Itinerary suggestions for Rocky Mountain National Park Colorado

Rocky Mountain National Park Itinerary Ideas from 1 to 5 Days

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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!

Rocky Mountain NP itinerary suggestions
 

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!

Sunrise on Trail Ridge Road in RMNP Colorado
Sunrise on Trail Ridge Road ©FoxInTheForest.net
 
 

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.

LEARN MORE: Best Rocky Mountain National Park Hotels

Wildlife of Rocky Mountain National Park - moose along the west side of the park
Wild moose in the Rocky Mountain NP ©FullSuitcase
 

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.

Rocky Mountain National Park is beautiful in winter as well - picture of frozen Lake Haiyaha
Rocky Mountain National Park can also be visited in winter ©FoxInTheForest.net
 

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.

Beautiful fall colours in the Rocky Mountain National Park Colorado
Rocky Mountain NP in the fall ©Vern Southern via Pixabay
 

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, so if you want to get deeper into the wilderness or tackle tougher trails, you’ll want more time.

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. With just one day in the area, you may want to opt for an organized tour from Denver.

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.

Read on for our Rocky Mountain NP itinerary suggestions for 1 to 5 days!

Fall colors along Trail Ridge Road, Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado USA
Rocky Mountain NP is beautiful in every season ©FoxInTheForest.net
 

One Day in Rocky Mountain National Park

Even 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 the 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, one of the most scenic mountain roads in the USA.

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 6 am if you expect to get a spot during the busier months (otherwise you’ll need to be bussed in).

Dream Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park Colorado
Dream Lake. If you come at sunrise, you’ll see the mountain peaks turn red ©skeeze via Pixabay
 

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.
Bear Lake is not to be missed in any Rocky Mountain itinerary
Bear Lake ©Ben Travis via Pixabay
 

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.

 

TIP: 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. If you want to hike, then take a look at this organized tour that includes a beautiful 4-mile hike. Both these tours run the whole year round. The hiking tour is a snowshoe tour in winter.

There is also a very popular half-day tour available and also a private tour for those who want to see the best of the Colorado Rockies with a private local guide. Check it out!

Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park Road in the US
Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain NP in summer ©FullSuitcase
 

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 acclimatize 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).

Lake of Glass and Sky Pond iconic trail in Rocky Mountain National Park
Skypond’s iconic spires ©FoxInTheForest.net
 

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. For novices and newbies, consider hiring a climbing guide or joining a class. There are many local companies offering these services.

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.

Sprague Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park Colorado
Sprague Lake at sunrise ©FoxInTheForest.net
 

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:

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.

Cub Lake in Rocky Mountain NP Colorado
Cub Lake ©Skeeze via Pixabay
 

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 paddleboard rentals are also available.

Grand Lake near Rocky Mountain NP in Colorado
Grand Lake ©FullSuitcase
 

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 – the 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 organized hiking tour, like this 3-day camping/hiking trip, starting from Grand Lake.

If you have more time in Colorado and are looking to do even more hiking, check this list of the best hikes in Colorado for more inspiration.

Big horn sheep in Rocky Mountain NP Colorado in summer
Bighorn sheep in Rocky Mountain NP ©Donna H via Unsplash
 

So, these are my itinerary suggestions for Rocky Mountain National Park. All of these itineraries offer something for every type of traveler. I hope that 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.

Planning a trip to the Rocky Mountain NP? Make sure to also read our guide to Rocky Mountain National Park hotels. It covers all the best places to stay in the area with tips on where to stay and why. Check it out!

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Rocky Mountain itinerary suggestions from one to five days
 

Comments

  1. Thanks for all of the useful information!

    1. Author

      Glad you found this useful, Nancy. Enjoy the Rockies!

  2. You have Jewel Lake listed as a moderate hike on Day 1. You mention doing Lake Haiyaha as a side trip. You say it would be an additional .4 miles. It would be an additional 2.4 miles! Haiyaha is 1.2 miles from Glacier Gorge Junction.

    1. Author

      Hi Lynnette, thanks for this info. This article is written by a guest writer who knows the area very well. I think she meant that Lake Haiyaha is a short side trip from the path one would take via the Glacier Gorge Trail (see the map – it’s 0,2 miles each way from there). So making it a round trip and not returning back, but continuing in the direction of Dream Lake and back that way. So it’s 0,4 miles for that very last part where you’d turn off to Lake Haiyaha.
      It’s always a bit tricky to write about hikes as there are so many possibilities, turn-offs, etc.

  3. Wow this might be the best resource I’ve found so far!! Thank you! We have 4 kids, ages 8-2 so the beginner, shorter hikes are great for us. We plan on being there 3-4 nights. Our plan is to rent an RV there and have it delivered to our campsite. Any suggestions on campgrounds that would be great for that option? There are so many choices.

