I’d only ever been to Rocky Mountain National Park once before, when I was 15, didn’t appreciate it at all, and just wanted to go to the mall instead. All I remember from our visit was accidentally touching stinging nettles. Not the best memory, I can assure you.
So, now that I actually appreciate nature and loathe the mall, I knew a return visit was necessary. And since I was staying with my aunt in Colorado, it made total sense to pay another visit. I immediately started Googling hikes and the stoke was high.
But then, my cousin had to have emergency appendix surgery a week before we decided to go. So we nixed the long hikes and decided to do more driving and leisurely walking instead.
And honestly, it was truly the BEST day! So, you definitely don’t need to love hiking to experience the amazingness of Rocky Mountain National Park.
Land Acknowledgement: Rocky Mountain National Park lies on Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Ute Native Land.We decided to drive up Trail Ridge Road as I wanted to explore the alpine habitats. You’ll see all the stops below marked on this Trail Ridge Road map. I’d highly recommend doing this if you only have one day in Rocky Mountain National Park, even if you like hiking – there are lots of short walks you can take from the stops listed below.
If you can’t tell already, I’m SO incredibly happy we did the Trail Ridge Road scenic drive! It’s the highest continuous paved road in the US (I find that a funny claim to fame, lol) and the Trail Ridge Road altitude goes up to 12,183 feet! I know some people say the drive is quite the white knuckling experience, but none of us felt that Trail Ridge Road was scary, and my cousin is even afraid of heights.
It was absolutely beautiful, and totally different from anything I’d experienced before. I’d highly recommend it. We saw so much wildlife, too – an abundance of Yellow-Bellied Marmots, Pika, elk, Clark’s Nutcracker, Steller’s Jay, and a mouse (not sure what kind)! So, in short, DEFINITELY bring binoculars if you have them.If you can’t go, or want to see what conditions are like beforehand, you can even check out the Trail Ridge Road webcam! You can see videos of the Alpine Visitor Center along the road, as well as in other locations of the park, like the Beaver Meadows Entrance (helpful as I’ve heard that sometimes there’s an hour long line to enter the park…).
WHAT IS THE BEST ENTRANCE TO ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK?
We entered from the Beaver Meadows entrance (the most popular entrance, located in Estes Park) as we wanted to explore Estes Park a little. Although it’s pretty touristy, I’d still recommend visiting Estes Park! It’s a really cute mountain town.
If you want to drive Trail Ridge Road, definitely enter from the Beaver Meadows entrance, on the east side of the park, or the Grand Lake entrance on the west side. The other entrances make it a little more complicated to do that drive.
The Beaver Meadows entrance is definitely the most popular and more likely to be crowded. However, when we went, we only had to wait about 10 minutes to get it (that could be because we were right on time for our reservation).
WHAT IS THE ALTITUDE IN ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK & TRAIL RIDGE ROAD?
Rocky Mountain National Park is pretty high altitude, and the drive that I talk about along Trail Ridge Road is even higher! The altitude at the Beavers Meadow Visitor Center at the bottom of the park is 7,840 feet, while the highest point of Trail Ridge Road is 12,183 feet near Fall River Pass. It may be a good idea to stay in Estes Park or the surrounding area for a day or two to acclimate before attempting any serious hikes if you’re coming from an area around sea level. We didn’t have to do this, since my aunt lives near Denver, but you may want to especially if you have any conditions that make breathing more difficult, such as asthma. Be sure to drink lots of water and take it slow – even ‘easy’ walks can be difficult in high elevations! Know the symptoms of altitude sickness, and if you experience any of them, immediately head down to lower elevation.
Symptoms of altitude sickness include:
- Nausea/Loss of appetite
This is not meant to scare you, but it is good to know if you’re not used to higher elevation. Also, be aware that drinking alcohol affects you more at higher elevations, too, so definitely keep that in mind if you’re planning on doing any celebrating.
DO I NEED A RESERVATION TO ENTER ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK?
Yes – Rocky Mountain National Park is now requiring reservations to enter the park between the hours of 6AM-5PM (although you can get in before 6AM or after 5PM without a reservation).
You must enter between the two hours that your reservation states, but you can then stay as long as you want. You can reserve a spot here.
WHAT IS THE ENTRANCE FEE FOR ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK?
