With 415 square miles of breathtaking mountain environments and more than 300 miles of hiking trails, you will never run out of things to do in Rocky Mountain National Park. Known for sprawling alpine and subalpine forests filled with pines and aspens, serene high-mountain lakes, towering glaciers, and jagged mountain peaks, this national park near Denver is nothing short of paradise for everyone who enjoys fishing, hiking, mountain climbing, or simply enjoying awe-inspiring views from the very summit of the Continental Divide.
WHAT’S THE BEST TIME TO VISIT ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK?
Due to the warm weather and open roads, there are always plenty of things to do in the Rocky Mountains during the summer, making this part of the year a pretty safe choice for visiting Rocky Mountain National Park. You can also visit between October and May, because the park is open all year, but make sure to bring your snowshoes, seeing as snow is possible as early as September. The clear benefit of visiting in the off season is missing all the summer crowds. If you are worried about that, then winter and spring are definitely the best time to visit Rocky Mountain National Park.
A FEW FACTS ABOUT ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK
Established in 1915, Rocky Mountain National Park best exemplifies the beauty and the grandeur of the Rocky Mountains, a massive mountain range stretching through North America from British Columbia in Canada, all the way down to the Rio Grande in New Mexico. Located outside the town of Estes Park, it takes about an hour and a half to get from Denver to Rocky Mountain National Park, with most of the time taken up by the drive from Denver to Estes Park. The park is famous for its wildlife, with 280 species of birds and more than 60 species of mammals, including elk, deer, moose, bear, bobcat, mountain lion, porcupine, bighorn sheep, fox, badger, marmot, and many others. Trying to see everything there is to see in Rocky Mountain National Park in one day would frankly be impossible. There are dozens of mountain peaks with 156 lakes strewn in between, all of them protected by National Park status from any unwanted development and damage. To get the most out of your stay, follow this Rocky Mountain National Park itinerary and experience endless beautiful vistas of the most awe-inspiring landscape under the sun.
ONE DAY IN ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK ITINERARY
Top things to do in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Follow this guide and make the best of your trip even if you’re short on time. These are the top sights and things to do on your one day in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Start Your Trip in Estes Park
Assuming you’re coming from Denver to Estes Park on your way to Rocky Mountains National Park, don’t just drive through without stopping to see what this quaint little town has to offer. Surrounded by meadows with grazing elk, Estes Park is the go-to base for visitors to the National Park. After June 24, there are regular shuttles that offer a round-trip service from Denver, just in case you want to get from Denver to Rocky Mountain National Park without having to drive or rent a car. You can learn more here.
There is also a free shuttle bus operated by the National Park from late May through early October, all along the Bear Lake Road. However, the shuttle bus stops only at a couple of trailheads, and misses some of the park’s key attractions. That is why visiting Rocky Mountain National Park with a private vehicle is the go-to option for most sightseers. Estes Park is a good place for coffee or breakfast before visiting Rocky Mountain National Park.
Take the Estes Park Aerial Tramway
While in Estes Park, take the opportunity to ride the aerial tram all the way to the top of Prospect Mountain, with some amazing views of Estes Valley. Although the ride is completely safe, you will still feel slight apprehension when you see the long cable between the two stops. Don’t worry, though! You will be perfectly fine. Although riding the tram is one of the scarier things to do in the Rocky Mountains, you will love the view of the surrounding valley and the rugged peaks in the distance. In case you’re visiting Rocky Mountain National Park with kids, then check out Fun City instead, with a number of exciting activities for children, including slides and bumper boats.
Check out the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center
In addition to a handy map of Rocky Mountain National Park, the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center also has a nice little gift shop, a bathroom, and free Wi-Fi. As you enter the park, make a brief stop to talk to the friendly and knowledgeable rangers and watch a short film about the park. It is a great place to get all the information you need about the trails, viewpoints, photo locations, and things to do in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Go for a Scenic Drive Along Trail Ridge Road
As you leave the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center, just continue down the same road, past the intersection and the Deer Mountain Trailhead. The Trail Ridge Road is one of the most beautiful roads in the United States, with breathtaking alpine scenery, plenty of wildlife on the side of the road, and multiple turn-offs and scenic viewpoints to go for a brief stop and enjoy the awe-inspiring vistas. The road, which is closed during the winter, is approximately 42 miles long, so don’t hesitate to go for a stroll if you need a break. All in all, the Trail Ridge Road is the best road through Rocky Mountain National Park, with gradual elevation and few hairpin turns. Driving along this road may take you a couple of hours including stops, but it will definitely prove to be the highlight of your Rocky Mountain National Park itinerary.
