With towering peaks in nearly every direction, picturesque alpine lakes, and a unique tundra landscape, it’s no wonder Rocky Mountain National Park is one of America’s favorite national parks. From easy nature hikes and spectacular roadside views, Rocky Mountain offers incredibly accessible adventure for all and is a great family destination.
Visitors are especially drawn to the park’s abundance of wildlife. Large mammals like elk, moose, and bighorn sheep aren’t that difficult to spot if you know the right places to look. If you’re into birding, Rocky Mountain boasts over 270 species of birds, some unique to the alpine tundra such as the White-tailed Ptarmigan.
Here is everything you need to know to get started planning your trip to Rocky Mountain National Park.
Rocky Mountain National Park is located in the mountains of northeastern Colorado, near the towns of Estes Park on the east and Grand Lake on the west. There are four entrances to the park; three near Estes Park and one on the park’s west side just outside of Grand Lake.
Denver International Airport (DIA) is the closest major airport to Rocky Mountain National Park. From Denver, it’s only a 90-minute drive to Estes Park. Most major U.S. airlines fly into Denver as well as several international carriers. Visitors arriving in Denver can rent a car or book a local shuttle to Estes Park.
Most visitors arrive at Rocky Mountain National Park by car. There is no public transportation available from Denver to the park.
Originally constructed in 1920, the Old Fall River Road was the first automobile route in Rocky Mountain National Park to provide access to the park’s high country. Considering the road’s steep, narrow, and windy turns, vehicles over 25 feet (7.6 meters) in length are prohibited.
This mostly gravel road begins near the Endovalley Picnic Area and climbs 11 miles (17.7 kilometers) to its junction with Trail Ridge Road near the Alpine Visitor Center. Traffic is only allowed in the uphill direction and the speed limit is 15 miles per hour.
Stretching for 48 miles (77 kilometers) from Estes Park in the east to Grand Lake in the west, Trail Ridge Road is one of the highest paved roads in the U.S. and one of Rocky Mountain National Park’s top things to do. Trail Ridge Road climbs through dense aspen forests, gorgeous mountain valleys, and unique alpine tundra before crossing the continental divide at 12,183 feet (3,713 meters). The road provides access to several hiking trails and numerous scenic overlooks line the road. There’s also a visitor center located along Trail Ridge Road and at 11,796 feet (3,595 meters), it’s the highest elevation visitor center in the National Park system.
During the peak summer season, Rocky Mountain National Park operates a free shuttle system from the Estes Park Visitor Center and various Park and Ride lots to popular trailheads in the park. Shuttles typically run every 15 to 30 minutes from 6:30 am to 7:30 pm from late-May through mid-October. Parking spots along Bear Lake Road often fill early in the morning during summer, so taking the shuttle is a great way to avoid the hassle of finding parking. No shuttle bus service is available on Trail Ridge Road to the tundra, alpine visitor center or on the west side of the park.
All visitors are required to purchase an entrance pass upon entering Rocky Mountain National Park. Passes are available at all park entrance stations and online before you arrive at the park. Entrance pass options include one-day passes, vehicle passes valid for seven consecutive days, and annual passes. Visitors may have to show their parks pass upon boarding the park shuttle from Estes Park.
Purchasing the America the Beautiful National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass may be the best deal if you plan on visiting any other national parks or federally managed lands this year. Not only does the pass cover year-round entrance fees to Rocky Mountain National Park, but the entrance fees for all other U.S. national parks and many national monuments, wildlife refuges, and historic sites.
Unlike other national parks, there are no hotels or lodges in Rocky Mountain National Park. Camping is the only way to stay inside the park and there are five established campgrounds to choose from. The Longs Peak Campground is for tents only and is available on a first-come, first-served basis.
The other four campgrounds can accommodate RVs and trailers but some sites have limits on vehicle length. Sites at the Aspenglen, Glacier Basin, and Moraine Park campgrounds can be reserved up to six months in advance. Book ahead of time if you can; camping is extremely popular in Rocky Mountain National Park and sites can be hard to come without a reservation in the busy summer months.
Estes Park offers a huge range of lodging options including cozy cabins, boutique rooms in historic bed and breakfasts, budget-friendly hotel rooms, and amenity-filled RV parks. Most notably, Estes Park is home to the stately Victorian-age Stanley Hotel which served as the inspiration for Stephen King’s best-selling novel turned film, The Shining. The Stanley Hotel makes for a luxurious basecamp for exploring Rocky Mountain National Park or you can just hop on one of the daily tours of the hotel to learn about the hotel’s history and haunted reputation.
Located near the west entrance of Rocky Mountain National Park, the town of Grand Lake, Colorado also offers a range of accommodations, including hotels, rental condos and cabins, and campgrounds. Additional lodging options are available in nearby Granby, and some visitors even base themselves in Winter Park. Keep in mind, Trail Ridge Road is closed in winter so many of the park’s eastern sights are not accessible from Grand Lake in winter.
