Best Time to Visit Rocky Mountain National Park & Why You Should Go
Headed to Colorado and wondering about the best time to visit Rocky Mountain National Park? You’ve come to the right place, as that’s what we’ll cover in this post.
The park is open 24/7, 365 days a year (weather permitting), and it’s always one of the most popular in the country. Over 3 million people visited Rocky Mountain National Park last year to admire its breathtaking landscapes.
This detailed guide will cover some of the top things to do there, including the best hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park. You’ll also get some practical information on how to get around this massive park and recommendations for places to stay.
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Rocky Mountain National Park
There are several reasons why this is one of the top national parks to visit. For one, it’s quite accessible. It doesn’t take long to get to Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) from Denver, home to a major international airport.
The park is massive, covering an area of 265,807 acres (415 square miles). There’s stunning scenery around every corner here, from snowy peaks to pristine alpine lakes.
With over 350 miles of trails, this is a hiker’s paradise. You could go hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park over and over again and always discover something new.
In addition to the countless trails and viewpoints, RMNP is also a prime spot for wildlife viewing. Be sure to bring your binoculars and zoom lens so you can look for iconic wildlife such as bighorn sheep and mountain lions.
If you’re planning to visit Rocky Mountain National Park, it’s important to be prepared for higher elevations. Those coming from the lowlands may want to spend a few days in the Mile High City first to get acclimated.
Now that you know a bit about the park let’s get on with the guide and see what there is to do there.
Check out this sunrise tour of RMNP! Wow!
Top Things to do in Rocky Mountain National Park
There are plenty of fun things to do in RMNP to keep you busy. Let’s start with the world-class hiking that’s available here and take a look at some of the best trails.
Get Out and Enjoy the Best Hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park
When it comes to hiking at Rocky Mountain National Park, the sky’s the limit. Seriously—you can hike to some epic peaks where you’ll feel like you can touch the sky.
You’re spoiled when it comes to choices for hikes here. There are hikes to lakes, waterfalls, and summits to choose from.
These hikes range from easy half-mile loops with no elevation gain to very strenuous hikes of 10+ miles with over 1,000 feet of elevation gain. Whatever your fitness level, there’s a hike here for you!
Here are some of the best Rocky Mountain National Park hikes with information on distance, elevation gain, and difficulty.
Bear Lake Loop
Of the many easy hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park, Bear Lake Loop is one of the most popular. The trailhead is also a good jumping-off point for several other more difficult hikes. Continue along the trail to reach Nymph (1.1 miles round-trip), Dream (2.2 miles round-trip), and Emerald Lake (3.5 miles round-trip).
- Distance: 0.8 miles
- Difficulty: Easy
- Elevation Gain: 45 feet
You can hop on this popular trail at either Bear Creek or nearby Glacier Gorge. Less than a mile into the hike at the Loch, you can stop at scenic Alberta Falls. There are also lots of options with connecting trails if you want to make a day of it.
- Distance: 5.7 miles
- Difficulty: Moderate
- Elevation Gain: 1,040 feet
If you want to take the road less traveled by, head to the more remote Wild Basin Trailhead. A pleasant hike awaits you, with plenty of attractions along the way. Pass by Copeland Falls and Calypso Cascades en route to the 40-foot Ouzel Falls.
- Distance: 5.4 miles
- Difficulty: Moderate
- Elevation Gain: 870 feet
Twin Sisters Peak
Avid hikers may want to hit one of the many summit trails. Those looking for a serious challenge can try to reach the summit at Twin Sisters Peak, which sits at an elevation of 11,428 feet. It’s worth all the effort once you take in the incredible panoramic views from the top.
- Distance: 7 miles
- Difficulty: Strenuous
- Elevation Gain: 2,475 feet
Take a Scenic Drive
Hiking is not for everyone, and that’s fine. You can enjoy RMNP from the comfort of your vehicle and still have an amazing time.
Few places in the world offer such an amazing driving experience as you find here. Cruising along the alpine tundra, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to pull over and admire the surroundings.
