The Ultimate Guide to Visiting Rocky Mountain National Park (Tips, things to do, where to stay, & itineraries!)

Visiting Rocky Mountain National Park? In this detailed guide we’re sharing everything you need to know before you visit, the best things to do in Rocky Mountain National Park, sample itineraries, and more!

Back in 2017 we visited Rocky Mountain National Park for the first time while on a 4 day Colorado road trip, which at the time was our 6th US National Park (we’ve now been to 41 parks!). Even during a quick, one day visit, we fell in love with the rocky peaks, alpine lakes, and gorgeous scenery around every corner and knew we’d be back someday to experience more of what it has to offer.

Lake of Glass Rocky Mountain National Park

And 4 years later, in the summer of 2021, we finally had the chance to return and during our few days there we were able to visit new areas of the park, admire the alpine tundra, go for a scenic drive, see tons of wildlife, hike to over 8 lakes, and so much more.

Watch us explore Rocky Mountain National Park, including driving Trail Ridge Road and hiking to Sky Pond!

Now after two visits and experiencing the majority of the park’s highlights, we’re excited to share our favorite spots, plus important things to know, sample itineraries, and so much more so that you can plan your own epic Rocky Mountain adventure!

WARNING: There are so many things to do at Rocky Mountain National Park, as well as many things to be aware of before you go, so this guide is very long! But if you want to skip ahead to any section, we have a table of contents below.

Note: this guide contains affiliate links, which means that if you use the links provided and make a purchase, we get a small commission at no extra cost to you. We will only ever recommend products we truly love, actually use during our adventures, and think you can benefit from too!

About Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park is paradise for nature, wildlife, and adventure lovers. Located in Northern Colorado, the park’s over 415 square miles, split by the Continental Divide, includes a variety of different environments, including 60 rocky peaks over 12,000 feet, dense forests, pristine lakes, wide open meadows, and an alpine tundra. There is no shortage of beauty!

Rocky Mountain National Park became a national park in 1915, but for thousands of years, the area was visited by the Ute Native Americans, before eventually becoming occupied by miners, homesteaders, hunters, and ranchers, who similar to the Utes, found value in the area’s land, wildlife, and other resources, such as gold and water.

Fast forward to today and it’s now one of the most popular national parks in the United States, ranking as the 4th most visited in 2020!

Please treat Rocky Mountain National Park with Respect

Before going any further into Rocky Mountain National Park, one thing we really want to stress is to PLEASE treat the park with respect. With millions of visitors a year, the park is impacted heavily by humans, so please follow Leave No Trace principles so that others can enjoy these places for many years to come! 

Beyond the 7 LNT principles, please take a minute to read the Rocky Pledge and remember it when you visit Rocky Mountain National Park and amazing places like it. The park is full of fragile terrain, including alpine tundra areas, and also is home to tons of wildlife, so please follow all rules when exploring the park.

There have been many people caught on camera going up to wildlife (including animals like elk that WILL hurt you!) and we even saw people walking off trail in the fragile tundra areas, including with their dogs, which are prohibited. We love getting to share these beautiful places and help you explore them and we hope that you will treat them with the respect they deserve.

The different areas of Rocky Mountain National Park

Unlike some national parks, which have distinct areas that are spread out, Rocky Mountain National Park is mostly one contained area that is accessible via a couple main roads and while there are different regions, such as the Bear Lake Road Corridor, Wild Basin, and Fall River, the park is typically split up into east vs. west.

The east side is located near Estes Park and has two official entrances at Beaver Meadows (the main entrance) and Fall River, as well as ranger stations at Wild Basin and Longs Peak. The East side is considered to be the busiest side of the park, as it’s home to the Bear Lake Road Corridor, which has some of the park’s most popular hikes.

Mount Ida Rocky Mountain National Park

The west side is located near Grand Lake and has only one entrance at Grand Lake. This is the quieter side of the park, but still offers tons to see and do! Although, there have been some closures recently due to past wildfires, which you can see the damage from just by driving through the park.

The east and west sides of the park are connected by the 48 mile Trail Ridge Road, which is an incredibly scenic road (more on that later!), and takes 1.5 hours to get from one entrance to the other. 

How to get to Rocky Mountain National Park

Trail Ridge Road Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park is located Northwest of both Denver and Boulder, Colorado, with the closest major airport being the Denver International Airport (DIA), which is located about  30 minutes to the east of Denver and has tons of nonstop flights from all over the United States on basically any airline. 

From the airport to the Beaver Meadows entrance on the east side (the most popular), you can expect to drive between 1.5-2 hours, depending on whether you take tolls or not (make sure to turn on “avoid tolls” in Google Maps if you want to skip the tolls). From the airport to the Grand Lake entrance on the west side, the drive is about 2.5 hours.

Driving to Rocky Mountain National Park instead? 

