Best Rocky Mountain National Park Itinerary

Best Rocky Mountain National Park Itinerary

The creek flowing out of Emerald Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.

Last updated on Oct 09, 2020

Rocky Mountain National Park is a treasure trove of amazing sites and locations. It has over 355 miles of hiking trails as well as mountain peaks that reach over 14,000 feet in elevation. Not to mention the amazing views that you can see at almost any area in the park and the amazing wildlife that roam free and call this environment their home. 

If you're not sure how to explore the area to the fullest, here are our itinerary guides for a 1-day, 3-day, or 5-day visit, as well as a perfect weekend guide for families with children. 

1-day Itinerary for a Trip to Rocky Mountain National Park

Only have one day to explore Rocky Mountain National Park? You don't have to worry about missing out on an amazing experience; you only need to worry about managing your time properly in order to be able to make the most of your visit. 

Since you only have more or less 24 hours to enjoy the national park, it's a good idea to begin your day early, especially if you're visiting during peak seasons. Imagine your trip as a race against the sun. Starting before it rises gives you a considerable head start that you should definitely take advantage of. 

Even if you only have one day in Rocky Mountain National Park, you still have plenty of time to explore some of its scenic sites. There are multiple trails that you can hike and even some peaks that you can summit. For a more chill exploration, you can easily hop on your car and go on a scenic drive. 

Suggested Hikes and Activities for a 1-day Trip at Rocky Mountain National Park

Aside from the ticking clock, elevation will be another challenge that you have to face when you visit Rocky Mountain National Park. Since you won't have enough time to acclimate to the park's elevation, it is not recommended to take on the more challenging hikes that the park has to offer. 

We recommend that you take on less strenuous hikes that are easy to moderate in difficulty so that you won't get hit with high altitude sickness. It will be a bummer to get sick during your visit, especially when you only have one day to explore. 

Even if you're only taking on the easy hikes, you will still be able to visit amazing sites and catch a glimpse of the park's amazing wildlife. Here are our recommended hikes for a 1-day visit to Rocky Mountain National Park. 

Bear Lake Loop

Being considered as one of the most famous hiking trails of Rocky Mountain National Park, a hike around Bear Lake is perfect for a 1-day visit. 

The Bear Lake area is a fairly busy and famous location so expect the area to be filled with visitors, especially during peak season. Start your hike early to avoid the huge crowds as well as to secure a good parking spot. 

The hike around Bear Lake is a simple and easy one. The loop follows the shoreline of the subalpine lake and will take you through a forest of spruce, fir, lodgepole pine, and aspen. Make sure to keep an eye out for Hallet Peak, Half Mountain, and Longs Peak during your hike as they make their appearance over the horizon. 

Alberta Falls Hike

Another scenic location in the Bear Lake Road area is Alberta Falls, one of the best waterfall hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park. 

If you're visiting the park in fall, a hike up to Alberta Falls is definitely recommended. As you make your way to the falls, the area that you will be hiking through will alternate between pine forests and aspen groves, painted in the colors of autumn.

The stunning Alberta Falls is 30 feet high and flows down a small gorge on Glacier Creek. Make sure to pack some food and drinks for your hike because this spot is perfect for a picnic. 

Deer Mountain Hike

If you're absolutely set on summiting a mountain during your visit to Rocky Mountain National Park, check out the hike up to Deer Mountain. 

Only a little bit over 10,000 feet in elevation, the hike up to Deer Mountain is not as strenuous as the other famous peaks in the national park. The hike will mostly be in open country, which is a good location for spotting wildlife. Keep an eye out for deers and elks that like to graze in these open meadows. Once you reach the top, you'll be greeted with amazing views of Estes Park, Moraine Park, Longs Peak, Hallett Peak, the Mummy Range, and the mountains of the Continental Divide. 

Even if Deer Mountain is relatively lower compared to the park's other peaks, you can still experience high altitude sickness. Make sure to hydrate and munch on some snacks while you're on the hike, to avoid feeling sick. 

Scenic Drive Along Trail Ridge Road

If you're looking for a more chill way to experience the amazing sites and locations that Rocky Mountain National Park has to offer, why don't you go on a scenic drive along Trail Ridge Road? 

Rocky Mountain National Park's highway to the sky allows you to view and admire the wonderful locations and sceneries of the park from the comfort of your car. As you leave the evergreen forest behind and climb along the tundra, you'll be able to see breathtaking views, various wildlife, and alpine wildflowers all around you. For a safer viewing, there are several pullovers along the way where you can take your time and admire the beauty of the Rockies and its surrounding areas. 

If you decide on driving the entire stretch of Trail Ridge Road, keep in mind that it will probably take a big part of your day, especially if you're stopping at all of the scenic stops. If you also want to go on a hike, just make sure to pick a hike that is not time consuming and start your day early. 

