- Website link: Rocky Mountain National Park
- Note: a timed entry system may be in effect, so plan ahead for your visit.
- Accommodations: Campgrounds for RVs and tents, as well as backcountry camping in the park. Additional hotels, campgrounds, and other amenities, including restaurants, available in Estes Park, Grand Lake, Lyons, and Loveland.
- What to do: hike, bike, climb, backpack, fish. Spectacular scenic drives. Horseback riding is also available in the park (seasonal).
- When to go: Anytime. Summer and early fall are the best times to go, however, the park is most crowded during these times.
It’s no wonder that almost 4.5 million people visited Rocky Mountain National Park in 2021, with almost one million people visiting in July alone! The park is spectacular from top to bottom and everywhere in between. We can’t figure out why it took us so long to get there, but we’re so glad we finally went. In fact, we didn’t want to leave, even after spending several days in the park. Rocky Mountain National Park is a UNESCO international biosphere reserve and is home to a multitude of animals and birds, as well as glaciers and one of the few alpine tundra ecosystems in the lower forty-eight states. So, pack your bags and hop on board for our tour of one of the great treasures of the national park system.
Rocky Mountain National Park is approximately:
70 miles from Denver, Colorado — 470 miles from Salt Lake City, Utah — 500 miles from Amarillo, Texas — 515 miles from Albuquerque, New Mexico — 740 miles from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
Our trip is going to start from Denver, Colorado, the closest major airport city to Rocky Mountain National Park.
⇒From Denver, take E-470 (toll road) to I-25 north toward Longmont, Colorado. Continue north to Loveland, Colorado. At Loveland, take US Highway 34 west to Estes Park. Drive time between Denver and Estes Park via this route: 1.75 hours.
Travel tip: the drive from Loveland to Estes Park is very scenic through the Big Thompson River Canyon. The road was rebuilt and reopened in 2018, and the scenery should not be missed.
⇒At Estes Park, continue on US Highway 34 west to the Fall River entrance and visitor center OR take US Highway 36 to the Beaver Meadows entrance and visitor center.
⇒Alternate route: from Denver, take I-25 north to Highway 66 west toward Lyons, then take US Highway 36 to the Wild Basin entrance station and continue north to Estes Park. Drive time between Denver and Estes Park via this route: 1.5 hours.
Travel tip: the Fall River entrance (US Highway 34) leads to Trail Ridge Road, the highest continuously paved highway in the U.S and designated All-American Road. Weather permitting, this road is a must-do while visiting Rocky Mountain National Park. For spectacular views, stop at all of the pull-outs along the road, as well as the Alpine visitor center which is about half-way between the east and west sides of the park. A cafe is available at this visitor center seasonally.
Destination: Rocky Mountain National Park
We are taking the Highway 34 (Fall River entrance) to start our tour. First stop: Sheep Lakes area for a little elk watching. Elk rutting or mating season occurs during the first few weeks of fall, and we were able to see several elk bulls with their harems during our time in the park. What a thrill to see nature at it’s best! The ones above are young bulls.
Our next stop is at the Alluvial Fan. This fan was created during a natural dam break at Lawn Lake in the 1980s, which sent trees and boulders tumbling four miles down the mountain and flooded the surrounding park areas and the city of Estes Park with millions of gallons of water. Today, this is a popular hiking and picnicking area featuring the Roaring River, cascading waterfalls, and huge boulders.
Now we begin our climb to the top of Trail Ridge Road, along which are several scenic pull outs with amazing views. Here are a few of our favorites taken from below the treeline.
Ypsilon Mountain (13,520 feet)
And our favorites from above the treeline in the alpine tundra as we make our trek up to the Alpine Visitor Center.
With only about a six-week summer season, it is amazing that wildlife and plants can survive at this elevation, but they do. Did you know that the cute little animals below spend 80 percent of their lives hibernating?
In addition to these animals and the elk, we also saw big horn sheep, deer, wild turkeys, rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks, many different birds, as well as trout in the clear water of the alpine lakes. And speaking of alpine lakes, Rocky Mountain National Park has a lot of them. We loved hiking to and around several of the lakes on the Beaver Meadows side of the park. There are numerous hiking trails throughout the park, providing adventures for every level of hiker, backpacker, or climber.
Bear Lake with changing trees
The hike from Bear Lake to Emerald Lake took us about four hours round trip, including stops. There is about a 600 foot elevation gain along the trail. The elevation at Emerald Lake is 10,110 feet.
Travel tip: the parking lot at Bear Lake fills quickly during peak seasons. Arrive early in the morning to secure a parking space, or take the shuttle from either the Estes Park Visitor Center or the park and ride lot near Glacier Basin inside the park. Don’t forget that a timed entry ticket is required for the Bear Lake area and most other sections of the park.
It was wonderful getting to see the park as it was changing into its fall colors. Doesn’t the picture above remind you of autumn? This bull had about twenty cows in his harem, plus their calves.
Over on the west side of the park, which is accessed via Trail Ridge Road, there are many pull-outs and scenic vistas, along with several trailheads and the Holzwarth Historic Site, which is open from mid-June through September. Here’s a link: Holzwarth Historic Site. Drive time between Estes Park and Grand Lake via Trail Ridge Road: 1.5 hours without stops.
Bonus stop: Estes Park. This beautiful mountain town is the eastern gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park. It features unique shops, wonderful restaurants, and a multitude of lovely hotels. The most famous hotel, The Stanley, opened in 1909 and is on the National Register of Historic Places. A stay at The Stanley inspired Stephen King to write The Shining. We recommend taking one of the interesting tours of the hotel. Parking is $10.00 plus the cost of the tour.
The Stanley Hotel
During peak seasons, parking can be difficult in downtown Estes Park, but there is a large free parking lot next to the police station. The restaurants we recommend are Claire’s on the Park – 225 Park Lane, and Hunters Chop House – 1690 Big Thompson Avenue.
⇒Side trip: Loveland. This city has a small town feel with big city amenities. Loveland has great shopping (The Promenade Shops at Centerra), a state park, beautiful city parks, and natural spaces. There are also many nice hotels (Holiday Inn Express and Hampton Inn, among others) and RV parks (Riverview RV Park, which is located next to the Big Thompson River). Take an after-dinner stroll around Lake Loveland, or take a Sunday afternoon walk through the Benson Sculpture Garden. (Website link: Benson Sculpture Garden.) One of our favorites was an early evening hike on Wild Loop trail at Devil’s Backbone Open Space. (Website link: Devil’s Backbone Open Space.) The restaurant we recommend is McGraff’s American Grill -1602 E Eisenhower Blvd. Drive time between Estes Park and Loveland: 40 minutes.
One of the beautiful sculptures at Benson Sculpture Garden
Devil’s Backbone Open Space
We will end this post with one last picture. Below is Longs Peak, the highest mountain in Rocky Mountain National Park, standing at 14,259 feet.
Thank you so much for joining us on our visit to Rocky Mountain National Park! We always love having you along for the ride. Until the next trip…
Travel safe, travel smart, and we will see you down the road.
Mike and Kellye
As always, we strive to be as accurate with our information as possible. If we made a mistake, it was unintentional. (Hey, we’re only human!) We aren’t paid for our recommendations, and we only recommend our own tried and true vendors and venues. Our suggestions are for places that we’ve heard good things about but haven’t visited personally, and our opinions are our own. ©2018