I’m a Colorado local who’s been visiting Rocky Mountain National Park for more than 15 years. My ultimate guide will answer all your questions and ensure a fantastic visit!
This article overviews important visitor info like transportation, costs, and reservations. It features can’t-miss activities that demonstrate why Rocky Mountain is one of the best Colorado national parks. I also share great places to stay, park history, and tips for safety and a positive experience.
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How to Visit Rocky Mountain National Park
Getting to Rocky Mountain National Park
Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the national parks nearest Denver, but it still takes some planning to get there! Here are various ways of getting to and from the park:
✈️ Fly – Out-of-state visitors should fly into Denver International Airport. It’s the nearest and most convenient airport to Rocky Mountain National Park.
🚗 Drive – You can rent a car from the airport and many other areas. In my opinion, this is the best way to explore Rocky Mountain National Park.
🚌 Shuttle – You can also take a commercial shuttle from the airport to Estes Park, the town just east of Rocky Mountain National Park. During the summer, the Hiker Shuttle provides transportation from Estes Park to the Park & Ride Transit Hub in the park. From there, you can take free shuttles to various points of interest. Reservations for all shuttles are required.
🚌 Tour – You could book a tour on Viator to see the park as well. Many of these tours leave from Union Station in downtown Denver. From the airport, you can take the A-line train to Union Station or use a rideshare service.
🚌 Bus – On summer weekends, you can take the Bustang from Denver’s Union Station and other stops along Highway 36. The Bustang drops riders off at the Park & Ride Transit Hub in the park, where you can catch shuttles to other points. The Bustang runs Saturdays and Sundays and select Mondays from May 27 – October 1, 2023. You will need a Bustang ticket and a park entrance pass.
Important Visiting Info for Rocky Mountain National Park
🎟️ Entrance – You will need to buy a pass to enter Rocky Mountain National Park. An annual America the Beautiful Pass is the best value for frequent national park visitors. Alternatively, a 7-day vehicle pass is $35 while a 1-day pass is $30. Walk-in entry requires a $15 1-day pass per person.
Beginning June 1, 2023, the park is accepting only cashless payments for passes and campground fees. If you have cash, you can buy an entrance pass at the Rocky Mountain Conservancy Nature Stores. You’ll find them at the Beaver Meadows, Fall River, and Kawuneeche Visitor Centers.
From May 26 – Oct 22, park visitors must also have a Timed Entry Permit Reservation. This costs $2, and you need to buy it online in advance. Read more information on the reservation system.
🕐 Park Hours – Rocky Mountain National Park is open 24 hours a day and 365 days a year if the weather permits.
🚻 Facility Hours – Many facilities, except visitor centers, are open 24 hours a day and 365 days a year if the weather permits.
🅿️ Parking – Most areas and many trailheads have parking lots. But in summer, the park can be crowded and you may not find a spot, even with a reservation. You can park at the Park & Ride or other lots along the shuttle route and use the free shuttle to get around the park.
🏞️ Website – National Park Service – Rocky Mountain National Park
🏠 Visitor Centers – Visitor center hours vary by center and by season.
- Beaver Meadows Visitor Center (east side): Spring hours – 9 am to 4:30 pm. Summer hours – 9 am to 6 pm.
- Fall River Visitor Center (east side): Open 9 am – 5 pm
- Kawuneeche Visitor Center (west side): Open 9 am – 5 pm
- Alpine Visitor Center (Trail Ridge summit): Open 9 am – 5 pm, closed Oct-May
- Moraine Park Discovery Center: (east side): Open 9 am – 4:30 pm
- Sheep Lakes Information Station (east side): Open 9:30 am – 4:30 pm, closed Oct-May
☎️ Phone – (970) 586-1206
🧑🤝🧑 Tours – There are guided tours on Viator that explore the park by driving and hiking. Tours vary in their amount of hiking so you can pick one that feels comfortable for you. The park also offers ranger-led programs which sometimes involve hikes and exploring the park.
👉 Pro Tip: Interested in visiting other national parks? Check out our comprehensive, data-backed review of all the US national parks!
Things to Do in Rocky Mountain National Park
Hiking is one of the best ways to explore Rocky Mountain National Park! Look for wildlife like elk, white-tailed deer, yellow-bellied marmots, and pikas on the trail. Other sights include alpine lakes, aspen, and pine forests, dramatic peaks, and more.
- 🏞️ Coyote Valley Trail: An easy trail in the Kawuneeche Valley on the west side of the park. It’s manageable for little kids and is stroller and wheelchair-accessible. Picnic tables near the parking lot make a great lunch spot.
- 🐻 Bear Lake Trail: Another easy trail, but on the east side of the park. This 0.7-mile hike wanders the perimeter of the lake. It’s one of the most popular hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park. You may want to park at the Park & Ride and take the shuttle rather than try to find parking.
- 🥾 Lake Haiyaha: A moderately challenging, 4-mile hike that’s often less crowded than Bear Lake. Alternatively, take the 7.2-mile Four Lake Loop Trail to four total lakes, plus Alberta Falls.
