Feel On Top Of The World With A Trip To Rocky Mountain National Park 

Just a two-hour drive south of Wyoming lies a world-class mountain adventure. Rocky Mountain National Park offers 415 miles of mountain wilderness and 77 mountain peaks to climb, with the sweet smell of ponderosa pines all around.   

Renée Jean

April 15, 20237 min read

The highest mountain peak available during winter shows plenty of adventures to be had in RMNP

The Wildside 4x4 tour guide known to me only as Josh is an unabashed tree sniffer. 

Walking up to the cinnamon-colored bark of a crooked but tall ponderosa pine, he inhales deeply, then encourages those on his tour of the Rocky Mountain National Park to do the same, regardless of what other onlookers might think. 

“Sniff right there between the cracks,” he suggests, pointing to the deep and jagged lines between jig-saw puzzle-like pieces of bark. 

The scent lies somewhere between butterscotch and vanilla. It smells like a freshly baked cookie, but it’s tree bark, so assuredly doesn’t taste anything at all like a cookie.  

“That is what’s responsible for the sweet mountain air,” Josh said.  

Ponderosa pine takes its name from the Latin root word, ponderosus, which means, quite simply, massive. It’s an apt description. Ponderosa pines can reach more than 200 feet, with trunks 3 to 4 feet across. Mature trees are a good source of lumber.   

The scent, meanwhile, is widely believed in these parts to be a mood lifter, if not an outright antidepressant. F.O. Stanley, who built The Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, was among the true believers.  

Stanley had come to Colorado for his health, after being diagnosed with tuberculosis. 

“He claimed that cured it,” Josh said. “Though I am a man of science, and I don’t know if I believe that aromatherapy could ever cure tuberculosis.” 

But it’s hard to disagree with the idea that the scent is at the very least a mood lifter. Who wouldn’t feel uplifted by the scent of vanilla-butterscotch cookies all around them? 

“This tree is why it smells so good in the Rockies,” Josh said.  

  • Unabashed tree sniffer and tour guide Josh
  • Josh waits patiently for tour participants to board the Wildsides custom designed 4x4 which has clear plastic windows all around for maximum sightline and photography
  • Wildlife are a common site in and around RMNP

Asking the Aspens 

Ponderosa pine isn’t the only tree in the park with at least some medicinal qualities. The aspen trees that greeted us at the back entrance into Rocky Mountain Park do as well. 

The entrance trees were still quite young, so they’ve been sectioned off from wildlife, to prevent them from being eaten to death. 

Older aspens in the park, meanwhile, show clear signs of antlers rubbing up against them. Animals in the park will often eat the bark that has been loosened this way — but not necessarily out of hunger.  

The bark contains salicylic acid, which is the active ingredient in aspirin, making it a natural painkiller.  

It’s particularly sought by female ungulates after birth, or males after fighting, Josh said.  

“Black bears, mama bears and cubs also love aspens for the same reason,” he said.

Black bears in Rocky Mountain National Park, meanwhile, have a signal that tells their young cubs to climb a tree to escape danger. Josh demonstrated the whooshing bark with a deep, gravelly “Whoooofffuh! Whoooofffuh!” 

“Black bears can out-climb mountain lions easily,” Josh said. “They can stay up there for three days at a time.” 

By then, a smart mountain lion better have found an easier meal. 

Aspens have other medicinal qualities to them, as well, Josh said. The powder can be used as a sunscreen, and it has anti-wrinkle and anti-aging properties as well.  

The back entrance by all the young aspens, by the way, is the one Josh always recommends to visitors.  

“The Fall River Road is just less busy,” he said. “I’m not sure why.” 

  • Many streams offer fishing opportunities in RMNP despite seeming small
  • The former ski lodge at Hidden Valley is now an interpretive center
  • Fishing is popular in RMNP year round and having a license is a good idea even if not fishing It will cover the cost of search and rescue

Feel On Top Of The World 

Rocky Mountain National Park is a two-hour drive from Cheyenne, and, like Yellowstone National Park in Teton County, it’s among the top 10 most visited of national parks, with 4.3 million visitors annually in 2022, beating out Yellowstone’s 3.67 million, based on National Park statistics that filter out repeat visitors. 

Estes Park, home to The Stanley Hotel, is the gateway to the park, which offers 415 miles of largely unspoiled mountain wilderness with 77 mountain peaks to climb and feel on top of the world from. With the air everywhere sweetened by ponderosa pines, it won’t really matter which peak a visitor hikes. Heights range from the low end of 7,860 feet on up to a high of 14,259 feet above sea level for Long Peak, tallest in the park.  

The top-of-the-world tour to Long Peak and the Alpine Visitor Center is among the most popular of Wildside’s tours, though it’s not available until summer.  

Trees at these heights often grow in twisted, interesting shapes. Some of that is wind, Josh told the tour group. Other times it’s just how a particular species of tree grows. 

Rocky Mountain National Park’s focus is pristine nature, as unmarred by human occupation as possible, despite its huge number of visitors. There are still remnants of past tourist attractions at the park, however. The Hidden Valley Ski Lodge, for example, which now serves as an interpretive center.  

The ski hills above the lodge are still frequented by a few, presumably knowledgeable skiers, but, as no one is maintaining any of the trails, they can be dangerous. If a tree falls, it’s left where it fell, creating obstacles that can be hidden by snow. 

The lowermost portion of the ski hill now serves as a rather tame sledding and tubing run for the young, or at least, young at heart. Hot chocolate goes well with the experience no matter one’s age. 

A golf course has also been removed from the park, as was a restaurant, to keep the focus on nature rather than tourism, Josh said. 

The few cabins that remain are former homesteader residences. Those can be passed down only to family members, and may be sold only to the park.  Once sold, they are boarded up and removed. 

  • Hidden Valley offerss a sledding and tubing run for the young and young at heart
  • Hidden Valley Ski Lodge serves as an interpretive center these days
  • Even adults have fun on the sledding and tube run at Hidden Valley
  • Flooding brought down so much rock and sand that this sign which used to be 6 feet above the ground was nearly buried

Timed Entry Permits Required 

One of the relatively recent changes at Rocky Mountain National Park is a timed-entry permit system intended to restrict foot traffic to the park. The intent is to preserve the quality of the park experience, which park officials said was being degraded by overuse. 

Under this system, visitors to the park book permits in advance for a two-hour window at the park sometime between9 a.m. to 2 p.m. during peak visitation times. That begins May 26 and continues through Oct. 22. The booking system will be available online at recreation.gov starting May 1, and on the first of each month thereafter. 

Permits are allocated quickly, so it’s wise to plan ahead if visiting the park during peak season, or book a tour. The $89 fee with Wildside 4x4 included the $30 entry fee, making it a decent value, and the guides provide more knowledge about the park than is available at the park’s website. 

The processing fee for the timed-entry reservation is $2, which is in addition to the $30 vehicle charge to enter the park. 

A similar timed-entry system was already in use at Arches and Glacier National Parks. 

Location-specific areas of Acadia, Carlsbad Caverns, Haleakala, Shenandoah, and Zion National Parks are also now requiring timed entry permits for 2023.  

Renée Jean can be reached at Renee@CowboyStateDaily.com

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Renée Jean

Business and Tourism Reporter