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The Ultimate Rocky Mountain National Park Itinerary – The Best Things to Do From One Day to One Week

If you’re planning a trip to Colorado, we have the perfect Rocky Mountain National Park itinerary and local insider tips for you! 

Nymph Lake reflection. Nymph Lake is a must-see for your rocky mountain national park itinerary
Nymph Lake is one of the several lakes you will see on the Emerald Lake Trail

Boasting over 4 million annual visitors, Rocky Mountain National Park is one of our favorite places to hike in Colorado. We’re lucky to have the Rockies in our backyard. After countless visits to RMNP, we’ve learned so much about the best things to see and do in the park. From hiking along the Continental Divide, to embarking on an epic scenic drive on one of the country’s highest-elevation roads, to spotting elk, moose, and more, Rocky Mountain National Park has a bucket-list adventure for everyone. 

We’re also including some practical information you need to know when planning a trip to Rocky Mountain National Park. Timed-entry permits? Road closures? The best hikes? Don’t fret, we’ve got it covered! 

In this post, we share our tried-and-true expert itineraries for 1, 2, 3, and more days, all the way up to one week, in Rocky Mountain National Park. Whether your interests be hiking, scenic drives, or wildlife spotting, our recommended RMNP itineraries have something for everyone. 

Need-to-Know Tips for Visiting Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park Geography

Rocky Mountain National Park comprises 425 square miles of jaw-dropping mountain scenery. The mountain range runs north to south, with the highest mountain tops comprising the Continental Divide. The road that runs east to west through the park is Trail Ridge Road, the highest continuous paved road in the United States (more on this later in the RMNP itinerary!). 

Other notable landmarks in the park are Bear Lake Road, which is the hub for most of the best hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park; and Longs Peak, the tallest mountain RMNP at 14,259 feet. 

Estes Park is the town just outside the eastern side of the park and is the best place to stay and make your base when exploring Rocky Mountain NP. To the west is Grand Lake, which is also a decent base for the park, although you will have to drive further each day you explore RMNP since the best things to do are in the eastern part of the park. 

Rocky Mountain National Park Map
Map from NPS

Rocky Mountain National Park Entrance

Everyone visiting Rocky Mountain National Park, at any time of the year, needs to pay the park entrance fee. The cost is $30 for one vehicle for one day or $35 for one vehicle for a full week. Alternatively, you can also use an annual National Park Pass like America the Beautiful pass to cover your entrance fee into the park. We highly recommend a national park pass since it pays for itself once you visit 3 national park locations in 12 months. Over 2,000 sites are included (not JUST national parks but also national monuments and more). 

Rocky Mountain National Park Entrance Sign
Entrance sign to Rocky Mountain National Park near the Beaver Meadows entry point

Timed-Entry Permits

Timed-entry permits are required from May to October each year. You have to buy these online in advance. If you want to visit Bear Lake Road, you need to choose Option 1. If you are visiting anywhere/everywhere in the park EXCEPT Bear Lake Road, you can choose Option 2.

There are two ways to visit Rocky Mountain National Park from May to October without obtaining a timed-entry permit. The first is to enter the park outside of the “peak times”. For Bear Lake Road access, this means you need to arrive before 5 am or after 6 pm. For general park access excluding Bear Lake Road, you’ll need to arrive before 9 am or after 3 pm.

Your second option is to take the Hikers Shuttle from the Estes Park Visitors Center. The shuttle stops at various locations and trailheads throughout the park. You can hop on and off any of the shuttle stops. Note that the shuttle does not stop at every location listed in this itinerary, however, so your best bet is to either get in early or grab a timed-entry permit if you can! 

Rocky Mountain National Park Timed Entry Information
NPS Graphic/A. Andreas

Seasonal Road Closures

Trail Ridge Road and Old Fall River Road are closed to cars for the winter season typically starting in October and not reopening until summer. When the road reopens depends entirely on the snow conditions, though it’s typically June for Trail Ridge Road and July for Old Fall River Road. You can still see part of Trail Ridge Road in winter, but the road closes just past the Many Parks Overlook. If you’re adventurous, you can snowshoe or cross-country ski both Trail Ridge Road and Old Fall River Road in the winter! 

