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Perfect Itinerary for Rocky Mountain National Park

Plan your perfect itinerary for Rocky Mountain National Park, a breathtaking destination that offers stunning views of the Rockies and an abundance of wildlife.

We spent the summer of 2022 in Rocky Mountain National Park and explored as much of it as we could. We loved every single minute of our time hopping on boulders, soaking up the incredible views, hiking in the trees, and discovering the alpine tundra.

Whether you’re a seasoned hiker or just looking for a scenic drive with your family, this park has something for everyone. From hiking trails that lead to alpine lakes and waterfalls to panoramic drives that showcase the grandeur of the mountains, there’s no shortage of things to see and do here on your Rocky Mountain National Park itinerary.

In this article, we’ll give you an overview of Rocky Mountain National Park and help you plan the perfect itinerary for your visit. So grab your hiking boots or pack up the car – it’s time to explore one of America’s most spectacular national parks!

Rocky Mountain National Park Emerald Lake
Emerald Lake

Best Time to Visit Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park is open 24 hours a day, every day of the year. However, due to the high elevation, the park receives a significant amount of snowfall each year.

Sections of the park are open year round allowing visitors to sled down the hills, and explore the hiking trails in snow shoes or with spikes.

Trail Ridge Road is the scenic highway that stretches for 48 miles across the park, taking in breathtaking views of snow-capped peaks, alpine meadows and crystal-clear lakes along the way. It’s an incredible drive that offers plenty of opportunities to stop and take in the scenery, but it is only typically open from mid-May through mid-October. When the snow starts to fall, most of the road closes for the winter.

Even in summer, keep in mind that weather conditions can change rapidly at higher elevations, so be sure to check ahead before planning your trip. Thunderstorms are very common (50% of the days of our trip) in the afternoons in the summer. It is extremely important that you are not above the tree line during a thunderstorm, So be prepared and complete high elevation hikes before noon each day.

Alluvial Fan Rocky Mountain National Park
Alluvial Fan

Tips for your Perfect Itinerary for Rocky Mountain National Park

  • Prepare for the altitude
    • Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate and don’t forget electrolytes (these are our favorite!)
    • Avoid sugar and caffeine
    • Pack protein snacks
    • Get enough sleep
    • Allow your body to acclimate for a few days before attempting strenuous hikes
    • Know the signs of altitude sickness and when medical attention is needed
  • Bring appropriate gear and clothing
    • Weather can change quickly
    • Afternoon thunderstorms are common in summer months
    • Be prepared with plenty of layers and proper hiking gear for difficult hikes
  • Pack food and plenty of water (more than you will think you need)
    • Plenty of protein, healthy fats, and natural sugars are best
    • At least 3-4 liters of water + electrolytes
Rocky Mountain National Park | Emerald Lake Hike

DAY ONE ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK ITINERARY

If you just have one day in the park, we will suggest how to make the most of it below! Hit up the most beautiful hikes and soak up the best views. Options are listed below based on whether or not you have more days to explore.

BEAR LAKE

Bear Lake In RMNP
Bear Lake

Bear Lake is a natural gem (but not a hidden gem!) nestled in the heart of this park. Probably one of the most popular spots on your Rocky Mountain National Park itinerary and for good reason!

This pristine alpine lake boasts crystal clear waters that reflect the surrounding snow-capped peaks, making it a popular destination for outdoor enthusiasts and nature lovers alike.

The trails around Bear Lake offer something for everyone from casual strolls to challenging hikes. For those seeking an easy walk with stunning views, the half-mile loop around Bear Lake itself is perfect. It can be accessed in all seasons, but may require snowshoes in the winter or spikes if the snow is packed.

Alternatively, longer treks like those listed below will offer more of a challenge, but reward hikers with breathtaking vistas along the way.

When it comes to accessing Bear Lake, timed entry tickets are required in addition to your National Parks pass. There are two types of timed entry tickets, one allows access to the Bear Lake corridor and one does not. To access Bear Lake, your pass must read “Bear Lake Road Timed Entry Permit.” Timed entry permits are required from May 26 – October 22.