Stop at the Alpine Visitor Center
At 11,796 feet, the scenic Alpine Visitor Center is the highest visitor center in the National Park System. It is very popular due to the amazing view, a café with some snacks, and a souvenir shop. Make sure to refresh yourself with some hot or cold beverages and food. Just remember to bring a jacket up to the viewpoint, since it can get pretty windy, even during the summer months.
Explore Grand Lake
The Trail Ridge Road ends in Grand Lake, a beautiful town with a western feel at the shores of the eponymous Grand Lake, the largest and deepest natural body of water in all of Colorado. Rocky Mountain National Park surrounds Grand Lake on three sides, and both North Inlet and East Inlet, flowing out of the park, belong to the lake’s natural tributaries. The Ute Tribe’s name for Grand Lake was Spirit Lake, since, according to their beliefs, the spirits of the deceased rested in the cold, serene depths below the lake’s surface. Grand Lake is at the source of the Colorado River, while the nearby Lake Granby and Shadow Mountain Lake are man-made reservoirs belonging to the Colorado-Big Thompson Project.
Have Some Lunch
Assuming you left Estes Park around 11 AM, by the time you get to Grand Lake, it should already be 2-3 PM, so definitely about time to go and grab a bite to eat. Check out Sagebrush BBQ & Grill, one of the more popular places in Grand Lake, with its historic Western décor, peanut shells strewn across the floor, friendly service, and tasty, flavorful barbecue specialties. It is also popular among the locals as a fun place to catch a game, especially in the off-season. For dessert, pay a visit to Polly’s Sweet Shop, located in a charming little green house right across the street, with “comfort food” such as taffy, caramel apples, and ice-cream. Don’t miss it, especially if you are visiting Rocky Mountain National Park with kids.
Take the Trail Ridge Road Back to Estes Park
For additional perspectives of Rocky Mountain National Park, take the Trail Ridge Road back to Estes Park. Don’t rush it and savor the additional chance to take in the majesty of the mountaintops and unspoilt nature at its best. You will notice that this itinerary doesn’t include any stops for hiking. With the vastness of the park, there simply isn’t enough time if you want to see as much as possible of Rocky Mountain National Park in one day. With all the stops, you will likely spend seven hours or a little bit more from Estes Park to Grand Lake and back again.
Check Out the Images of Rocky Mountain National Park Gallery
When you return to Estes Park, take the time to visit the Images of Rocky Mountain National Park, a small gallery and souvenir shop near Bond Park before the big intersection. The gallery is dedicated to photographer Erik Stensland and his amazing work in Rocky Mountain National Park. You can feel the photographer’s passion in every image. The gallery is a great place to look back, reminisce, recognize some of the places you’ve visited yourself, and grab a print or a plaque if you find something you really like.
Relax with Dinner and a Couple of Drinks
After a day of sightseeing and driving along scenic roads, nothing feels better than a nice dinner in a cozy tavern with a couple of beers to close out the day. Luckily, Estes Park has a couple of great places for you to choose from. The Rock Inn Mountain Tavern serves some great American dishes, but is also a popular place for gathering with live blue grass music and a top-of-the-line beer list. Try the Bison Meatballs and then taste some of the great beers the Colorado craft beer scene has to offer. Alternatively, consider Smokin’ Dave’s BBQ & Brew for some of the best smoked meats including ribs, steaks, and smoked turkey, with a number of microbrews to compliment the delicious food.
WHERE TO STAY IN ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK?
