Your Autumn Guide to Rocky Mountain National Park
Autumn in Rocky is a magical time. The contrast of impossible blue skies and an amazing range of autumnal colors make for a very Bob Ross-esque landscape and by extension makes Rocky a must-visit stop on any autumn itinerary. The early morning air is crisp and cold and will jolt you out of your slumber - mental or physical - while the spectacle of the annual elk rut will leave you feeling awed by nature’s inimitable pageantry.
Take a Hike
There is plenty to do in autumn in Rocky, but with such incredible scenery, hiking is the easiest way to enjoy the park. And there is quite literally a hike for everyone, from a stroll in the woods to multi-day adventures.
Great day hikes include waterfall hikes to Adams Falls (0.3 miles one way) or Cascade Falls (3.5 miles one way), there are also lake hikes (Mills Lake is a 2.8-mile, one way hike that gains 700 feet of elevation that offers incredible views of Longs Peak and the Keyboard of the Winds from Mills Lake) and summit hikes (Deer Mountain is a three-mile, one-way hike with 1,093 feet in elevation gain). The Coyote Valley Trail is a pretty place for families to enjoy a picnic. There’s also still great trout fishing to be had in the headwaters of the Colorado River.
In a Rut
The most spectacular seasonal occurrence at Rocky is the annual elk rut. Typically taking place between mid-September to mid-October in the park’s meadows and grasslands, bulls gather with their harems. The bulls’ distinctive bugling is quite the audio experience, but there is more to a bugle than meets the ear. Research conducted in Rocky suggests that bugles contain a wide range of information, from announcing the arrival of a bull and his harem (which is typically around 30-40 cows but has been known to reach 100) to voicing displeasure that a cow is straying too far from him. Another bugle is a warning siren to other bulls. Be aware that with rutting seasons comes seasonal closures, so be sure to stop at the visitor center or call before visiting.
Autumn is already underway at Rocky. The jaw-dropping patchwork of fall foliage is thanks to the topography of the park, with different things happening at different altitudes. At the lower altitudes, around 8,000 feet, the weather from mid-September can swing somewhat wildly from freezing to 80 degrees rapidly. Perfect fall days can and inevitably will be interspersed with frost and hail, so be prepared.
Move up another 4,000 feet to the Alpine Visitor Center and you may well see snow during this same period. After a hot summer, many people will be looking forward to frosty fall days and some snow, but periods of significant snowfall in September and October can result in overnight and short term closures of Trail Ridge Road (the stretch of U.S. Highway 34 that connects Estes Park and Grand Lake through Rocky), so call ahead to check what your planning is actually doable. At this elevation, known as the tundra, when there isn’t snow, the area becomes a quilt of browns, golds, umbers and ochers.
Make sure cameras and phones are charged because you will absolutely want to remember this. On a more serious note, layers are the key to a truly enjoyable experience. Temperatures can change dramatically at this time of year, especially as you move up and down in elevation. Rain gear is a good idea, too.
Take The Rocky Pledge
To preserve unimpaired for this and future generations the beauty, history, and wildness therein, I pledge to protect Rocky Mountain National Park.”
To prevent fire scars and human-caused fires, I pledge to never build a fire outside of a campground or picnic area fire grate.
To protect plants, meadows, and alpine tundra, I pledge to park and drive only on designated asphalt or gravel parking areas, never on vegetation.
To respect other visitors’ experiences, if I need to go but am not near a restroom, I pledge to leave no trace by stepping well away from the trail and water sources, burying my waste at least six inches deep or packing it out in a waste bag, and carrying out my toilet paper.
To respect Rocky’s wild creatures and to protect myself, I pledge to watch wildlife from a distance that doesn’t disturb them in any way. I will never feed an animal—doing so causes it harm.
To respect history, heritage, and natural processes, I pledge to remove nothing from the park except my own and others’ trash—not even a flower, pine cone, or rock. I will leave no trace of my visit so that the next person can experience the same beauty as I did.
To keep my pet, wildlife, and other visitors safe, I pledge to keep my leashed pet only on roads, in campgrounds, and in picnic and parking areas. I will never take my dog on Rocky’s trails, meadows, or tundra areas.
To preserve them for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations, I pledge to honor, respect, and protect all our national parks and public lands.