Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) is the closest national park to my home in Colorado and I consider it my base park. It takes me about an hour to get there and I’ve been there enough to know how different the seasons are in both RMNP as well as in its gateway city, Estes Park. The seasons here are wildly different – from the extreme temperature swings to the number of visitors. Here is my take on what each of the four seasons is like:
Estes Park – In the summer, Estes Park is completely overrun with tourists. Despite this, it shouldn’t stop you from visiting. The weather is nearly perfect and is typically at least a few degrees cooler than the cities below on the plains, like Denver or Boulder. If you’re really looking for a cool down, you can cool off even more if you head high up into Rocky Mountian National Park. The town itself is a typical tourist town but with a mountain/western twist. There are the obligatory t-shirt, salt water taffy, chocolate, and ice cream shops that you would see in almost any national park gateway town. What makes Estes unique is the surrounding scenery, which wouldn’t be out of place in the Swiss Alps, with its huge snow-capped mountains and valleys. What is lacking though, in a good way, are flashy resorts as in other Colorado mountain towns like Vail or Aspen. Here, there are mostly small motels and cabins along with the place that Stephen King made famous, the Stanley Hotel.
RMNP – The throngs of tourists are here too, unfortunately. However, all you need to do is to start a hike on almost any trail and you can lose 90% of them after only a mile or so from the trailhead. Hiking in summertime at these elevations means being prepared by starting early to avoid afternoon thunderstorms. If you don’t consider yourself a hiker, consider a drive up Trail Ridge Road, a journey which can yield a somewhat unique activity, a summertime snowball fight or building a snowman. The highest point in the pass is 12,183 feet (over two miles high) and that leaves enough snow year round for winter games, even in mid summer. The wildlife also move up to higher elevations in summertime, seeking greener pastures. Up at these higher altitudes, you might see large herds of elk and bighorn sheep in the alpine tundra, way above the height where trees grow.
Estes Park – Surprisingly, Estes park can still be quite busy during the fall. Some might think it has to do with fall colors but the area around Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park really doesn’t have an abundance of aspen trees. For most people, the primary reason they come up here in the fall is to hear and see elk during the ‘rut’ which is the mating season. And why would you want to hear bugling elk during the mating season? The reason is that their mating calls sound like a sort of ancient call that can be heard from far off. It is a difficult sound to explain and do it justice, but is a truly a breathtaking and mesmerizing experience to see and hear, and something that simply must be heard in person. This is the main reason people flock to Estes Park in the fall, the elk literally bugle as they’re walking on the golf course, through parking lots right in town, as well as on the grounds of the Stanley Hotel.
RMNP – As with in Estes Park, the reason to head into the national park at this time of year is to see and hear the elk. Although being bumper to bumper with like minded people might not seem like something you want to do, you can still go into the park and hike into the woods where you might find yourself all alone on the trail in the middle of a large herd of bugling Rocky Mountain Elk. Last October, my wife and I went on a hike, away from the main areas of the park, and started to hear bugling in the distance and were soon surrounded by around 100 elk on both sides of the trail without another human anywhere near us. The park brochure cautions you against approaching wildlife, so by all means keep your distance. But if you happen upon a large herd while hiking the trails, excercise extreme caution and keep a safe distance. I usually like to have a big tree nearby just in case. The bulls are extremely aggressive during this time of year and they are big, averaging around 700 lbs, and strong enough to inflict great bodily harm if they decide you’re too close.
Estes Park – If you’re looking to experience a tourist town without the tourists, this is the time of year to come to Estes Park! You will not have to fight for a table at your favorite restaurant, there will be no bumper to bumper traffic, there’s plenty of parking, and you can have the place virtually all to yourself. Unlike other Colorado mountain towns that usually see a massive influx of people in the winter, Estes doesn’t have a ski resort (although it once did) to anchor its winter economy. Because of this, Estes sees a very dramatic drop in visitation in the winter. As an added bonus, a stay at the Stanley Hotel in winter can give just a sliver of what inspired Stephen King to write ‘The Shining’.
RMNP – The park is at its best, in terms of scenic beauty in the dead of winter. The mountains are usually covered with snow, sometimes approaching 10 feet. Winter activities include snowshoeing, cross country skiing, and wildlife viewing (although seeing animals inside the park during winter is less likely). Some areas, such as around Bear Lake, are still crowded but it can be much easier to find areas of the park where you’ll need your snowshoes to walk through the snow. It is simply one of the most beautiful winter scenes in all of Colorado.
Estes Park – This town still doesn’t really get going again until late spring. In most places, spring begins a steady warmup towards summertime but at this altitude and being in Colorado, Estes Park typically experiences its snowiest months of the year in the spring. Traditionally, February, March, and April are Colorado’s months for heavy snow and blizzards. Eventually however, the snows slowly give way to longer and warmer days and the area begins to thaw and creak to life.
RMNP – Spring in the park is the beginning of the big melt. The east and west sides of the park are connected by Trail Ridge Road, but due to heavy winter snow, the road is impassable until the weather warms and crews can begin plowing the road. When the road finally opens, it becomes symbolic of winter’s deep freeze losing it’s grip on the park. The animals get to moving again and the large numbers of people begin to make their way back to the park that had been tranquil for several months.
In any season, the area is unique and beautiful. During the cold winter months, it is quiet and peaceful. In the warmer months, it is energetic and bustling but no matter what season, it is worth a visit and will not disappoint.