Rocky Mountain National Park’s Altitude

Even the lowest parts of Rocky Mountain National Park are high-altitude, starting at 5,600 feet. Most of the hikes in the park start even higher, up to 9,000 feet. And, if you plan to reach the summit of any of the mountains in RMNP, you’ll probably be reaching 13,000 or even 14,000 feet above sea level. Pretty much everyone visiting Colorado from somewhere else will experience the effects of the high altitude in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Symptoms of altitude sickness include fatigue, headache, loss of appetite, and shortness of breath. The best way to manage altitude sickness is to stay hydrated (even more so than usual), take over-the-counter pain meds if you want to alleviate some of the symptoms, and wait it out. Spend your first day in the Rocky Mountains resting and engaging in mild activity to get acclimated to the elevation. 

View of the Continental Divide mountains and Bear Lake Road on the Bierstadt Lake Trail in Rocky Mountain National Park
Rocky Mountain National Park’s towering high-altitude peaks

Weather in Rocky Mountain National Park

Summer

Summers are usually sunny and pleasantly warm in Rocky Mountain National Park, though at higher elevations it could still snow. You may even see last winter’s snow still on the trails in some places. In general, summer is the best time of the year to visit Rocky Mountain National Park. It’s also the busiest time of the year to visit. You’ll need to get to the trailhead extra early to snag a parking spot. We recommend no later than 9 am at the absolute latest but honestly, things get busy even by 7 am. Earlier is better when it comes to visiting RMNP in summer! 

In the summer, you can pretty much expect a thunderstorm to roll in every afternoon, typically around 1 pm. They generally pass by late afternoon. For this reason, you should start your hikes early in the morning so you are done before the storms. This is especially important for high altitude hikes above treeline because your risk of being struck by lightning is much higher when you’re at the tallest point around.

Fall

In fall, the leaves turn gold throughout Rocky Mountain National Park. It’s a beautiful time to explore RMNP! Be aware you may get wintery weather in the fall. Even in October when we hiked to Sky Pond, it was snowing. We recommend bringing microspikes with you on most trails in RMNP from November through May. 

Be aware that scenic drives like Old Fall River Road and Trail Ridge Road close in early fall and won’t reopen until the snow melts in the late spring. 

Winter

Winter is a challenging time to visit Rocky Mountain National Park, but very rewarding for those willing to make the effort. Expect temperatures below freezing, lots of snow, and ice. Be cautious hiking in winter, especially late winter when avalanche risk rises. We recommend checking with a park ranger on conditions! 

Also, note that Trail Ridge Road and Old Fall River Road are closed in winter

Spring

In spring, temps start to get warmer and snow begins to melt. Spring is peak risk season for avalanches in the area, so talk with a ranger before setting out on hikes to make sure conditions are safe. Trails will probably be muddy and slippery so take it slow and steady! In general, though, spring is a pleasant time in the park. Note that winter closures, including for Trail Ridge Road and Old Fall River Road, are still in effect in spring

Average temperatures monthly in Estes Park Colorado Rocky Mountain National Park
Estes Park monthly average temperatures in degrees Fahrenheit

Guided Tours in Rocky Mountain National Park

Tours to Rocky Mountain National Park are a great option if you are short on time, based in Denver or Boulder, or just want a responsibility-free visit to RMNP. Here are some recommended options. 

 

What to Pack to Rocky Mountain National Park

In general, you will want to pack a variety of layers, like t-shirts, pullovers, jackets, and coats, no matter what time of the year you are visiting. Even in summer, temperatures at higher elevations (like on Trail Ridge Road) can be blustery! You’ll also want to make sure you have hiking clothes and hiking boots if you plan to hit any of the trails. 

Lastly, we recommend packing all your food, including lunches, snacks, and water, with you into the park since food purchasing options within Rocky Mountain National Park are limited! And if you do pack your food in, be sure to dispose of it properly in one of the designated trash bins, or pack all of your rubbish out of the park with you when you leave. This includes biodegradable food scraps like apple cores and banana peels, which degrade the environment and are unnatural and unhealthy for the park’s many wildlife to consume. 

You can grab the full Rocky Mountain National Park packing list here, including a FREE printable PDF you can use to check items off as you pack! 

Where to Stay for this Rocky Mountain National Park Itinerary

This itinerary works best if you are based in Estes Park on the eastern side of Rocky Mountain National Park. Most of the main attractions are on the eastern portion of the park. As a city, Estes Park also offers plenty of accommodations, restaurants/bars, and shopping. 

If you’re visiting in the summer, you could stay in Grand Lake on the western side of Rocky Mountain National Park, but if you follow this itinerary, most of your time will be spent on the eastern side of the park. This means long drives around or through the mountains each day. If you want a more relaxed and secluded experience, Grand Lake may be a good option for you.

