Will you find peace in the stunning wilderness of Rocky Mountain National Park, or is it just too crowded all the time?
Rocky Mountain is crowded from June through September when children are out of school and the weather is warmest. There are lines to get in and parking lots fill up early even with the reservation system. However, there are ways to avoid crowds like traveling during the off-season, getting there early or late, and visiting less popular areas.
In 1996, when I first moved to a small mountain town near Rocky Mountain, they “rolled up the sidewalks” each winter, due to the lack of crowds. But nearly 30 years later, visitation has ticked up dramatically (especially in the past five years) and it seems that Rocky Mountain and its gateway communities, including mine, are struggling to keep up.
Read on as I describe visitation patterns for Rocky Mountain National Park, from my experience and through data collected by Rocky Mountain over the past 10 years, and my tips for avoiding crowds any month of the year.
What Is “Too Crowded?”
Where I live, the population is less than 6,000 people for six months of the year, and visitation is low. For the other half of the year, visitation to Rocky Mountain increases by five-fold, and summer residents add to the population of Estes Park by about 9,000 residents. It’s a dichotomy that can make your head spin!
The biggest reason for this is weather. With up to 40% of visitors to the area coming from Colorado’s Front Range, a typical visitor may wake up to a summer day off and decide to spend it in the mountains. Here, the temperatures are about 10 degrees cooler, and sweet mountain breezes keep things fresh. This is the time of year when summer residents return, too.
Kids are out of school and a visit to Rocky Mountain National Park and its gateway communities – Estes Park and Grand Lake, both known for their family-friendly attractions – are part of a perfect family vacation.
But from November through April, the winds howl, and it gets very cold, especially in the high reaches of Rocky Mountain. This keeps the Front Range visitors away and sends summer residents “home” for the winter. I love all seasons but as a writer, I prefer the colder, slower time of year.
I also prefer Rocky Mountain in the winter because I don’t like crowds and in the winter, I can be more spontaneous with my visits. Read my article The Best Times to Visit Rocky Mountain + 3 Times to Avoid for more detailed information.
- Visiting Rocky Mountain and need a game plan? Check out our itinerary.
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Visitation in Rocky Mountain by Month
The chart below shows how many visitors visit Rocky Mountain each month. The data used is an average of the past 10 years for each month of the year, as reported by the National Park Service Visitor Use Statistics Database.
It shows a clear seasonal pattern with two-thirds of Rocky Mountain’s approximate four million annual visits occurring from June through September.
Timed-entry reservations (or other visitor use strategies) are designed to coincide with these high-visitation periods (see my previous post, How to Get Into Rocky Mountain Without a Reservation).
Here are some tips on how I navigate my visits to Rocky Mountain throughout the year:
- January & February These are the slowest months of the year and the least restrictive as far as access goes. But they are also the coldest and windiest months to visit the Park. You are apt to come across pile burning of old trees and branches, so there can sometimes be smoke but not enough to affect air quality. The coldest part of the day is in the morning and after the sun goes down, usually. Start your hike around noon, but no later than early afternoon to make sure you get back to the trailhead by dark.
- March & April Visitation takes a slight uptick because of the various Spring Breaks, observed on different weeks throughout the country during these two months. These are also the months when we traditionally get the most snow. There’s a reason why Colorado is known for its spring skiing – this is the time of year when big piles of fluffy snow are just begging to be skied or snowshoed on. In warmer years, these months can be one of two “mud seasons” in the mountains. Mid-morning is a great time to head out to Rocky Mountain for snow play and/or hiking and snowshoeing.
- May May is also a big month for snow and mud. Most of the moisture in the mountains will fall as snow well into May, and sometimes, June. Bright, sunny days melt the snow quickly in and around Estes Park. The big jump in visitation occurs near the end of the month, around Memorial Day, but before that visitation is still relatively low. May is one of my favorite months to visit, there’s snow on the highest peaks and the lower elevations are greening up for the season.
- June In Rocky Mountain, it’s still spring in June. Elk and moose give birth to their babies, so it is a very popular time to visit Rocky Mountain. My tip: Get into the Park before the reservation period starts, or after it ends each day to watch animals when they are most active.
- July July is the most popular month of the year, and also the most beautiful. During July, spectacular wildflowers start to bloom and Old Fall River Road opens — two of my favorite things! This is usually the start of the monsoon season, with dramatic, short-lived thunder and hailstorms in the afternoon. Everything seems perfect in July — except the crowds. Watch the sunrise at Bear Lake and then take a hike from there. Even if you go on a longer hike, you will be finished before the crowds arrive!
- August August is very similar to July: the monsoons continue, temperatures are mild, and visitation is still very high. Visit some of the lesser-known areas of Rocky Mountain during August, including Wild Basin, Lumpy Ridge, and the Longs Peak area.
- September & October Glorious aspen trees in yellow and orange and the annual elk rut are both very popular attractions to Rocky Mountain during these months. Crowds can cause “elk jams” – traffic jams caused by elk activity – and big delays. Elk will be most active in mid-morning to early evening. To get a better view of elk this time of year, drive the back roads of Estes Park or Grand Lake.
- November & December It’s cold, gets dark early, is windy, and drab. Very little snow has fallen and all of the vegetation is brown and brittle. Higher visitation numbers are due to the holidays and local festivals, but Rocky Mountain is still worth a trip! During these months, the night sky is putting on a show in Rocky Mountain. You can even see the Milky Way!
Areas Most Impacted by Crowding in Rocky Mountain
Basically, any of the more developed, front-country areas of Rocky Mountain are prone to crowding in the height of the visitation season. If you want to get away from crowds, you will need to hike into the backcountry or scout out less popular areas. Specific places to avoid if you don’t want to deal with crowds are:
- Bear Lake
- Moraine Park
- Roadways, including Trail Ridge Road and Fall River Road
- Sheep Lakes
- Anywhere there’s an elk or moose
- Don’t miss Bear Lake Road in Rocky Mountain National Park: A Complete Guide.
- Discover Can You Swim at Rocky Mountain National Park?
Less Crowded Areas to Explore in Rocky Mountain
You can find your peace and quiet in Rocky Mountain if you know where and when to look for it. These are some suggestions for avoiding crowds in the Park, any time of the year.
- Hikes on the west side of Rocky Mountain
- Hikes that gain more than 1,000 feet in elevation and/or are more than three miles long
- Anywhere during the early morning or late afternoon
- National Park lands adjacent to Rocky Mountain
You, too, can avoid crowds in Rocky Mountain, one of the most visited National Parks in the country. Planning has a lot to do with this, as well as being open to changing your itinerary slightly, based on the time of year you are visiting.
- Planning on hiking in Rocky Mountain? Be prepared! Check out our article: Will I Get Altitude Sickness When I Visit Rocky Mountain National Park?
How Early Does Parking in Rocky Mountain National Park Fill Up? In popular parking lots, especially at Bear Lake and at the Alpine Visitor Center on Trail Ridge Road, parking can fill up very early. Even if you have a reservation for a certain time, parking can be full during your reservation window. Shuttle buses help with this problem at Bear Lake. Check out Rocky Mountain’s website for more information on this.
What is the Best Day of the Week to Visit Rocky Mountain? Mid-week, even in the height of visitation season, is always slower than on the weekends. Festivals and events are held on weekends in the gateway communities, too, so that brings a lot more people up even if they are not visiting Rocky Mountain.
- Find out Which is the Best Entrance to RMNP?
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