JUST AN HOUR AND A HALF'S DRIVE from Denver and less than an hour from Boulder, Rocky Mountain National Park draws legions of Front Range residents with its elk meadows, hikes to chilly alpine lakes, and Trail Ridge Road, its Divide-straddling highway. Less appreciated is that when it comes to CLIMBING, the park's got something for every subculture: alpine routes, sport climbs, bouldering, ice climbs, ski-mountaineering tours. At 14,255 feet, Longs Peak is "the granddaddy of them all," says Jim Detterline, a ranger who's summited Longs 186 times and counting. Perhaps as many as 20,000 other people also reach the top each year, most of them by the Keyhole Route (the only way to hike to the top) and most of them in August. Very few brave the Stettner's Ledges route on the mountain's East Face. Their loss. Rich with alpine history, the climb, rated a Grade III 5.8, was first ascended in 1927 by a pair of German-American brothers from Illinois; at the time, it was among the continent's toughest routes, and it's still no gimme, even for those acclimatized to high altitude and up to the task. Stettner's entails a pre-climb backcountry bivouac, a glacier crossing, and ten pitches (the last four on the Kiener route) over fractured granite, chimneys, cracks, ledges, and past rows of rusting pitons from generations ago, all capped by a 600-foot scramble over scree to the top. Typically, this means six to eight hours of heroics after a 5 or 6 a.m. start to avoid afternoon lightning. But you'll still want to pause to catch your breath and take in your surroundings, which include a close-up view of the Diamond, a 1,200-foot-tall face that Detterline likens to a Yosemite-style big wall, only with high altitude thrown in for good measure. Those who prefer to start on a slightly smaller scale can contact the Colorado Mountain School in Estes Park (970-586-5758) about lessons and guided climbs.
WHEN TO GO: The last two weeks in October are a good betwinter hasn't yet arrived, and most tourists have departed.
ANNUAL VISITORS: 3.4 million. (High: July, 774,781. Low: January, 79,126.)
MORE CHOICE ADVENTURE: The elk put on a blockbuster show from late August to early October, when bulls battle for mates and eerie bugling echoes through the meadows. Catch the performances sans the mob in the Arapahoe Meadows and Lily Lake areas.
HEADLAMP READING: Rocky Mountain National Park Climber's Guide: High Peaks, by Bernard Gillet; Rocky Mountain National Park Natural History Handbook, by John C. Emerick
LOCAL SPECIALTY: If you're really determined to go native, drop in at the Buckhorn Exchange, Denver's oldest restaurant, for the Rocky Mountain oysters (translation: fried bull testicles).
INSIDE SCOOP: Rumor has it that stashed away in a file at park headquarters, there remains a sheet of butcher paper on which a pair of hikers years ago sketched an outline of a five-toed, 24-inch-long, humanlike footprint they found in the mud in a seldom-visited area of the parkevidence, some allege, of Rocky Mountain's very own Bigfoot.
PARK HEADQUARTERS: 970-586-1206, www.nps.gov/romo