Visiting Rocky Mountain National Park

There are so many options and no wrong answers when visiting Rocky Mountain National Park, but these seven tips will be helpful in deciding where to start and what to see.

By Allyson Shulte
Explore Ambassador

If you’ve never visited Rocky Mountain National Park, it’s time to plan a trip. There’s a reason over 4.4 million visitors make the trip every year! Rocky Mountain National Park is spectacular in any season, but my favorite time of the year to visit is the summer and fall months (June through September). There are so many options and no wrong answers when visiting Rocky Mountain National Park, but these seven tips will be helpful in deciding where to start and what to see.


Drive Trail Ridge Road

Trail Ridge Road stretches 48 miles from Estes Park to Grand Lake, and each mile is more breathtaking than the last! You could almost spend a full day driving Trail Ridge Road and exploring all of the scenic pull-offs and viewpoints, but realistically, two to three hours should be plenty of time to budget into your schedule for this activity. Make sure your car has a full tank of gas, as there are no gas stations along the 48-mile route. Pack a picnic lunch for the road and enjoy one of the many picturesque picnic areas throughout the park.

My favorite viewpoints along the way are the Gore Range Overlook and the Many Parks Curve Overlook. During the summer months, the road gets busy by about 10 a.m. with tour buses, RVs and other drivers, so I would recommend getting an early start (starting around or before 8 a.m.) to beat the crowds. Another perk of starting early is the potential for wildlife sightings, so bring those binoculars and be on the lookout!


Visit The Alpine Visitor Center

The Alpine Visitor Center is the perfect midway stopping point on your drive up Trail Ridge Road. The visitor center sits at 11,796 feet in elevation and is typically open late May through early October, as long as the roads are clear of snow. The Alpine Visitor Center is the perfect spot to take a bathroom and snack break, learn more about the park, talk to a ranger and just enjoy the breathtaking views. Since this visitor center sits at a higher elevation than the rest of the park, expect cooler temperatures and make sure you have a jacket for your visit. There is a 0.6-mile alpine-tundra trail known as Alpine Ridge Trail you can hike that will make you feel like you’re on top of the world, with sweeping views of the park and surrounding peaks. Make sure to always stay on the trails so you don’t disturb the fragile tundra. If you’ve never been to this elevation before, be sure you are drinking plenty of water and staying hydrated to help prevent altitude sickness. Before visiting, check current conditions and closures, as it’s not uncommon to have a freak snow or ice storm cause a closure during the shoulder-season months.


Go On A Hike In The Park

Once you’ve explored the park by road, I recommend getting out there and hitting the trails! Anytime you hike in Rocky Mountain National Park, I always recommend an early start for trailhead parking, as spots are limited and fill up quickly. But even if you’re not an early bird, don’t worry, as the park has overflow parking lots with a shuttle system that will take you anywhere you need to go.

From alpine lakes to waterfalls and stunning mountain vistas, Rocky Mountain National Park has it all. It can be overwhelming trying to decide which trail to start with, but I have you covered with a short list of the must-sees for your trip.

Here are a few of my favorite hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park:

  • Alberta Falls: This is an easy hike that features a waterfall. Alberta Falls is a 1.6-mile round-trip hike with 232 feet in elevation gain. If you’re feeling up for a bigger adventure, you can continue an additional 2 miles (with lots of uphill) to The Loch, a beautiful alpine lake with the perfect mountain backdrop.
  • Emerald Lake: The trek to Emerald Lake features two other lakes along with panoramic views the entire way. The hike is 3.2 miles round trip with 786 feet of elevation gain and can be described as moderate difficulty. This is one of the more popular trails in the park (for good reason!), and I’d recommend an early start to guarantee trailhead parking.
  • Sky Pond (pictured above): Sky Pond is a challenging hike and not for the faint of heart. It is one of my personal favorites, but this is a hike where you have to work for the views! The hike to Sky Pond passes Alberta Falls and The Loch, totaling 9.5 miles round trip and 1,800 feet of elevation gain. If you plan on doing Sky Pond, bring plenty of water and snacks, and I’d recommend budgeting at least five to six hours for the hike. The final stretch to the lake requires climbing a waterfall.