It's true that a full Rocky Mountain National Park experience cannot be squeezed in a single day, but that doesn't mean that you won't be able to enjoy a 1-day visit. There are multiple activities that you can do and experience even if you're only visiting for a short period of time. 

As long as you manage your time properly, you'll definitely be able to make the most out of your 1 day in Rocky Mountain National Park. 

3-day Itinerary

Our three-day itinerary in Rocky Mountain National Park is a nature and history journey that will take you on an adventure from east to west, or vice versa. 

Day 1

For your first day in the park, we recommend that you check out the Bear Lake Road area. There are multiple amazing trails that you can hike in this location, such as the Bear Lake loop. For this itinerary, we recommend that you hike up to the Sky Pond, which is considered as one of the best hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Since it's your first day in the park, you need to spend some time acclimatizing to the park's elevation to avoid high altitude sickness. Since the hike to Sky Pond is fairly strenuous, begin your day with a warm up hike around Bear Lake. 

After that, you can begin your journey to the Sky Pond. Your hike will begin at the Glacier Gorge Trailhead, located in Bear Lake Road, not far from Bear Lake. The reason why we recommend this hike is because along the way, you will be able to visit some of the other scenic locations of Rocky Mountain National Park. 

The first attraction that you will encounter is Alberta Falls, one of the more popular hiking destinations in the park. As you continue with the hike, you'll eventually reach Loch Vale or The Loch, a beautiful subalpine lake that is surrounded by the amazing peaks of Taylor Peak, Thatchtop Mountain, the Sharkstooth, and Powell Peak. This is a good place to take an extended break. 

After that, begin your hike again. In less than four miles, you'll reach the Sky Pond / Andrews Glacier split. Head over to the Andrews Creek Backcountry Campsite – the only campsite in this area, to rest and spend the night. 

If you want, you can finish the hike up to Sky Pond in a day. The reason why we set the itinerary like this is in consideration of the difficulty of the hike and its altitude. The last stretch of the hike is definitely the hardest, with one part requiring you to scramble on all fours. It's better to finish the rest of the hike after a good night's sleep rather than when you're already fatigued from a day's worth of hiking. 

Day 2

Rise and shine! Make sure to eat breakfast and do some warm up exercises before you begin your hike because this part of the trail to Sky Pond is extra challenging. 

The next scenic location that you should be on the lookout for is Timberline Falls. The climb to these falls is only the beginning of this challenging hike. Timberline Falls is an amazing and breathtaking waterfall that drops roughly 100 feet into the valley below. When in this location, make sure to catch a glimpse of the trail that you hiked the day before, including a birds-eye view of The Loch. 

In this location, the Sky Pond is only a few miles and a 100 feet scramble away. This climb can be fairly dangerous so make sure to exercise caution in order to avoid any accidents. After this climb, you'll arrive at the incredibly beautiful alpine lake, which is known as the Lake of Glass. From here, the trail becomes rocky and rugged. 

After a few more miles of hiking, you'll finally arrive at the Sky Pond, an alpine lake that sits at an elevation of 10,900 feet and is surrounded by sheer cliff walls. Admire the amazing views from this vantage point and you'll know why it's considered as one of the best hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park, despite its difficulty. 

After finishing the hike to Sky Pond, embark on a more chill adventure and drive along Trail Ridge Road. This scenic drive is an experience that you should not miss when visiting Rocky Mountain National Park. There are several pullovers along the highway, where you can safely enjoy the amazing views of the Rockies and its surrounding areas. Don't forget to stop by the Alpine Visitor Center for a short hike to a location where you can experience the amazing Rocky Mountain sunset. 

After that scenic drive, head over to the Timber Creek Campground to rest for the night. 

Day 3

Rocky Mountain National Park boasts of amazing natural wonders that will surely leave you in awe. Aside from that, the park is also teeming with history. On your third day in the park, visit the Holzwarth Historic Site, a preserved property that is the perfect representation of the early dude ranching in the Rockies. 

After the history lesson, grab your hiking boots and explore the Kawuneeche Valley and the Colorado River on a hike along the Coyote Valley Trail. This easy and accessible trail is perfect for a last frolic in nature before the end of your trip. 

Continuing with the history theme, the Kawuneeche Valley was used by the Ute and Arapaho Indians as a hunting ground way before Rocky Mountain National Park was established. The word, “Kawuneeche,” means “Valley of the Coyote,” in the language of the Arapaho Indians. This valley along with the Colorado River is a favored spot by the park's wildlife so you'll definitely catch a glimpse or two during your visit. 

If you don't have that much time to spare in your busy schedule, three days is already perfect to see the highlights of Rocky Mountain National Park. Staying longer is generally better because you'll have more time to explore the park, but in my opinion, making the most out of the time that you have is the best. 

5-day Itinerary

Not everybody has the luxury of going on long vacations. If you decide to spend your precious vacation days enjoying everything that nature has to offer, here is our 5-day itinerary for an epic week in Rocky Mountain National Park.

For a vacation this long, we definitely recommend that you take on the toughest challenge that the park has to offer: summiting Longs Peak, Rocky Mountain National Park's highest mountain. Since this hike is the hardest and highest of them all, proper acclimatization to the park's altitude is necessary. 

Days 1-3

For the first three days of your trip, we recommend following our 3-day itinerary, beginning on the west side of the park. The hikes included in the itinerary will definitely help you adjust to the altitude while doing some sightseeing. We also recommend that you take the Keyhole route to Longs Peak. It's a popular trail that has been used by many visitors who have succeeded in reaching the top of the mountain.

Day 4-5

It is very important to know that the journey to Longs Peak is a climb, not a hike. Typically, the ascent to Longs Peak and the accompanying descent can take around 10-15 hours to complete, depending on your skill level and the weather condition. The trail is definitely challenging, which is why we're spreading the climb over the course of two days mostly for safety purposes.

The real challenge of the climb typically begins when you reach the Keyhole but that does not mean that the beginning hike is a walk in the park. Just make sure to pace yourself and to keep hydrated so that you'll be able to reach your destination. 

Your halfway point to your journey is the Boulder Field Backcountry Campground. You'll know when you're near this campsite when you reach the Boulder Field, where you'll need to do some rock hopping to cross the terrain.  In this campground, tent sites are surrounded by rock rings to help keep the wind and snow at bay. Spend the night here and rest for the challenge that you're about to face the following day. 

The trail past the campsite is where the real fun begins. You'll definitely need all your mountain climbing skills to finish the journey and to reach the top. Safety should always be your main concern, so if you or any member of your group are not feeling well or if the weather is turning sour, don't hesitate to turn back. 

After a strenuous climb, you'll be rewarded with breathtaking views from the highest point in Rocky Mountain National Park. Take your time to savor the amazing views and your victory. Rest, you'll need your energy for your descent. 

Alternative to  Climbing Longs Peak

If extreme mountain climbing is not your thing, why don't you go and enjoy exploring Estes Park and Grand Lake?

Rocky Mountain National Park's gateway communities are filled with activities that you can enjoy and culture that you can experience. Each town has its own unique charm that will surely make you fall in love. 

Day 1

Spend your first day exploring Colorado's original playground. Also considered as the base camp for Rocky Mountain National Park, Estes Park is located only 15 minutes away from the park's east side. 

Sightseeing around Estes Park is a good way to ease yourself in the mountain environment. Take a ride on the Estes Park Aerial Tramway and enjoy the magnificent sceneries that surround this mountain town from a better vantage point. Don't be surprised if you see wildlife roaming around town, they're pretty common in this area. 

To enjoy the culture of Estes Park, head over to its downtown area, which is filled with locally owned businesses. Catch an outdoor show such as a jazz concert or a cowboy sing-a-long. Don't forget to check out the local restaurants and enjoy good food, paired with your favorite Colorado craft beer. 

Days 2-4

Follow our 3-day itinerary guide for an east to west adventure across Rocky Mountain National Park. 

Day 5

It's time to explore Grand Lake, the western gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park. Check out Colorado's largest natural lake of the same name and discover why the town is a designated Certified Colorado Creative District. 

Grand Lake is the perfect place to be if you're craving to do some water activities during your trip to Rocky Mountain National Park. Grand Lake, the body of water, is perfect for aquatic activities such as canoeing, kayaking, paddle boating, stand-up paddleboarding, swimming, and fishing. 

Even in the winter, the amount of activities that you can do in Grand Lake are still abundant. In fact, the town is dubbed as the “Snowmobiling Capital of Colorado”. Other winter activities that you can take part in include snowshoeing, Nordic skiing, wildlife viewing, ice fishing, ice skating, and downhill skiing. 

Don't forget to check out the artistic side of Grand Lake. Catch a show at the Rocky Mountain Repertory Theater to experience Broadway in the mountains. Take a stroll along Grand Avenue to admire the wild west architecture of the town and don't forget to visit the locally owned shops in this area in order to score some amazing souvenirs or local artworks. 

Rocky Mountain National Park, and its surrounding areas for that matter, has a lot to offer in terms of activities to do, sights to see, and wildlife to spot. Five days is plenty enough to fully enjoy a Rocky Mountain National Park experience, whether you decide to climb its highest peak or laze around in one of its gateway communities. 