Here is how long you can expect to be on the road from the major cities in Colorado: 

  • Boulder: 1 hour (Beaver Meadows), 2.5 hours (Grand Lake)
  • Fort Collins: 1 hour, 15 minutes (Beaver Meadows), 3 hours (Grand Lake)
  • Denver: 1.5 hours (Beaver Meadows), 2 hours (Grand Lake)
  • Colorado Springs: 2 hours, 45 minutes (Beaver Meadows), 3 hours (Grand Lake)

How to get around Rocky Mountain National Park

Glacier Gorge Trailhead

Rocky Mountain National Park does offer a park shuttle for a small area of the park, which we will explain more below, but for the most part, you will need a car to get around Rocky Mountain National Park.

If you are going to rent a car, any type of car will work for the park, as the majority is paved, minus Fall River Road, which is gravel, but still accessible in a sedan.

Free park shuttle

There are a few free park shuttle routes on the east side, but the west side of the park does not have a shuttle.

The shuttle options on the east side center around the Bear Lake Road Corridor. There are two shuttles on the road, the Bear Lake route and the Moraine Park route, which will take you to various trailheads and campgrounds on the road. To access these shuttles, you will need to have a timed entry reservation to get into the Bear Lake Road Corridor, as the shuttles begin at 6:30 AM, which is after a reservation is required.

However, there is historically another shuttle that goes from the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center to the park and ride on Bear Lake Road, called the Hiker Shuttle, which would allow you into that area for just your park entrance fee (no reservation), but it was not offered in 2021. We are not sure if it will be offered in the future, so please check for updates here.

Personally, we’d try to get into the park early enough to avoid the shuttle for a couple reasons. One, having to wait for a shuttle can be time consuming (at least it was in 2017 when we took it) and two, the shuttle brings larger amounts of hikers to one trailhead at once, so you’ll likely encounter busier trails this way.

Note: There are no RV parking spots at the trailheads on Bear Lake Road, so if you’re in an RV, you will need to park at the park and ride. 

Timed Entry Reservations for Rocky Mountain National Park

As we have alluded to above, Rocky Mountain National Park requires timed entry reservations to enter the park between May 27 and October 10, unless you have a campground or a tour in the park booked, in addition to your entrance fee.

This is a way to help manage the high visitation levels within the park and while on paper it sounds frustrating to have to get these reservations (and they can be hard to get), we personally loved it, as we felt that it helped reduce crowds.

NOTE: Reservations need to be made for EACH day you plan to visit the park.

The different types of timed entry reservations

There are two types of timed entry reservations: one for the Bear Lake Road Corridor (which also works for the entire park) and one for the rest of the park (minus Bear Lake Road). Here’s a breakdown of the details for each one!

Bear Lake Road Corridor (+ entire park)

A reservation is required for the Bear Lake Road Corridor between the hours of 5 AM (MDT) and 6 PM (MDT). This reservation not only covers the Bear Lake Road Corridor, which is the most popular area of the park, but it also gives you access to the entire park as well.

So basically, this is the best reservation to get, as it’ll get you anywhere you want in the park. But because of this, they are HARD to get. We were unable to get Bear Lake Road Corridor permits for our visit, but there is a way around them, which we will share more about below.

The rest of the park 

A reservation is required to get into the rest of the park between the hours of 9 AM (MDT) and 3 PM (MDT).

This reservation type does NOT include the Bear Lake Road Corridor, but there is still so much to see and do outside of that region. We were able to get multiple reservations for the park areas outside of Bear Lake without much issue, although being flexible on time is key, as the early timeslots sell out first.

How to get a reservation

These reservations are technically free, but have a $2 processing fee that is nonrefundable. And you can obtain your timed entry reservation on recreation.gov during an open period for reservations. 

Open Period #1

75% of the permits will become available at 10 AM Mountain Time on the first day of the month for the following month. For example, if you want to visit the park on a specific day in the month of July, you will need to make your reservation on June 1.

Open Period #2

Additionally, if you plan last minute or missed a permit when they went on sale originally, 25% of permits will be reserved and be made available for purchase the day prior at 5 PM Mountain Time. 

We suggest getting the earliest time slot possible, as the park only gets busier as the day goes on. But if you do not get a reservation, you do have other options!

What to do if you do NOT have a timed entry reservation

Thankfully there is a way around the reservations! Since the reservations are just for specific time periods, you can enter the park before reservations are required or after they are required and not need one!

So for the Bear Lake Road Corridor, you’ll need to enter the park before 5 AM or after 6 PM and for the rest of the park, before 9 AM or after 3 PM if you do not have a reservation.

Glacier Gorge Trail Rocky Mountain National Park

In our opinion, starting before 5 AM, especially for the Bear Lake Corridor, is a great idea regardless of whether you have a reservation or not, as this area gets very busy and this will help you beat the crowds (and afternoon thunderstorms!).

