Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the United States’ most beautiful places. Many people day trip from Denver, but hikers should spend longer exploring the best trails.
I thought I’d share my recommended itinerary with you, including the best hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park. This itinerary is best in summer, when roads are open, trails are clear of snow, and long daylight hours give you plenty of time to explore. Is it for everyone? Absolutely not — but this is just a starting point if you’re interested in heading to Rocky Mountain National Park.
A Rocky Mountain National Park Colorado Itinerary
- Drive from Denver to Rocky Mountain National Park on the Peak-to-Peak Scenic Byway
- Hike on the Wild Basin trail
- Drive part of Trail Ridge Road for scenic vistas and wildlife opportunities
- Hike near Moraine Lake
- Spend the night at a B&B, inn, cabin, or boutique hotel in Estes Park, Colorado
The most scenic way to drive from Denver to Rocky Mountain National Park is taking the “long way” on the Peak-to-Peak scenic byway. Driving the full length of this 55-mile highway could take three hours given the number of photo stops you’ll want to take.
Savor the drive, passing through national forests and enjoying glimpses of the Continental Divide to the west and gorgeous peaks often dead ahead. If you’re short on time, you can just cut over once you hit Lyons, but the full distance is worth it if you can make an early start.
Between Allenspark and Ferncliff, you’ll find the turn-off to the Wild Basin section of Rocky Mountain National Park on your left. This part of the park is pristine and somewhat less-traveled, making it a great introduction to the national park.
Here, you’ll find a great hike to start your visit, and even non-hikers should give this one a stop. Park at the lot at the very end of the road and head into the woods starting at the Wild Basin trailhead. Just ten minutes or so up the trail, you’ll find the spur to Copeland Falls. You can turnaround here if you only want a short jaunt.
Otherwise, the trail continues further into the quiet forest, sometimes offering teasing looks at the peaks around until you hit Calypso Cascades and Ouzel Falls. From just beyond Ouzel Falls, you can loop around via a 6.1-mile lollypop trail hike, a trek that will likely take about three hours. If you have less time or energy, turning around at Calypso Cascades is a good alternative (3.6 miles round-trip).
Serious outdoorsmen will plan on a picnic lunch, but if that’s not your speed, don’t worry. You’ll be driving right through town anyway after your stop at Wild Basin, and can easily stop for a quick meal, such as the trout at The Sundeck.
TRAVEL TIP: You may want to stop at your hotel after lunch to check-in; many places in Estes Park don’t have 24-hour hotel desks, so you may have to time your arrival a little more carefully.
Head back into the park and spend the afternoon driving through the east side of the park on Trail Ridge Road. Drive past Sheep Lakes, Horseshoe Park, and tothe Alpine Visitor Center, which is just after hitting the highest point on the park road, at over 12,100 feet in elevation. Return the way you came, stopping at any interesting overlooks for photo stops and a chance to search for wildlife.
Moraine Park is the perfect place to spend an evening in the park. Have dinner at the picnic tables near Fern Lake and catch a shuttle from there to the Cub Lake trailhead.
Hiking in this area is one of the best spot for a walk at dusk. Wildlife is frequently seen even near the trail. Those with time and energy can continue past Cub Lake to The Pool (a total of six miles or 2.5 hours) before returning to the Fern Lake area where your car is waiting.
You’ll find a wide variety of cabins, historic hotels, and B&Bs to choose from, so everyone should find somewhere to suit their needs regardless of budget.
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- Visit the Beaver Meadows section of the park and hike to Bear Lake
- Visit the Lumpy Ridge section of the park for a very different set of scenery
- Check out a nighttime ghost tour to change things up
Wake-up calls come early, and for good reason. National parks are always less crowded first thing in the morning, so it’s worth getting up early. A hearty breakfast is essential before a day full of hiking, so try out The Egg & I, which is always open early.
This morning, enter the park at the Beaver Meadows entrance station. If you arrive early enough, you’ll be able to drive yourself to the Bear Lake parking lot, but if not, there are shuttles running throughout the day.
Non-hikers will enjoy the easy, paved path at Bear Lake, while more ambitious trekkers will love the loop from Bear Lake past gorgeous subalpine lakes including Nymph Lake, Dream Lake, Lake Haiyaha, and ending past Alberta Falls in the Glacier Gorge trailhead. This is a 6.5-mile hike if you shuttle back from Glacier Gorge to Bear Lake or add in any or all of the detours to Emerald Lake (additional 1.4 miles round-trip), The Loch (1.8 miles), and Mills Lake (1.2 miles) worthwhile. Incorporating each of the extra legs could add to up to an 8-hour hike, making it necessary to pack a picnic lunch.
Anyone who prefers to mix it up instead of enjoying one long hike should exit the main park and hike to Gem Lake from the Lumpy Ridge trailhead. The 3.3-mile round-trip hike will likely take a full three hours due to its steepness, but leads to granite cliffs and unique boulders compared to what is seen in the rest of the park. It’s a great trail since it’s so different than elsewhere in the park.
Not far from Lumpy Ridge, the historic Stanley Hotel is home to the excellent Cascades Restaurant (at least stop in for a cocktail) and tours featuring the hotel’s history, connection to Steven King’s The Shining, paranormal activity, and even ghost stories. It’s a great way to spend the evening and a change of pace from most of the other national park activities.
Spend another night in Estes Park.
Another day brings another early wake-up call.
Re-enter Rocky Mountain National Park for the last time. Today, you’ll head west through the park, passing over the Continental Divide, and checking out scenery that seems worlds different from what you’ve seen over the past two days.
If the road’s open, start at the Fall River entrance station and head west past Sheep Lakes to the Alluvial Fan and Endovalley and then over Old Fall River Road. This 9-mile road is full of vistas and overlooks, an excellent way to start your day. From here, continue over Trail Ridge Road west over the Continental Divide, passing by several different climate zones as you change elevation.
Your destination for late morning is the Colorado River Trailhead. Here, you’ll find a relatively easy hike in prime moose country.
Head north up the Colorado River trail, through the woods and past flowered fields. About 3.5 miles into this hike, you’ll pass the remains of Lulu City. There isn’t much here anymore, but you will see parts of old log cabins and maybe even the ruins of the Shipler Mine.
Further down the trail, you’ll find yourself in a miniature version of Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon. Enjoy the scenery here, full of stark gray rock. At this point, you can loop around via the stage road back to the trailhead and your car for a 13.8-mile hike, or you can return the way you came for a 9-mile hike. The detour is well worth it for the change of scenery if you have time.
Late afternoon and early evening is a great time to drive the last few miles through the park, since moose and elk can be spotted. We even saw a fox and a coyote! If you haven’t yet spotted a moose, make a last stop at the East Inlet trailhead in Grand Lake for the 10-minute walk to Adams Falls. Worst case scenario, at least you’ll get to see a beautiful waterfall.
There are hotels easily accessible on the west side of the park, most convenient in Grand Lake or Granby. I recommend looking for another independently-operated property before continuing to another part of the state in the morning. Other options are returning to Estes Park for the night if you prefer not to pack up for another short stay or heading back to Denver for the night, both about two hours away.
Book Your Own Trip to Rocky Mountain National Park!
Want even more detail? This easy to follow itinerary is also available as PDF download and includes attraction addresses and everything you need to plan your trip. It’s perfect for mobile devices, Kindles, and printouts that you can take with you on your trip.
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