When it comes to scenic drives, it’s hard to top Trail Ridge Road. This All American Road stretches 48 miles from Estes Park to Grand Lake, giving you a grand tour of the park.
You’ll immediately see why it’s called the “Highway to the Sky” as you quickly climb 4,000 feet and take in the jaw-dropping scenery. In winter, the road is closed and doesn’t reopen until the snow melts in late spring.
Check Out the Visitor’s Centers
While you’re enjoying the joyride on Trail Ridge Road, you can stop at the highest visitor center in the country. The Alpine Visitor Center sits at over 11,000 feet in elevation, where you can visit what must be the most scenic gift shop in the world.
There are a few other options around the park, including Beaver Meadows Visitor Center. This one is located near the RMNP sign on the Estes Park side and makes for a great pitstop before exploring the park.
Click here for all the relevant information for all of the park’s visitor’s centers from NPS.
Join a Ranger Program
Park rangers are a valuable source of information. They have hundreds of different park ranger-led programs throughout the year here at RMNP. These are free and are fun for all ages.
The evening campfire programs are the most popular. These take place at the different campgrounds on a nightly basis in the summer. You don’t have to stay there to attend.
There are also short talks, ranger-led walks, and a variety of programs geared towards children. They should have a schedule for 2022 soon, so be sure to check the website for details.
There are many different animals in Rocky Mountain National Park. It’s home to some 60 species of mammals, including bighorn sheep, moose, elk, mule deer, black bears, and mountain lions. Wildlife spotting is among the best things to do at RMNP.
There are also more than 280 species of birds in the park, making this an excellent destination for birdwatching. Remember to keep your distance from the wildlife and refrain from feeding the animals.
Hoping to do some fishing in Rocky Mountain National Park? Well, you’re in luck, as long as you have a valid Colorado fishing license and you follow these guidelines.
If you’re good to go, get excited for some of the most scenic fishing out there. The park has done a lot of work to restore the native trout population and remove non-native fish in recent decades. It’s now home to four species of trout—brown, brook, rainbow, and cutthroat.
How to Get to Rocky Mountain National Park
Most people get to the park by flying into Denver International Airport (DIA). Your best bet is renting a car at the airport or one of the many rental car offices in the city.
The most common way to travel to RMNP is via Estes Park. This touristy mountain town is about a 1.5-hour drive from Denver. It’s on the east side of the park and is the most heavily trafficked entrance.
Another option is going through Grand Lake on the park’s west side. It takes about two hours to get here from Denver.
If you don’t feel like renting a car, you can catch the Estes Park shuttle from the airport. It’s $65 one-way or $115 round-trip.
The shuttle runs at six different times during the summer and four in winter. You’re encouraged to make a reservation at least a week in advance, which you can do on their website.
There are also plenty of options for tours of RMNP. You can shop around for tours of the park from Estes Park and Grand Lake as well as Boulder and Denver.
How to Get Around Rocky Mountain National Park
Driving is the preferred method of exploring RMNP for most visitors. As such, the roads can get quite busy during the summer and fall months. Many of them are closed in winter, including the famous Trail Ridge Road.
Thankfully, there’s a way to cut down on vehicle emissions in the park and your time spent searching for a parking spot. The park runs a free shuttle service from May to October that stops at many of the top destinations on Bear Lake Road.
Cycling is also a popular way to get around RMNP. If you’re hoping to do some scenic biking out here, be sure to read this guide from the NPS to ensure your safety.
When to Visit: The Best Time to Visit Rocky Mountain National Park
When you should visit Rocky Mountain National Park depends on what kind of experience you’re looking for. It all depends on your tolerance of inclement weather and/or big crowds.
As you might expect, the warm summer months of June to September are far and away the most popular time to travel here. The snow has melted, the roads are open, and the trails are packed.
If you want to experience the park this summer, you’ll need to book a timed entry. This is a new park policy due to the pandemic that is going to continue in 2022. Head to the NPS website for all the relevant info.