Perfect Family Weekend Getaway at Rocky Mountain National Park

Is your family looking for a great place to visit on a weekend getaway? Look no further than Rocky Mountain National Park. Although the park is famous for tall peaks and amazing backcountry hikes, there are a multitude of activities that can be enjoyed by families, even those with small children. 

If you're looking for an opportunity to introduce your kids to the great outdoors, follow this weekend itinerary for a fun and learning filled adventure. 

Day 1

There are plenty of amazing hikes that can be enjoyed by children. For example, the hike around Bear Lake is an easy hike that will surely be enjoyed by the youngsters. The water will be enticing so make sure to keep an eye out for surprise swimming attempts. 

Another amazing hike is the one that will take you to Cub Lake. This hike is perfect for kids who absolutely adore animals. In the summer, the surface of the lake is covered in lily pads and a variety of ducks will be seen enjoying the cool water. In fall, the woods that you'll be hiking through will be painted in yellow and gold. Make sure to catch a glimpse of the grazing elks that frequent this area during this season. 

To cultivate their love for nature, encourage them to explore their surroundings. When you encounter wildlife, educate them about proper viewing etiquette. At this young age, learning to appreciate the environment is a valuable lesson that they will take to adulthood. 

In the afternoon, take a drive along Trail Ridge Road. This will allow you and your kids to view amazing sights from a higher altitude without the need of going on a possibly strenuous hike. The view of the sunset from the area near the Alpine Visitor Center is amazing so make sure to catch a glimpse of that as well. 

There are several campgrounds in the park where you can spend the night or you can head over to Estes Park or Grand Lake for overnight accommodations. 

Day 2

For the second day, we figured that a visit to some historic sights is the perfect way to start the day. Similar to our 3-day itinerary, we recommend that you visit the Holzwarth Historic Site. I'm sure that the kids will love exploring the area and they'll learn a thing or two as well about the history of Rocky Mountain National Park. 

After that, take a hike along the Coyote Valley Trail. This is a perfect hike for families because it's an accessible trail with multiple benches for rest stops scattered along the way. This hike allows you to explore the Kawuneeche Valley and the Colorado River, which are prime locations for spotting wildlife. 

If you want to go on a trail that will take you to places in higher altitudes, consider doing so on horseback. It's perfect for kids because it allows them to explore places that they won't be able to reach on foot. Plus, any kid will surely jump at the opportunity to go horseback riding. 

If you're looking for a more structured and educational activity, there are multiple ranger led programs that are specifically tailored for kids. Head over to any visitor center for more information. 

A weekend getaway to places like Rocky Mountain National Park is a perfect opportunity for some quality bonding time for the family. Because of the prevalence of electronics in this generation, getting children to be out and about and to experience nature is more important than ever. What better way to introduce them to the great outdoors than a trip to Rocky Mountain National Park?

Some Tips and Suggestions
Whether you're visiting for a day or a whole week, here are some tips and suggestions that will surely make your visit to Rocky Mountain National Park better than what you expected. 

  • Weather: The first thing that you should always consider is the weather. Rocky Mountain National Park is known for its fickle weather system that can change in the blink of an eye. Make sure to check the weather forecast before your trip and adjust your plans accordingly. When it comes to clothing, dressing up in layers is a good way to cover all your bases since it allows you to easily cool down or bundle up. Packing storm gear is also a good idea. 
  • Altidud: Altitude will be your worst enemy if you're not prepared for it. To avoid high altitude sickness, make sure to properly acclimatize to the park's altitude before taking on activities located on higher elevations. 
  • Leave No Trace: Make sure to familiarize yourself with the Leave No Trace principles. To preserve the precious ecosystem of the park, it's important to try to avoid disturbing the surroundings as much as possible. Park rangers are always available to answer your questions about these things so make sure to approach them before you begin your activities.
  • Overnight Accomodations: There are no overnight accomodations available inside the park boundaries aside from campgrounds and wilderness campsites. If you're planning on staying in a hotel for your trip, check out this article(link to lodging article) for a guide to the best accommodation options in Estes Park and Grand Lake. 

Some people definitely recommend spending multiple days in Rocky Mountain National Park to be able to fully experience everything that it has to offer. I agree with this sentiment, but only to some extent, mainly because not everyone has the luxury of going on an extended vacation. 

Even if you only have one day to spare, you should not deprive yourself of the chance to explore and experience this amazing park. Besides, whether you visit for a day or a whole week, I'm sure Rocky Mountain National Park will definitely make you come back for more. 

For more information about Rocky Mountain National Park, don't forget to check out our feature article as well as our list of best accommodation options in Estes Park and Grand Lake.


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