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Top of the world: See the best of Colorado's spectacular Rocky Mountains

May 11, 2018 Updated: May 11, 2018 at 4:55 pm
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Libby Norris, 9, left, and her sister, Ella Norris, 7, from Easley, S.C., play in the snow drift at the 11,796-foot Alpine Visitor Center on the top of Trail Ridge Road Monday, June 15, 2015, in Rocky Mountain National Park. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

Colorado's crown jewel is a go-to destination for natives and a bucket list item for visitors. One would need multiple lifetimes to fully explore Rocky Mountain National Park, but for Coloradans, the pleasure is in trying.

Driving and parking proved to be a hassle in the summer of 2017, the year in which only three national parks tallied more visitors. Starting June 8, Rocky Mountain will charge an extra $5 per vehicle, in line with fee increases at most national parks with bulging lists of maintenance costs. It's hard to see the price discouraging people from the Centennial State's ultimate paradise. But still, there are secret places for solitude across the 265,769 acres. And even in the midst of traffic, wildlife sightings are likely, and the views are unforgettable.

Now, how to pick your adventure? That can be an overwhelming task in a place with 300-plus miles of trails, leading to countless alpine realms of rock faces, lakes and waterfalls.

For newbies, Bear Lake is a good bet. From the parking lot on the park's east side, you don't have to go far for a perfect photo. Simply stroll along the big lake. Farther ahead, the Glacier Gorge trail junction is the gateway to some of the park's premier destinations, including Alberta Falls, an easy-to-reach area for another perfect photo.

But maybe you want to work for your views. You'll be rewarded at The Loch, the water overlooked by the soaring Andrews and Taylor glaciers. Trek onward to the high reaches of Lake of Glass and Sky Pond, pristine in their mountain hideaways.

Of course, a first time in the park is not complete without a drive on Trail Ridge Road, "the highway to the sky" cresting at 12,183 feet. On the stretches before and after the visitor center, look for pull-offs to park, as many try to do during "elk jams." Get out and experience the tundra, the endless displays of peaks.

Old Fall River Road is a more rugged driving option. The dirt road climbs to glorious overlooks, with refreshing streams and cascades along the way. Peak baggers stop near the 7-mile marker at the Chapin Creek trailhead. All in an 8-mile round trip, they first summit Mount Chapin above 12,000 feet, then cross the 13,000-foot tops of mounts Chiquita and Ypsilon. Some say the journey's vistas rival those on the way up Longs Peak, the park's resident fourteener.

If you didn't reserve a site several months ago, good luck finding a spot to pitch your tent in the park. Maybe use this summer to book a site for next season at Moraine Park Campground or Glacier Basin Campground, a couple of the most popular sites. For camping in the meantime, look elsewhere around Estes Park and Grand Lake.

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