If you’re looking for a vacation destination to help you unplug from your mobile device and reconnect with mother nature, then this post covering the top things to do in Rocky Mountain National Park should be right up your alley.
Rocky Mountain sits in the northern regions of Colorado. If you’re visiting the park from out of state chances are you’ll fly into Denver and then make the scenic 90 minute drive up to Estes Park which serves as the best home base for visitors.
In this guide I’ll highlight some of my favorite hikes, activities and tips about visiting the park that we experienced during my last visit. I’ll also highlight important information (like how to navigate the National Park Timed Entry System) that first time visitors might not be aware of.
Once you’re finished reading this guide, be sure to check out the Rocky Mountain National Park Video Guide I put together over on my YouTube channel. It includes tons of great footage I shot during my visit throughout the park.
Now let’s jump into what Rocky Mountain National Park has to offer!
You’ll notice some links and advertisements from partner or affiliate sites throughout this post. I typically earn a small commission on any purchases made through those links at no additional cost to you. If you check those out, great. If not, I’m still happy you’re here!
No visit to Rocky Mountain National Park is complete without a stop at Bear Lake. Located in the appropriately named Bear Lake Corridor, this is one of the most popular easy hike areas in all of RMNP.
The lake is steps from the main parking making it easily accessible for all visitors. The trail is almost perfectly flat and well maintained.
According to AllTrails the walk around the lake is only 0.7 miles, or just over 1 km.
Visitors can enjoy views of the prominent Hallett Peak which peers over the tree line during their stroll.
Unfortunately the parking situation at Bear Lake is pretty challenging.
When I visited in late July we had a 9:00am timed entry slot which included Bear Lake Corridor access.
We entered the park around 9:30am and reached the Bear Lake parking lot around 10am. At this time rangers were directing traffic at the lot entrance.
Most cars were being turned away and told to park at an overflow lot (with shuttle access) down the road.
Some way, some how, we were the last car they allowed to park here before the main parking lot was temporarily blocked off again. Sometimes it’s just about being lucky!
Nymph Lake is one of the easier hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park with AllTrails pegging the roundtrip journey at 1.2 miles or about 2 kilometers.
There’s a slight elevation gain as you work from Bear Lake to Nymph Lake, but despite the trails elevation (9,900 feet or 3,000 meters) making breathing slightly more difficult, this is a hike that welcomes hikers of all skill levels.
If you’re planning to hit Bear Lake during your visit you should definitely plan on seeing Nymph lake as well.
The hardest part about seeing either of these beautiful mountain lakes is simply securing a parking spot at the trailhead. If you’ve been successful in that regard, take advantage and see what you can while here!
I took the photograph above after we left Nymph Lake and started towards Dream Lake. I can’t emphasize enough how beautiful this circuit is. Want to learn more about this stop? Check out the full post on Nymph Lake here.
Dream Lake is one of the easier hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park with AllTrails pegging the roundtrip journey at 2 miles or about 3.2 kilometers.
Visitors can access the Dream Lake trailhead from the Bear Lake parking lot.
There’s a slight elevation gain as you work from Bear Lake to Dream Lake, but despite the trails elevation making breathing more difficult, this is a trail that welcomes hikers of all skill levels.
Of all the sights we saw during our trip to Rocky Mountain National Park hiking to Dream Lake was certainly my favorite hike!
The lake is massive and the trail continues alongside it which means there are plenty of great spots to pull off and take a photo.
Worried how the elevation will affect you on this trail? Save your longer hikes for the latter days of your vacation.
If you’re staying in Estes Park (elevation of 7,522 ft or 2,293 meters) your body will start to acclimate to the higher elevation the longer you stay in the area.
This acclimation process is key to completing longer hikes in the park or making ones like Dream Lake more manageable.
If you’re looking to learn more about this activity I have an entire post dedicated to Dream Lake which you can find here!
Rocky Mountain National Park is in no shortage of beautiful lakes. But if you’re going to visit this next one it’s going to require a bit more effort.
Collectively I would rate the hike to Emerald Lake as moderately difficult. The 3.2 mile (about 5 kilometer) roundtrip distance is one that most visitors should feel comfortable with.
According to AllTrails the hike to Emerald Lake has about 700 feet (213 meters) of elevation gain. The trail is well maintained and the other lake stops along the way make for great resting spots.