Gateway Inn and Conference Center
Located in Grand Lake, Gateway Inn and Conference Center offers magnificent views of the mountain from the on-site terrace. The guests can relax in the hotel’s hot tub and sauna or sit down at the bar for a drink. The spacious air-conditioned rooms are quite memorable with their wooden décor and the recognizable rustic lodge atmosphere. In each room, there is a comfortable seating area, although the guests are also invited to relax in the shared lounge.
Inspired by Swiss mountain inns, Appenzell Inn in Estes Park stands out with its one-of-a-kind décor and richly furnished rooms. In addition to all the regular amenities such as free Wi-Fi, a flat-screen TV, small refrigerator, and microwave, several suites also come with a fireplace, a small kitchen, or a spa bath. The property is surrounded by beautiful gardens a walking trail, a picnic/BBQ area, and two stunning waterfall ponds. The extremely helpful staff will keep you up to date on all the hiking options nearby.
Silver Moon Inn
Another excellent property in Estes Park, the Silver Moon Inn, is located on the banks of the Fall River. In addition to a seasonal outdoor pool and hot tub, free Wi-Fi, daily continental breakfast, and other amenities, a number of rooms come with a fireplace and a spectacular view of the river. Guests can also take advantage of the hotel’s BBQ facilities and free parking. It is a quiet property, even though it is located within walking distance of the town’s most popular shops and restaurants. The surrounding trees and the nearby hill hugging the hotel make it feel like home.
The Inn on Fall River & Fall River Cabins
If you’re visiting Rocky Mountain National Park with kids, The Inn on Fall River & Fall River Cabins is the perfect choice for you. It is one of the few properties in Estes Park with a children’s playground, and all the exciting things to do in Rocky Mountain National Park, such as fishing, hiking, and cycling, are only a stone’s throw away. All the rooms have a unique rustic cabin look and feel, and a couple of them come with a fireplace or a terrace with a view of the river. Occasionally, there is a light show on the river, even though just hearing the river’s gentle murmur guarantees a peaceful and relaxing stay.
ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK DAY TRIPS
WildSide 4×4 Tours
Fun and adventure await on this exciting day trip in a 4×4 Jeep. Get off the beaten path and embark on a true off-road expedition, helmed by a company that makes it their mission to make sure you have the experience of a lifetime. With professional, informative tour guides and top-quality vehicles, you will discover new things to do in the Rocky Mountains behind each hairpin bend. In addition to the amazing views, expect a fun, bumpy, and above all, exhilarating ride!
Rapid Transit Rafting
In case off-road expeditions are not really your thing, but you are still interested in an adventure, then whitewater rafting may be just your cup of tea. The options include a half-day trip on the Cache La Poudre or a full-day trip down the Colorado River. Surprisingly, this is one of the best things to do in Rocky Mountain National Park with kids, since children as young as 7 can join the fun! With great river guide and excellent communication before and during the trip, expect a lot of excitement with beautiful scenery and wildlife encounters.
Rocky Mountain National Park Day Trip from Denver
If you want to go from Denver to Rocky Mountain National Park, the best way to do it is on a full-day trip from Denver. This classic Rocky Mountain National Park itinerary includes a drive along Trail Ridge Road, lunch in Grand Lake, and frequent stops for sightseeing and wildlife watching, with insightful and informative tips about the geological and cultural history of Colorado provided by the tour’s certified guide.
Hiking Adventure in Rocky Mountain National Park from Denver
Somewhere between the crazy, off the wall off-road adventures and relaxing guided day tours, you will find the golden median: a fun hiking adventure with just the right mixture of excitement and relaxation. This tour also takes you to Rocky Mountain National Park from Denver, with a chance to see beautiful historic towns and stunning scenery while travelling there. With a tasty picnic lunch after completing a 4-mile trail, you will get a chance to see Lily Lake, Cub Lake, Trail Ridge, and many other attractions. And since you’ll do a part of it on foot, expect to encounter countless wild turkeys, chipmunks, and even moose.
EXTRA TIPS FOR VISITING ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK
Since there is plenty of wildlife in Rocky Mountain National Park, you will likely encounter various wild animals. If you want to increase your chances of spotting them, use your ears, and not just your eyes.
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