The booth to check permits for the park is at any of the entrance stations and for Bear Lake Road, they have a booth to check right about here, so as long as you’re past these entrance points before or after the required time slots, you’ll be good to go without a reservation! 

However, this means that if you hike early and then decide to leave the park afterwards, you will need a reservation to get back in or you’ll have to wait until later in the day when reservations aren’t required. We never had an issue getting a reservation for the areas outside of Bear Lake for the afternoons though!

When to visit Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park is open to visit everyday of the year, however your experience will vary depending on the season and time of day.

What to expect in different seasons

In our opinion, the best time to visit Rocky Mountain National Park, if you want to have access to the most hikes and scenic drives, is from June to September. This is the busiest time of the year, but if you can handle getting up extra early to beat crowds, you will have access to mostly snow free trails and be able to drive Trail Ridge Road, which we share more about below.

On this past trip to the park we visited in the end of June to early July, but we have also visited mid July, and during both visits, we didn’t encounter much snow and were able to do everything we wanted, for the most part. 

This guide will be focused on visiting in the summer, as it’s what we have the most knowledge on.

However, if you’re willing to deal with some snow and some closures, May and October will be a good time to beat crowds and will most likely have pretty decent weather, but things can change quickly, so be prepared for anything.

You can also snowshoe, cross country ski, or sled in the park in the winter, which would be very magical! Visiting during this time does not require a timed entry reservation, but make sure to read up on avalanche safety, as avalanches are a threat when hiking in snowy conditions.

Wildfires

The west unfortunately has wildfires every year and even if the area you are visiting does not have an active fire, winds can spread smoke across states. When wildfires start varies year to year, but in 2021, it felt like they started earlier than normal.

We thankfully had clear skies in late June through early July at Rocky Mountain National Park, but we could’ve easily been dealing with smoke too. One tool we use to check fires and see where smoke is the thickest is AirNow.

Hike early and on a weekday!

Regardless of when you visit, we suggest entering the park before sunrise in the summertime and early any time of the year to have the least crowded experience (but still expect to see people). And if you can swing it, you’ll have less crowds if you can go midweek rather than the weekend. 

How much time do you need at Rocky Mountain National Park?

Alpine Visitor Center Rocky Mountain National Park

This is a tough question because there is SO much to do in the park that you could visit every weekend for a year and likely never run out of hikes. But for those wanting to experience the park’s biggest highlights, we suggest having at least 2 full days, but ideally 3-5 days.

We have spent between 1-3 days in the park and will share some itinerary options at the end of this guide to help you plan and prioritize your time!

Where to stay at Rocky Mountain National Park

Besides staying in the park at one of the campgrounds, the most convenient places to stay to visit Rocky Mountain National Park is in either Estes Park (east side) or Grand Lake (west side).

While both of these towns offer a variety of lodging options, grocery stores, restaurants, and other amenities, Estes Park is the much more popular option, as it is closest to the top sights in the park, but we’ll include options for both below!

Camping at Rocky Mountain National Park

Campgrounds inside the park

Rocky Mountain National Park is home to five campgrounds, three of which require reservations (Moraine Park, Glacier Basin, and Aspenglen) and two that are first-come, first-served (Longs Peak and Timber Creek).

Moraine Park (244 sites) and Glacier Basin (150 sites) are located on Bear Lake Road, making them prime real estate in the park (no timed entry reservations needed!) and both offer sites suitable for RVs (up to 35 or 40 ft) and tents, but do not have electric hookups. 

Aspenglen (52 sites) is located near the Fall River Road entrance, which is close to Estes Park. Similar to the ones above, it does not have electric hookups, but both RVs (under 30 ft) and tents can camp here.

All reservable sites can be typically reserved up to six months in advance on recreation.gov and fill up FAST, so make sure to plan ahead!

For the non-reservable campgrounds, Longs Peak is a tent ONLY campground and has 26 sites, while Timber Creek, which is the only campground on the WEST side, has 98 sites and can accommodate RVs (under 30 ft) and tents, although there are no electric hookups.

Campgrounds outside the park

When we visited, we were unable to get a campsite in the park and since we couldn’t find a ton of free camping on the east side, we decided to book a campsite at Hermit Park Open Space, which we LOVED! The site we had was $30 per night (a good price for the area) and while it didn’t have hookups, it was super wooded and beautiful. It didn’t seem to be full (which was nice!) and the park has trails as well!

There is also a KOA, Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park, and two Estes Park Campgrounds in Estes Park. Near Grand Lake, there is the Stillwater campground and Elk Creek Campground, which look nice!

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Wilderness Camping

Rocky Mountain National Park also has wilderness camping, which would be a fun way to escape the crowds. You are required to have a permit to backpack in the park and these permits are limited. You can find out more about the specific camping areas and permit process here.

