In most parts of the country, the month of May is when life springs into action. Heavy winters and rainy Aprils give way to sunshine, warm temperatures, and endless outdoor fun. But, is that true in the Rockies? Mountain areas tend to take a lot longer to thaw than they do elsewhere- areas like the North Cascades aren’t fully open until July.. If you’ve been itching to visit Rocky Mountain National Park, you might be wondering if May is a good time. Let’s investigate.
Is May a Good Month to Visit Rocky Mountain National Park?
Rocky Mountain National Park has a permit system that requires you to reserve a time slot in the park. That permit system, though, doesn’t open until May 28. Before that, you can enter and hike in the park without a reservation. If you’re thinking the reason the permit system doesn’t apply until May 28 is because the park is largely frozen over- you would be correct.
The park, one of the most popular in the nation, does not fully enter summer until the second week of June. If you’re there before that time, chances of a snowstorm exist, and so do chances for an avalanche. Melting snow and ice become unstable, which means avalanches are a distinct possibility in May.
Still, though, visiting Rocky Mountain National Park in May isn’t completely useless. The lower trails will be open and mostly free (if not completely free), and you can have a lot of fun without going too high up. Many of the higher trails will still be accessible, if you know what you’re doing and have the proper gear!
One word of warning: don’t be foolish if you’re hiking above 7,000 feet. The snow is melting, and avalanches can occur. If you think it’s unsafe, it’s better to turn back and enjoy a great dinner than it is to be trapped in the mountains with the sun quickly disappearing! If the weather turns bad, you turn around!
What is Spring Like in the Colorado Rockies?
Spring arrives in April, just like it does everywhere else. However, there is massive snowfall from winter that takes forever to melt. That makes April and May months of great change- melting snow (and therefore mud) abound. If you’re visiting during this time, you can expect things to get messy.
A great deal of what the weather is like depends on the elevation. Lower elevations feel a lot like normal spring. Between 9,000 and 11,000 feet, however, the snow stays a lot longer- as do the temperatures. For the subalpine and alpine parts of the park, you’ll have to wait until mid-June (or longer) to get clear, dry trails.
April-May temperatures at lower elevations range in the 40s-60s; higher up, don’t expect it to get above 50 for a while. If you don’t mind layering, though, the weather can actually feel quite pleasant! If you venture into the alpine areas, you should pack for the cold- and the occasional snowstorm.
Wildflowers will bloom at the lower elevations in late April, making May a great time to see fields of wildflowers spreading out below snow-capped peaks. As for rain, expect to deal with it frequently but not constantly.
All things considered, the weather in Rocky Mountain National Park in the months of April and May, while not ideal, is still more than good enough to have an amazing time! Just make sure that you bring your microspikes! Hint: you can find my personal favorite microspikes in this review!
Rocky Mountain Hiking and Camping in May
Camping and Hiking are the best parts of any national park visit. If you’re heading to Colorado in May, there won’t be many campsites that are open; the ones that are are still likely to be covered in snow. But, there is a way to confirm whether your visit will coincide with a nice time to be on a specific campsite or trail!
On the National Parks Service website, you can see what different campsites are like during the week that you’re trying to visit. For each wilderness campsite, you can see what day the snow is supposed to melt on:
Before you go (or decide not to), check the wilderness campsite info sheets to figure out whether or not the places you’re trying to visit will be accessible! This is a very helpful feature; before I found it, I wasn’t sure if camping in May was a good idea. Now, at least, I know that there are some good options available! Note, though, that most campsites are snow covered until well into June.
What is the Best time of Year to Visit?
The best months of the year to be in Rocky Mountain National Park are between June and October. On each end of that spectrum, you’ll find the park a bit less crowded than you would in July or August. Once November hits, the park, and Trail Ridge Road, are mostly closed down and only visited by people who love the snow and know what they’re doing. The Alpine Visitor Center, along Trail Ridge Road, shuts down on October 11 and doesn’t reopen until May 31 each year.
If you’re planning a trip to Rocky Mountain National Park and have some flexibility in your schedule, aim for the months of June (between the 14th and end of the month) and September (any day). You can also visit in July and August, but the crowds will be thicker. Visiting in May is possible, but don’t expect to be summiting any 14ers while you’re there- at least not without crampons and some training!
So, is visiting Rocky Mountain National Park in May a good idea? It’s not exactly a good idea, and it’s not exactly a bad idea. The longer you can delay your trip into the summer, the better. If you can’t avoid May, you can still enjoy lots of lower trails, waterfalls, and scenic views. Trail Ridge Road will open up at some point during the month, so you can at least take a scenic drive through one of America’s most beautiful National Parks!