Reaching the highest peaks in the United States is on many people’s bucket lists, but will the high altitude affect you?
Whether or not you or your companions will get altitude sickness while visiting Rocky Mountain National Park is a bit unpredictable. Young and old, fit and unfit, suffer from this with very little prior indication that they will feel sick at altitude. Studies show that about one in five people visiting elevations above 6,000 feet or higher for the first time develop at least some symptoms of this illness.
In my 25 years of living in high altitude, I have seen many people struggle to adjust. One memorable incident included a group of four young adults from Poland. They were very fit and did a lot of hiking to Rocky Mountain’s alpine lakes. One of the four was struggling to keep up and the others teased her mercilessly about that; but, her symptoms sounded to me like high-altitude sickness so I suggested she try some of the recommendations I list below. Within one day, she was keeping up with the rest of them and feeling great.
Read on to learn more about high-altitude sickness and how to mitigate or prevent it. I include specific recommendations for the various stages and severities of this illness, all designed to help you and members of your party feel good while enjoying Rocky Mountain’s beautiful scenery.
Headaches and nausea are the first symptoms of high-altitude illness; if you start feeling these while in the high country, don’t ignore them. Altitude sickness has various stages and can be quite dangerous, but you can prevent or mitigate it if you understand what altitude sickness is.
- Visiting Rocky Mountain and need a game plan? Check out our itinerary.
What is Altitude Sickness?
Altitude sickness is caused by moving higher in elevation too quickly, not giving your body time to adjust to the changes in barometric pressure, which causes a decrease in oxygen. This illness can last 3-5 days, on average, and feels like a bad hangover. There are studies that show about one in five people visiting elevations above 6,000 feet or higher for the first time can develop at least some symptoms. These symptoms include:
- Headache (most common)
- Nausea and lack of appetite
- Fatigue, even when resting
- A general feeling of being unwell
More severe forms of altitude sickness can lead to pulmonary or cerebral edema, both of which can be fatal within a day or two of onset. Go to the emergency room immediately if you experience:
- Severe shortness of breath, even while resting
- Chest pain
- Confusion and/or hallucinations
- Lack of coordination
- Slurred speech
- Feeling faint, or losing consciousness
Are There Any Preexisting Conditions That Can Put Me at a Higher Risk for Altitude Sickness?
Preexisting conditions that may make you more vulnerable to altitude sickness can include COPD and anemia. Check with your doctor if you have questions about safely traveling to the high country if you have a preexisting condition.
If you have experienced altitude sickness at any time in your life, you may be more susceptible to getting it again.
Preventing Altitude Sickness Before You Travel to Rocky Mountain
Colorado has the highest average elevation in the United States, so altitude sickness could happen to anyone traveling from any other state in the nation. Rocky Mountain’s gateway communities, Estes Park and Grand Lake, are situated at 7,522 feet and 8,359 feet respectively, well into the danger zone for experiencing high altitude symptoms. Even if you don’t travel to the highest reaches of the Park, you can experience altitude sickness.
Here are some of the best tips for preventing altitude sickness before you get to the Rocky Mountain area
- Acclimatize slowly. Travel to and above 6,000 feet above sea level at 1,000-foot intervals, if possible. This gives your body time to adjust to the lower oxygen as you gain in elevation. Getting used to the altitude happens most quickly when you’re asleep, so try and plan a night’s stay under 6,000 feet in elevation before you head to Rocky Mountain.
- Drink lots and LOTS of water. This is the number one thing to do to prevent and mitigate high altitude sickness. The climate in Rocky Mountain is extremely dry and staying well-hydrated in the weeks before and during your visit is your best protection against high altitude sickness.
- Get your heart and lungs working. Even if it’s just a walk around the block, keep your heart and lungs functioning well before you put them to the test at high altitude.
- Check with your doctor if you are concerned about a preexisting medical condition.
What to do if you are at an altitude above 6,000 feet above sea level and experience symptoms:
- Don’t panic! Pay attention to how you are feeling and if you get a headache that doesn’t go away with over-the-counter pain medications, start drinking lots of water. Many times, this will “cure” your symptoms. If water alone doesn’t do it, try electrolyte water or add a pinch of sea salt to your water. High levels of hydration are needed to mitigate the arid climate and lack of oxygen.