Boondocking

We love to boondock and camp for free, but we didn’t see many options that were good for our van (not a 4×4) in Estes Park, which is why we booked the campground mentioned above. However, there are some spots in Allenspark, which is just south of Estes Park.

We did boondock near Grand Lake though, so if you need somewhere to camp for free on that side of the park, the Stillwater Pass Dispersed area was a good spot to explore the west side of the park. The nicer spots were taken by the time we arrived, but there was a dirt lot at the end that a bunch of people camped at.

Airbnbs

Estes Park

Remodeled cabin in the heart of downtown (2 bedrooms, 1 bathroom): We stayed here during a portion of our time at Rocky Mountain National Park along with Kathryn’s brothers and while it’s not cheap (we booked last minute, so our options were limited), it was a super nice Airbnb, with high end finishes, a great back patio, and it was dog friendly!

Historic 1 bedroom downtown cabin (1 bedroom, 1 bathroom): This rustic cabin has a grill, hot tub, and mountain views!

Modern Loft with AC (1 bedroom, 1 bathroom): This garage apartment is nice and bright, with modern finishes.

Cabin with mountain views (2 bedrooms, 1 bathroom): This cabin has nice space for hanging out and great views!

Pet friendly downtown house (3 bedrooms, 1.5 bathrooms): This house is perfect for a larger group and can sleep 8! Plus, the views from the deck are incredible.

Grand Lake

The Backhouse (Studio, 1 bathroom): This small studio doesn’t have a full kitchen, but has enough to make some small meals and is walking distance to town!

Golden Lily at Wild Acre Cabins (Studio, 1 bathroom): This 90 year old log cabin is super bright, cheerful, and charming inside and even has heated bathroom floors!

Violet Sky Pilot at Wild Acre Cabins (2 bedrooms, 1 bathroom): This cabin is on the same property as the one above and is just as beautiful inside, as well as offers a nice backyard with a fire pit! 

The Laundry Room (Studio, 1 bathroom): This former utility room is now a super beautiful, modern Airbnb that has a great outdoor space as well!

Our Grand Lake Cabin (3 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms): This home sleeps 6 and is right on the water! Which means you don’t even have to leave to have a great time! 

Hotels

Estes Park

Despite being a more tourist centric town, Estes Park doesn’t really have many major hotel chains. But they do have some nice local hotel and inn options:

The Stanley Hotel is a very iconic hotel in Estes Park and it’s super cool to visit, but we hear that the rooms are not very clean, there are temperature problems in the room, and other issues. For the price, we hear it’s not worth it, but if you’re really into historic hotels, you might enjoy it.

Grand Lake

Things to know before visiting Rocky Mountain National Park

Afternoon thunderstorms

Afternoon thunderstorms are common during the summer months in Colorado. Much of the park is at very high elevations and being on hill tops, above the treeline, or in exposed areas increases your risk of being struck by lightning. Here is a helpful article with tips on what to do if you find yourself on a trail during a storm. 

Beyond thunderstorms, the weather can change quickly in the mountains, so be prepared for any season!

Acclimate to the altitude

Rocky Mountain National Park ranges from 7,860 feet to 14,259 feet and if you’re coming from a lower altitude, you may experience altitude sickness. 

Symptoms of altitude sickness include headache, nausea, lack of hunger or thirst, difficulty breathing, confusion, and vomiting. If you start to notice these symptoms, it is best to stop where you’re at and begin descending to lower elevation. The only way to treat altitude sickness is to get to lower elevation, drink lots of water, eat something, and get rest. Ignoring altitude sickness can lead to more dangerous side effects.

We suggest giving yourself 1-2 days at higher altitude to acclimate before doing anything too strenuous.

Fees

It costs $25 per vehicle ($25 for motorcycles) to enter Rocky Mountain National Park, which covers 7 days. But if you’re visiting more than one National Park on your trip (or within the year), we highly recommend getting the America the Beautiful pass which is $80 per year and will get you into any National Park, monument, or forest for free.

Cell phone reception

There is very little cell reception in the park, so make sure to download offline Google Maps of the area and any trails you wish to hike on AllTrails. 

Dogs are not allowed! 

Just like many other National Parks, dogs are not allowed outside of parking areas and campgrounds at Rocky Mountain National Park, so please leave them at home or have a safe place for them to be while you hike.

Learn what we do with Kona if she cannot join us during our travels. 

Be aware of wildlife

Rocky Mountain National Park is home to a variety of wildlife (we saw tons of elk and even some moose!), including bears and mountain lions. While we did not see either and they aren’t common to see, make sure you read what to do if you see one. We personally like to carry bear spray on most hikes, both for protection from animals and also any crazy humans, but it is not required in the park and most people do not carry it.

What to Bring to Rocky Mountain National Park

The Loch Rocky Mountain National Park

To see everything we recommend packing for outdoor adventures, check out our hiking gear, where we share everything we bring with us when we hike, including the 10 essentials. But for this specific park, we have a few items we really want to stress bringing with you.

