Rocky Mountain National Park is 415 square miles of mountains, rivers, alpine lakes, and wildlife. It’s a wonderful place to visit, year-round, but there are times when the experience can be less than rewarding.
The weather, wildlife, and scenery are stunning in early fall, late spring, and in the height of summer (in Rocky Mountain, that falls in late July and August), but a visit to the area in early spring, late fall, and winter might require a little extra preparation.
I am lucky enough to live at the doorstep of Rocky Mountain and I consistently visit the Park all year in varying weather conditions. Honestly, Rocky Mountain is beautiful in every season but if you are planning your dream vacation to the mountains, I’ll help you decide the best time to visit. If you don’t have a choice about when you are in the area, I’ve got some tips for how to make the best of any situation. In my opinion, any day you can be in the mountains is a good day!
In reality, the weather determines the best and worst times at Rocky Mountain; unfortunately, the weather does not always cooperate with human plans.
Read on as I describe three of the best times to visit Rocky Mountain, interspersed with three of the worst times, in my considered opinion.
- Visiting Rocky Mountain and need a game plan? Check out our itinerary.
|Leaves change color; elk-rutting; calm weather; Fall River Road open
|Fewer crowds; Bighorn sheep mating season
|Less crowds; Bighorn sheep mating season
|Less snow; wind; cold temps
|Cool mountain breezes; mild weather; full bloom; wildlife active; Fall River Road open
|Traffic/Crowds; Timed-Entry Reservation System
|No crowds; bluebird Colorado snow days
|Cold, wind, snow; dangerous snowfields; no elk; Traction Law
|Few crowds; baby animals; wildflowers in bloom
|Surprise snowstorms; cold temps at night
|Mud; poor trail conditions; fragile new growth; water danger
BEST TIME: Early Fall
Ah, what joys await you during peak leaf-change season! This usually appears in mid-September but can be as early as late August or early October. Also, the season can be over almost as quickly as it appears, if an early snowstorm hits the area.
- Stunning leaf color change, especially of the aspen trees interspersed among the evergreen pines.
- Elk-rutting season offers dramatic action with the biggest of the bull elk herding their harems together while fighting off rival bulls.
- The weather is usually calm, clear, and cool.
- Fall River Road is usually still open.
- HUGE crowds visit the area; it’s not a secret this is one of the best times to visit! Try to time your visit for a weekday, if possible, to avoid the most crushing crowds.
- Elk can be very dangerous, especially during the rut. They are accustomed to people, but they are still wild animals that are especially agitated this time of year. Rocky Mountain bull elk can weigh up to 1,000 pounds and they have only one goal this time of year: to collect and breed with as many females as possible. Keep a distance of at least 75 feet from any elk and carefully review Rocky Mountain’s wildlife viewing guidelines.
WORST TIME: Late Fall
Late fall in Rocky Mountain falls sometime between late October and late December. It is the season when the W word first appears. Spoken in a whisper during the summer, “wind” (the W word) is truly the worst part of a visit to Rocky Mountain this time of year. Winds can reach gusts of up to 90 mph in the subalpine and on top of Longs Peak, the wind was recorded at more than 200 mph.
- Low humidity (less snow) Rocky Mountain generally receives most of its snow, like most of Colorado, in the Spring, between March and May. When the ground is bare and the vegetation is dead, it’s probably the ugliest time of the year.
- Wind. Late fall is when the wind season begins; strong winds can ruin a visit to Rocky Mountain any time between October and April.
- Cold temperatures. Even though temperatures are not as cold as during the depths of winter, the wind can make being outside intolerable.
- Fewer crowds. During late fall, many times you can be alone on a trail, especially when you go on a weekday. Be sure to prepare for the worst and hope for the best; there can be perfect, still, and warm days any time of the year! If you are staying in the area for at least a couple of days, check local weather reports to find the least windy day to set out.
- Bighorn Sheep mating season. Much less dangerous than elk during their mating season, bighorn sheep can be much more active this time of year and are often seen from roadsides and in the higher reaches of Rocky Mountain.
BEST TIME: High Summer
In late July and especially August, the wildflowers are at their peak! Beautiful fields of locoweed and bistort, and sub-alpine groves of paintbrush and Rocky Mountain bluebells dominate just about every view. More than 1,000 species of flowering plants can be found in Rocky Mountain (gathering any flowering plant is illegal in National Parks). In colors of the rainbow, throughout five life zones, these wildflowers will fascinate just about everyone in your party.
