Estes Park is located at 7,522 feet (2,293 m) above sea level. Altitude sickness, also called acute mountain sickness or AMS, can occur as low as 6,500 feet (2,000 m). While the textbooks might tell you that it is unusual for people to experience altitude sickness below 8,000 feet (2,400 meters), in my experience, it is a common ailment to visitors of Estes Park.
What Is It?
At higher altitudes, your body takes in less oxygen due to the decrease in air pressure. Your body probably won’t like that, and might rebel by experiencing the following symptoms, usually within the first 48 hours of arriving at high elevations:
- Dizziness and lightheadedness
- Shortness of breath
- Lack of appetite, nausea, or vomiting
- Fatigue and weakness
- Difficulty sleeping
We’ve had altitude sickness more times than we’d like to remember. Some people describe it as being similar to a bad hangover, with a pounding headache being one of the most common symptoms. The headache can be even worse if you are susceptible to sinus headaches.
The best treatment for altitude sickness is to descend to lower elevation. For mild cases, however, that usually isn’t necessary.
Giving yourself plenty of opportunity to rest and drinking a ton (we mean a TON) of water are the next best things you can do. By a TON of water, we mean keep drinking until your urine is clear. That may mean half a gallon or more. Most of us aren’t hydrated enough as it is, and high altitude exacerbates that. So drink lots and lots and lots of water and mark all the restrooms on your map before you get here. : ) We can’t stress this enough! Water water water water water!!!
Avoid drinking caffeine or alcohol. Mild analgesics, such as Tylenol, can also help, but water and rest are your best bets. Keeping a bit of food in your stomach between meals is a good idea too. Altitude sickness will usually subside within a few hours, and mostly disappear within a day or so.
The best way to prevent altitude sickness is to ascend to higher elevations slowly. For example, if you are driving to Estes Park from sea level, you may want to spend a night or two in Denver.
Once you arrive in Estes, you should plan on avoiding exertion for the first day or so. You should also wait until later in your trip to drive over Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park (which has a high point of 12,183 ft [3700 m]), or to climb any mountain peaks.
And, you should drink lots and lots and lots and lots and lots of WATER!
Who Can Get It
Altitude sickness can affect anyone, even pets! No one can predict who will get altitude sick and who won’t. Physical fitness, age, and gender don’t make a bit of difference. Different people’s bodies just acclimatize at different rates. The faster you ascend to high altitude, the more likely you are to experience altitude sickness.
Is It Serious?
Usually, altitude sickness is not serious, but in rare instances, especially at very high altitudes, more serious, life-threatening conditions can occur, such as High Altitude Pulmonary Edema and High Altitude Cerebral Edema. We won’t go into the details of these, but the likelihood of your experiencing either of these conditions in Estes Park is very rare.
If you decide to drive across Rocky Mountain National Park, however, you will be going to a much higher altitude. Be aware that if you experience symptoms much worse than those listed above, such as confusion, inability to catch your breath even at rest, gurgling breaths, frothing coughs, blueness around the lips or fingernails, or swelling hands and feet, SEEK MEDICAL ATTENTION! If you are unsure, SEEK MEDICAL ATTENTION!
What About Other Illnesses?
You should also be aware that if you have any pre-existing medical conditions, these can be exacerbated at high altitude. Anyone with heart problems, high blood pressure, history of stroke, etc. should speak with their doctor before going to high elevations, particularly those found in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Please pay attention to your body, and do not overdo it! It is best to be safe than sorry! We have had the unfortunate experience of trying to revive people who ignored their symptoms. Please be aware of what your body is telling you. If in doubt, seek help.