Headlamps

If you plan on getting an early start (recommended) you’ll want headlamps to guide your way. We use these headlamps and they have been great! 

Layers

Make sure to pack layers! The mornings, even in the summer, can be cold at this high altitude, so you’ll want to have warm jackets, but also lighter layers for once you start sweating. Bringing a rain jacket is also a great idea due to the afternoon thunderstorms.

Glacier Gorge Trail Rocky Mountain National Park

Alltrails map

We’d highly recommend downloading the AllTrails maps for all hikes you want to do before you go. While the trail is easy to follow, there are some turn offs and we like to use the map to track our progress along the trail. You will need an AllTrails Pro membership to download maps, which is $30 a year and so worth it!

Spikes

Depending on how early or late in the season you visit, you might encounter snow or ice on the trail. Our Kahtoola MICROspikes are so helpful when the trail is slick!

Patience

No matter what time of year you visit, the park will likely be busy with crowded trails and busy parking lots. Remember everyone is there to enjoy the parks just like you!

Things to do in Rocky Mountain National Park

This isn’t a full list of everything there is to do at Rocky Mountain National Park, as there is SO much to do it would be hard to list it all. But these are some of the best things to do in Rocky Mountain National Park that we would recommend prioritizing while planning your time in the park, especially if it’s your first visit (we’re putting an asterisk by our absolute favorites!).

Full disclosure, we have not done everything on this list, but all of the items listed are spots that we either experienced ourselves or heavily researched and plan to do in the future. To see everything to do in the park, check out the official Rocky Mountain National Park website or visit AllTrails for more trail ideas.

Note: We will be splitting these up by the two different permit types: Bear Lake Road Corridor and the rest of the park, that way depending on what timed entry reservation you have, you can see your options. 

Bear Lake Road Corridor

Just a reminder, you will need this reservation to access everything listed below. This reservation will also get you into everywhere else in the park.

Another thing to note for this area is that many of these hikes can be connected to create longer routes by using a short connector trail from the Bear Lake parking area to the Glacier Gorge Trail. So you can park at one area and hike to the other relatively easily!

For example, on our first visit, we combined Bear Lake, Nymph Lake, Dream Lake, Emerald Lake, Alberta Falls, and Mills Lake into one longer hike. So if you would like to do multiple of these in one day, it’s pretty doable!

Things to do in Rocky Mountain National Park

Bear Lake

Miles (roundtrip): 0.7
Elevation gain: 49 feet
Reviews & Current Conditions

Bear Lake is one of the easiest hikes in the park, but that doesn’t mean it lacks beauty! On this short loop around the lake (which can be wheelchair accessible) you’ll have multiple mountain views, making it a great walk on its own or a great starting or ending point to some of the hikes below!

Nymph, Dream, & Emerald Lakes* 

Miles (roundtrip): 3.2 
Elevation gain: 698 feet
Reviews & Current Conditions

The hike to Emerald Lake, which also includes Nymph and Dream Lakes along the way (plus the possibility to add Bear Lake and Lake Haiyaha), is one of the best bang for your buck trails in the park.

With lower mileage and elevation gain, this is an easier hike than others on this guide, but the scenery is breathtaking! It is quite possibly the most popular hike in the park though, so arriving early or mentally preparing yourself to share the trail with others is key to enjoying this hike.

Read our detailed guide to hiking to Emerald Lake, including how to add Lake Haiyaha and Bear Lake onto your adventure! 

Lake Haiyaha: Things to do in Rocky Mountain National Park

Lake Haiyaha*

Miles (roundtrip): 3.6 
Elevation gain: 846 feet
Reviews & Current Conditions

Despite sharing part of a trail with Emerald Lake and being located close to Dream Lake, Lake Haiyaha is a much less popular trail and makes for a beautiful hike on its own, or combined with Emerald Lake.

The trail is a tad steeper than Emerald Lake, but still pretty easy and similar to the other lakes above, you can expect a gorgeous mountain backdrop and clear water. We highly recommend this one!

Alberta Falls Rocky Mountain National Park

Alberta Falls

Miles (roundtrip): 1.6
Elevation gain: 232 feet
Reviews & Current Conditions

Alberta Falls is a great, accessible waterfall off the Glacier Gorge Trail. While it’s not a super tall waterfall, it has been very powerful both times we have seen it and makes for a great stop while hiking to some of the lakes in the area, or if you’re short on time, visiting it on its own.

Note: You pass by Alberta Falls for both Mills Lake and Sky Pond, so if you’re up for a longer adventure, we suggest hiking to either of those lakes!