The trailhead for Emerald Lake also starts at the Bear Lake Parking lot. The trail that ultimately leads you to Emerald Lake will take you right by Bear, Nymph and Dream lakes meaning you can see all four in one morning!
That’s four beautiful lakes in a single hike! Step for step the hike to Emerald Lake will offer you more sights and epic views than most other hikes I’ve been on.
Be sure to check out my guide to hiking Emerald Lake after you’re done reading this post. It will go into deeper detail on what to expect and how to prepare! I also have a video available on YouTube with highlights and tips for hiking to Emerald Lake.
Old Fall River Road
It’s probably not surprising that Rocky Mountain has miles of world class hiking trails.
Most visitors will come to travel Trail Ridge Road, spend some time hiking and to take in the beautiful views offered throughout the park.
But Rocky Mountain has one experience in particular that really sets it apart from other National Parks.
That’s where Old Fall River Road comes into play.
Old Fall River Road is an 11 mile (18 kilometer) dirt road that snakes it’s way up from the eastern side of the park all the way up to the Alpine Visitor Center.
The views are beautiful and the drive will be exhilarating for those lacking mountain or off-road driving experience.
Along the way Old Fall River Road will provide easy access to Chasm Falls (up next!) and the Chapin Creek Trailhead.
While an off-road vehicle, or something with high clearance is suggested, you’ll find smaller cars along the road as well.
A jeep or vehicle with high clearance isn’t required, but nice to have. As with any dirt road you do run the risk of kicking up rocks and other debris that could damage your tires or paint.
If this experience sounds interesting to you, dig deeper with a video I dedicated to Old Fall River Road. That video will arm you with all the knowledge you need before attempting this old dirt road!
Chasm Falls is a beautiful waterfall located directly beside Old Fall River Road.
After pulling off Old Fall River Road you can walk down to a viewing platform which offers views of the waterfall in one direction, and downstream views in the other.
The scenery here is beautiful and Chasm Falls makes for the perfect pitstop for any visitors traveling along Old Fall River Road.
This isn’t going to be the biggest or most stunning waterfall you ever see, but it’s certainly worth the stop for those already planning to make the journey up Old Fall River Road.
If you do not want to drive along Old Fall River Road you have one other option for reaching Chasm Falls.
When you reach the Endovalley picnic area there will be parking. You can park your vehicle here and hike along the road to Chasm Falls.
If you do this option you’re looking at a 2.5 mile (4 kilometer) roundtrip hike with nearly 500 feet (about 150 meters) of elevation gain.
Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should do it. In this case, I wouldn’t advise hiking to Chasm Falls. If you’re interested in viewing the waterfall I’d suggest getting comfortable with the Old Fall River Road drive instead.
You can read a full post highlighting Chasm Falls on our blog here!
Tundra Communities Trail
Tundra Communities Trail is definitely one of the easier hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park. At 1.0 mile (1.6 km) roundtrip the distance is very manageable.
The trail is paved and well-kept making for smooth travels out to the mushroom rocks and vista viewing area.
There’s a slight incline to the path, but nothing too strenuous. Some visitors still might feel the affects of altitude here so if you find yourself getting light headed or dizzy take a breather and walk at your own pace.
About half way through the hike you’ll stumble across Rocky Mountain’s infamous mushroom rock formations.
A nearby sign offers a deeper explanation on how these intricate formations came into existence.
In short, these mushroom formations exist because the different types of rock that created them eroded at different speeds.
If you’re interested in learning more about the Tundra Communities Trail you can here.
Alpine Visitor Center
If you follow Trail Ridge Road into the heart of Rocky Mountain National Park you’ll stumble upon the Alpine Visitor Center.
It’s unusual for a visitor center to make my list of must do activities for a National Park visit. But that’s because the Alpine Visitor Center isn’t your average National Park visitor center!
The panoramic views you’ll enjoy at the Alpine Visitor Center are sure to take your breath away.
This isn’t just because the views are stunning. At an elevation of 11,796 feet (3,595 meters) the Alpine Visitor Center sits higher than any other visitor center in the United States National Park system!
The Alpine Visitor Center is home to a large souvenir shop, restaurant, restroom facilities and offers access to the nearby Alpine Ridge Trail.
Look for Wildlife
There’s no better experience when visiting a National Park than to have an unexpected wildlife encounter. Just be sure to keep your distance, wildlife is wild after all.
