its 48-mile stretch between Estes Park and Grand Lake.
The road rises 4,000 feet and passes through three distinct ecological zones, from the lodgepoles and aspens of the montane forests through subalpine woods of firs and Colorado blue spruce to the windswept alpine zone above treeline. This is one of the best routes for photo ops, as you’ll find several places to park the car along the way.
The alpine area at the top of Trail Ridge is so unique that it’s a good place to linger. Be sure to dress in layers — it can be freezing 12,000 feet up, even in midsummer. Check out the Alpine Visitor Center, below which you can often see gangs of elk lounging in the high-altitude lawn. Walk up the Tundra Communities Trail — just a one-mile round-trip on a paved trail that will have you looking up to marvel at the surrounding peaks.
Enjoying the park with kids
If you’re traveling with kids, ask for a Junior Ranger brochure at a ranger station. These booklets are filled with games and activities that teach kids about the park, and if you venture to the Junior Ranger Headquarters, kids can participate in a free program led by a ranger. When the kids complete the activities, return to a ranger station to pick up their Junior Ranger badge for a souvenir.