I’ve been on a National Park kick for a while now and Rocky Mountain National Park was high (no pun intended) on my list to visit. It can be overwhelming planning trips and figuring out what to see and do – so here are the highlights of our trip to make your life easier!
About the Park
The park is located between the towns of Estes Park and Grand Lake, Colorado, about an hour northwest of Boulder. We were traveling from Boulder and would be staying in Grand Lake. So we began on the Estes Park (east) side of the Park and traveled through towards the Grand Lake (west) side of the park. There is a $25 entrance fee per car. There are weekly and yearly passes as well, that are better deals than the one day pass, so be sure to look into those options here.
There are hotels on both sides of the park, as well as campgrounds within the park. We found an Airbnb in Grand Lake. Lodging close the park was more expensive than we would’ve liked, but I have found that to be the case with any national park. Make sure you book your lodging WELL in advance to your trip because things get booked up quickly.
When to Visit
We visited the first week of June – for a couple reasons. We didn’t want to go when it would be super cold, but also we wanted to go when Trail Ridge Road was open. This road runs through the park and is an easy drive to see a lot of the park. It is only open from late May through October due to the conditions of the road in winter. We were at the park an entire day and we were comfortable in leggings, Chacos, a T-shirt, and a pullover (me); and shorts, a T-shirt, tennis shoes, and a hoodie (Matthew). There were parts of the hike that we got warm and had to shed the outer layer, so I would recommend layering no matter what time of year it is. The rest of the day we stayed layered because it was cold as we traveled through the park.
Note: all the recommendations that I researched emphasized the altitude change. We didn’t notice a major difference, but it is recommended to stay VERY hydrated to help combat this, so pack plenty of water for your trip. Also bring sunscreen and chapstick!
What to Do – Entrance and Hiking
There are several entrances to the park depending on which side of the park you are entering from, along with several visitor centers. Since we entered on the Estes Park side, we came in at Beaver Meadows Visitor Center. We grabbed a map at our entrance and made our way into the park. We wanted to get to the park decently early before it got too crowded. Since we had an hour drive and stopped for breakfast, we didn’t make it there until 9:30. Even though this was later than we would’ve liked, we found that there weren’t any lines and it wasn’t crowded yet.
Our first stop in the park was Bear Lake. We only had one day for the park, so our plan was to do at least one hiking trail and then drive Trail Ridge Road. There are a few stops on the way to Bear Lake, but the parking lots are small, so we played it safe and parked to ride a bus to the lake. By the time we got to the bus, there was a line of people so we had about a half hour wait. The bus stops at Bear Lake, Bierstadt Lake, and Glacier Gorge (Alberta Falls). See all the bus routes here.
We rode to Bear Lake where there are several trail options. We decided to do the Emerald Lake trail. The first thing we noticed was that even though we didn’t feel like we were at a higher altitude, we were and we got short of breath SO quickly. This trail starts out uphill – add that with the air and we were huffing and puffing five minutes in – see Matthew’s photo for evidence.
This trail had gorgeous views but it was moderately difficult, just because of the length and altitude. We found that we quickly adjusted to the altitude change, but took several breaks along the trail. There were still snowy parts towards the end of the trail which were a bit difficult to maneuver. There are two smaller lakes (Nymph Lake and Dream Lake) along the way to Emerald Lake as well, which are good stopping points for a break. The downside of this trail is that it’s in and back, rather than a loop. But the way out is more downhill and we went much more quickly on the way back.
We stopped at Bear Lake on the way back to the bus, as well. I definitely recommend this trail. It was long enough to get a good hike in with scenic views, but also gave us time to do other things in the park.
Things to Do – Drive
After our bus ride back to the lot, we decided to go ahead and drive Trail Ridge Road. The road covers about 48 miles across the park. There are tons of stopping points and parking areas for scenic lookouts. This is a nice way to view a lot of the sights and the park if you aren’t up for hiking or if you need a break. At the time we went, the road was totally clear of snow. There were some snow banks left at the highest point of the road, but otherwise it was clear. We spent 2-3 hours on Trail Ridge Road, including stopping for lunch at the Alpine Visitor Center for snacks and souvenirs.
Overall, we spent about 8-10 hours in the park. One day was enough time, but two days would be ideal for more hiking or camping. Drop your favorites hikes or parks in the comments below!