Off-Peak: Why Visiting RMNP in Slow Season is Still Worth It

Experience RMNP without the crowds, bugs, or breaking the bank. Your Instagram followers will be none the wiser.

Mid-summer is the peak time to visit many of the U.S. National Parks, but it’s also when tourists and campers swarm to avail the temperate weather, flourishing wildlife, and burst of flora.  Lodging is the most expensive and accommodations fill up fast. Even obtaining camping permits can be difficult if not procured several months in advance. Entryways and exits for the park can become congested, and finding parking can be a struggle.

Therefore, don’t be afraid to visit parks during the slower times too, which lets you avoid the masses, take advantage of lower room rates, and absorb the park’s grandeur in a more personal way.

We visited Rocky Mountain National Park this year during Memorial Day Weekend. Although this holiday is a high travel period and marks the opening of its main thoroughfare, weather in the Rockies at this time is still unpredictable, and the main road that cuts through it was only partially accessible when we visited. We were told all the trails were still covered in snow, too.

While the thrill and views did not match those we experienced in Grand Teton and Yellowstone during high season in July, there were still benefits of visiting before the arrival of the tourist throngs.

1. You can stop and park anywhere you want*

This may not be allowed or be the safest aspect to promote, but since there are far fewer cars on the road, it’s possible.

Trail Ridge Road is the main paved road that runs through RMNP, and it has the highest elevation of any road in a national park.   Running 48 sinuous miles through the Rockies and cutting across the Continental Divide, it gives you views of Long’s Peak, the highest point in the park, and takes you through varied terrain within minutes–forests, subalpine landscapes, and tundra.

During our visit, we drove along Bear Lake Road and Trail Ridge Road up to Rainbow Curve, as snow had blocked off the remainder, but we were able to take in spectacular views of Long’s Peak from multiple angles. (*NOTE: On Trail Ridge Road, you gain elevation quickly, winds can be strong at higher elevations, and there are few guardrails. Make sure to heed signs and warnings. SAFETY FIRST.)

In peak season, because there is a steady flow of cars on the winding roads, you have to wait for a pull-out before you can stop to enjoy the view. For us, since there was very little traffic, we were able to stop to click quick pics of animals gathered in Beaver Meadows, Moraine Park, and Hidden Valley.

2. No photo bombers

How often have you had to wait for other tourists to get out of the frame or strategically move your camera so you can take uninterrupted photos without humans in the way? Visiting in the slow season means, regardless of the angle, your shots are clear of photo bombers. (Unless of course your 4-month-old infant decides to make faces for the camera).

For instance, our many strolls — in the early morning, afternoon and dusk— around Sprague Lake offered private views.

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Sprague Lake at dawn.

Here, you can walk the loop around the lake (less than one mile) to catch the reflection of the mountains in the water. If you’re lucky, you might even see moose. Without other tourists in our way, we soaked in the tranquility of our surroundings.

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View of the mountains over Sprague Lake.

3. Lower rates

We managed to snag the spacious “Romantic Rose” suite at the Sonnenhof Lakewood Manor in Estes Park, the main town just outside the east edge of RMNP. I was impressed with how comfortably the room was furnished and the view it offered from the balcony.

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Mary Lake is located just below the grounds of the Sonnenhof Lodge.

When I checked the room rate for this same lodge in July, prices were 40-50% higher than during the Memorial Day Weekend, even though the views from that balcony would still be the same.

On our last day, we had breakfast with our hosts, Hilde and Rudy. Rudy made sure to include vegetarian options for me: fruit, Belgian waffles and spicy potato hash with red peppers. We learned that the couple had worked in the hotel business in Estes for many years, and eventually decided to host travelers in a more intimate setting. Throughout our stay they had offered restaurant suggestions and tips on where to view wildlife.

4. No wildlife jams

One of the main reasons I love to visit national parks is the thrill of looking for animals in their natural settings. The backup of cars due to wildlife viewing, or “wildlife jams”  that often occur during the peak season can intimidate animals, cause delay in travel times, and in general, make for an annoying experience. However, that’s not a problem at slower times. (Granted, it’s harder to view wildlife in the low season since many animals may still tucked away in their dens, but at this time of year, we were still able to see several dozens of elk, mule deer, and a wild turkey.)

My favorite moment from the trip was early one morning when we drove through Beaver Meadows just after sunrise. Jis spotted a dark figure in the grass.

iPhone shot of the stag

A stag was seated peacefully under a tree, as if he too, were taking in views of the mountains. With no other cars behind us or people to surround us or scare him away, I was able to step out of the car to get a closer look, using my husband’s zoom lens and making sure to stand the required 25 yards away. Even at this distance, when the stag suddenly broke his stillness to turn around and look directly at me, I got spooked and figured it was time to back up.

stag in Rocky Mountain national Park, wildlife in Rocky Mountain National Park
Photo taken with my husband’s DSLR.

5. Experience like a local

Visiting the park at a time when there are fewer tourists lets you mingle more leisurely with the people who live around the park year-round.

The weekend we were in the Rockies, there was an art festival in Estes Park. The weather was gorgeous, so we took the time to appreciate the craftsmanship of local artisans as they showcased pottery, handmade jewelry, paintings, photographs, and tapestries, all inspired by their natural environs.

One couple who displayed wildlife photographs rendered as paintings told us of their encounters with the animals in the images, and of the unique woods they had used to frame them.

In a handicrafts shop nearby, the Nepali owner told us of how there is a well-established community of Nepali people in Estes Park. He said due to unfortunate natural disasters in their home country many Nepali people migrated to the U.S. and settled in the Colorado town that reminded them of the scenery back home.

And who could blame them? They live against the backdrop of the Rockies day in and day out while the rest of us can only manage to choose a season during which to visit.

Ever traveled off-season?

Have you ever visited one of the national parks or any other popular tourist destination off-season? What were the benefits and drawbacks? What did you experience? Let me know in the comments!


Want to learn about other U.S. National Parks? Check out these related guides:

3 comments on “Off-Peak: Why Visiting RMNP in Slow Season is Still Worth It

  1. ❤️ this! I visited in early May for my birthday and off-season is such a nice time to go!


  2. Pingback: Exploring the Big Island, Hawaii’s Most Dynamic Isle – In Transit Travel + Food Blog

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