    1. Author

      Hi Heather, glad you found this useful. Unfortunately, I have no experience with camping the Rocky Mountain National Park. If you don’t have your own RV anyway, why not just stay at a nice cabin close to the entrance of the NP. For example, something like this or this. You can also find some hotel suggestions in this article with the best hotels in Rocky Mountain National Park.
      Sorry that I can’t help you more. Hope you have a wonderful trip!

  4. Hello Jurga

    My name is Jeff and my wife and I are taking a trip the end of May 2020 to the Rocky Mountain NP. We are only gonna spend one day at the park and we will come in from the East and go through to the west on a bike. {motorcycle}. Can you help us see the sights for a day? We don’t want to hike, we are wanting to see a few places that we can get off and walk to but not to far. Is there such a thing lol? Hope you can help us? Thank you Jeff

    1. Author

      Hi Jeff, if you don’t want to hike far, just drive the Trail Ridge Road. There are many stops along that road with nice viewpoints, etc. That’s one of the nicest things you can do in the park.
      Just one thing – I’m not sure if the road will already be open at the end of May. It depends on how hard the winter is, I suppose. Some years, it opens mid-May, but there have been years when it only opened in the first week of June…

  5. What do you think about going thanksgiving week. Looking for next year with my 8 and 10 year olds. Also do you have any good ideas for things for kids to there?
    Would be flying in and renting a car.
    Thanks for all the great info.

    1. Author

      Hi Ben, I honestly don’t know. I’ve only been to the Rocky Mountain NP in summer and everything we did were summer activities. However, our guest writer who wrote this article lives there and visits the whole year-round. So there are definitely some parts of the park that are accessible, but I assume there will be snow there already. So you’ll have to ask at the information center what you can actually do.
      If there is enough snow, you can probably go skiing, snowshoeing, maybe also tubing or sledding… Otherwise, you can probably do some winter hiking. Here you can find a bit more information on what to do in RMNP in winter.
      Hope this helps.

  6. Jurga,
    My name is Sam. This website is beautiful and extremely helpful.
    We are planning to take a road trip to RMNP in July long weekend. Our accommodation/lodging is in Winter Park, CO. We were thinking to do day trips from Winter Park to RMNP and then if time allows do day trip from Winter Park to Hot Springs and may be to Pikes Peak.

    Do you think its OK to have hotel in Winter Park and then take day trips to these places? or is that going to be a bad decision? We are hoping to take 3-4 days time in Colorado.

    1. Author

      Hi Sam, I just looked on the map and Winter Park is some 50 min drive from Grand Lake, and at least 1,5 hrs to the Alpine Visitor Center and over 2,5 hrs to Bear Lake trailhead… In my view, this is MUCH too far for exploring the park. By far the best place to stay is Estes Park, or you could split 3 nights in Estes park and one at Grand Lake, if that side is better for your itinerary (depends on where you come from and where you go afterwards). If you don’t have to stay on that side, I recommend staying all 4 nights in Estes Park.
      We have a very thorough Rocky Mountain NP accommodation guide. Check it out!
      Have a great trip!

  7. Hi Jurga, I tried to post a comment on this site, but it doesn’t show up in list of comments, not sure if I am doing something incorrect?

    1. Author

      Sometimes comments go to spam (we have a variety of filters and some words are more sensitive and often used by spammers…). Not sure why yours went there, it’s rare that it happens with legitimate comments. I approved it now.

  8. Thank you Jurga! We will check these out!

  9. Are any trails stroller friendly or should I plan on bringing a baby carrier?

  10. We enjoy the cold weather so we’re going to visit early April. Any suggestions on what’s the best view and hike trails so experience. We are staying in Estes Park.

    1. Author

      Hi Joe, I think that time of the year Bear Lake area is your best bet – check suggestions in the article. As for hiking, so much will depend on the weather and if the snow is gone already, so I can’t really tell you what to expect. You may need snowshoes if there is still snow.
      I found some good tips for visiting RMNP in April on TripAdvisor, check it out.
      Hope this helps. Enjoy your trip!

  11. Hi there, do you recommend renting a car? Are there other ways to get around if spending 2-3 days in the Park?

    1. Author

      Hi Julie, if you want to drive the Trail Ridge Road, then yes, you should have a car. If you just want to go hiking, you could also take a taxi to the hiking trailheads and back. If you go in high season, parking is really not easy in the park, I think they even close some areas at times and have shuttle buses to drive you further, so once again – if you just plan to go hiking, you might be better off without a car, but then you’ll need to arrange transportation. I’m sure Estes Park hotels can easily help you with that.

  12. Thanks, this is EXACTLY the kind of information I have been looking for. We are visiting in late September and we wondering about whether to do a one or two day itinerary and what to do. This really helps!

  13. Beautiful post, thank you. I will save this for my summer trip to the Rockies.

    1. Author

      Thank you, Michael. Glad you found it useful. Have a great trip!

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