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  • Writer's pictureShannon Wilson

National Park Adventures: RMNP

“In all things of nature, there is something of the marvelous!” Aristotle

“I have a new item for my bucket list: to see a pika,” declared my friend who had moved here from Virginia. Pikas are a mountain mammal that live in Rocky Mountain National Park above treeline. Knowing she had been to the National Park before, I asked her if she had been over Trail Ridge road. She had not, so we planned a day trip.

As a result of the COVID pandemic and high traffic to our National Parks, Rocky Mountain began using timed entries for the park. This works in two ways, you may reserve a time weeks in advance or they release a few times at 5pm every night for the next day. The timed entries don’t enforce an exit time, just the entry time. While we planned our visit five weeks before we wanted to go, the only timed entry left was 1-3pm. I chose to try my luck with the night before tickets. Their site is awful! I logged on right at 5pm and was told no times were available. Once refreshing, I attempted to choose the 9am entry time, but was told it couldn’t process my request due to heavy traffic on the site. I was finally able to secure an 11am entry — we were good to go.

We entered RMNP from the Estes Park side. Estes is just over an hour away, so it was an easy drive. When we reached the main gate, a line stretched from the entry point which took about 20 minutes to get through. While there I noticed a sign that stated timed entries required between 8am and 3pm. I hadn’t realized we could just get in before 8am; I will do that next time! Also, since there isn’t a time limit on the entries, I am unconvinced the time entries really help, but maybe they do.

Our day was a day of animals! To begin our day, I drove my friend up Old Fall River Road — a one-way dirt road connecting the valley to the Alpine Visitor Center. As I began the drive, I was in awe of the beauty of the aspen trees creating a canopy over the road (I am hoping to go back this fall). As we climbed higher, there were some wildflowers along the road. We pulled off to hike down to the Chasm Falls on our way up the road, which due to all of the rain this year was faster than normal in July. After the short walk to the falls, we were also lucky enough to see some marmonts on the rest of our drive. If you visit RMNP in the summer or fall, I highly recommend Old Fall River Road.

Finally, just before getting to the Alpine visitor center, we did another short hike. This was the first time my friend has been above timberline and it was fun to watch her face. She was amazed that the ground wasn’t all rocks, but actually had low growing vegetation on it. On the hike, we also were able to watch a herd of elk who were just chilling on the side of the mountain. Then, we stopped briefly at the Visitor Center before exploring Trail Ridge Road.

Trail Ridge Road, open only in the summer months, connects Estes Park to Grand Lake (48 miles away). About 11 miles of the road is above the treeline, giving visitors amazing views of alpine tundra. This highest point on the road is 12,183 feet. It is impressive to see how quickly weather changes at altitude and I noticed that the temperature dropped a good 15 degrees fahrenheit. Wanting to show my friend various views, we drove towards Grand Lake on Trail Ridge. When we came to the continental divide, we pulled off, stretched our legs again, and went back towards Estes.

We still hadn’t found pika. My friend had done some research, so we got out at the Rock Cut pull-off and went for another tundra hike. We got out of the car and the wind was crazy. I was also thankful I had my coat as part way up, it started spitting graupel on us. While it was cold, we trudged upward. The views from the hike were spectacular, but the pika were elusive. Finally, on our way back down, we heard them. They sound kind of like birds, but the sound is also a distinct high-pitched eek. My friend was even able to capture the sound on video despite the wind and she was ecstatic. I was very happy her goal had been accomplished.

Regardless of the time of year in RMNP, I always love visiting. I am thankful this park is practically in my backyard. As far as National Parks go, I have had the opportunity to visit 11 of the 62 parks in our country. While I hope to visit all 62 National Parks someday, the two at the top of my list are Acadia National Park in Maine and Denali in Alaska.

How about you? What national parks have you visited? Which ones do you want to see?

For more information about Rocky Mountain National Park, visit:

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