Always check weather conditions before you head out, as Colorado is known for its afternoon lightning and thunderstorms during the summer months.


Explore Downtown Estes Park

When visiting Rocky Mountain National Park, Estes Park is the perfect town to be the home base for all of your adventures. And while Estes Park, Colo., is surrounded by endless beauty and fun, the town is also full of it. Check out the Estes Park Aerial Tramway for stunning views of the surrounding Longs Peak and Continental Divide. Get that perfect picture, enjoy the gift shop or explore the hiking trail at the top. If you’re looking for family fun, head to Open Air Adventure Park, which features a wide variety of outdoor challenges ranging from ax throwing to ropes courses, or Fun City, which has a little bit of everything when it comes to family entertainment. And lastly, while you’re in Estes Park, make sure to enjoy the charm of downtown. Check out the local happenings, grab a Colorado brew and enjoy walking through all the shops.


Drive Old Fall River Road

Old Fall River Road opened in 1920 as the first automobile route in Rocky Mountain National Park. The road is a one-way, uphill, dirt road that stretches 11 miles and is slower-paced than Trail Ridge Road. Expect to spend anywhere from one to three hours driving and exploring Old Fall River Road. It’s important to note that this road is narrow, does not have guardrails and has switchbacks winding up the mountain. Old Fall River Road doesn’t require any special vehicle or four-wheel drive — I have safely driven the road in a Honda Civic — but if you’re scared of heights, this may not be the road for you! When driving up, there’s no shortage of mountain views, and this road is jam-packed with opportunities to connect with nature. The drive is known for its wildlife sightings, sounds of whitewater and abundance of jaw-dropping scenery. You can even pull off to visit Chasm Falls, another waterfall, along the way. If you follow the road to the top, it will drop you off at the Alpine Visitor Center, and you can drive Trail Ridge Road to get back to Estes Park.


Make The Trip To Grand Lake

While you’re visiting Rocky Mountain National Park, I would recommend spending a day in Grand Lake. This town has a different feel than Estes Park and is a very charming place to visit.

Grand Lake is a popular destination for water activities in the summer and offers a wide range of options for adults and families. You can spend the afternoon on the beach, swimming and splashing around, or floating in the middle of the lake, fishing for the perfect catch. Pro tip: Plan ahead and book yourself a rental with Grand Lake Marina, which offers rentals for kayaks, pontoon boats, paddle boards, canoes and fishing boats.

Grand Lake also offers a variety of other activities during the summer months:

  • Kawuneeche Valley is a short drive from Grand Lake and is known for being the home to abundant wildlife. Kawuneeche Valley is a great location for wildlife sightings and is the perfect spot to try to catch a moose in its natural habitat.
  • Spend a few hours or even the night at Winding River Resort, which has plenty of activities to keep the whole family busy, with an animal farm, fishing, square dancing, horseback and pony rides and more. The kids love the Animal Farm at Winding River Resort, which gives them the opportunity to interact with and feed calves, piglets, goats and bunnies.
  • Hike Adams Falls, a short trail near town that features a waterfall. This trail is great for families with young children who are looking for an easier hike without compromising on the views. The hike is less than one mile round trip, with about 100 feet of elevation gain.

Catch The Sunrise Or Sunset In The Park

My favorite time of day to be in Rocky Mountain National Park is at sunset or sunrise. If you aren’t yet a sunrise or sunset enthusiast, you might be converted to one. The park is always beautiful, but there’s something special about watching the sun rise and fall among the rugged peaks. You can’t beat watching the sun illuminate the Rocky Mountains with oranges and reds, surrounded by a sky glowing purple and blue.

Sunrise gives you the advantage of beating the crowds when coming into the park. Bring a camping chair, a blanket and/or a cup of coffee to Sprague Lake or Rainbow Curve Overlook for the best sunrise views. If you’d rather opt for sunset, I’d recommend showing up to your chosen spot 30 to 45 minutes before with warm clothes and a flashlight. My favorite spots to watch the sun dip below the mountains are Forest Canyon Overlook and Moraine Park. Whether you decide on sunrise or sunset, I’m confident that you’ll enjoy the glowing sky and scenic views.

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