Mills Lake Rocky Mountain National Park

Mills Lake*

Miles (roundtrip): 5.4 
Elevation gain: 856 feet
Reviews & Current Conditions

We hiked to Mills Lake on our first visit to Rocky Mountain National Park and loved it! While more mileage than Emerald Lake, it’s not too difficult and from our experience, wasn’t nearly as busy. Similar to the other lakes mentioned, the backdrop is stunning. The lake is a bit longer than the others, so the mountains are further away, but has a very grand, expansive view.

Sky Pond*

Miles (roundtrip): 9.4 
Elevation gain: 1,758 feet
Reviews & Current Conditions

This is hands down, our FAVORITE hike at Rocky Mountain National Park (so far at least)! With Alberta Falls and multiple lakes along the way, a waterfall you climb, and an EPIC view at the end of jagged peaks, this jaw dropping hike offers a variety of things to see and experience.

Due to its mileage, it is less busy than Emerald Lake, but still has many hikers, so you’ll want to start bright and early for this one!

Read our detailed guide to hiking to Sky Pond to learn more about this hike, including what to expect along the way!

Flattop Mountain + Hallett Peak

Miles (roundtrip): 8.2-10.3 
Elevation gain: 2,870-3,292 feet
Reviews & Current Conditions: Flattop Mountain, Hallett Peak

This hike is at the top of our list of hikes we want to conquer on our next visit to the Bear Lake Road Corridor. There are two options for this hike. You can either stop at Flattop Mountain (8.2 miles, 2,870 feet of gain), overlooking Dream Lake, or continue onto Hallett Peak (10.3 miles, 3,293 feet of gain) for an even more challenging hike, which isn’t maintained by the NPS, but does have cairns to help guide the way.

Both options provide sweeping views of the park, but are very challenging and steep, so make sure you’re acclimated to higher altitudes before attempting, as the top of Hallett Peak is almost 13,000 feet. This website has more information on the trail, as well as some photos of what to expect!

The Rest of the Park

Just a reminder, you will need this reservation to access all of these spots below. This reservation will NOT get you into the Bear Lake Road Corridor.

Drive Trail Ridge Road*

Trail Ridge Road is a 48 mile road that connects Grand Lake on the west side of the park to Estes Park on the east end of the park. It was completed in 1933 by the CCC, which helped provide jobs to unemployed men during the Great Depression, and is typically open Memorial Day through mid-October, but can close due to poor weather.

The road is known as the “Highway to the Sky,” with a high point of 12,183 feet and is the highest continuously paved road in the United States (some spots do not have guardrails though!). 11 miles of the road is located in alpine tundra, which is a high elevation area without trees. It is gorgeous!

Alpine Visitor Center Rocky Mountain National Park

Driving this road is an absolute must in our opinion and is such a great way to see some breathtaking scenery without hardly leaving the car! Along the drive, there are many overlooks to stop at and every single one is worth visiting (our favorite stop was the Forest Canyon Overlook).

The road is also home to the Alpine Visitor Center, which is the highest visitor center in the United States at 11,796 feet above sea level. The visitor center has great views on its own, but to see even more views, you can walk up a bunch of steps on the short, but steep Alpine Ridge Trail

Alpine Visitor Center Rocky Mountain National Park

We suggest giving yourself at least 3 hours to drive the entire road (one way). If coming from Estes Park, you could turn around right after the visitor center (about halfway in), as that stretch of the drive has the best views and most overlooks, but if you have time, it’s worth driving all the way to Grand Lake to see the lake. 

Alpine Visitor Center Rocky Mountain National Park

Beware that weather can change rapidly on this drive. When we visited in late June, it was a cloudier day and it was COLD at the Alpine Visitor Center and we even got sleeted on! The visibility wasn’t the best at times, but it gave it a mystical feeling. We drove the road again a few days later in early July and it was a much clearer day. So you never really know what you’ll get!

It’s also VERY important to note that the alpine tundra terrain is very fragile, so PLEASE stay on marked pathways. We saw many people disregarding this. You may also see a lot of elk on this drive, but please NEVER approach wildlife!

Old Fall River Road

Old Fall River Road, which was completed in 1920, was the first autoroute into Rocky Mountain National Park’s high country. It follows a route that was traveled by Native Americans many years ago and the road itself was partially constructed by convicts, who were housed in cabins while working on the road.

Similar to Trail Ridge Road, Old Fall River Road climbs up into the mountains and takes you to the alpine tundra (it ends at the Alpine Visitor Center). It is also closed in the winter.

But unlike Trail Ridge Road, this 11 mile road is gravel (but suitable for all vehicles) and is one way (going up the mountain). It also lacks guardrails, so those who are not a fan of heights may not enjoy some parts of it.

Along the drive you’ll see Chasm Falls, plus some pull offs to enjoy the views, as well as some trail options, like Chapin Creek.

Due to having a large van, we stuck to Trail Ridge Road this past trip, but in the future, we’d love to drive up Old Fall River Road and then take Trail Ridge Road back down, for the ultimate scenic experience.