Don’t be the tourist trying to run up and take a selfie with a moose. It will most likely end very badly for you.
Speaking of moose – We were lucky enough to encounter the one shown here minutes after entering Rocky Mountain near the Fall River Entrance Station.
Although we wouldn’t see another moose during our stay, we did encounter numerous marmots and a large herd of elk (there were 20-30 of them!) when leaving the park one afternoon on the Grand Lake side.
Keep your eyes peeled and camera at the ready!
Drive the length of Trail Ridge Road
If you’re doing your research on Rocky Mountain National Park you’ve certainly seen Trail Ridge Road referenced.
As the parks primary road, it’s not possible to experience what Rocky Mountain National Park has to offer without traversing at least part of this 48 mile (77 kilometer) scenic highway!
Once you have a better understanding of how this road provides access throughout the park and connects the towns of Estes Park to Grand Lake, it can make planning your trip to Rocky Mountain much easier.
Along the way you’ll enjoy stunning views of the Rocky Mountains and if you’re lucky you’ll even spot some wildlife along the way! Be sure to check out my full post on Trail Ridge Road and be mindful that the road may be closed during certain times of the year due to inclement weather.
Picnic and hike at Lake Irene
Looking for the perfect afternoon picnic spot when visiting Rocky Mountain National Park? Or maybe you’ve already completed a longer hike and want something a little more relaxing for later in the day.
One thing I love about Rocky Mountain National Park is that it offers visitors a wide range of hikes and activities for guests of all ability levels.
A short stroll (10 minutes, if that) will lead you down from the parking area to the path that wraps around the lake. There were a half dozen or so visitors hanging out near the lake, some having picnics while others were just taking in the beautiful afternoon weather.
If you continue on another 10 minutes you’ll reach an overlook that sits over a large grassy field.
Earlier we had briefly spoke with a park ranger near the parking lot who mentioned this is a popular area for spotting wildlife.
The views from the overlook were beautiful but sadly we didn’t encounter any wildlife along the way.
Lake Irene is a nice area of the park, but if you’re strapped for time I wouldn’t consider this a ‘must-see’ area of Rocky Mountain.
Explore Estes Park & Grand Lake
Each town has it’s own unique vibe and beautiful scenery.
During my visit we stayed in Estes Park but on our last day we drove the length of Trail Ridge Road and had dinner in Grand Lake just to check it out.
While either town serves as a suitable home base for visiting Rocky Mountain National Park, many will prefer the slightly more convenient location of Estes Park.
Estes Park sits closer to Bear Lake Corridor which boasts many of the parks most popular destinations. It’s also much closer to the starting point for Old Fall River Road and slightly closer to Denver which is a positive for visitors arriving to the region by plane.
You’ll still have a perfectly great time if you stay in Grand Lake. Just expect to do slightly more driving. Considering the scenery, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing!
What should I know when visiting Rocky Mountain National Park?
Picking out activities to do and researching what to hit during your visit to Rocky Mountain National Park is an important aspect of the trip planning process. But aside from just picking out what activities to do and sights to see, be sure to do some general research on the park as well.
In the section ahead we’ll cover some of the most important things to know before visiting Rocky Mountain National Park.
Most importantly, we’ll go over the National Park Timed Entry System.
Also, don’t forget to check out the Rocky Mountain National Park Video Guide over on my YouTube channel if you haven’t already! It pairs really well with my video covering things to know before visiting RMNP.
What is the National Park Timed Entry System?
The timed entry system is a process the National Park Service has put in place for some of the most visited National Parks in the USA.
The goal of this system is to reduce entrance wait times, cut down on traffic within National Parks and avoid parking issues at more popular points of interest.
The system requires visitors to secure a reservation with the National Park Service ahead of their visit. This helps spread visitors entering the park throughout the day, instead of everyone showing up at the same time (typically) in the late morning.
I also have a complete guide explaining how to navigate the timed entry registration process here! If you haven’t been through this process before, I highly recommend reviewing my helpful guide to walk you through the process.
Where can I buy food in Rocky Mountain National Park?
There are very limited options for purchasing food or water inside Rocky Mountain National Park. I’d suggest stocking up on water, snacks and any packed meals before entering the park from either Estes Park or Grand Lake.
