Beating the Crowds at Rocky Mountain National Park

No month is better than July for hiking Colorado’s Front Range and especially Rocky Mountain National Park. Nearly all the trails are open for foot traffic sans snowshoes, yet the peaks retain a patchwork quilt of snow so dazzling it’s difficult to put your camera away. Water rushes everywhere and wildflowers perform their annual show. It’s a precious time, a time to be out there!

Each year more and more people agree. Visitation is up – way up – at Rocky. Last year’s 4.5 million visitors marked a third consecutive record-breaking year, and was a 45% increase over the average for the previous decade. Booming local population growth has something to do with this, along with cheap gas. The most popular month to visit Rocky is, of course, July. One in five visits happens in July.

What to do? Not go in July? That would be a shame. There has to be a way!

Ute Trailhead, Rocky Mountain National Park
Photo by Pete KJ

You probably predicted my next statement: Get up early. I did it last Thursday (I live an hour away), and got a parking spot in the mega-popular Bear Lake area. Five miles later I was the only person at Black Lake, beneath the Patagonia-esque spires northwest of Longs Peak. Sure, on my hike out I met a continuous stream of people. But I’d had my time. I’d also gotten up at 3:45 AM, which is a big ouch for most people.

So the options are: get up at 3:45 AM or don’t go. For many people that means don’t go, I suppose.

Here’s a third way: Sleep until noon!

In Colorado the June solstice sun sets at 8:30 PM. Enchanting alpenglow lingers until well after nine. By late July, the evening is all of ten minutes shorter. By the end of August, the sun is still up until 7:45 PM. This leaves lots of time for hiking after 4 PM, when most folks have called it quits.

Yes, thunderstorms often occur on summer afternoons. And also often, they don’t. You usually know what’s going to happen by 3 PM. Frequently, afternoon rain is followed by a sunny evening perfect for hiking. The only thing lovelier than being up high in these mountains early in the morning is being here late in the day. The slanting, shifting light on snow-dappled peaks is mesmerizing.

Case in point: After hiking through the afternoon in Rocky, I returned to my parked car for a nap since I’d gotten up so dang early. The parking lot had been maxed out all day and the area served by shuttle buses. Thunder and raindrops passed through earlier, but by 5 PM I couldn’t sleep because the sun was so hot on my car.

All alone with magnificent views of the Continental Divide from the Ute Trail
Photo by Pete KJ

I drove up Trail Ridge Road, Rocky’s stunning trans-Continental Divide highway. Normally heavily traveled, nearly all traffic was going the other way. People were done and heading to hotels, camps, and evening activities.

Only two cars were at the Ute Trail pullout when I got there: a couple getting ready to hike, and a group of tourists pausing for a photo op. While the lady of the couple fussed with her hiking poles, I waited for them to get started so I could sneak some pictures. I figured I might not get any more pictures with people in them.

We began in tundra, on a route Ute Indians marked centuries ago with cairns. Greeting us to the south was the line of Continental Divide peaks, along with the Mummy Range to the north. I soon passed the couple and had the whole Ute Ridge to myself, walking in the sunny evening in parallel with the Divide, feeling its power. Two miles later, when the trail began to curve downward, I scrambled up the rocky vertebrae of ridge spine to take it all in. What solitude, what silence! There I was, all alone with so many famous mountains.

Well, not alone. A marmot ambled onto a rock beneath me, looked at me, and then did the oddest thing: It lay on in its side. I’d never seen a marmot relax before. I’d only seen them scamper and scurry. This one seemed to be enjoying the evening and view as much as me.

Still we were not alone. Below, across the moor, came the two other walkers.

What a crowd we were!

Pete KJ

Pete KJ

Pete KJ began explorations at age three in the wooded ravine that was his backyard in Seattle. He also began a lifelong writing habit. Backyard expanded as Pete stomped all over the Cascades and Olympics as a youth, and headed onward to the Pyrenees, Alps, Himalayas, and Andes. Peace Corps service in Africa cemented his deep desire to always be out in the world, and when he finally sat in a cubicle as a chemical engineer, it was in places like Puerto Rico and India. Long absent from cubicle, he moved on to raise kids, travel the world with them, and write about it (and also write three novels). Career brought Pete to Colorado in the 1990s; its gravity and beauty pulled him back. Pete's "Base Camp Denver: 101 Hikes Along Colorado's Front Range" will be published in spring, 2019 by Imbrifex Books.

One thought on “Beating the Crowds at Rocky Mountain National Park

  1. With the thousands of visitors who go to RMNP every summer, it is amazing to find so much solitude that close to the road.

    Lovely photos.

    Thanks for sharing!

    Mark

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *