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Rocky Mountain National Park in northern Colorado was USA's tenth national park, a status it achieved in 1905. The park is approximately 25 miles (40 kilometres) from north to south and 20 miles (32 kilometres) east to west and covers a particularly wild and scenic part of the Colorado Rockies. Much of the area is over 12,000 feet (over 3,600 metres) above sea level and here the landscape resembles the arctic tundra. Main access is via Estes Park on the eastern side and the smaller Grand Lake on the west. These are the only towns bordering the region and both offer a good choice of accommodation.
As its name suggests, the main feature of the park are the Rocky Mountains themselves with the continental divide ridge passing more or less through the middle of the park. The rivers on the eastern side flow eventually to the Atlantic while for those on the west, the Pacific is a final destination. The only road in the park to cross the divide is Trail Ridge which does so at Milner Pass. The altitude varies from just over 7,000 feet (over 2,100 metres) around Estes Park to over 14,000 feet (over 4,200 metres) at the summit of Longs Peak.
The Colorado River has its source in the north western corner of the park and the landscape throughout has been shaped by ice as well as water, indeed several small glaciers remain, chiefly along the eastern side of the Continental Divide.
Hiking is one of the main activities here with almost endless possibilities for routes, the best known is perhaps the ascent of the park's highest mountain Longs Peak. At 14,255 feet (4,345 metres), Longs is a major summit of the Rockies and the normal route via the Keyhole is classified as non technical when ice free - it's still a tough scramble though so if you're inexperienced try an easier trail. From the same starting point of Bear Lake, the Flattop Mountain Trail leads off into the mountains with possibilities to cross the Rockies to the Grand Lake side, while trails lead up to magnificent high mountain lakes and small glaciers. Further north the Lawn Lake Trail heads off into the pristine wilderness of the Mummy Range topped by Hagues Peak. These are just a few opportunities.
For the less energetic, the Trail Ridge Road crosses the Rockies' main ridge reaching an altitude of 12,183 feet (3,713 metres) making it North America's highest through-route road pass. This is a fascinating drive between Estes Park and Grand Lake with opportunities for short walks at stops on the way. The Alpine Visitor Centre near the road summit has wonderful views of the surrounding mountains including the remote Ypsilon Mountain in the Mummy Range and the mysteriously named jagged peaks of the Never Summer Range. All the park's visitor centres offer excellent information on the area.
Look out for the wildlife too. Elk can be seen at many locations while if you're lucky you'll spot a moose. Black bears and mountain lions do live in the park too but they're pretty secretive.
In winter the whole area is invariably snow covered and provides opportunities for cross country skiing and snow shoeing. Bear in mind that there are not the ski lifts like Aspen or Breckenridge. Trail Ridge Road is generally closed in the winter months which here is usually November to May or even June.
Entry fees for the park at the time of writing (June 2010) are $20 for a car and $10 if you're on foot or cycling. These are each for a pass valid for seven days. A National Park Pass costs $80 a year so if you are planning to visit quite a few parks, this might be better value.
Accommodation is limited to campgrounds within the national park and an overnight permit is required if you plan to camp in the wild. Estes Park has the largest choice of hotels and it is here most people visit from. Over the mountains the charming Grand Lake with its wooden houses and boardwalks also has some accommodation.
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