My favorite is the lush carpet of the alpine tundra, which covers the landscape above the treeline. Here, the tiny flowers combine with cushion plants to create this tapestry of lush beauty. Occasionally, a cluster of Old Man of the Mountain sunflowers rises a few inches above the tundra, but otherwise, you’ll need to get down low to see the tiny plants that make up the tundra. Be aware, walking on the tundra is strictly forbidden in the most popular areas of Rocky Mountain.
A driving trip on Trail Ridge Road is the best way to take in Rocky Mountain’s alpine tundra for the first time. Through stops at the various pull-outs, maybe a short hike on the Tundra Communities Trail, and then finally, The Alpine Visitor Center, the first-time visitor will get a real sense of the beauty and importance of preserving the tundra; Rocky Mountain preserves the largest alpine tundra ecosystem in the lower 48 states. Nealy 1/3 of all of the Park’s terrain is alpine tundra.
- Cooling mountain breezes are sweet-smelling and euphoric. The temperature can be a full 20 degrees cooler in Rocky Mountain than on the Front Range, and much, much cooler than most of the South and Midwest. Since Rocky Mountain’s climate is arid and it gets many more sunny days than overcast ones (even in the winter!) it cools off to be in the 50s at night, perfect for sleeping.
- Weather is mild this time of year, generally. However, if the monsoon season starts late, there may be a short-lived thunderstorm in the afternoon.
- Rocky Mountain is in full bloom, even on the tundra! Feast your eyes on the colors of mountain summers…you will surely start singing, “The hills are alive…”
- Wildlife. Humans aren’t the only ones attracted by the cool weather and beauty, wildlife is in full frolic in high summer! They enjoy the protection of Rocky Mountain while living and thriving in their natural environments.
- Fall River Road opens right around July 4th each year.
- Traffic is undeniably at its worst at this time of year. Visitation is the highest in July and August each year and Rocky Mountain’s limited resources may lend a chaotic feel to the visit (or, maybe that’s just me because I hate crowds).
- Timed-Entry Reservation System. Since Rocky Mountain and many other National Parks struggle with tight budgets, they have implemented a timed-entry reservation system. Check out ways to circumvent the reservation system here!
WORST TIME: Winter
For me, late December through early February can be challenging: it’s dark, cold, and windy. The wind becomes much more fierce during winter. This is especially dangerous when hiking among dead and dying trees. A falling branch or entire tree can kill someone in an instant.
Also in winter, it seems like the elk herds disappear from Rocky Mountain entirely; actually, they migrate to lower elevations. If you want to see an elk this time of year, daybreak is your best bet. And, look on the side streets of Estes Park instead of inside Rocky Mountain National Park, it’s much colder in the higher elevations.
But there are those beautiful, still days that make experiencing Rocky Mountain in the winter a must. It’s probably most people’s idea of a bad time to visit and about 75-80% of the time, I would agree. It’s those magical, still, and sunny days that are my favorite in Rocky Mountain during winter. Properly outfitted, a day in the Park during winter can be a very special experience.
- Cold, wind, and snow. Combined with the wind, the snow, and cold of Rocky Mountain during this time of year make being outside kind of miserable. If you plan to visit during these months, bring lots of layers, at minimum micro spikes or some other traction footwear. I like the micro spikes because you can slip them on over your hiking boots. I also carry my snowshoes in my car everywhere I go during winter – you never know when a pristine snow field on a calm day presents an irresistible attraction.
- Dangerous snowfields. During this time, snow patterns and climate can combine to create avalanche conditions. Check out the avalanche information center before you decide to visit Rocky Mountain during the snow season.
- Where’s the elk? I work in the hospitality industry in Estes Park and this is the question I get most often this time of year. Elk and other ungulates migrate to lower elevations during the extreme cold.
- Colorado’s Traction Law can keep certain types of vehicles out of the Park when roads are icy. This can put a cramp in your style if your tire treads are too shallow, or you are attempting to drive the higher mountain roads with a two-wheel drive car. When the traction law is in effect, drivers will be fined for being pulled out of a ditch or any other such incident. When booking a rental car this time of year, opt for an SUV if you can.