When it comes to parking, there are a few options available. The main parking lot at the trailhead fills up quickly, particularly during peak season, so arriving early is imperative to maximize your time, especially if you only have one day. On a summer weekday last year, we arrived at 7:45am and snagged one of the very last spots. I would highly recommend arriving closer to 7am. If you’re lucky enough to snag a spot in the lot, be sure to take note of any posted signage as some areas may have time limits or other restrictions.

If the Bear Lake parking lot is full, head back down the road and park at the Park & Ride or Glacier Gorge or Bierstadt trailheads. You can then utilize the free park shuttle to get to Bear Lake. The shuttle is very handy and appreciated but really cuts into your time. You will also lose the ability to easily go back to your car to switch out clothing, grab lunch, or refill water bottles.

NYMPH LAKE, DREAM LAKE, EMERALD LAKE

Nymph Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park
Nymph Lake

Nymph Lake is the first of three lakes on the Emerald Lake hike. Just over half mile from the trailhead, it is a quick and easy hike to this lily pad decorated lake. Gorgeous reflections and plenty of places to sit and enjoy them were scattered around the lake.

Make sure you continue on to Dream Lake after visiting this sweet Nymph Lake. This is only the beginning!

Dream Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park
Dream Lake – an absolute must on your Rocky Mountain Itinerary!

Perhaps the most picturesque lake in the entire park, Dream Lake’s name speaks for itself. if you find yourself getting too tired or hungry or tempted to turn around for whining kiddos, even if you don’t hike all the way to Emerald Lake, please promise me you’ll hike to Dream Lake?

Dream Lake is only .5 miles from Nymph Lake. The path along the lake’s edge is out of a movie and the rugged peaks in the background are perfection.

Rocky Mountain National Park - Emerald Lake
Emerald Lake

Emerald Lake is a sight to behold and is my very favorite spot on this entire itinerary for Rocky Mountain National Park. When we hiked here last summer, I could have stayed all day!

Emerald Lake is a popular destination for hikers and nature enthusiasts alike. The trail leading up to the lake is a moderate 3.2-mile hike from the Bear Lake trailhead and just over a half mile from Dream Lake. It offers breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains and valleys.

This stunning alpine lake boasts crystal-clear emerald green waters that are surrounded by jagged peaks and lush evergreen forests. The shimmering water reflects the stunning landscape around it, creating a truly magical atmosphere. It’s no wonder why so many visitors come here year-round to take in its beauty.

While this hike is classified as easy, the stretch from Dream Lake to Emerald Lake is the toughest. Many steps (I tried to count but lost track!) lead to breathless hikers in the altitude. There are plenty of spots to stop and sit while you catch your breath. The lake at the end is worth it – I promise!

Once you reach the lake, you’ll be rewarded with one of the most picturesque vistas in all of Colorado. It is the perfect spot for a picnic before turning around and heading back down the mountain.

Dream Lake and Emerald Lake Hiking signs in Rocky Mountain National Park

DRIVE TRAIL RIDGE ROAD

If you are only spending one day in the park, you’ll want to hit up Trail Ridge Road after your morning hiking. If you have at least two days in the park, then skip to ALBERTA FALLS below and save Trail Ridge Road for tomorrow morning.

Trail Ridge Road, a scenic drive through the Rocky Mountains that will take your breath away! This road spans 48 miles and reaches an elevation of over 12,000 feet, making it one of the highest paved roads in America. Along the way, you’ll encounter stunning overlooks and vistas that offer panoramic views of the surrounding landscape.

One of the most popular stops on Trail Ridge Road is at Many Parks Curve Overlook. From this vantage point, visitors can see numerous peaks in Rocky Mountain National Park including Longs Peak, which rises to a height of 14,259 feet. Be sure to bring your camera because this spot provides endless photo opportunities!