Mount Ida Rocky Mountain National Park

Mount Ida*

Miles (roundtrip): 9.3
Elevation gain: 2,358 feet
Reviews & Current Conditions

Before our trip, we had heard that Mount Ida was one of the best hikes in the park and we were SO excited to hike it, especially because it’s close to Grand Lake, an area of the park we hadn’t explored before.

We arrived right around sunrise to start this hike and were greeted by lots of clouds and fog, as well as some light sleet. We waited around for a tiny bit for the sleet to stop, admiring elk and even a mommy and baby moose outside of our van. We eventually saw the moose by the lake at the trailhead too, so this is a GREAT spot to see wildlife!

Mount Ida Rocky Mountain National Park

The weather got slightly better, so we hit the trail, which is uphill from the beginning, as it climbs through the forest. We made it above the treeline, where the views were amazing, even with some clouds, before eventually deciding to turn around. We were concerned about potential storms and from what we could tell, the summit of the hike was engulfed in fog, so we didn’t think it was worth the risk.

We were SO bummed, but we wanted to be safe. So while we have yet to hike this entire trail, from what we experienced, it was beautiful and we can only imagine that the summit, which overlooks some lakes, is more than worth the steepness. We will be back to finish this one!

Holzwarth Historic Site

The Holzwarth Historic Site is home to many old buildings that were built by the Holzwarth family, who homesteaded on 160 acres here, starting in 1917. Over time, the Holzwarth family operated the Holzwarth Trout Lodge, which offered activities and meals for visitors, and the Never Summer Ranch. 

And today you can visit some of the old buildings! This site is accessed via Trail Ridge Road and requires a flat, 1.2 mile walk to visit. There is typically a ranger on site that can explain the history and provide tours.

Look for wildlife

Rocky Mountain National Park is home to tons of wildlife and the best chance to see any is around sunrise and sunset.

In our experience, elk are the easiest to see and we saw them multiple times along Trail Ridge Road, as well as at the lake at the Mount Ida Trailhead. Moraine Park is a really popular spot to see elk too!

We also saw multiple moose while in the park! As we mentioned above, we saw a mommy and baby moose at the Mount Ida Trailhead and we also saw another mommy and baby moose after our failed Mount Ida hike at this parking lot.

We may have just had good luck, because we never saw moose again, but it was pretty incredible to see multiple moose within a few hours.

Grand Lake Colorado

Enjoy Grand Lake

Grand Lake, which is located by the western entrance of Rocky Mountain National Park, is a less busy feeling area than Estes Park, but offers some incredible scenery and activities. 

At Grand Lake, you can enjoy the many shops and restaurants that line the downtown, go kayaking, stand up paddle boarding, or boating on the lake, snowmobile in the winter, and so much more! And since it’s not in the park, you will not need a timed reservation to enjoy this area.

We visited this area for the first time on our most recent visit and spent a few hours enjoying the lake views and homemade ice cream from Miyauchi’s!

KimonBerlin, CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Chasm Lake

Miles (roundtrip): 8.8
Elevation gain: 2,542 feet
Reviews & Current Conditions

During our latest visit, we were torn on whether we should do Sky Pond or Chasm Lake. Both looked like stunning alpine lake hikes and while we ultimately decided on Sky Pond, we know we would’ve loved Chasm Lake too.

On this trail, you’ll start in the forest and eventually get above the treeline, where things get a bit rockier. The views will become incredible, with many peaks, including Longs Peak, the highest in the park and the only 14er, in front of you.

The final part of the hike up to the lake is more of a rock scramble, but once you get through this, you’ll be at the beautiful Chasm Lake, which has the backdrop of Longs Peak and like many of the lakes in the park, is clear and blue.

Note: While this hike is located outside of Bear Lake, so it’s easier to visit from a reservation perspective, it does share a trailhead with Longs Peak and the parking fills up early (sometimes by 3 AM since Longs Peak hikers have to start early). So you will need to start this hike very early to get a spot.

ProfPete at the English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Longs Peak

Miles (roundtrip): 14.8 
Elevation gain: 5,039 feet
Reviews & Current Conditions

The hike up to Longs Peak is NOT for everyone and we personally don’t feel comfortable hiking it, but we wanted to mention it since it’s the highest point at Rocky Mountain National Park and the only 14er, at 14,259 feet. 

However, this is not a good first 14er to attempt. The hike itself is pretty intense from an altitude, mileage, and elevation gain perspective, but what makes it even tougher is that after an area called the Keyhole, the trail becomes more of a Class 3 scramble, with narrow ledges and a granite to climb up that may be scary for some. Here are some blog posts that share more about the hike so you can see if it’s something you’re up for: RootsRated & Adventurable.

As we mentioned above, those who attempt to hike up Longs Peak start VERY early, around 2 or 3 AM, to ensure they are back down below the trees before the afternoon thunderstorms start. So if you do plan to attempt this hike, make sure to start very early!

