- I’ve explored nature on my travels around the world, but I’ve never been to a US national park.
- This fall, I headed to Rocky Mountain National Park in northern Colorado.
- From shuttles to souvenir shops, here are 12 things that surprised me about my first national park trip.
After moving to Colorado this June, Rocky Mountain National Park was just a 1.5-hour drive from my house. So, I reserved a spot on the National Park Service (NPS) website to visit my first national park with some friends in early October. (At the time of writing, reservations are no longer needed for the year, according to the park’s website, but it’s always worth checking before you go).
I was wrong.
During my trip to Rocky Mountain National Park, I entered the park twice. The first time, in the early morning, there were hardly any lines. But when I headed back to the entrance at around 2:30 p.m. after leaving for some lunch, cars were stretched along a narrow road outside. My friends and I waited about 15 minutes before making it to the front.
Once inside, we proceeded to get into another line to head up to Bear Lake, the park’s most popular lake. When we got there, crowds were unavoidable, and I started questioning whether there’d be any moments to connect with nature in peace.
While there were packed areas, it wasn’t the case everywhere.
We embarked on a four-mile hike leaving from Bear Lake. But just a few hundred feet past the popular Rocky Mountain stop, the crowds vanished.
I doubt we saw more than 10 people during the entire hike.
And while there’s still plenty of work to do, as the NPS has admitted itself, when compared to the other parks and natural areas I’ve visited in Colorado, Rocky Mountain National Park felt much more accessible.
During my visit, I noticed wheelchair-accessible trails and paved crosswalks, and one visitor center had park brochures in braille and large print.
That’s because huge swaths of land, summit views, and some of the best fall foliage can be seen from inside a car.
Since I wasn’t hiking until the afternoon, I hopped in the car wearing my Tevas, leggings, and a long-sleeved shirt.
Along the drive, there were dozens of places to pull off and take in the picturesque views of the Rockies. As we climbed higher and higher, I added layer after layer.
By the time I reached 12,000 feet (3,657.60m) above sea level, I was freezing and had added a pullover, jacket, beanie, and socks.
Since I wasn’t hiking to the higher elevations, my body wasn’t creating as much warmth — something I hadn’t considered before heading out for the day.
As we finished our hike at Bear Lake, I even saw a wedding party in the national park wearing tuxedos, floor-length dresses, dress shoes, and heels.
In 2019, Rocky Mountain National Park was the first national park to launch a reservation system, which limited the number of visitors entering the park each day, the Coloradan reported. But even with visitor caps, I was surprised to learn there are so many people that the park needed a shuttle service.
In 2019, the Rocky Mountain National Park welcomed an estimated 4.7 million visitors, according to the park’s website.
So I was surprised to see signs throughout the park indicating that dogs aren’t allowed. According to the NPS, it’s to protect the park’s wild spaces. Often dogs are prey for larger wildlife and prey on small wildlife.
Some national parks, however, do have wild spaces where dogs are welcome. But in Rocky Mountain National Park, dogs are prohibited on every trail, tundra, and meadow.
But at Rocky Mountain National Park, there are plenty of bathrooms, park rangers eagerly await guests at multiple visitors centers, and there’s even a gift shop in the middle of nature.
Curious what they could be, I learned they’re often called snow poles and used to identify the sides of the road for snow plowing, according to Rocky Mountain National Park’s website. It was terrifying to think that in just a few months, snow would tower over the cars on the road.
Between the tundra landscapes and vibrant fall foliage, I won’t forget my first national park visit anytime soon.
Now, I just have 61 other national parks to check off my bucket list.