If you’re in a pinch, the Alpine Visitor Center located near the heart of Rocky Mountain has a restaurant and sells bottled water. The food isn’t bad – but the restaurant can be crowded so plan on waiting in line if you stop here during peak lunch hour.
Where is the best place to stay when visiting Rocky Mountain National Park?
I would recommend staying in Estes Park for your Rocky Mountain National Park visit. It has more to do than Grand Lake and most travelers flying into the region will have an easier time reaching Estes Park from Denver.
Generally speaking there’s more to do in Estes Park, but Grand Lake does boast a massive lake (I wonder how they named the town?). That could still be a very fun place to go if you plan to rent a boat and get out on the water.
Estes Park sits closer to Bear Lake Corridor, which is home to some of the best hiking in Rocky Mountain.
You could also split your stay between these two towns if you don’t mind moving around!
Is there cell phone service in Rocky Mountain National Park?
Cell phone service throughout Rocky Mountain National Park isn’t great. I had the most luck when closer to either Estes Park, Grand Lake or near the high points at the parks center.
It isn’t a bad idea to snag a park map at the park entrance when you arrive. Be sure to familiarize yourself with how the park is laid out ahead of time. At times the GPS on my phone would have difficulty updating properly.
How many days should I spend visiting Rocky Mountain National Park?
The activities mentioned in this guide should be enough to fill out a busy two day itinerary or a more leisurely three day visit. I’d personally recommend spending three days in Rocky Mountain National Park.
This should give the average visitor plenty of time to do some hiking and explore the various areas of Rocky Mountain.
If you’re an avid hiker or backcountry enthusiast, you might need to budget more time here if interested in some of the longer experiences not discussed in this guide (like climbing a fourteener or hiking to Sky Pond)!
You’ll likely be calling Grand Lake or Estes Park home for your visit – so be sure to budget some additional time to hang out and enjoy either town as well.
What is the best time of year to visit Rocky Mountain National Park?
The best time to visit Rocky Mountain National Park is between May and October. Within that window, try to aim for June to September.
As a reminder, the Alpine Visitor Center sits at an elevation of nearly 11,800 ft (almost 3,600 meters).
This means that outside of summer, Trail Ridge Road will be covered by high mountain snow and inaccessible to visitors. If you’re visiting in May or October, weather could still be an issue.
This guide is oriented towards visiting Rocky Mountain National Park during this window where the roads and hiking trails are available to visitors.
What to wear when visiting Rocky Mountain National Park?
If you’re going to be in the mountains, definitely dress in layers. Summer mornings will be cold, middays can be hot when you factor in the sun, followed by temperatures that quickly dip again in the evenings.
Throw in wind and unpredictable mountain precipitation and your guess is as good as mine!
When that’s the case, layers are going to be your best bet.
Layers will apply to how you should dress for any hikes as well. I’d also suggest you bring hiking boots and a light hydration backpack for some of the longer hikes.
Small or large ziplock baggies are great to keep in your hiking day pack when adventuring around Rocky Mountain National Park. They’re great for stashing valuables like electronics or cash if you get caught in rain while out on a hike.
Do I need a timed entry reservation for Rocky Mountain National Park?
Yes. The most important thing to do when planning a trip to Rocky Mountain National Park is to secure your timed entry reservation. That’s right, no reservation, no park entry. There are some exceptions to this rule, which I discuss in my complete National Park Timed Entry Guide.
Be sure to check that out before finalizing your travel plans, you’ll be happy you did!
Are there bathrooms in Rocky Mountain National Park?
Bathrooms (of the outhouse variety) are plentiful throughout Rocky Mountain National Park. You’ll find facilities near the beginning of most trailheads.
Check out these activities available in the area
Looking for more ways to fill out your trip itinerary? Be sure to check out the list of activities below from GetYourGuide.
Looking for suggestions on what to pack for hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park?
Chances are if you’re visiting Rocky Mountain National Park you’ll be doing some hiking. If you’re doing some hiking you’ll want to have the right gear handy in order to have the best experience possible.
For your convenience I’ve put together an extremely thorough hiking checklist to make sure you don’t overlook anything.
That guide is geared towards longer day hikes, so if you’re doing something more casual you probably won’t need everything on that list. But rest assured you won’t overlook a thing!
Hopefully this post covering some of the top things to do in Rocky Mountain National Park proves useful to you during your travels.