It costs $25 per vehicle to enter Rocky Mountain National Park, and thus drive Trail Ridge Road. You pay this when you reserve your spot online.
WHEN IS TRAIL RIDGE ROAD OPEN?
Trail Ridge Road is usually open from May through October, depending on the weather (it closes when there’s a lot of snow).
HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE TO DRIVE TRAIL RIDGE ROAD?
We ended up getting a reservation starting at 12PM and were already on our way back by 4PM. So, you don’t need a ton of time to drive the Trail Ridge Drive. Granted, we only went to the Alpine Visitor Center and then turned around (which is about halfway), but I’ve heard it takes about 90 minutes to drive all the way to Grand Lake on the west side of the park. We decided not to do that since there were fires in that direction and the air was smoky enough already (you can see how hazy it was in the photos!).
I hope you enjoy this Rocky Mountain National Park itinerary!
ESTES PARK (7,522 FEET)Estes Park is definitely worth checking out if you go through the Beaver Meadows entrance like we did. We just walked up and down the main road, and glanced at all the salt water taffy shops (we passed at least 3!). The Historic Park Theater is really pretty, too, although we didn’t go in. It just made for a nice photo!
We didn’t stop to eat, but my Aunt and Uncle recommend going to Claire’s Restaurant and Bar as well as You Need Pie for, well, pies! We did bring some pies home and I can concur that their pie is AMAZING. We got a bunch of different slices to try, and they were all delicious! My favorites were the cherry and raspberry. So good!
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, here’s what I’d suggest doing if you have one day in Rocky Mountain National Park.
BEAR LAKE (9,475 FEET)Bear Lake is probably the most popular spot since you don’t have to hike to the lake, although there are several hikes that begin there. Due to its popularity, it gets crowded FAST so it’s advised to arrive before sunrise if you want to park in the lot at the lake. It’s about a 20 minute drive from the Beaver Meadows Entrance.
Otherwise, you have to park at a further lot and then take a shuttle that runs every 15 minutes. We opted not to do this due to the current situation, but my aunt and uncle have done it before and they said it was fine and super easy to figure out.
From there, you can do an easy 2-mile walk to Emerald Lake, which I’ve heard is gorgeous! This trail isn’t a loop however, so then you’d just walk 2 miles back.
Afterwards, you can make your way to the best Trail Ridge Road stops!
TRAIL RIDGE ROAD MAP (OUR STOPS)
RAINBOW CURVE OVERLOOK (10,829 FEET)Rainbow Curve was our first stop! It’s really pretty but beware of the chipmunks – people clearly feed them as they’re super comfortable with people (as evidenced by the above photo).
Side note: PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE don’t feed wildlife! You may think you’re helping, but it does much more harm than good.We saw the Clark’s Nutcracker and Steller’s Jay here – both such beautiful birds!
FOREST CANYON OVERLOOK (11,716 FEET)Forest Curve Overlook includes a short walk (like 5 minutes) to a pretty overlook (hence the name, lol).
Please do keep off the tundra, as it’s fragile habitat (see the above sign that says “Tundra Closed”) – we saw a couple people ignoring it and walking all over the vegetation. Luckily someone told them to come off of it and they listened.
LAVA CLIFFS OVERLOOK (12,000 FEET)The Lava Cliffs Overlook is where we saw the elk! And a really pretty bright blue green lake.
TUNDRA COMMUNITIES TRAIL (12,110 FEET)The Tundra Communities Trail was definitely the highlight for us!
This is where we saw all the marmots and pikas. Although it’s uphill at first, it flattens out pretty quickly and is totally worth it. We spent a solid 20 minutes just staring at the pikas and listening to their adorable squeaks.
ALPINE VISITOR’S CENTER (11,796 FEET)I have an obsession with visitor’s centers but unfortunately the actual museum portion is currently closed. However, you can go in the gift shop but we opted not to as there was a line (they only let a few customers in at a time).
We did do the short uphill climb to get another view of the park! It was really pretty but nothing too different from what we saw on the Tundra Alpine Communities Trail. You can get a pretty good view of the scenery just from the visitor’s center parking lot, so the hike up isn’t necessary.
Overall, we loved Rocky Mountain National Park, and especially Trail Ridge Road. I hope you enjoyed this Rocky Mountain National Park itinerary and Trail Ridge Road guide!