Traveling to the Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado and wondering what are the main highlights of the park, how much time you need to visit it, and what’s the best RMNP itinerary to follow?
We visited Rocky Mountain NP during our recent road trip in the US, and back in my student years I spent the whole summer in Estes Park, hiking and exploring the park every time I got the chance. But that was so long ago… So in order to give you the best possible information and up-to-date advice, I asked a Colorado local for the best suggestions for a Rocky Mountain itinerary.
Our guest writer Meg from Fox in the Forest lives just a short drive away from the Rocky Mountain NP and knows the park inside out. In this post she is sharing her experience-based suggestions and Rocky Mountain National Park itinerary ideas for one to five days. Find out!
Planning the perfect trip to Rocky Mountain National Park might look overwhelming at first. But these insider tips will help you get the most of your trip to the Rocky Mountain NP in Colorado, no matter how much time you have, and in which season you visit.
In this post we will dive into suggested itineraries for 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 days in Rocky Mountain National Park and the surrounding areas. For each itinerary I included several hiking options, so that you can enjoy the best of what RMNP has to offer, no matter your interests or physical condition.
To make your trip planning easier, I also included some practical tips for visiting Rocky Mountain NP. Read on!
Practical tips for visiting Rocky Mountain National Park
Many people visit Rocky Mountain National Park each year without proper background information on how to make the most of their time in the park. Below are a few quick tips to help you stay in the know.
Altitude. Keep in mind that the altitude here is real, with the highest point in Rocky Mountain being Longs Peak at 14,259’ (4,346 m). Your first day in the Rockies should be spent acclimatizing and taking it slow. Be sure to drink plenty of water and avoid alcohol (at least for the first couple of days). As always with the altitude, listen to your body.
Leave no trace. Every time you head into nature, always be sure to follow the principles for Leave No Trace. In essence, don’t feed the animals, let wildlife be wild (every year, people get attacked by wildlife in Rocky Mountain National Park from getting too close to the animals), pick up your trash – including biodegradable items, and stay on the trail. These items are important in preserving the beauty and wonder of the park.
The weather. Remember that the weather changes quickly in Colorado, especially in the Rocky Mountains. Check the weather forecast daily and adjust your plans accordingly to make the most of your time in RMNP.
Afternoon storms. Rocky Mountain National Park is well known for its summer afternoon storms. Try to start all your longer hikes early, so that you are back below the tree line before noon.
Best place to stay. Keep in mind that there are two ways in and out of the park: Estes Park side and the Grand Lake side. These suggested Rocky Mountain NP itineraries assume that you are based in Estes Park, accessing the park from the eastern side. This is the better option, since many of the most popular hiking trails are found on the east side of the park. Also, there are many more accommodation options in Estes Park than in Grand Lake .
Before we continue with the suggested Rocky Mountain itinerary, let’s address two most important questions: how many days do you need to see Rocky Mountain National Park and when is the best time to go.
When is the best time to visit Rocky Mountain National Park
Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the most visited parks in the United States, with 4.5 million visitors each year. This means that the summer months are extremely busy (but beautiful with the wildflowers!). Trails are often crowded, overnight permits and campsites fill months in advance, and sometimes you’ll need to be bussed into trailheads.
Fall is also busy, as the turning leaves make for stunning mountain scenery.
RMNP is also open during the winter, although Trail Ridge Road is then closed, cutting off the east and west sides of the park. However, winter is the season when there are the least amount of people. Here you can read more about visiting Rocky Mountain NP in winter.
Spring is often snowy and wet, with some areas of the park seeing snow year-round.
So when is the best time to go? Any time of year is perfect for a visit to Rocky Mountain National Park, it really depends on what you would like to do and see. The most popular time to visit RMNP is from June to September; but end of May or end of September – beginning of October can be really nice too, and without the crowds.
TIP: If you travel in high season, my advice is to book accommodations well in advance and arrive at hiking trailheads very early in the morning.
How much time do you need in Rocky Mountain National Park?
Most people spend two-three days in Rocky Mountain National Park. However, there are a lot of options for hiking, backpacking, mountain climbing, and other excursions near the park.
If you are short on time, you can see the main highlights of Rocky Mountain NP and do some easy hiking in just one or two days. However, if you want to get deeper into the wilderness or tackle tougher trails, you’ll want more time. If you like hiking, I suggest to spend 3-4 days in Rocky Mountain National Park and then if you have more time, explore the nearby attractions.