There are also several other overlooks that provide equally breathtaking views and are also worth a stop, such as Forest Canyon Overlook and Medicine Bow Curve Overlook. Another must-see stop is Rainbow Curve Overlook. Here you’ll find incredible views of Horseshoe Park and the Alluvial Fan as well as Horseshoe Park and beyond. The colorful rock formations are quite the sight to see!

If you’re looking for more information about the area or simply want to stretch your legs after driving for a while, make sure to stop by the Alpine Visitor Center. Located at an elevation of 11,796 feet above sea level, this center offers exhibits about local wildlife and geology as well as helpful advice from park rangers. The gift shop is filled with local handmade items as well as fun park-specific souvenirs.

ALBERTA FALLS

Alberta Falls in Rocky Mountain National Park

This gorgeous waterfall is easily accessed from the same Bear Lake parking lot as the hikes above to Emerald Lake and around Bear Lake. You can also access the Falls from the Glacier Gorge Trailhead if you end up making personalized changes to this itinerary.

The hike to Alberta Falls is only about 1.7 miles round trip, making it accessible for hikers of all levels. The path winds through stunning scenery, including pine forests and open meadows.

As you approach the falls, you’ll hear the rushing water before catching your first glimpse of its beauty. The waterfall cascades down a series of rocks, creating a gorgeous view and spot for photos. You might find shadows across the falls in your images, but the only way to avoid this is by hiking in the early morning. The images below were captured between 9-10am on our trip during the first week of August.

SPRAGUE LAKE

Sprague Lake is a serene alpine lake located also on Bear Lake Road. The lake is surrounded by towering mountains, the Continental Divide and Hallett Peak, that reflect beautifully on its calm waters. It’s an ideal spot for fishing, picnicking or just soaking up the mountainous scenery. One of the best times to visit Sprague Lake is during sunset when the sky turns into hues of pink and orange.

Sprague Lake Family Photo Session
Photo Credit: Katie with Flytographer in Denver

We chose Sprague Lake as the site for our family photos in Rocky Mountain National Park. Vacation photos make the best souvenirs and Christmas card photos ever! Set up a session with Katie with Flytographer and I promise you’ll thank me later!

You can use our referral link for $25 off your first photo shoot! (You can even sign up now for later use or buy a gift card at $25 off to use later!)

WILDLIFE SIGHTINGS

Dusk is one of the best times to see wildlife and many visitors miss out because they leave the park before this time of day. Take at least one evening of your trip to explore the meadows after the golden hour and spot some elk, moose, deer, or bighorn sheep.

If you see a few cars parked on the side of the road, make sure you pull over too! Odds are that they see something incredible!

ROCKY MOUNTAIN ITINERARY: DAY 2

DRIVE TRAIL RIDGE ROAD

Old Fall River Road connecting to Trail Ridge Road
Old Fall River Road connecting to Trail Ridge Road

We outlined the details to this gorgeous drive above under Day 1. If you have at least two days in to fill on your itinerary for Rocky Mountain National Park, then we highly recommend doing this gorgeous drive on Day 2.

In a nutshell, Trail Ridge Road is 48 miles long and around every bend is a new gorgeous spot to stop and see. Many overlooks provide great photo spots along the route. As the road winds higher in elevation, visitors will find themselves above the tree line with miles of alpine tundra to explore.

ALPINE VISITOR’S CENTER

The Alpine Visitor’s Center is at the highest point of Trail Ridge Road and is where many visitors turn around. The center sits above 12,000 feet elevation and is the highest in the country. Filled with history and nature education elements, a snack shop with quick eats, and plenty of beautiful souvenirs, it makes for a great spot to stop and explore.

From the parking lot, visitors can climb the short but steep Alpine Ridge trail to capture an even better view of the mountains and valleys below.

UTE TRAIL

If you explore the National park map in detail, you’ll find that there are a few options for hiking different sections of the Ute Trail. We had an incredible experience hiking the trail for 4 miles from the Alpine Visitor’s Center to Milner Pass.