- 🦌 Tombstone Ridge: This hike is along Trail Ridge Road and begins at the Ute Trail parking lot. It’s a moderately challenging hike and a great way to break up an amazing drive. You may see elk, bighorn sheep, and other wildlife along the way.
- 🏔️ Longs Peak: This is one of the best Colorado 14er hikes, but as a Class 3 route, it definitely requires some experience and knowledge to attempt! This is not a quick vacation hike — it’s a summit you train and plan for. The Keyhole Route is the most popular way to the summit, and you’ll want to start very early to avoid thunderstorms.
Scenic drives around the park are a wonderful option! This is a good way to see the sights without taxing yourself, allowing you to rest your lungs or let tired kids chill in the backseat.
Several of these roads including Trail Ridge Road close in winter, so check that they’re open before planning a drive.
- 🚗 Trail Ridge Road: This is a must-do if you’re in the park in warmer seasons! Trail Ridge is the highest continuously paved highway (Hwy 34) in the United States and tops out at 12,183 feet. You’ll want to make several stops along the way, including the Alpine Visitor Center near the summit.
- 🌲 Old Fall River Road: This one-way road is mostly gravel, and the speed limit is 15 mph. There are also no guard rails and the road is narrow and winding. It’s not for the faint of heart, but you’ll be rewarded with fewer crowds and great views.
- ⛰️ Peak to Peak Colorado Scenic Byway: This drive from Blackhawk to Estes Park skirts the edge of RMNP. You can stop at many hiking trails, lakes, and even a few Colorado ghost towns along the way.
- 🎣 Colorado River Headwaters Scenic Byway: This drive begins west of the park in Grand Lake. Follow the meandering headwaters of the upper Colorado River, or stop and fish or canoe at spots along the drive.
Colorado gets plenty of snow and cold, but the park doesn’t stop! There are lots to do at RMNP in winter. Just know that some of the visitor centers do close for the season. You also can’t travel from the east side of the park to the west side in winter because Trail Ridge Road is closed.
- ❄️ Snowshoeing: Bear Lake is one of the best places to snowshoe at the park, and it’s much less crowded this time of year!
- 🎿 Cross-country Skiing: You can cross-country ski on many of the same trails as you can snowshoe. Estes Park to the east and Grand Lake to the west have outfitters if you need gear for either of these activities.
- 🛷 Sledding: You can sled at Hidden Valley near the Fall River entrance on the east side of the park. There is a restroom with running water at the bottom of the hill.
- 🏠 Visitor Centers: The Beaver Meadows Visitor Center has events happening year-round.
- 🦌 Wildlife Watching: I saw the largest herd of elk I’ve ever seen at the park on a freezing, snowing February morning! In fact, you may have better luck spotting mule deer, moose, ptarmigans, snowshoe hares, and other animals in winter when the park is less crowded.
Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the best places to camp in Colorado! You’ll want to make reservations early, as this is the most popular national park in Colorado. Research nearby campgrounds in Estes Park and Grand Lake if you have trouble finding places in the park.
Also, people with campground reservations do not need timed entry permits to enter the park. Finally, Moraine Park Campground is a popular spot but is closed from May 2023 – June 2024 for major renovations.
- ⛺ Aspenglen Campground: This campground near the Fall River station requires reservations. It’s open from late May – late Sept. No hookups or cell service are available. There is ice, firewood, and potable water, but few other amenities.
- 🏕️ Timber Creek Campground: This reservation-only campground is 8 miles from the Grand Lake Entrance. It’s open from late May – late Sept. There is potable water and firewood, but few other amenities.
Where to Stay in Rocky Mountain National Park
Rather stay indoors than camp? Fortunately, there are lots of places to stay close by! These are three of the best communities near Rocky Mountain National Park:
Estes Park is on the east side of Rocky Mountain National Park. It’s the most populated nearby town, and you can be in the park within minutes of leaving your lodgings. There are also plenty of things to do in Estes Park — you might even want to allow an extra day to explore it!
- 👻 The Stanley Hotel: The Stanley Hotel is notorious for being the place that inspired Stephen King to write The Shining. It’s a beautiful, sprawling hotel that’s rumored to be haunted!
- 🐏 Rams Horn Village Resort: The Rams Horn Village Resort is a luxurious place to relax after a day of hiking and exploring the park. The on-site hot tub is especially soothing to sore muscles after a hike.
- 🚪 Blue Door Inn: This hotel is one of the more budget-friendly Estes Park hotels, but still puts you close to the park and near restaurants, shops, and coffee houses.
Grand Lake is on the west side of the park. There are several Colorado lakes here, including Lake Granby, Shadow Mountain Lake, and Grand Lake — the state’s largest natural lake!
Top places to stay in Grand Lake:
- 🏞️ Grand Lake Lodge: This lodge has amazing views of the lake, plus an outdoor fire pit where you can watch the sun set. A pool and hot tub are great spots to unwind after a day at Rocky Mountain National Park.