- Abstain from alcohol for the first few days. Alcohol will dehydrate you. Even if they don’t have any symptoms, I always recommend alternating one alcoholic drink with one glass of water (or water with a pinch of sea salt in it) to my guests.
- Use supplemental oxygen. Pharmacies, grocery, and many retail stores close to Rocky Mountain National Park carry over-the-counter oxygen canisters (even pocket-sized ones!) for sale.
- If Steps 1-3 don’t help, get to a lower elevation as soon as you can. Yes, even if you can see the summit or even if it doesn’t feel that bad — if you still feel sick, go back. Turn around on the trail, get in your car, and drive to Denver. One night’s stay there (or any other community at or below 6,000 feet above sea level) should make you feel better. There’s no shame in taking it slow. Believe me, it’s worth it to spend one less day in your intended destination to avoid an illness that could keep you sick for a week and ruin your whole vacation.
- Sometimes, it just doesn’t work out. Some people are very intolerant of altitude and need more time to acclimatize than others. That’s OK, too – you’re still in Colorado! Explore some of the towns in the foothills, like Lyons or Boulder, both of which are under 6,000 feet in elevation and still have that Rocky Mountain feel.
Remember, it’s not your fault if you get altitude sickness. It can happen to anyone, regardless of your fitness level, age, or medical condition. The only way you can know if you will get altitude sickness is to get it (you can’t measure prevention).
- Don’t miss Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park: 10 Things to Know Before You Go one of the highest points in Rocky Mountain.
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Can I Visit High Altitudes Safely When I’m Pregnant?
According to High Altitude Doctor, as long as your pregnancy is low-risk, you can not only go to high elevations safely, elevated hormone levels in pregnant women may protect against high altitude sickness by increasing oxygen intake! Average birth weights for those pregnancies that are gestated at high altitudes tend to be lower because of the reduced oxygen, but these babies are healthy and their growth catches up after they are born.
Everyone who lives at high altitudes develops larger lungs within a couple of years of moving to the mountains, to mitigate for the decreased oxygen.
Are All the Hiking Trails in Rocky Mountain at High Altitudes?
Rocky Mountain National Park has 355 miles of hiking trails, ranging from 7,500-12,000+ feet in elevation, putting them all in the danger zone for developing high-altitude sickness. The trails are rated in difficulty from handicapped-accessible to expert; truly, there is a trail for everyone in the Park.
As with any recreation at high altitude, if you start feeling the symptoms detailed above, drinking lots of water will help. More extreme symptoms will require getting to lower ground and/or medical intervention.
Does Anyone Die from Altitude Sickness in Rocky Mountain National Park?
Actually, someone died this year from HAPE (high-altitude pulmonary edema). On July 17, a 51-year-old man from Louisiana was found unresponsive at the Mount Ida Trailhead (elevation: 10,759 feet). The coroner determined his death was caused by an acute cardiac event from pulmonary edema.
However, deaths from high-altitude sickness in Rocky Mountain National Park are rare. This illness is easily treated if caught in time. Pay close attention to how you are feeling, especially if you feel worse as you go higher in elevation.
Is There Anything Else I Should Know?
Planning a vacation shouldn’t be stressful. Need a game plan so you don’t miss out on the best things to do in Rocky Mountain? Check out our itinerary.
Most travelers want to visit the most popular sites and still avoid the crowds. We have a detailed itinerary that gives you a step-by-step game plan so you can get to the best places at the right times!
MORE INFORMATION FOR YOUR TRIP TO ROCKY MOUNTAIN
ROCKY MOUNTAIN TRIP PLANNER: To read or watch all of our content about Rocky Mountain National Park, check out our Rocky Mountain Homepage
GREAT CITIES TO STAY OR CHECK OUT: Explore some amazing cities nearby including Estes Park
WATCH: Enjoy videos of gorgeous Rocky Mountain National Park while learning our best tips for visiting by watching our Rocky Mountain YouTube Playlist