Encompassing 265,461 acres within the Front Range, with a diverse geography filled with towering peaks, waterfalls and glacial lakes, meadows and valleys, and dense forests, Rocky Mountain National Park would take months to fully explore.
There is so much to do at this massive, renowned national park, from hiking in the summer to snowshoeing in the winter. But if you only have a day to explore Rocky Mountain National Park, you can get a good overview of the terrain and the major attractions using our one-day itinerary, from an early morning hike to an afternoon cruising along its most famous road.
If you’re visiting from nearby Fort Collins or Loveland, this is a doable day trip that requires no hotel stays, unless you want to turn your trip into a mini staycation. But if you’re visiting from elsewhere in the country, we recommend staying either in Estes Park or Grand Lake so you’re positioned closer to the park’s entrance to maximize your daylight hours. Either way, consider one of these unique getaways Near Estes Park!
Some Things to Keep in Mind
The park is busiest in the summer months, so plan to get your day started early or visit on a weekday instead.
You may experience altitude sickness if you are not acclimated to the higher elevation, especially if you arrive shortly before your visit to RMNP. Allow plenty of time for your body to adjust and drink lots of water!
During the summer months, afternoon thunderstorms are very common, so be sure to start any hikes earlier in the day so you are done by 1 p.m.
Parking lots fill up fast, especially on weekends during the summer, but there is a free shuttle service provided by the park starting in late May.
At this time, the park is operating under a Time Entry Permit System from May 28 through October 11. Click here for more information about this system and to make your reservation.
6:30 a.m. — Start With Coffee + Breakfast in Estes Park
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If you only have a day to visit Rocky Mountain National Park, you’ll want to get an early start — especially during the busier summer months. Consider staying the night at Estes Park, so you’re positioned near the first stop on the itinerary, which is just 30 minutes from town. If you don’t stay in Estes Park but live in either Fort Collins or Loveland, be sure to set your alarm early, as they are about an hour and 45 minutes from Estes Park, respectively.
Any good day — especially one spent hiking and exploring — starts with coffee, so be sure to fuel up with caffeine and a bite to eat at one of the many coffee shops in Estes Park. Kind Coffee opens at 6:30 and Ziggi’s Coffee opens as early as 6; they may be your best bet for getting an earlier start!
7:30 a.m. — Park at Bear Lake Trailhead
Be sure to leave Estes Park by 7, so you can get to the Bear Lake Trailhead parking lot by about 7:30. The parking lot tends to fill up completely by 8:00, especially on the weekends. But if you miss the window of opportunity, you can take advantage of the free shuttle service provided by the park starting on May 27, 2021. Click here for more information about the shuttle service.
From the Bear Lake Trailhead, you can embark on several different hikes varying in length and difficulty. One of the best for a one-day itinerary is the Nymph, Dream and Emerald Lakes Hike, a 3.6-mile moderate trail with a manageable elevation gain. The hike passes by the trio of gorgeous upper-montane lakes in Tyndall Gorge, plus Tyndall Glacier, which is one of five active glaciers in the park. This route will take about 2-3 hours to complete, depending on your hiking speed.
If this hike isn’t long enough for your liking, you can always combine it with Bear Lake or even Bear Lake and Haiyaha Lake to create a 6.2-mile hike that will take between 4 and 5 hours.
11:00 a.m. — Eat Picnic Lunch by a Lake
If you opt for the simple Nymph, Dream and Emerald Lakes Hike, you’ll probably be done just before lunch. Hop in the car and travel just up the road to a nearby park to eat your packed picnic lunch with a spectacular view. RMNP has several picnic areas, including two just down the road: Sprague Lake is just 10 minutes away and has 27 picnic tables and Hollowell Park is just a bit further and has 10 tables.
12:00 p.m. — Drive Along Trail Ridge Road
Driving along the 48-mile Trail Ridge Road is one of the most scenic drives in the region and one of the best ways to experience Rocky Mountain National Park — and see the Continental Divide as it cuts through Colorado. Built between 1929 and 1939, this historic trail cresting at 12,209 feet is the highest continuous paved road in elevation in the country.
Trail Ridge Road travels from Estes Park to Grand Lake, passing by Horseshoe Park, glacier-carved valleys, towering peaks and sparkling lakes. Make sure you make a stop at Rainbow Curve Overlook, Forest Canyon Overlook, Gorge Range Overlook, and Many Parks Curve, which offers views of Horseshoe, Moraine and Estes Parks. Trail Ridge Road is only open between late May and late October because of snowfall during the winter.
Expect at least an hour drive to reach the Alpine Visitors Center — maybe a bit longer if you make several stops along the way (which we encourage you to do!). Alpine Visitors Center is the highest visitors center in the country, reaching an impressive 11,796 feet in elevation. Here, you can take in exceptional views of alpine tundra, visit the bookstore, peruse the adjacent gift shop, and visit the snack and coffee bars. This is a great place to stretch your legs after all that hiking and driving, use the restroom, and grab a snack or an afternoon coffee. Keep in mind that the visitors center is only open when Trail Ridge Road is open, from late May through late October.
From the Alpine Visitors Center, you can hike the quick but steep Alpine Ridge Trail, which reaches 12,000 feet! This hike may be just over a half mile in length, but it is sure to take your breath away — quite literally. The stairs gain more than 200 feet in just three-tenths of a mile, but in the end, the views are worth it! And during the spring and early summer, you’ll pass by a variety of wildflowers along the way. Set aside about an hour to fully take in the sights of the Alpine Ridge Trail — and to give you plenty of time to catch your breath.
From the Alpine Visitors Center, you’ll have about a 45-minute drive to reach Grand Lake, where you can grab a bite to eat and a cold, refreshing beer or cocktail. Or you can back track along Trail Ridge Road to return to Estes Park, which is nearly an hour away.
What would you add to this one-day itinerary? Let us know what stops we have to make!