- No crowds. As I’ve said before, I’m not a fan of huge crowds and this time of year promises an almost complete lack of crowds (unless it’s a picture-perfect weekend day or a holiday).
- Those bluebird Colorado snow days. Lots of fluffy snow, no wind, and a bluebird Colorado sky (no clouds) are some of the best days ever for those who enjoy snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. You can even downhill ski at Rocky Mountain’s Hidden Valley – a decommissioned ski resort once located within the Park’s boundaries. At Hidden Valley, there’s a sledding hill, mogul-ridden and steep ski runs (that you’ll have to walk up!), and access to backcountry bowls.
Visit Rocky Mountain with Confidence with
Our Complete Guide to the Trail Ridge Road
Guide includes reservation requirements, driving tips, and things to do along the way.
BEST TIME: Late Spring
May equals spring in Rocky Mountain, and it’s one of the most striking times of year to visit. Snow still graces the highest peaks and the vegetation is becoming green. From the end of April through June, there is a freshness to the growth and rebirthing energy of the wilderness. The earliest spring blooms including the Pasque flower, golden banner, and Rocky Mountain iris are blooming and the air is crisp during the daytime hours.
The timed-entry system (see above) generally goes into effect around Memorial Day, but after a mild winter and an early spring, early to mid-May is a wonderful time to see Rocky Mountain. New babies (elk, moose, marmots, etc) usually arrive by early June which makes for incredible wildlife watching. Rain showers are generally soft and refreshing (until the monsoon season hits around early July).
- Until Memorial Day (when the kids get out of school), there are few crowds.
- Wildlife babies emerge in late Spring, generally in June.
- Spring wildflowers are blooming.
- Surprise snowstorms or extreme hailstorms can happen at any time. The mountain terrain and lingering monsoons, or early cold fronts, can cause dramatic weather during spring sometimes.
- It still gets very cold at night. While below-freezing temperatures are rarely experienced in Rocky Mountain during the day this time of year, the temperatures plummet extremely quickly when the sun goes down. Remember, being a mile or two closer to the sun can warm things up nicely on a sunny day, but don’t let yourself be caught out on a hike after dark unless you are properly prepared.
WORST TIME: Early Spring
Mud season is very real and very messy in Rocky Mountain. Most of the trails in the Park are dirt and this period (which lasts from the end of February through April) will leave your car, shoes, and clothes muddy.
Sometimes it may be impossible to hike an extremely steep, muddy trail without traction devices. Patterns of muddy, melted snow during the day followed by freezing temperatures overnight make for very poor trail conditions throughout Rocky Mountain.
Hikers should stay on the established trails, so as not to trample young, emerging growth. Mindfulness this time of year includes packing waste out (even poop!), leaving things as you found them, and not interfering with the new growth emerging all around you. It’s a delicate and sometimes inhospitable time of year in Rocky Mountain.
- Ugh, the mud! Mud will get onto and into everything in early spring.
- Poor trail conditions. Holes, ruts, and puddles will be experienced on nearly every trail.
- Extremely fragile new growth can be negatively affected if, for example, you bypass a puddle on the trail by walking off trail, around it.
- Water danger. The rivers in and around Rocky Mountain are swollen with spring run-off and are extremely dangerous. Getting too close to the river is risky: the water is so strong, you would be swept away in minutes.
- Water beauty. Strong currents in the rivers, sometimes flowing under ice sheets, make for beautiful scenery and interesting photography subjects.
Rocky Mountain National Park is my favorite place to be, so I chose to be close to it when I bought my forever home in 2009 in Estes Park. It’s worth a visit, any time of year!
What Else Do I Need to Know?
Rocky Mountain is crowded!
Need a game plan to avoid the crowds? 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 TRIP PLANNER: To read or watch all of our content about Rocky Mountain National Park, check out our Rocky Mountain Homepage
THINGS TO DO: There is so much to do including hiking, swimming, taking a tour of the Stanley Hotel, and driving Trail Ridge Road and Bear Lake Road
GREAT CITIES TO STAY OR CHECK OUT: Explore some amazing cities nearby including Estes Park
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO: Find out about getting into Rocky Mountain without a reservation, if the park is too crowded, and all about altitude sickness
WATCH: Enjoy videos of gorgeous Rocky Mountain National Park while learning our best tips for visiting by watching our Rocky Mountain YouTube Playlist