Visit This Underrated Western US National Park For Incredible Outdoor Adventures

When many of us think about national parks in the western U.S., Yellowstone and Yosemite may be the first to spring to mind. That's because Yellowstone is literally exploding with world-famous geysers, while Yosemite boasts towering slabs of granite, some of which have names ("El Cap") and have even been featured in popular climbing documentaries like "Free Solo." 

Meanwhile, Colorado's Rocky Mountain National Park lacks the shinier features of the other parks and as a result, is less well known. But for Pete's sake, a lack of bubbling mud pots and a dearth of famous free climbers shouldn't stop people from visiting. The park (and adjacent town of Estes Park) offers a multitude of outdoor activities along with natural beauty in spades. Guests can discover a huge range of alpine landscapes, from flower-studded meadows and crystal-clear glacial lakes to pristine tundra and some of the tallest peaks in the state, including the 14,259 ft. Longs Peak. The mountains are also home to abundant species of wildlife, including elk, mule deer, moose, bighorn sheep, black bears, cougars, bobcats, and many others. 

Things to do in Rocky Mountain National Park

Inside Rocky Mountain National Park, don't miss the breathtaking views from the 48-mile Trail Ridge Road during summer. The highest of highways in all the U.S. opened to visitors in the early 1930s, with the local news nicknaming it "Scenic Wonder Road of the World" (via the National Park Service). The route begins in the park, winding through alpine meadows, where you can often see large herds of elk grazing. Then it climbs up through ponderosa pine, fir, and spruce forests and at its highest point, reaches an elevation of 12,183 ft. In higher elevations, it passes through alpine tundra — a harsh ecosystem devoid of trees that rather resembles the Arctic — before descending through more sub-alpine forest to its termination point at Grand Lake, Colorado on the Western Slope.

If you prefer to travel on foot than rather than in your vehicle, you'll be happy to know that there are over 355 miles of trails in Rocky Mountain National Park. Summer and early fall are great times of year for day hikes and overnight backpacking trips in this area. But with snowshoes or skis and enough warm clothing, hikers can enjoy the park's trails in winter and spring, too. When deciding where to hike, you'll choose from among easy jaunts to scenic lakes, tough treks along windswept ridges, all-day summit ascents, and just about everything in between. Try not to get overwhelmed by the sheer number of options!

Adventures in and around Estes Park

In and around Estes Park (a common jumping-off point near Rocky Mountain National Park's entrances), you'll have even more activities to choose from as you plan your outdoor adventures. There is fun to be had for the whole family at the Mustang Mountain Coaster, whose 2,000-ft vertical drop is sure to get everyone's blood pumping. Visitors who enjoy exploring on two wheels can rent e-bikes and cruise around town or book a guided e-bike tour with a local outfitter. Other local outfitters offer year-round rock-climbing instruction and tours on the many gneiss, granitic, and schist crags dispersed throughout the area. And water lovers, please don't feel left out. Estes Park has something for you too. Anglers have numerous local fly fishing opportunities, and rafters and kayakers should know that some of the state's finest rapids are an hour's drive away at the Cache la Poudre River during spring runoff. 

For a more leisurely adventure, stroll along the Riverwalk or wander through Estes Park's quaint downtown area. Or head east to Estes Lake, where a 3.7-mile perimeter path offers sweeping views of the water, the historic Stanley Hotel, and a glorious backdrop of mountains. During the summer months, the Lake Estes Marina rents SUPs, kayaks, canoes, and other boats to those who want to venture out on the water. Fishing equipment and bike rentals are also available through the marina.