The best time to visit Rocky Mountain National Park is from late May through September when the snow has melted from the higher elevations and the high country trails become accessible. High elevation wildflowers are often at their peak from late July into August. Fall, when the aspen turn a golden yellow, is also a wonderful time to visit the park. If you enjoy snow sports, winter can be a very magical (and quiet) time to visit.
Ideally, you’ll need at least two days to see the main sights in Rocky Mountain National Park. This gives you one day for driving Trail Ridge Road and another for exploring the Bear Lake Road Corridor. If you want to do some hiking, plan on three days or more. If you’re visiting in winter, one day may be enough considering the Trail Ridge Road is only typically open from Memorial Day weekend through sometime in October depending on early season snowfall.
Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the most visited national parks in the country. It can be a challenge to find some solitude in the park, especially on summer weekends. To avoid the crowds, plan your visit between October and May. If you do visit during the summer months, consider arriving at the park early in the morning, this means before 7 am. Not only will you have better luck finding parking at the popular trailheads but getting an early start is also a good idea since afternoon storms are common in summer and often bring dangerous lightning. Also, try to avoid holiday weekends and fee-free days altogether.
One other strategy for escaping the Rocky Mountain National Park crowds is to spend the majority of your visit exploring the western side of the park. In general, the west side is less crowded considering over eighty percent of visitors arrive through the east entrances.
Just a short walk from the parking area on Trail Ridge Road, the Forest Canyon Overlook is one of the park’s best viewpoints. Situated at 11,716 feet (3,571 meters), this overlook provides an impressive panoramic view of dramatic mountain peaks and picturesque valleys including views of the park’s only fourteen thousand foot peak, Longs Peak. Interpretative signs along the 0.2-mile (0.3-kilometer) paved trail to the overlook point out the peak names as well as provide interesting facts about the high elevation tundra.
Bear Lake is one of the most picturesque lakes in Rocky Mountain National Park. A short, but relatively easy walk is required to reach the lake. Many visitors take the flat 0.8-mile (1.3-kilometer) Bear Lake Trail loop which circumnavigates the entire lake. Given its popularity, the parking area often fills early in the morning during the summer months. To avoid the hassle of finding a parking spot, take the Bear Lake Route shuttle bus which stops right at the Bear Lake Trailhead.
Situated at 11,796 feet (3,595 meters) along the Trail Ridge Road, the Alpine Visitor Center is the highest elevation visitor center in the National Park System making it an attraction all itself. The building features a unique lattice log design on the roof which helps hold the building together during the frequent hurricane force winds that blast the tundra during the winter months. It’s a wonderful place to stop and learn about the alpine tundra ecosystem that dominates this high elevation region of the park.
In 1917, the Holzwarth family used the Homestead Act to build a home high in the Rocky Mountains. The ranch was purchased in the 1970s by the Nature Conservancy and eventually incorporated into the national park. Visitors can tour the collection of historic cabins and ranch buildings for some insight into the way of life of early Colorado homesteaders.
The lobby of the Stanley Hotel displays the fastest vehicle on Earth, well at least it was in 1906, topping out at 127 miles (204 kilometers) per hour. Brothers Francis and Freelan Stanley founded the company that built and sold over 200 of these steam powered vehicles.
Imagine driving one of these along the Old Fall River Road. Or if you are here for the road opening day each season (around Memorial Day) a Stanley Steamer leads the way to the Visitor Center.
Beginning from the popular Bear Lake Trailhead, the trail to Emerald Lake climbs above Bear Lake to a series of gorgeous high alpine lakes. Emerald Lake is a great family-friendly hike. It’s about 3.6 miles (5.8 kilometers) round-trip to reach the lake and the 650 feet (198 meters) of elevation gain is manageable by most hikers if you take it slowly. The portion of trail between Nymph Lake and Dream Lake is especially lovely in mid-summer when the wildflowers are in bloom.
This short, family-friendly trail is known by many names. The National Park Service calls it the Tundra Communities Trail and others refer to it as Mushroom Rocks, Toll Memorial Trail, or simply the Tundra Trail. No matter what you call it, you won’t want to miss it. The trail begins near the highest point of Trail Ridge Road and wanders through the expansive tundra environment at what appears to be the top of the world. Interpretative signs line the trail and point out interesting facts about the tundra and a spur trail leads to some interesting mushroom shaped rocks.
Aptly nicknamed, this is a short 0.5 mile (0.8 kilometer) round-trip with a 200 foot (61 meter) elevation. The trailhead is located right at the parking lot of the Alpine Visitor Center. Climb the well worn path and steps to the 12,005 foot (3,659 metre) signpost for the obligatory selfie and admire the open views across the tundra to the surrounding peaks.