One Day in Rocky Mountain National Park
Don’t worry if you only have one day in Rocky Mountain National Park, you can still see quite a bit. This one-day itinerary for Rocky Mountain National Park is all about maximizing your mountain time, while properly adjusting to altitude. Most of the Rocky Mountain National Park hiking trails start around 7,800 feet (2,377 m) high, quite a bit of elevation for someone who is not properly acclimatized.
If you have just one day in Rocky Mountain NP, you should do one hike and drive the Trail Ridge Road.
Note that driving the entire Trail Ridge Road with all the scenic stops will take the bigger part of your day, so it’s best not to choose the longest hike. Alternatively, start really early, make a longer hike, and then drive just a part of the Trail Ridge Road.
My best tip for those who want to do any hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park is to start their day early. For the best sunrise spot in Rocky Mountain NP, head to Dream Lake – it will be well worth the early alarm. This will put you at the Bear Lake trailhead parking area, the place to be if you are planning to go hiking in the Rocky Mountain NP. There is a wide-variety of trails here for all skill levels. This parking lot fills fast, especially in summer, so plan to arrive around 6am if you expect to get a spot during the busier months (otherwise you’ll need to be bussed in).
Bear Lake hiking area offers several hiking trails suited for any skill level:
- Leisurely walk: Circumnavigate Bear Lake. 0.7 miles (1,1 km), 49 feet (15 m) elevation gain.
- Best beginner hike in Rocky Mountain National Park: Emerald Lake. 3.1 miles (5 km). 700 feet (213 m) elevation gain.
- Less known, but my personal favorite moderate hike in the Bear Lake Trailhead: Jewel Lake. 7.4 miles (12 km). 1,400 feet (426 m)of elevation gain. Take a .4 mile detour to Lake Haiyaha for an added bonus.
- Best advanced hike in RMNP: Sky Pond. 8.1 miles (13 km). 1,765 feet (538 m) of altitude gain. Climb up a waterfall at the end of this difficult hike for stunning views of the Sky Pond Cirque.
- Expert hike: Hallett Peak. 9.2 miles (14,8 km). 3,254 feet (990 m) of elevation gain. Be aware, this is a tough mountain climb. Take a GPS and be prepared for summer storms when above treeline. Start early and be back below treeline by noon to avoid storms.
If you opted to embark on an easier hike, spend the remainder of the day driving through the park to the west side via Trail Ridge Road. You’ll get fantastic views with plenty of opportunities to pull over and view wildlife, mountain scenery and Longs Peak.
Make a stop along the Continental Divide and make sure to enjoy the views at Many Parks Curve, Gore Range Overlook, and Forest Canyon Overlook.
Make sure to also stop at the Alpine Visitor Centre – a short hike on the Alpine Ridge Trail brings you to 12,000 ft (3658 m). It’s definitely the easiest way to get to this kind of altitude in the Rocky Mountain NP, but be prepared that even a short walk here will literally leave you breathless. Make sure to take some water and a sweater or a jacket.
Note: Trail Ridge Road closes in the winter, just past the Many Parks Overlook. Check with the ranger station or online for current road conditions.
Suggestion: If you are short on time, don’t care about hiking, and just want to see the highlights of Rocky Mountain NP in one day, consider this highly-rated small-group tour from Denver or Boulder. It runs the whole year round.
2 – day itinerary in Rocky Mountain National Park
If you have two days in Rocky Mountain National Park, start out by hitting some mellow highlights of the park in order to acclimatise on the first day. Then the following day take a hike to some more advanced terrain.
Day 1. Similar suggestions as in the one day itinerary above. Do one hike at the Bear Lake Trail Area: Emerald Lake, Lake Haiyaha, or Jewel Lake. In the afternoon, drive the Trail Ridge Road.
Day 2. Choose one of the easier hikes like Copeland Falls or Coyote Valley Trail. If you are looking for a bigger challenge, consider these intermediate – level hikes: Loch Lake Trail or Chasm Lake. For some serious hiking head to the earlier mentioned Hallet Peak or Sky Pond (advanced) or an epic Longs Peak hike (expert).