In general, though, we recommend staying in Estes Park over Grand Lake if you are following the one-day to one-week RMNP itineraries we include here. 

Here are some recommendations for where to stay in Estes Park:

Luxury

Midrange

Budget

Click here to search for additional hotels in Estes Park or search below!

 

How Much Time to Spend in Rocky Mountain National Park

Most people who come to Rocky Mountain National Park spend 2 or 3 days there. You can also visit RMNP as a day trip from Denver, Boulder, and other towns along the front range. 

We think you can see Rocky Mountain National Park’s highlights in one or two days. On the other hand, if you are an avid hiker, we recommend spending at least 3 days in RMNP. For the most comprehensive experience, including all the best scenic drives, hikes, and activities, one week is a good amount of time to spend in RMNP. This is why we’ve created itineraries for 1 day, 2 days, 3 days, and 1 week in Rocky Mountain NP! 

One Day Rocky Mountain National Park Itinerary

And now, without further ado, let’s dive into our Rocky Mountain National Park itineraries, starting with our recommendations if you only have one day!

Sunrise at Sprague Lake

If you only have one day in Rocky Mountain National Park, your first order of business is deciding where to spend your one and only sunrise in the park! For this, we recommend Sprague Lake. The short, flat loop hike around this (surprisingly manmade) lake on Bear Lake Road is less than one mile long and offers truly epic views looking west to the Rocky Mountains that make up the Continental Divide.

On a still morning, you can catch a mirror-like reflection of the peaks on Sprague Lake’s surface. Because you’ll be facing west towards the mountains, the sun will rise behind you in the east and cast its glow onto the towering peaks in front of you. 

If you’re especially lucky, you may spot elk or moose at Sprague Lake early in the morning as well. They are known to graze and drink here! 

Read more about Sprague Lake in our guide!

Sarah stands on the fishing pier at Sprague Lake overlooking Rocky Mountains. Sprague Lake is the perfect place to start your Rocky Mountain National Park itinerary
Sprague Lake is one of the most photogenic lakes in Rocky Mountain National Park

Morning Hike in Bear Lake Area

After sunrise, head to Bear Lake Trailhead where you have MANY hiking options, from a mostly-flat wheelchair-accessible stroll around Bear Lake Loop Trail, or a challenging mountain climb to the top of Hallett Peak. You can find all of the trail options from Bear Lake Trailhead here, but with just one day in RMNP, though, we recommend either of these shorter options: 

  1. Bear Lake Loop is an ideal choice for those who do not consider themselves hikers but want beautiful views of Flattop Mountain and Hallett Peak over the lake. It’s 0.7 miles around the lake with 49 feet of elevation gain. Read more about the Bear Lake Loop trail in our guide!
  2. The Emerald Lake hike, including Lake Haiyaha, is an excellent choice for those with minimal, but some, hiking experience who want to see 5 incredible alpine lakes within one 5-mile hike. You can read more about the hike to Lake Haiyaha and Emerald Lake here!  

Note that Bear Lake Trailhead parking lot fills up early, even with timed-entry permits spacing people throughout the day. We recommend arriving at Bear Lake Trailhead no later than 9 am. If the parking lot is full when you arrive, you can park at Glacier Gorge Trailhead a little bit down Bear Lake Road. This way you can still do the same hike to Emerald Lake and Lake Haiyaha, though getting to the Bear Lake Loop will be more cumbersome.

You can also park at the Park and Ride on Bear Lake Road shortly before the Bierstadt Lake trailhead and take the shuttle from there to Bear Lake. 

View of Hallett peak from Bear Lake Loop Trail. Bear Lake is a must-do on your Rocky Mountain National Park itinerary
View of Hallett Peak from Bear Lake Loop Trail

Picnic Lunch

By the time you finish your hike, you’re probably ready for a snack or lunch. Stop at one of the picnic tables along Bear Lake Road as you make your way back toward the entrance station. We particularly like the views and picnic space at Sprague Lake

Picnic table at Sprague Lake
One of the many picnic tables at Sprague Lake

Scenic Drive on Trail Ridge Road

When you get to the end of Bear Lake Road, make a left to start your epic scenic drive along Trail Ridge Road! This road is not only home to the highest visitor center in the entire US National Park System, but it’s also the highest continuous paved road in the United States. 

