Travel Guide

Rocky Mountain National Park: A Road Trip to Remember

This publish was written by Megan MacGregor, BMTM’s nationwide parks knowledgeable.

Imagine standing on the high of the world, surrounded by majestic snow-capped peaks that appear to stretch endlessly into the horizon. A herd of elk graze in a lush meadow throughout a glacial river, and close by a waterfall cascades down a rocky cliff. You take a deep breath of crisp mountain air, your shoulders open, and a way of peace swells in your coronary heart.

Welcome to Rocky Mountain National Park.

If you journey simply 60 miles west of Denver, Colorado, mountain peaks change excessive rises, and the bustle of town fades into the whisper of nature in one in all America’s largest parks. Rocky Mountain spans 415 sq. miles and has over 60 peaks reaching over 12,000 toes. It is thought for its glacial lakes, tundra ecosystems, and plush forests of aspen and evergreen bushes.

Early explorers thought of constructing a railway system to the realm, a typical development to enhance tourism to distant areas. However, not solely did the rugged terrain make this pricey and difficult, however the park’s unique advocates believed trains would negatively have an effect on its pure magnificence. As an alternate, they advocated for the development of roads, minimizing the influence on the atmosphere whereas nonetheless making the park accessible.

Now, over 100 years later, Rocky Mountain National Park has the best paved street within the United States, making it probably the greatest choices in your subsequent adventurous Colorado street journey.

Where to Start Your Road Trip

There are two essential entrances: one to the east, by way of the city of Estes Park, and to the west, by way of Grand Lake. Denver International Airport, the closest, is an hour and a half from Estes Park and three hours from Grand Lake.

An outdated church exterior of Estes Park on the best way to Rocky Mountain National Park

While it’s doable to loop by way of all the park and attain each cities, consider this isn’t obligatory to expertise its full magnificence, so be sure to time it out and plan your route accordingly. Either route will take you onto Trail Ridge Road (see beneath).

Check the park’s web site for street closures and building updates earlier than you begin your journey.

Trail Ridge Road

Trail Ridge Road, the best steady paved street in North America, weaves by way of Rocky Mountain National Park and connects the cities of Estes Park and Grand Lake. An iconic image constructed through the Great Depression, the roadat its peak reaches an elevation of 12,183 toes. Multiple overlooks and pullouts supply overwhelming panoramic views of the encompassing mountains and valley whereas passing by way of a wide range of ecosystems.

As you ascend the street, you’ll enter an alpine atmosphere of fragile tundra vegetation and clear streams. I visited in August, and snow nonetheless capped the peaks. Keep in thoughts: elements of the street are closed through the winter due to heavy snowfall.

If you’d like an added journey, take a look at the Alpine Ridge Trail, which winds by way of the tundra and provides a simple 20-minute hike with little to no elevation. Old Fall River Road is a historic unpaved street that can divert you from the first route and provides a extra rugged driving expertise. I opted in opposition to doing this street, primarily as a result of it’s one-way, and I’d find yourself at a aspect of the park I’d already visited.

Continental Divide

A couple issues to bear in mind in your street journey: Bring a map, and drive fastidiously! The winding roads climb into the mountains and in some spots are extremely steep.

This is certainly the case if you attain the Continental Divide, a geographical line working north to south by way of the park and dividing the watersheds of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. This distinguished function reaches an elevation over 12,000 toes, making it one of many highest factors within the park. Each aspect of the Continental Divide has distinct climates and ecosystems, with the east characterised by drier circumstances and the west being extra lush and forested.

If you’re up for an journey, hike the Continental Divide Scenic Trail, a 29-mile route that follows the ridge of the divide and has an elevation acquire of 5,000 toes. It is feasible, nonetheless, to discover this path with out taking all the hike.

Best Stops on Your Rocky Mountain National Park Road Trip

As you make your method across the park, cease on the customer facilities alongside the best way, the place you’ll discover bogs, memento outlets, and snacks. Rangers are very happy to reply questions, and you’ll study extra in regards to the space’s historical past, wildlife, and geology. The customer facilities additionally provide park and mountain climbing path maps, so you possibly can plan your day accordingly.

Best Hiking Trails

Over 300 miles of mountain climbing trails weave amongst glacial lakes, by way of tundra meadows, and up towering peaks. There are numerous issue ranges, so be certain to consider your expectations, distance, and elevation earlier than you begin.

Bear Lake: very simple

Bear Lake Trail is a particularly simple .7-mile path that loops round Bear Lake and solely has an elevation acquire of 47 toes. If you’re with young children or aged folks, it is a nice path to begin, however take into account that it’s very crowded in the summertime. Either method, I like to recommend beginning on the Bear Lake Trailhead car parking zone. To the left, you’ll discover extra trails of accelerating issue, from simple to reasonable to difficult.

Nymph Lake: simple

Taking a break at Nymph Lake

Nymph Lake Trail is a well-maintained, 1.2-mile trek that features 262 toes in elevation and takes about 40 minutes to full. It hooks round Nymph Lake and provides views of the mountain vary. You’ll cross by way of forests and meadows and have the chance to spot marmots and chipmunks. In the summer season, Nymph Lake is at its fullest and is surrounded by wildflowers in bloom. Fall can be a well-liked time to go to, because the leaves are simply beginning to change.

Note: If you’re taking a break to eat, watch out for the chipmunks! They have been very daring on this hike, making an attempt to steal meals out of my bag!

Dream Lake to Emerald Lake: simple to reasonable

Overlook above Nymph Lake

If you proceed previous Nymph Lake, you’ll merge with Dream Lake Trail, a reasonable hike that covers 2.2 miles (together with the space you’ve already traveled from Nymph Lake) and features an elevation of 450 toes. Outcrops will supply panoramic views of the mountain vary, together with Hallett Peak and Flattop Mountain. You’ll additionally find a way to spot Nymph Lake beneath.