TIP: Longs Peak hike is an expert level hike that requires class 3 scrambling. You need to have a high level of mountain experience to tackle this 15 mile (4,881 feet of elevation) climb. Also, you need to acclimatize before attempting a hike like that, so don’t do it if you are only visiting Rocky Mountain NP for just one day. If you climb Longs Peak, you can do so with a guide up one of the more technical routes. This would take an extra day (it requires an overnight stay).
How to spend three days in Rocky Mountain National Park
There are many ways to spend 3 days in Rocky Mountain National Park. If you follow the hiking suggestions from one or two day itineraries, you can easily fill the whole week…
However, I suggest that a three-day Rocky Mountain NP itinerary should include a few other activities, not just hiking. For example, why not try some rock climbing. This adrenaline pumping activity is very popular with the locals. Alternatively, try a more relaxed option and visit an adventure park.
Here’s how your 3-day RMNP itinerary could look like:
Days 1 & 2 same as in a two-day itinerary above.
Day 3. Try some rock climbing or visit an adventure park (a more family-friendly option). Experienced climbers can find a variety of world-class climbing routes, from sport, alpine, bouldering and trad via Mountain Project. For novices and newbies, consider hiring a climbing guide or joining a class. Colorado Mountain School offers top-notch guiding services in the Rocky Mountain area.
If climbing is too committing, consider checking out the Open Air Adventure Park in nearby Estes Park for a few hours of high-flying fun.
TIP: If you are tired of hiking the previous days (especially if you opt for more strenuous hikes), rock climbing might not be something you want to tackle. In that case, you can also opt to spend your third day relaxing in the nearby Estes Park. Alternatively, head out on a leisurely hike. For example, Sprague Lake is a nice easy wheelchair accessible walk that features views of Flattop Mountain and Hallet Peak. For more suggestions, please check some of the earlier mentioned easier hikes in the Rocky Mountain National Park.
Four days in Rocky Mountain National Park
If you have four days in Rocky Mountain NP, I recommend to spend your last day exploring the lesser-trafficked west side of Rocky Mountain National Park. The trails are still beautiful, but without the crowds.
Days 1, 2, and 3 – same as above.
Day 4. As mentioned, why not get a bit off the beaten path and hike some less known trails of the Rocky Mountain NP. Here are some suggestions:
- Beginner trail: Irene Lake.
- Intermediate: Chapin Pass Trail to Mount Chapin or Cub Lake trail (simply beautiful!).
- Advanced hike: Ridge traverse from Chapin, Chiquita to Ypsilon.
TIP: If you’re over hiking by now, you can enjoy some of the numerous activities in Estes Park. Go on a guided fly-fishing trip, an ATV excursion, or hit the rapids on a whitewater rafting tour. Please note that all these activities are seasonal, so be sure to check what is available when you plan to visit.
Five days in Rocky Mountain National Park
If you have 5 days in Rocky Mountain National Park and have done enough hiking, you I recommend heading to the west side of the park and spend a day in Grand Lake.
So for your 5-day Rocky Mountain itinerary follow the suggestions from the 1-4 day itineraries above and then add one day relaxing by the water at Grand Lake.
Grand Lake is a perfect place to spend a warm summer’s day. You can swim, rent a boat, kayak, etc. Stand up paddle board rentals are also available.
Suggestion for outdoor enthusiasts. If you have more time in the Rocky Mountain National Park in summer, why not embark on a real adventure. You can opt for a multi-day hiking trip in the Rocky Mountain NP – perfect way to see some incredible scenery and escape the crowds. If you are not sure where to start or don’t want to deal with the practical aspects of planning a camping trip like that, you can always join an organised hiking tour, like this 3-day camping/hiking trip, starting from Grand Lake.
So, these are my itinerary suggestions for Rocky Mountain National Park. All of these itineraries offer something for every type traveler and I hope this will help you plan your trip to Rocky Mountain National Park and experience the dramatic beauty of the Colorado Rockies.
It doesn’t matter when you visit, or for how long, Rocky Mountain National Park offers plenty of sights and activities to keep you busy and entertained. So use these itinerary suggestions to create your own perfect Rocky Mountain National Park itinerary and have a wonderful time in Colorado!
About the Author: Meg is a full-time freelance writer, photographer, and digital marketing specialist. She’s called Colorado home for nearly a decade and specializes in outdoor adventures. As a climber, mountaineer and avid backpacker, her goal is to empower others to get outside and have an adventure. You can find plenty of outdoor travel tips, tricks, and itineraries on her website Fox in the Forest.
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