Traversing Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado

THE ELEVATED: Geographer David Solzman tells us where to find the best highs nature can offer

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On the trail to Longs Peak
On the trail to Longs Peak


With more than 355 miles of trails, the park offers incomparable hiking and climbing at every level—but it’s critical to acclimate to the jump in elevation first. Once you’re ready, Lily Lake (8,880 feet) is a great start: three-quarters of a mile around a nicely variegated trail. The moderate Loch Vale Trail (10,180 feet) covers three miles one way, with a waterfall en route to a stunning lake. For the ultimate climb, take on Longs Peak (14,259 feet), the park’s highest mountain. It offers a seven-mile mix of hiking and scrambling over a 5,000-foot gain. Don’t miss an early-morning drive up Trail Ridge Road (, which usually closes in October. In a matter minutes, you’ll climb 4,000 feet, through evergreen forests and vast alpine tundra, to its highest point, at 12,183 feet. Stargazing in the Rockies is remarkable on most any night, but around August 12 you can experience the peak of the Perseid meteor shower. On August 24 and 25, join the National Park Service and National Geographic’s research expedition, BioBlitz 2012, for a 24-hour inventory of species in the park and the Biodiversity Festival in Estes Park (

The lobby of The Stanley Hotel
The lobby of The Stanley Hotel

Surrounded by the park on three sides, Estes Park Center of the YMCA of the Rockies (2515 Tunnel Rd., Estes Park, 800-777-9622,; rooms from $129) is my favorite place to stay for its astounding mountain views, atmospheric cabins and lodge rooms, and huge assortment of family-friendly activities. If you like Stephen King’s The Shining, stay at The Stanley Hotel (333 Wonderview Ave., Estes Park, 800-976-1377,; rooms from $169), which inspired the novel with its paranormal activity and just added new luxury lodge rooms. Get close to nirvana with a campsite overlooking the valley at Moraine Park (Bear Lake Rd., Rocky Mountain National Park, 877-444-6777,; campsites $20), where you’ll spy elk, coyotes, a winding stream, and a whole procession of flowers.

Start with The Egg and I (393 E. Elkhorn Ave., Estes Park, 970-586-1173, for an excellent hot breakfast or lunch. At Nepal’s Café (184 E. Elkhorn Ave., Estes Park, 970-577-7035,, cheap and tasty chicken tandoori and tikka masala are served by a charming Nepali family. For something upscale, I like the beautiful dining room and locally sourced menu at Cascades at The Stanley Hotel.

Handmade moccasins from Eagle Plume’s
Handmade moccasins from Eagle Plume’s

Eagle Plume’s (9853 Hwy. 7, 303-747-2861, is a trading post worth the 20-minute drive south to Allenspark to shop for arts and crafts and for the chance to see a private collection of thousands of Native American artifacts. For souveniers, visit the gift shop near the Alpine Visitor Center (open only in summer;, high in the park just off Trail Ridge Road. Find a substantial selection of books and magazines at the beloved Macdonald Book Shop (152 E. Elkhorn Ave., Estes Park, 970-586-3450, Stop by The Hiking Hut (184 E. Elkhorn Ave., Estes Park, 970-586-0708, to rent or buy reasonably priced gear.



Photograph: (trail) Sally Dillon



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