Visiting Rocky Mountain National Park in September
Learn all about what to expect visiting Rocky Mountain National Park in September (Written by Erin McCarthy)
September in Rocky Mountain National Park is a special time of year. Aspens dot the landscape with a vibrant gold and quake in the autumn wind. It’s also a once in a lifetime opportunity to hear an elk bugle—the characteristic rutting call of a bull elk. The heat of the summer can linger into September, making it ideal for hiking, backpacking, biking, and fishing. However, wildfires are certainly possible due to the lingering heat and dryness. Read on for our full guide to visiting Rocky Mountain National Park in September—benefits, drawbacks, things to do, and more!
BENEFITS OF VISITING IN september
The benefits of visiting in September are threefold: the foliage, the weather, and the elk rut. Firstly, the weather and ideal for hiking or backpacking. Also, Trail Ridge Road will still be open in September.
The aspens that dot the landscape in Rocky Mountain National Park turn a vibrant gold. In the subalpine ecosystem of the Park, the aspens will begin to change at the beginning of the month and as the weeks roll on and the temperatures drop as October draws near, the aspens in the montane ecosystem change.
The elk rut is a special event to witness. September is mating season for the elk and the male will “bugle” to intimidate other male elk during mating season. This happens in the montane ecosystem and is a unique event to see and hear. Be mindful that male elk can be quite aggressive during this time of year, so do not under any circumstances approach them.
drawbacks OF VISITING IN september
September is still relatively crowded in Rocky Mountain National Park. Visitor numbers are only about 13,000 less than they are in August. The threat of wildfire activity is high in September as well. In early September 2020, the Cameron Peak Fire crossed into Rocky Mountain National Park as it grew to 89,000 acres. Trail Ridge Road was closed due to fire danger. If you’re visiting in September, be aware of fire activity and always check the current conditions in the Park.
things to do in september
Autumn Gold Festival: Each September, this festival is in Estes Park. It’s a celebration of all things autumn—foliage, elk bugling, music, and good food. Entrance is free.
Bicycling: Experience the wonders of Rocky Mountain National park on two wheels! Biking options in Rocky Mountain National Park vary, so you can choose your own adventure. If you don’t have a bike, you can rent one in Estes Park. All paved roads are open to cyclists, but bear in mind that there will be a large amount of cards on the roads in the summer, so be careful. In September, Trail Ridge Road and Old Fall River Road are still open are offer up a nice challenge. Keep in mind that Trail Ridge Road gains over 4,000 feet over elevation over its 48 miles and Old Fall River Road is gravel, so you’ll need a mountain bike. Depending on your time constraints and fitness level, you’ll likely need a “shuttle”—another car to pick you up if you choose to bike either road only one way.
Hiking: Hitting the trails in September is one of the most highly recommended activities. The weather is pleasant and the foliage is phenomenal. In the next section we highlight some of our favorite fall hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Backpacking: If you’re looking for more than a day hike, Rocky Mountain National Park has plenty of spectacular routes for multi-day backpacking trips. The weather in September is ideal for backpacking, but it is essential to pack warm layers for the chilly nights in higher elevations. Backpacking permits are required and can be purchased at the Wilderness Offices located at the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center or the Kawuneeche Visitor Center.
Take a Guided Tour: If you’re short on time for planning, let a guided tour show you the sights. Wildland Trekking has options for guided backpacking tours and guided day hikes through Rocky Mountain National Park.
Fishing: Trout fishing in the lakes and streams of Rocky Mountain National Park is the best in the fall months. Keep in mind that there are possession limits, catch and release regulations in some areas, and you need a Colorado fishing license for anyone 16 years of age and older. Before you head out read the full list of rules and regulations here.
Take a Scenic Drive:
- Old Fall River Road: Old Fall River Road (pictured left) is a gravel road that first opened in 1920, its purpose was to allow motorists up to the high country. Each year, it is open from July – October. It is a one-way, narrow 11-mile-long road with sharp curves that makes a steady climb. It also has no guard rails, so speed limit is 15 mph, for good reason! Old Fall River Road begins at Horseshoe Park, near the Fall River Entrance, where it climbs up steadily to Fall River Pass at 11,796 feet. It ends at the Alpine Visitor Center, where you can take Trail Ridge Road back to either Estes Park or Grand Lake.