Ute Trail from Alpine Visitor Center to Milner Pass

If you hike the route downhill as we did, it is obviously much easier at that elevation! But, we were only able to do so because we had two cars and were able to park one car down below at Milner Pass. We were sure to snatch a parking spot at Milner Pass before 8am as the lot is not very big.

If you do not have two vehicles, as most do not, you have two options:

  • Park at Milner Pass
    • This option allows you to hike up hill first and then turn around at the top (4 miles) or earlier if you prefer. If you don’t hike up at least 3 miles, then you will spend most of your time in the forest and beautiful meadows, rather than on the alpine tundra.
  • Park at Alpine Visitor’s Center
    • This option allows you to experience the alpine tundra first as you hike downhill, and then turn around at the bottom (4 miles) or earlier if you prefer. You’ll miss the forested area if you don’t hike down far enough, but you’ll experience the landscape above the tree line and incredible views. You’ll also have to back uphill on the return so keep that in mind.

The Ute Trail itself is steeped in history as it was once used by the Ute Native Americans as a hunting and trading route. Later on, European settlers passed through this area during the gold rush era. Today, it’s a popular destination for hikers, bikers, and outdoor enthusiasts who want to explore the natural beauty of Colorado.

As you make your way along the winding path overlooking Rocky Mountain National Park and its surrounding areas such as Arapaho National Forest and Roosevelt National Forests, you’ll be greeted with sweeping panoramic views that will leave you breathless.

Trailhead at the top – across the street from Alpine Visitor’s Center

The change in scenery as you change elevation levels is incredible. Expect native alpine plants, unobstructed views, lush meadows filled with wildflowers and flowing creeks, thickly forested areas, and craggy peaks and boulders. You might even spot some wildlife like deer or elk grazing along the roadside. On the alpine tundra, keep your eye out for pikas!

Trailhead at the bottom – at Milner Pass

Another highlight of Ute Trail is stopping at Milner Pass where you can take in the beauty of Poudre Valley and see the Continental Divide which marks two watersheds; one flows towards Atlantic Ocean while other towards Pacific Ocean.

DAY 3 – ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK ITINERARY

By Day 3, most travelers have begun to acclimate to the altitude and are ready for a more moderate hike. This would be the perfect time to head to another one of the prettiest lakes in the park to hike and explore.

GEM LAKE

We recommend checking out Gem Lake which is a moderate 3.2 mile out and back trail. Elevation gain is just under 1000 feet. Start at the Lumpy Ridge Trailhead and make your way through a dense forest with towering pine trees and babbling brooks. As you climb higher, the trail opens up to reveal panoramic views of Estes Valley and Lumpy Ridge.

Gem Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park

But the real gem of this hike is Gem Lake itself (see what I did there?). Nestled between massive granite boulders, this small lake sparkles in the sunlight and provides a peaceful spot to rest and take in your surroundings.

While hiking Gem Lake Trail, keep an eye out for local wildlife such as elk, mule deer, bighorn sheep, and even black bears. Remember to follow Leave No Trace principles by packing out all trash and staying on designated trails.

OLD FALL RIVER ROAD

I think I would have overlooked this amazing scenic drive had my brother-in-law not suggested it. I am being intentional about suggesting it to you, so you don’t miss it either!

It’s a scenic drive through the Rocky Mountains that is not to be missed. This historic road was used by Native American hunters and then built in 1913 as the first route for vehicles into the high elevation alpine areas of the park.

The road winds its way up to the Alpine Visitor Center, offering stunning views of waterfalls, mountain peaks, and wildlife. The drive takes about an hour and covers 11 miles of unpaved roads with hairpin turns and steep climbs. No need to worry about safety though, as this road is one way and the speed limit tops out at 15 mph.

Alluvial Fan

At the very start of Old Fall River Road, is the Alluvial Fan. Created by a huge flood in 1982, this gorgeous section of water cascades over thousands of boulders. The result is a beautiful spot to explore and do some boulder hopping.