Hotels near Rocky Mountain National Park are also expensive and hard to come by during the summer, especially on weekends. Start looking early to avoid disappointment.
The winter months in RMNP mean freezing temperatures, lots of snow, and road closures. This time of year is perfect if you’re into snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. Those who can brave the cold are rewarded with minimal crowds and beautiful snow-covered landscapes.
Perhaps the best time to visit Rocky Mountain National Park is during the weeks right before or after the busy summer season. Visit before Memorial Day or after Labor Day and you should have nice weather without huge crowds.
How Much Time to Spend in Rocky Mountain National Park
Many visitors only spend a few hours in the park on a day trip from Denver. There’s nothing wrong with that, and you can accomplish quite a bit with a good Rocky Mountain National Park itinerary in place.
That being said, the park is huge, and there’s so much to see and do. If you can spend a few nights staying in a hotel or camping, you’ll get to experience a whole lot more of the park. You could spend a whole week here and still not even scratch the surface!
Keep in mind that you’ll need a valid pass for every day you enter the park. A Rocky Mountain National Park pass costs $25 for a vehicle for one day. You can also get a 7-day pass for $35 or an annual one for $70.
If you’re planning on visiting other Colorado national parks, such as Black Canyon of the Gunnison or the Great Sand Dunes, it’s worth it to grab the America the Beautiful pass. This gets you into all national parks for a year and is only $80.
Where to Stay in Rocky Mountain National Park
Those hoping to stay within the park will be bummed to hear there are no hotels or lodges inside RMNP. Camping in Rocky Mountain National Park is the best bet to maximize your time enjoying nature.
There are five different campgrounds to choose from at RMNP. Aspenglen, Glacier Basin, and Moraine Park can all be reserved in advance. They tend to book up early for the summer months, so head to the NPS website to find your campsite before it’s too late.
Longs Peak and Timber Creek are available on a first-come, first-served basis. This is also true of Moraine Park in the winter when it’s the only open campground. A campsite costs $30 a night across the park.
Those looking for a hotel or lodge will have to venture out to nearby towns like Estes Park and Grand Lake. Here are a few different options for hotels near Rocky Mountain National Park:
- Budget—Estes Mountain Lodge: What’s not to love about this place? It’s close to the park, has a pool and continental breakfast, and it doesn’t break the bank.
- Mid-Range—Stonebrook Resort: Couples will love this adults-only resort. If you’re looking for cabins at Rocky Mountain National Park, be sure to check this place out.
- Luxury—The Estes Park Resort: This is the only hotel on Lake Estes, which you’ll be able to enjoy views of from the spacious deck or your well-appointed suite.
Where to Eat in Rocky Mountain National Park
If you’re looking for a meal in RMNP, your best bet is bringing your own and having a picnic. There are several picnic areas throughout the park and grocery stores in Estes Park and Grand Lake.
There’s one restaurant in the park that’s open in the warmer months. The Trail Ridge Store and coffee bar is located right next to the Alpine Visitor Center and has sandwiches, salads, soups, and a variety of drinks and snacks.
Here are some restaurant recommendations for the nearby towns:
Restaurants in Estes Park
- Egg of Estes
- Mountain Home Cafe
- Mama Rose’s (Italian)
- Seasoned (American bistro)
- Himalayan Curry & Kebab
- The Barrel (beer garden)
Restaurants in Grand Lake
- The Hub (coffee & breakfast burritos)
- The Worlds End Brewpub
- Sagebrush BBQ & Grill
- Rapids Lodge and Restaurant
- One Love Rum Kitchen (Caribbean)
Ready for RMNP?
Hopefully, you’ve found this guide to Rocky Mountain National Park helpful. It’s a special place and one you should be excited about visiting.
Now lace up those hiking boots and get ready to breathe in that cool mountain air. The mountains are calling, and you must answer!
If you have any recommendations to share about RMNP, please drop them in the comments below and let us know about your experience.
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