What exactly does “highest continuous paved road mean?” Basically, it’s a paved road that ascends to a summit point on a mountain and continues all the way down the other side. What disqualifies taller paved roads like Mount Evans scenic drive is that they stop at the summit and you drive back down the way you came. This is not so with Trail Ridge Road, which you can drive point-to-point connecting Estes Park in the east with Grand Lake in the west. 

Your scenic drive on Trail Ridge Road will take the rest of the day, especially if you drive all the way to Grand Lake and then return to Estes Park. If you have less time, we recommend doing a partial drive of Trail Ridge Road up to the Alpine Visitor Center and then back down the way you came to Estes Park. 

Here are the stops you don’t want to miss on Trail Ridge Road: 

  • Rainbow Curve Overlook
  • Forest Canyon Overlook
  • Gore Range Overlook
  • Alpine Visitor Center (and the adjacent Alpine Ridge Trail
  • Medicine Bow – great wildlife viewing
  • Milner Pass and the Continental Divide
  • Holzwarth Historic Site

Read our full guide to Trail Ridge Road, including information on every scenic stop and pull-out on the entire 48 miles road. 

1-Day Rocky Mountain National Park Itinerary – Summary

To summarize how to spend your first or only day in RMNP: 

Two Days Rocky Mountain National Park Itinerary

With two days in Rocky Mountain National Park, follow the 1-day itinerary above for your first day, and then on the second day, take on one of the advanced hikes on the Bear Lake Road corridor. 

Our top recommendation is to hike to Sky Pond, passing Loch Vale and Alberta Falls along the way. Sky Pond is a challenging but epic hike to an alpine lake surrounded by jagged and dramatic peaks. If you aren’t up for that much distance and elevation gain, hiking to Loch Vale (which again also passes Alberta Falls) is a great alternative and a stunning destination in its own right. Check out our detailed guides to learn more about whether Sky Pond or Loch Vale is the right hike for you!

2 Days Rocky Mountain National Park Itinerary – Summary

To summarize how to spend two days in RMNP: 

Day 1:

Day 2:

Three Days Rocky Mountain National Park Itinerary

With three days in Rocky Mountain National Park, follow the one- and two-day itineraries above. On the third day, you have some choices. 

If you like big hikes…

Check out the Longs Peak Area of the park, 10 miles south of Estes Park. If you are an experienced hiker, Chasm Lake is an excellent option. The hike to Chasm Lake is our personal favorite within all of Rocky Mountain National Park. The hike 8.8 miles round-trip with 2,542 feet of elevation gain. You can read more about Chasm Lake in our detailed guide.

Chasm Lake shares a trailhead with the summit trail to Longs Peak, the tallest mountain in RMNP at 14,259 feet. If you are an experienced mountain climber, you can summit Longs Peak and bag one of Colorado’s bucket-list-worthy 14ers. Note: Only attempt the Longs Peak summit hike if you are really, truly experienced. People fall to their deaths every year attempting to summit Colorado’s tallest peaks! 

Sarah and Tim stand in front of Chasm Lake
Chasm Lake is one of the best hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park

If you like wildlife…

Check out Moraine Park for elk spotting. They are known to hang out in this area. Take a hike on the 3.4 miles Moraine Park Loop trail and then visit the Moraine Park Discovery Center. 

Elk at Medicine Bow Curve
Elk are one of the most common animals to spot in Rocky Mountain National Park

If you like scenic drives…

Head out on Old Fall River Road, an 11-mile one-way gravel road. Originally opened in 1920 as the first road leading into RMNP, Old Fall River Road begins at Horseshoe Park and ends at the Alpine Visitor Center. Don’t miss Chasm Falls along your drive! Even though this is a gravel road, it’s suitable for standard vehicles. No 4×4 is required! 

3 Days Rocky Mountain National Park Itinerary – Summary

To summarize how to spend three days in RMNP: 

Day 1: 

Day 2: 

Day 3: 

  • Hike Chasm Lake -OR-
  • Visit and hike at Moraine Park -OR-
  • Drive Old Fall River Road 
Hallett View over a frozen Bear Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park
Bear Lake

Four Days Rocky Mountain National Park Itinerary

Follow our itineraries for 1 and 2 days in Rocky Mountain National Park. Then, choose any 2 activities listed under our 3-day itinerary. You’ll do one on the third day, and the other on the fourth day. 

Alternatively, try horseback riding in Rocky Mountain National Park on your fourth day. 