- Trail Ridge Road: Take a once in a lifetime drive along the 48 mile “highway to the sky” — the highest continuous paved road in the nation. Travel up through montane meadows, subalpine forests, up to Milner Pass on the Continental Divide, and finally above treeline. At its highest point, Trail Ridge Road reaches above 12,000 feet to breathtaking alpine vistas. Make sure to pack the right gear as it can be windy at the top and twenty to thirty degrees colder!
hiking in september
September is a beautiful month to take a hike in Rocky Mountain National Park. The foliage is magnificent and the weather is sunny and pleasant. Below are a few suggested hikes for September:
1. Twin Sisters Peak
- Mileage: 7.0 miles round trip
- Elevation Gain: 2475 feet
- Trailhead: Lily Lake
The first three miles are a moderate climb, followed by switchbacks, and then another moderate climb through beautiful golden aspen and evergreens. At mile 3 you will exit the forest. The next half mile takes you through a rocky field and the views become ever expansive and breathtaking. When you reach the saddle you’ll be standing in between the two peaks. Feel free to ascend either peak, or both. Each are only another 100 foot of elevation gain.
2. Sky Pond
- Mileage: 9.0 miles round trip
- Elevation Gain: 1780 feet
- Trailhead: Glacier Gorge
Begin your hike at the Glacier Gorge trailhead in the Bear Lake area. Your first destination is the 30 foot plunging Alberta Falls, located within the first mile of this hike. Within the next mile you’ll reach two trail junctions, North Longs Peak Trail (turn right) and Mills Junction (continue straight). Next you’ll climb up switchbacks through a beautiful gorge till you reach the subalpine lake Loch Vale at 2.8 miles. At the foot of the lake you’ll have spectacular views of Taylor Peak. After leaving Loch Vale, you’ll climb again for another 0.8 miles and take the trail junction to the left to continue on to Sky Pond. Climb the next half mile to reach to base of Timberline Falls. The next section of the trail runs along Timberline Falls where you’ll have to rock scramble up 100 feet. If you so choose, Glass Lake will be your reward. A rocky trail around the west side of the lake takes you 0.4 miles to Sky Pond at 10,900 feet with sheer cliffs of granite towering above you. It will be worth the effort to see this magnificent sight.
3. Cascade Falls
- Mileage: 6.8 miles round trip
- Elevation Gain: 430 feet
- Trailhead: North Inlet
Hiking in the Kawuneeche Valley in the fall is quite special. In the fall, there is plenty of brook trout in the North Inlet Creek, so you can bring along your fishing rod. This hike runs along the North Inlet trail, which is part of the larger Continental Divide National Scenic Trail. Though this hike is almost seven miles, it has an easy elevation profile. It takes you through an open meadow with golden quaking aspens, lodgepole pines, and the occasional marmot. An evergreen forest grows ever thicker up to the three mile mark. Take the junction to the right to reach the 40 foot Cascade Falls which can be viewed from above or below. Be careful with the rock scramble up to the top if you choose to do so. A large meadow is just beyond the falls, a good place for a picnic lunch, but beware of wildlife as moose and elk are often spotted here.
weather in september
Rocky Mountain National Park in September is quite pleasant. Keep in mind that the west side of the Park at Grand Lake has more precipitation— afternoon storms and potentially high winds are possible. At Grand Lake in September, there is a high of 66ºF (18ºC) and 28ºF (-2ºC) and an average of five to seven days of precipitation. In Estes Park in September, you can expect a high of 69ºF (20ºC) and low of 41ºF (5ºC).
JOIN A GUIDED COLORADO HIKING ADVENTURE
Rocky Mountain National Park is home to some of the most epic and amazing hiking vacations in the world. Wildland Trekking offers trips with the best of Rocky Mountain: waterfalls, mountains, views, wildlife, solitude, adventure and fascinating natural and cultural interpretation.
Guided Rocky Mountain treks are all-inclusive which covers permits; local transportation (excluded on certain tours); meals; equipment; safety systems and professional hiking/wilderness guides; all of which allows visitors to maximize their time in Rocky Mountain and focus entirely on enjoying the Park.
ROCKY MOUNTAIN ADVENTURE TOURS
- GUIDED BACKPACKING ADVENTURES: these are for people interested in an authentic Rocky Mountain adventure away from the roads and crowds.
- PORTERED & LLAMA TRIPS: on these innovative trips, guests hike with light day packs and camp near in stunning backcountry locations.
- INN-BASED PACKAGES: these tours are all-inclusive packages with lodging, amazing daily hikes, expert guides, meals, transportation and more!
- CAMPING-BASED HIKING PACKAGES: camping-based hiking packages provide all-around hiking experiences of Rocky Mountain on wonderful outdoor vacations.
- DAY HIKE TOURS: maximize your day in Rocky Mountain on a fully guided, award-winning hiking tour on one of the Park’s best trails.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Erin McCarthy is a freelance writer and former Colgate University Outdoor Education Leader. When Erin isn’t writing, she is exploring the mountains and rivers of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. You can view her complete portfolio at www.erinannmccarthy.com.