- 🦅 Lone Eagle Lodge: Lone Eagle Lodge is within walking distance of the main part of town. The pine paneling and flower baskets in summer add to the mountain feel of the lodge.
- 🏨 Gateway Inn: The Gateway Inn is near the Grand Lake Visitor Center and the Rocky Mountain National Park Scenic Byway. It’s also just a short distance from Shadow Mountain Lake, where you can go fishing and boating.
Boulder is just under an hour’s drive from Rocky Mountain National Park. You may want to stay here if Rocky Mountain National Park is just one of several things you want to do in the surrounding area.
- 🏨 Hotel Boulderado: This historic hotel is near Pearl Street Mall, where you’ll find lots of restaurants, shops, and coffee houses. It’s Victorian-themed and has restaurants and a bar on-site.
- 🥾 Basecamp Boulder: This smaller boutique hotel has coffee and tea available, plus freshly baked cookies every afternoon. It’s close to downtown and to the university.
- 🏨 Boulder Marriott: The Marriott has lovely views of the Boulder Flatirons and is close to the university. You can get breakfast at the hotel each morning, and there’s a bar and restaurant on-site.
History of Rocky Mountain National Park
AD 1200s to 1700s – The Ute tribe hunted and camped on the western side of the park. You can still hike the Ute Trail near the Alpine Visitor Center. The Arapaho migrated to the area in the late 1700s.
1803 – The U.S. government acquired the land that now comprises Rocky Mountain National Park. It is explored by the Spanish and French.
1859 – The Pikes Peak Gold Rush brought miners and other speculators to the area. Settlements sprung up in the area that would eventually become the park. Homesteaders began to set up in the 1860s.
Rocky Mountain National Park Formed
1915 – President Woodrow Wilson signed the Rocky Mountain National Park Act. There were many private lodges, and the government began building other facilities for park visitors.
Civilian Conservation Corps
1930s – The Civilian Conservation Corps was formed to give young men work during the Great Depression. Some of those men built Trail Ridge Road, along with other roads, trails, and buildings.
Laws to Protect Resources
1960s & ‘70s – As more families explored the park, they would drive cars into the backcountry and walk on delicate plants while visiting. Park superintendents brought in shuttle buses. They also established backcountry campsites and rules, and began managing the natural resources at the park to protect it.
Tips for Visiting Rocky Mountain National Park
The high elevation and the fact that you’ll likely be outdoors seeing the wonders of the park make sunscreen a necessity! Apply sunscreen at the start of your trip, and reapply it continuously throughout the day.
The park goes from about 7,600 feet to over 12,000 feet in elevation. You may go even higher, depending on where you’re hiking! Also, Colorado weather changes quickly and frequently. You’ll be putting on and taking off layers throughout the day.
In summer, pack a moisture-wicking short-sleeved shirt, a warm sweatshirt or polar fleece, and a windbreaker or outer shell. I always bring my winter coat, plus a winter hat and gloves even in the height of summer.
Look Where Cars Are Pulling Over
You may not be able to spot wildlife on the side of the road, but you can easily spot all the other vehicles stopped! Pull over when you see this — but do so safely. Then hop out and see what everyone’s staring at. It’s usually elk, mule deer, or possibly, even a moose!
Take It Easy
The altitude in this park is no joke! Don’t push yourself too hard if you aren’t accustomed to the elevation. If you can, spend a day in Estes Park before heading to higher elevations at the park. Hydrate. Take things slowly. Get plenty of rest.
There are no gas stations in the park, but there are some in Estes Park and Grand Lake on either side. Make sure you enter with a full tank so you don’t need to worry on your drives through the park.
Choose Less Popular Trails in Summer
Skip the Bear Lake Road corridor during the summer, especially during summer weekends or holidays. Explore the western side of the park, or try a hike along Trail Ridge Road.
Don’t Let a Brief Itinerary Stop You
I recommend taking three days to explore this park, but go even if you only have one day! Start on the west side of the park with a few short hikes and a visit to the Holzwarth Historic Site. Drive over Trail Ridge Road, stopping at scenic overlooks. Finish with a visit to Sprague Lake or Bear Lake on the east side.
FAQs About RMNP
Can you drive through Rocky Mountain National Park without a reservation?
You can’t drive through Rocky Mountain National Park between May 26 – October 22 without a reservation. You will also need to pay the park’s entrance fee. A 1-day entrance fee is $30 and cash is not accepted. See my guide for more important visitor information.
Is Rocky Mountain National Park free to visit?
Rocky Mountain National Park is not free to visit. It costs $30 for a 1-day vehicle pass or $35 for a 7-day pass. It’s $15 per person if you’re arriving on foot. You do not need to pay to enter the park if you have an America the Beautiful Pass.
How much time do I need to see Rocky Mountain National Park?
You need three days to see Rocky Mountain National Park. This gives you time to drive Trail Ridge Road and Old Fall River Road. It also allows you to do several hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park and take in a ranger talk or program.
Hopefully, this guide has inspired you to take a trip to Rocky Mountain National Park! Hands down, it’s one of the best places to visit in Colorado.
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