Hitting the trails in Rocky Mountain National Park in the early morning hours has huge rewards
By Micah Ling
With social distancing measures still in place, many recreation spots have become stricter about how many people at one time can use an area. After being closed for more than two months, Rocky Mountain National Park reopened at the end of May, but with new guidelines. Although the park is technically open as usual, 24/7, you need to make a reservation if you plan to ender in a vehicle between 6 a.m. and 5 p.m. (You don’t need a reservation to enter on a bike or on foot.) On September 1, reservations became available for the month of October and any remaining days in September not already booked. The goal of this system is to limit the number of visitors in the park to 60 percent of the park’s maximum parking capacity (13,500 visitors per day, or 4,800 vehicles.) A great list of frequently asked questions about the reservation system can be found here.
Luckily, visiting the park outside of reservation hours means the park will be populated with far fewer people. Although it takes a little extra work (and maybe less sleep), venturing out in the wee hours has its rewards. Sunrise, for one. If you’re well prepared with the right equipment and proper safety precautions, there’s nothing like being in the wild to watch the sunrise slowly unleash the day. All of the senses are heightened, and well rewarded. The views are even more amplified as the changing fall colors take hold. First light on an alpine lake with the reflection of golden aspens is tough to beat.
There are several hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park that are short and steep enough for ambitious visitors to be at a summit or vantage point by the time sunrise hits. Gem Lake, from the Lumpy Ridge Trailhead, is less than two miles to the summit and absolutely glows with pink and golden hues at sunrise. From the Bear Lake parking lot, Dream Lake and Emerald Lake are both under two miles, and offer great views as the sun comes up. For those interested in biking, Old Fall River Road is a steep nine-mile winding dirt road with nonstop views and opportunities for incredible photos. Arriving at the Alpine Visitor Center as the sun comes up is nothing short of spectacular. Cyclists will likely encounter very few cars if they go early enough, and may spot elk and moose on the road. Always remember to be cautious and respectful around wildlife.
Do your research and plan ahead
National Parks are home to many different animals. There’s always a chance you’ll encounter a large animal in Rocky Mountain National Park, so know how to react. Also, be aware of weather patterns. The temperatures at the trailhead are likely very different from the temperatures at a summit. Weather can change quickly and intensely, so always pack proper gear for wind, rain, hail, and colder temperatures.
Even if you’ve arrived at the park very early and don’t see any other people during most of your hike, you’ll likely see some people as you descend and at visitor centers or overlooks. Use a face mask and abide by social distancing measures when around others, especially at lookouts, photo ops, restrooms, visitor centers, ranger stations, and park entries.
When packing for an early-morning run or hike in Rocky Mountain National Park, it’s important to think about essentials in several different categories. For one, you’ll likely be starting your journey in the dark, so be sure to pack headlamps and extra batteries. According to park rangers, visitors commonly fail to pack and dress correctly, resulting in an uncomfortable visit, if not an unnecessary rescue. Even for Colorado locals, being in the park is a different experience.
Always consider the following when planning a trip: navigation, first-aid, illumination, sun protection, emergency contact, animal deterrents, nutrition, and hydration. Packing becomes even more significant if you plan to spend a night in the wilderness. The National Park Service has a list of essentials to always carry while in Rocky Mountain National Park. They also suggest checking the weather, not only at the trailhead, but also at higher elevations. Weather conditions at the Alpine Visitor Center give a good idea of what it will be like at summit points. It’s a good idea to check the Rocky Mountain National Park Twitter account, where they post updated information on park conditions and congestion, as well as timely tips on visiting.
There are two more free days left on the 2020 calendar, National Public Lands Day on September 26th, and Veterans Day on November 11th. While no entrance fees will be charged, timed entry permits still will be required for entry between 6 a.m. and 5 p.m., with the usual $2 reservation fee. Keep in mind, though, these days are busier than normal days. You can always take a live look at several different areas of the park via the park webcams. In September, weekends are 50-percent busier than weekdays. If possible, pick an early morning weekday, and you’ll likely have the trails and the views to yourself.