Alberta Falls is one of the most photographed waterfalls in Rocky Mountain National Park. It’s just a short 1.2-mile (1.9-kilometer) round-trip hike from the Glacier Gorge Trailhead located near the end of Bear Lake Road. Alberta Falls is also accessible from the Bear Lake Trailhead. The 30-foot (9-meter) waterfall is a beautiful sight and it’s best visited in early summer when its flow is at its highest thanks to freshly melting snow.
Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the best national parks for viewing wildlife. Elk can be seen at any time of the year but they’re especially easy to see in fall during their mating season. Look for elk in the meadows near the Beaver Meadows Entrance and Moraine Park. Elk can also be easily spotted in the town of Estes Park, often wandering through the golf courses in town. Moose are often spotted along the Colorado River on the western side of the park and bighorn sheep are often seen at Sheep Lakes in early summer.
Rocky Mountain National Park offers hundreds of ranger-led wildflower hikes, bird watching walks, guided snowshoe trips, and more. Sure, exploring the park can be fun on your own but hopping on one of the ranger-led hikes or attending one of the many free nature programs is a great way to learn about the park’s geology, wildlife, and plant life. Ranger programs are typically free but some may require advanced registration. Check the park’s website for a full list of programs.
For a crash course in Rocky Mountain geology, visit the Moraine Park Museum just off of Highway 36 on Bear Lake Road. The museum is free to visit and features interactive exhibits that show how glaciers and other forces created the park’s landscape. The museum is open from the end of April through early October.
Warm Layers: Weather can be unpredictable and summer thunderstorms are common in the higher elevations of Rocky Mountain National Park. Bring along extra layers for warmth as well as a waterproof jacket to protect against afternoon rainstorms.
Wind Breaker: The scenic overlooks along Trail Ridge Road are known for their strong winds. Be sure to come prepared with wind protection especially if you plan to hike the Tundra Communities Trail.
Hiking Boots or Comfortable Trail Shoes: Depending on how much you plan on hiking, a good pair of sturdy hiking boots or trail shoes is a must. If you’re not planning on doing more than a couple of miles of hiking, a pair of comfortable trail shoes will be sufficient. For longer treks, make sure you have a pair of supportive and waterproof hiking boots.
Refillable Water Bottles: To ward off altitude sickness, you’ll want to stay well hydrated both on and off the trail. Bring along a couple of refillable water bottles or a hydration system to make sure you keep hydrated.
Sun Protection: The high-altitude sun can be very potent. Pack sunscreen, sunglasses, lip balm, and a wide-brimmed hat to protect yourself from the Colorado sun.
Daypack: Don’t forget to bring along a comfortable daypack if you plan on doing any hiking or just want to keep everything you need organized in the car. Place all your gear such as extra layers, snacks, water bottles, trail maps, and sunscreen so you have everything you need close at hand.
Binoculars: For a better view of wildlife or to spot rock climbers clinging from rock faces, bring along a pair of lightweight binoculars to keep in your daypack.
Camera with a Telephoto Lens: It’s best to keep a safe distance from wildlife, so make sure you use your zoom or a camera with a telephoto lens if you’re hoping to capture some up-close wildlife shots.
Plastic Bag: We always carry a plastic bag when we hike, so we can do our part and help keep the park trails and waterways clean. If you see some trash along the way, pick it up, drop it in the bag. When you get back to the trailhead, simply drop your bag in the recycling or trash bin and voila! You’ve helped keep the parks beautiful for everyone who visits.
Acadia Alberta Arches ARIZONA AUSTRALIA Badlands Banff Big Island Big Sur Black Hills Blue Ridge Parkway British Columbia Bryce Canyon CALIFORNIA CANADA Canadian Rockies Canyonlands Capitol Reef Catskills COLORADO Copper Country Trail FLORIDA Florida Keys Glacier Grand Canyon Grand Canyon West Grand Teton HAWAII Hikes Honolulu Hoover Dam Hwy 61 Hwy 101 Icefields Parkway ing To the Sun Road Itineraries Jasper Joshua Tree Kancamagus Kauai Keweenaw Key West Lake Louise Lake Superior North Shore Lake Tahoe Las Vegas Lodging M22 MAINE Maui Mesa Verde Miami MICHIGAN MINNESOTA Mount Rushmore NEVADA New Hampshire NEW YORK Niagara Falls NORTH CAROLINA Oahu OBX Olympic Ontario OREGON Oregon Coast Outer Banks Red Rock Canyon Road to Hana Rocky Mountain Sedona Shenandoah Sleeping Bear Dunes Smokies SOUTH DAKOTA Tech Tips TENNESSEE Travel Tips Trip Planners UTAH Videos VIRGINIA Waikiki WASHINGTON Wildlife WYOMING Yellowstone Yoho Yosemite Zion