Located only an hour and a half from downtown Denver, we knew we had to make a trip to Rocky Mountain National Park on our recent weekend getaway to the Mile High City. As much as I travel, I had never been to a National Park before and was excited to check this one off my list. And boy have I been missing out all these years! Rocky Mountain National Park was absolutely breathtaking - I've never seen anything like it before. We only had an afternoon to enjoy the beauty of the park so we tried to pack in as much adventure as possible in a short amount of time. After a delicious breakfast at Denver Biscuit Company, we hit the road for Estes Park and arrived around 10:30 a.m.
Roads in the park are busiest from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. during the summer months which boasted over 4.6 million visitors in 2018. Plan to arrive early or late to avoid crowds. Parking can also be hard to come by in certain areas of the park, with popular trailheads filling up as early as 6:30 a.m. We opted to park at the Estes Visitor Center (which has a garage and many free all day spots) and hop on the free shuttle bus. Although the bus is free, you'll still need to purchase a one day park pass ($25) in order to board the bus. Once you've got your confirmation email, be sure to screenshot it as service/wifi is limited when you get in the park. We took the Hiker Shuttle at the Visitor's Center up to the Park and Ride lot. There was open parking in this lot so you can try and drive up to this lot as well. From here we boarded a second bus to Bear Lake for our first hike of the day.
If you only have a short amount of time in the park, I would HIGHLY recommend the Bear Lake hike. Located only 250 feet off the trailhead, this 0.8 mile loop hike takes you around the lake with stunning views of the mountains and peaceful scenery at every turn. While we were visiting in mid-June, there was still snow and slush on parts of the trail which may be difficult to traverse for some people but didn't cause us any issues if you take it slow. The hike ends back at the trailhead where we took a short bathroom break (there aren't any available on the trails) before heading on our next hiking adventure.
Located on the same trailhead is the out and back 3.5 mile hike to Nymph, Dream and Emerald Lake. This hike also had its fair share of snow on the trails and gains elevation much quicker than Bear Lake. At just over a half mile into the hike, you'll come upon Nymph Lake. This is a quick stop and a great place to have a snack, but these views aren't what you came for. If you continue up a rather steep climb, around 1.1 miles you'll pass through forest and a steady flowing stream before coming upon Dream Lake which will take your breath away. This was by far my favorite stop of the whole trip. You can turn around here or continue along to the north. At 1.8 miles you'll reach your final destination - Emerald Lake. At an elevation of 10,000+ feet this spot offers stunning views of both Hallett Peak and Flattop Mountain.
After taking in the views for a while we headed back the way we came in. Once at the trailhead we boarded the bus back to the Visitor's Center in Estes Park. However, if you're looking for more hiking you can head to your left toward Alberta Falls or take the shuttle bus back toward the Glacier Gorge trailhead. Once back in Estes Park we stopped for a quick lunch at Subway. We saw many people along the trails eating food they had packed which, looking back, I wish we would have done to save on time.
After lunch we hopped in the car and headed back toward the park entrance. From Estes we ended up taking highway 36 toward the Beaver Meadows Entrance Station which I would highly recommend. The lines to get into the park were significantly shorter than the Fall River Entrance Station. Both connect to Trail Ridge Road which was the next adventure on our list. The famous drive had just opened a few days before we arrived (it's closed each year from October - Memorial Day) and the snow drifts along the side of the road were taller than our car - the pavement itself was perfectly clear and we had no issues driving with with rental car (beware - the rental company will try to upsell you).
Trail Ridge Road stretches 50 miles from Estes Park (east) to Grand Lake (west). The highest continuous paved road in North America, the route offers a chance to experience all of three of the park's distinct climates ending in the tundra at 12,000+ feet. The road is narrow and winding so be sure to pay attention and drive carefully. There are multiple scenic pullouts to stop and enjoy the views along the way (and hopefully spot some wildlife). My favorite stops were Gorge Range and Iceburb Pass. We continued driving up to the Alpine Visitors Center which has a bookstore, gift shop and small cafe before turning around and heading back toward Estes. If you choose you can continue driving through the entire park ending out near Grand Lake.
Although you'll be tempted to conquer every hike in the park, if you only have one day I highly recommend leaving some time to explore Estes Park. We spent time strolling down the main drag and popping in and out of the many shops lining the street. Be sure to stop in to the many taffy, jerky, and sweet shops for free samples! We also decided to have a little fun with a mini golf competition at Fun City which was located in the same parking lot as our dinner destination - Estes Park Brewery. We are always on the lookout for new craft brews when we travel and loved the atmosphere here with a rooftop beer garden, free tasting bar, full draft beer menu, and delicious food. I tried the Stinger Wild Honey Wheat paired with their delicious spinach artichoke dip. Other great dinner locations offering cold beer and live music were The Barrel and The Slab.
If you plan to spend more time in Rocky Mountain National Park, you can purchase a week pass ($35) and stay in one of the many lodging options available in Estes Park.
I love creating detailed travel guides to ensure you get the most out of your time. On this blog I'll be sharing some of my past trips in hopes that it helps you plan your next adventure. Pack your suitcase you never know where I'll be heading next!
All 24 Hour Itinerary 3 Day Itinerary 4 Day Itinerary 5 Day Itinerary Anniversary Trip Book Guide Charleston Dallas Day Trip Denver Excursions Fall Travel Financial Tips Food Guide Girl's Trip Grand Rapids Hawaii Hiking Holiday Guide Kauai Magnolia Market Maui Michigan My Favorite Things Nashville National Park Northern Michigan Oahu Packing Tips Pet Friendly Product Review Reading List Sister Trip South Bend Texas Travel Gift Ideas Travel Guide Travel Planning Traverse City Up North Waco Wall Murals Winter Travel