One of the highlights of this drive is Chasm Falls – a breathtaking waterfall cascading down from high above. You can pull off at two different designated areas along the road to take pictures or go for short hikes to explore further.

Old Fall River Road is only open to auto traffic in the summer, from approximately early July through early October. Outside of these few months, there is a good chance that the road will be covered in snow, but it will still be open to bicyclists, runners, and hikers.

Old Fall River Road

If you want to experience one of the most iconic drives in Colorado, be sure add Old Fall River Road to your Rocky Mountain National Park itinerary bucket list!

SHEEP LAKE

Sheep Lake is a great spot to relax, soak up the nature, and watch for wildlife. We weren’t lucky enough to spot any early in the morning, but it was still a lovely area to explore. It is often one of the best places in the park to see elk, moose, and sheep, so be sure to check it out between hikes.

Sheep Lake

RMMP ITINERARY – DAY 4

Do you have more than three days in Rocky Mountain National Park? Lucky you!

Dedicated hikers will appreciate more time to explore some of the more strenuous trails that require higher levels of fitness, possible extra gear, very early morning start times, and a few days to acclimate before attempting them.

For days 4, 5 and beyond on your RMNP itinerary, consider choosing one of these hikes below:

Dream Lake

ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK GUIDE + FAQs

How many days do you need for Rocky Mountain National Park?

It is strongly recommended that travelers plan for at least 2-3 days in the park. 2-3 days are enough time to see the some of the highlights without rushing. Longer than that will allow flexibility in case of unpleasant weather, and will allow experienced hikers to explore some of the longer trails in the park.

Is 2 days enough in Rocky Mountain National Park?

Two days is a decent amount of time to enjoy Rocky Mountain National Park. Travelers will be able to hike a few short hikes, drive Trail Ridge Road, visit the Alpine Visitor’s Center, and seek out some wildlife sightings.

How long does it take to drive all the way through Rocky Mountain National Park?

Travelers can drive through Rocky Mountain National Park in a couple hours, but should plan much longer for hiking, checking out the overlooks, enjoying the Visitor’s Center, and picnicking by a beautiful lake.

Can you just drive through Rocky Mountain National Park?

Rocky Mountain National Park is filled with scenic drives and visitors will love the views even if they choose not to hike. Timed entry passes are still required, so be sure to check your dates and make a reservation.

What time of day is best to go to Rocky Mountain National Park?

Mornings are the best time to visit Rocky Mountain National Park-hands down! Beat the crowds to the parking lots and even watch the sunrise over the lake if you can swing it. Thunderstorms are common on summer afternoons, so enjoy the morning hours before leaving the park for an afternoon rest time and then returning in the early evening to watch the wildlife.

Can I drive through Rocky Mountain National Park without a reservation?

Technically yes. However if it is mid-May to mid-October, you must enter before 5am to enter Bear Lake Road or before 9am to drive Trail Ridge Road.

What entrance should I use for Rocky Mountain National Park?

Check the closest entrance to the trailhead you wish to utilize within the park. The most popular entrances are Fall River and Beaver Meadows.

How early can you get into Rocky Mountain National Park?

The park is open 24 hours a day. Enter either within your timed entry pass, or without a pass before 5am to access Bear Lake or before 9am to access the rest of the park.

How do you avoid crowds in Rocky Mountain National Park?

Crowds are a given in the beautiful Rocky Mountain National Park. However in order to best enjoy your visit, plan ahead with timed entry passes and plan to arrive at trailheads early. Bear Lake parking lot is usually full by about 7:30am and the more strenuous, longer hikes, like Long’s Peak, fill up sometimes by 3am.

ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK ITINERARY

Exploring with a perfect itinerary for Rocky Mountain National Park will reward you with the most breathtaking landscapes in Colorado, with spectacular views of snow-capped peaks, lush forests, and rolling meadows. Enjoy every minute!

READ MORE ABOUT COLORADO TRAVEL HERE:

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