As you proceed on, you’ll attain Dream Lake, an elongated physique of water bordered by a path that switches between dust steps and a wood boardwalk.

After you cross Dream Lake, the hike will merge into Emerald Lake Trail and finish on the eponymous lake, a crystal-clear physique of water bordered by the mountains, and a well-liked picnic spot. Depending in your talent stage, you possibly can flip again at any time, as all three trails are related.

But in the event you resolve to go all the best way to Emerald Lake and again, the overall hike will spherical out at 3.2 miles, with an elevation acquire of 698 toes.

Lake Haiyaha: reasonable to difficult

A glacial river on the best way to Lake Haiyaha

In between Nymph Lake and Dream Lake, a path will break up to the left and lead you to Lake Haiyaha Trail. This was by far probably the most stunning hike of my journey in Rocky Mountain National Park — and in addition probably the most troublesome. The four-mile in-and-out path has an 846-foot elevation acquire and weaves by way of alpine forest and throughout glacier rivers, the latter having a frosty blue shade that can take your breath away — in individual, it appears like there’s a layer of smoke hovering over the floor.

Climbing the boulders to attain Lake Haiyaha

While it’s doable to attain the glacial river (seen above) with out an excessive amount of incline in elevation, reaching the lake is a unique story. The hike will finish at a wall of boulders, and you will need to climb over the rocks so as to attain the lake. This makes this hike difficult.

The payoff is value it, although. Lake Haiyaha is surrounded by glacial boulders and rock formations thousands and thousands of years outdated. The water is a sort of turquoise-green I’ve by no means earlier than seen in nature.

Although it was August, I had introduced a sweater with me, because it will get cooler within the shade. Not solely did I find yourself taking that off, however after I reached the lake, I used to be sweating. I noticed a pair swimmers within the lake and couldn’t resist leaping in for a dip. Let me put it this fashion: A glacial lake, even in direct daylight, is one other sort of chilly. Not solely will it actually take your breath away, however your bones will really feel frozen earlier than you get again on shore. If you resolve to take the leap, take into account that the bottom is rocky and much from a sandy seaside. I want I’d introduced water footwear; I ended up simply retaining my toes off the bottom. But, 100% value it!


Rocky Mountain National Park is house to all kinds of wildlife, together with elk, bighorn sheep, and moose. Mountain lions and black bears additionally roam right here however are extra uncommon. As in any nationwide park, you’ll enhance your probabilities of recognizing animals in the event you arrive round daybreak or sundown. I used to be lucky to have a herd of elk cross by my automobile inside quarter-hour of arriving.

Where to Stay

Depending on which route you come from — east or west — you’ll most probably need to keep in Grand Lake or Estes Park. Both quaint mountain cities are nestled on the base of the Rockies and supply all kinds of choices for lodging and straightforward, fast entry to the park.

Where you keep will rely upon the expertise you’re searching for. On my first night time in Estes Park, I booked a yurt by way of Airbnb, an intimate expertise that took me into the forest on the fringe of the nationwide park.

Estes Park

Budget: Estes Park Adventure Hostel

Cost: $90 an evening

Midrange: Mongolian Mountain Yurt

Cost: $180 an evening

Luxury: Estes Park Condos

Cost: $430 an evening

Grand Lake

Budget: Elk Creek Campground

Cost: $16-$22 an evening

Midrange: Grand Lake Lodge

Cost: $159 an evening

Luxury: Romantic Gem

Cost: $506 an evening


Camping inside Rocky Mountain National Park lets guests get up surrounded by the wilderness. Campgrounds begin at $35 per night time through the summer season, however be sure to reserve one of many restricted spots upfront. And take into account that not all campgrounds are open yr spherical.

Best Time to Visit

Rocky Mountain National Park is busiest in the summertime months, and though I went in August, I nonetheless discovered that site visitors wasn’t uncontrolled. Reservations are timed to maintain the park from getting overwhelmed with friends, so that you’ll want to buy a allow to enter.

Each season provides one thing a little bit completely different, so plan your journey primarily based on what you hope to expertise:

Spring (April–May) is one of the best time for wildlife viewing, as that is when temperatures heat up and animals give start or come out of hibernation. Because snow remains to be melting, the unpredictable climate could shut off some roads and amenities.

Summer (June–August) provides the longest hours of daylight, making this one of the best time for out of doors actions like tenting and mountain climbing.

When the leaves begin to change, fall (September–October) means cooler temperatures and fewer crowds.

During winter (November–March), many of the park may have each street and facility closures, so be certain to test earlier than you ebook! Although it will likely be frigid exterior, Rocky Mountain is taken into account by many probably the greatest to go to through the coldest months. This time is nice for winter actions like snowshoeing, cross-country snowboarding, and ice fishing.

What to Bring

Regardless of if you go to, be sure to pack for the climate. Even in summer season, temperatures can drop quickly, and having layers, like puffer jackets, will turn out to be useful. I swear by this jacket and convey it on each journey, regardless of the place I’m going. Not solely is it light-weight and straightforward to pack, but it surely retains you a lot hotter than you may assume.

If you intend to hike, a very good set of shoes, like Merrell mountain climbing footwear, will maintain your toes comfy throughout these lengthy days exterior. Don’t neglect to carry a rain jacket and daypack in your hikes, too.

If your objective is to spot wildlife, binoculars will turn out to be useful. And bear in mind, it is a street journey, and these roads curve round steep mountains. If you get even the delicate automobile illness, you’ll positively want some Dramamine for the journey.

Regardless of the period of your keep, Rocky Mountain provides a wide range of issues to do and see. You received’t be disillusioned.

What would you need to expertise in Rocky Mountain National Park?

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