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National Park vs. National Forest: What’s the Difference?

Picture this: you’re planning a trip to Estes Park, CO to experience the untamed beauty of the forests, mountains, and wildlife surrounding the town. You know that there are public lands in the area, but you don’t know which areas are pay-to-play and which are free to access and use by visitors. You’ve heard of both national parks and national forests, but aren’t sure which option is best for you based on the adventure you’re looking to experience.


We know the distinction between national parks and national forests can be a bit confusing, and the entry fees and accessibility options can be even more so. That’s why this week, we are diving into the differences between the national park and national forests that border Estes Park. 


Rocky Mountain National Park



Rocky Mountain National Park encompasses over 400 square miles of federally protected land, and is a top tourist destination in Colorado. RMNP is part of the national park system, which protects and preserves the natural and cultural resources and values of each national park for enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations. Because the main goal of national parks is preservation, access is very strictly monitored to conserve the integrity of the area. 


To access Rocky Mountain National Park, one must have both an entry pass for their vehicle, and during peak hours in the summertime, a separate timed entry pass that grants the passholder access to certain areas of the park. Between the hours of 9am-2pm, a timed entry permit is required to access all areas of the national park. If entering before 9am or after 2pm, visitors may enter the park without a timed entry reservation, and may access all areas of the park except the Bear Lake Road corridor, which requires its own designated permit between the hours of 5am-6pm daily. 


National Forest



National Forests, on the other hand, are public lands specifically managed for use by the public. While national parks are focused on preservation and not altering the existing state of the land, national forests encourage the use of the land. In fact, the mission of the USDA Forest Service is to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations. This includes the management of timber, recreation, grazing, wildlife, fish, and more. 


As such, entry into the national forest is free and no timed entry permit is required to access or recreate on the land. This makes it a great alternative for people who are not looking to spend money or time navigating entrance fees, timed entry reservations, etc. Between the Roosevelt and Arapaho National Forests, there are hundreds of miles of trails and roads that are prime for exploring in an off-roading vehicle. 


At Backbone Adventures, we exclusively operate on national forest land. The use of motorized vehicles such as side by sides and four-wheelers is prohibited in the national park, so the national forest is home to the trails and roads where we send our guests. The natural beauty of Colorado is just as exquisite on national forest land as it is in the national park, and far fewer visitors of this area get to experience the quieter, less-traveled trails of the national forest land than those of the busier, more popular national park. Interested in learning more about how Backbone Adventures can help you experience an unforgettable adventure during your stay? Contact us today!




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