Horseback riding has a long history in RMNP, going back to the park’s designation in 1915. These companies can take you on a horseback riding tour in RMNP:

4 Days Rocky Mountain National Park Itinerary – Summary

To summarize how to spend four days in RMNP: 

Day 1: 

Day 2: 

Day 3: 

  • Hike Chasm Lake -OR-
  • Visit and hike at Moraine Park -OR-
  • Drive Old Fall River Road 

Day 4: 

  • Hike Chasm Lake -OR-
  • Visit and hike at Moraine Park -OR-
  • Drive Fall River Road -OR-
  • Horseback riding
Lake Haiyaha is bright teal blue with many boulders
Lake Haiyaha

One Week Itinerary for Rocky Mountain National Park 

Start your one-week Rocky Mountain National Park itinerary by following the 2-day itinerary for RMNP above. Here’s how to spend the remainder of the week in Rocky Mountain National Park. 

Day 3 – Hike Chasm Lake

If you like hiking, the challenging trail to Chasm Lake is an absolute must-do in RMNP. We think Chasm Lake is the best hike in all of Rocky Mountain National Park, so we’re allocating an entire day for it in our one-week RMNP itinerary.

Day 4 – Fall River Road and Moraine Park

Drive the scenic Old Fall River Road. Read more details about Old Fall River Road under the 2-day RMNP itinerary above. 

After the drive, stop at Moraine Park in the late afternoon, near dusk, for your best shot at spotting elk and other wildlife who are known to hang out here.

Moraine Park in Rocky Mountain National Park
Moraine Park

Day 5 – Horseback Riding and Wild Basin

On your fifth day, go on a morning horseback ride in the park. See a list of area stables and horseback tour companies under the 4 days itinerary above. In the afternoon, check out the Wild Basin portion of Rocky Mountain National Park. There are several worthwhile hikes in this area. Here are some recommendations: 

  • Ouzel Falls – 5.4 miles and 870 feet of elevation gain
  • Ouzel Lake – 10 miles and 1,683 feet of elevation gain

Day 6 – Grand Lake

Spend your sixth day on the western portion of the park in Grand Lake. You can paddle board on Grand Lake itself, set out on an easy waterfall hike to Adams Falls, and explore downtown Grand Lake. 

If you didn’t make it all the way to Grand Lake on Day 1 when you drove Trail Ridge Road, you can also use this day to visit these worthwhile spots on the portion of Trail Ridge Road west of the Alpine Visitor Center: 

  • Holzwarth Historic Site
  • Fairview Curve Point
  • Milner Pass and the Continental Divide
  • Medicine Bow
  • Alpine Visitor Center
Tim paddle boarding on Grand Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park
Grand Lake

Day 7 – Explore Estes Park

On your last day in Rocky Mountain NP, hit up another hike within the park. Some notable recommendations on the Bear Lake Road corridor are Bierstadt Lake, Mills Lake/Jewel Lake. Alternatively, explore some of the adventurous offerings around Estes Park, like rock climbing, zip lining, or taking a tour of the Stanley Hotel that inspired Stephen King’s The Shining.

As a third option, spend the day in downtown Estes Park, brewery and restaurant hopping. Some of the most popular spots to experience Colorado’s craft beer culture in Estes Park are: 

Stanley Hotel in Estes Park Colorado
Stanley Hotel

One Week Itinerary in Rocky Mountain National Park – Summary

To summarize how to spend one week in RMNP: 

Day 1: 

Day 2: 

Alberta Falls
Alberta Falls

Day 3: 

Day 4: 

  • Visit and hike at Moraine Park -OR-
  • Drive Fall River Road

Day 5: 

  • Morning: Horseback riding
  • Afternoon: Hike in Wild Basin

Day 6: 

  • Explore Grand Lake
  • Drive the western part of Trail Ridge Road if you haven’t already

Day 7: 

  • One last hike in RMNP -OR-
  • Rock climbing -OR-
  • Zip Lining -OR-
  • Stanley Hotel Tour -OR-
  • Explore downtown Estes Park

Final Thoughts on Our Rocky Mountain National Park Itinerary

These Rocky Mountain National Park itineraries reflect exactly what we’d do with the allotted amount of time, whether it be one day, two days, or even a full week! The options are endless when it comes to exploring Rocky Mountain National Park. We hope this guide to the best things to do in RMNP helps you prioritize how to spend your time!

Be sure to check out our detailed guides on Rocky Mountain National Park! Here are some you may find helpful:

And don’t forget to grab your annual National Parks Pass which covers entry to Rocky Mountain National Park and over 2,000 other sites throughout the United States!

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