Ouzel Falls

Miles (roundtrip): 5.9
Elevation gain: 1,062 feet
Reviews & Current Conditions

Ouzel Falls is located in the Wild Basin area of the park, which is less busy than some of the other areas. Along the trail you’ll see multiple waterfalls before reaching the 40 foot Ouzel Falls, which despite not being crazy tall, looks super impressive! Our friend that lives near Denver and visits Rocky Mountain National Park loves this hike (as well as the next two) and we hope to hike it next time!

Bluebird Lake

Miles (roundtrip): 14.3 
Elevation gain: 2,801 feet
Reviews & Current Conditions

If you want to add onto your Ouzel Falls adventure, continue hiking to Bluebird Lake! While the mileage is pretty long, if you get an early start you should have plenty of time. And compared to some other lakes on this list, especially the ones in the Bear Lake Road Corridor, it is less busy!

Sandbeach Lake

Miles (roundtrip):
Elevation gain: 2,086 feet
Reviews & Current Conditions

Sandbeach Lake is another great, but shorter, lake option near the Wild Basin area of the park. And as the name implies, it takes you to a lake with a nice, sandy beach, which is very different from most of the lakes in the park, which tend to be super rocky. This is also a great spot to camp if you’re able to secure a backcountry camping permit!

Where to eat near Rocky Mountain National Park

Grand Lake Colorado

One of the things we love about Rocky Mountain National Park is that there are cool towns nearby where you can grab a bite to eat before or after your adventures. Here are some places we enjoyed!

Estes Park

During our time in Estes Park we loved Antonio’s Real New York Pizza (amazing pizza and desserts) and Nepal’s Cafe (the momos were really good!). 

Inkwell & Brew is our go-to spot for coffee and is located in a bookstore and right by the river in town.

One spot we didn’t get to try, but came highly recommended from a friend that lived in Estes Park is Bird & Jim!

Grand Lake

We loved the ice cream from Miyauchi’s Snack Bar, which is right by the water. They also have burgers, grilled cheese, and sandwiches!

We wanted to try One Love Rum Kitchen, but didn’t have a chance this time. It looks super good!

Inside the Park

There is only one restaurant in the park, the Trail Ridge Store, which is at the Alpine Visitor Center. They serve sandwiches, salads, soups, coffee, and hot chocolate! 

Rocky Mountain National Park Itinerary Options

With so many things to do in Rocky Mountain National Park, there are so many ways you could structure your time. But here are a few itinerary options to hopefully help get you started, ranging from 1 day to 4 days!

1 Day Rocky Mountain National Park Itinerary

  1. Start your day by hiking to either Emerald Lake, Mills Lake, or Sky Pond. We highly suggest starting early to ensure you have enough time!
  2. Spend the rest of the day driving Trail Ridge Road and stopping at the different overlooks. Depending on how much time you have, you could go all the way to Grand Lake and get an ice cream at Miyauchi’s or turn around at the Alpine Visitor Center.

2 Day Rocky Mountain National Park Itinerary

Day 1

  1. Hike to Emerald Lake, plus Lake Haiyaha in the Bear Lake Road Corridor.
  2. Spend the rest of the day driving Trail Ridge Road and stopping at the different overlooks. Depending on how much time you have, you could go all the way to Grand Lake and get an ice cream at Miyauchi’s or turn around at the Alpine Visitor Center.

Day 2

  1. Spend the morning hiking to Sky Pond or Chasm Lake.
  2. Stop into Estes Park to grab some lunch afterwards!
  3. If you have a permit to get back into the park, drive Old Fall River Road or spend the day relaxing a bit in Estes Park.

3 Day Rocky Mountain National Park Itinerary

Follow the day 2 itinerary for days 1 and 2!

Day 3

  1. Hike Mount Ida and then drive the rest of Trail Ridge Road to Grand Lake! If you do this, we suggest turning around at the Alpine Visitor Center on Day 1 since you’ll get to experience the rest of the drive on this day.
  2. While in Grand Lake, grab some ice cream and food and if you’re feeling up to it, get out on the lake!

4 Day Rocky Mountain National Park Itinerary

Follow the day 3 itinerary for days 1-3!

Day 4

  1. Spend the day hiking in the Wild Basin area! We suggest Ouzel Falls to Bluebird Lake or Sandbeach Lake! While this area is slightly less busy, we still suggest getting there early. Make sure to pack a lunch for whichever lake you choose!

Ready to visit Rocky Mountain National Park?

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about us

Hi y’all! We’re Adam, Kathryn, and Kona, an adventurous married couple (+ pup!) living on the road in our self-converted sprinter van! You can often find us driving all around the US and Canada, scoping out the best coffee shops, eating tacos and ice cream (we’re a 5+ taco and 2+ scoop household), and enjoying nature.

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