Rocky Mountain National Park: 2 Day Adventure

Rocky Mountain National Park is located about 60 miles northwest of Denver, CO between the towns of Estes Park and Grand Lake.  The park’s 265,000+ acres is filled with over 60 majestic mountain peaks that top over 12,000 feet and over 150 gorgeous glacier lakes with the dreamiest of reflections. The park is also home to more wildlife than you could ever imagine with over 67 species of mammals alone.  With over 350 miles of hiking trails are just waiting to lead through it all, this is a park you will not want to miss!  Check out the 2-day itinerary below to get you started on your Rocky Mountain National Park adventure😊

Entrance Fee:

$30 for a 1-day vehicle pass, $35 for a 7 consecutive day vehicle pass. 

In addition to a park pass, Rocky Mountain National Park also requires a timed entry ticket from May 27th through October 10th.  Most of the park will require a timed entry ticket from the hours of 9am to 3pm, except for the Bear Lake Corridor which requires a timed entry ticket from 5am to 6pm. 

Timed entry tickets can be found at Recreation.gov and ticket release days can be found at this link- Timed Entry Ticket Releases. Timed entry tickets are released in month blocks, one month in advance.  For example, if you are visiting the park June 15th, timed entry tickets for that day are available for purchase March 1st.   If you miss the initial release, there is another block of timed entry tickets released at 5pm MST the day prior to the visit date. 

A timed entry ticket is $2, and they are non-refundable and non-transferable. 

Lodging:

There are 5 campgrounds within the park.  Aspenglen, Glacier Basin, Moraine Park, and Timber Creek campgrounds all require reservations.  Reservations for all 4 campgrounds are made at Recreation.gov.  The 5th campground, Long’s Peak, is a tent-only campground that does not accept reservations.  Wilderness camping is allowed within the park, but a permit is required.  Check out more wilderness camping info here- Wilderness Camping. 

If you prefer not to camp, there are many hotel, resort, cabin and Airbnb/VRBO options in both Estes Park and Grand Lake.  Estes Park is our preferred location because we hike early to avoid crowds and Estes Park is much closer to many of our favorite trails!

Dining:

There is one restaurant in RMNP and it is located adjacent to the Alpine Visitor Center.  The Trail Ridge Store has a small coffee bar and café.  It is open seasonally, May through October. 

Both Estes Park and Grand Lake have dining options and grocery stores available.  Some of our favorites are Antonio’s Real New York Pizza, Bird and Jim, Dunraven, Seasoned, Ed’s Cantina and Grill and The Post.  I highly recommend reservations several weeks in advance for most restaurants near the park.

Must Know Before You Go:

1 The elevation in RMNP ranges anywhere from 8000-14000 ft.  If possible, I highly recommend arriving in Colorado 1 or 2 days prior to your park visit to acclimate to the elevation changes.  Click this link to learn about the signs and symptoms of altitude sickness- Altitude Sickness.  If you are feeling unwell, travel to an area of lower elevation. 

2. Bring sun protection.  Even when temps are low, the sun at 14,000 ft can cause significant sunburns.  We learned this lesson the hard way!   

3. Bring plenty of water.  You are more likely to become dehydrated in areas of higher elevation. 

4. Bring lots of layers.  Even in the summer months there will be cooler temps and most likely snow on the ground, on many of the hikes discussed below.

5. One of my favorite things about Rocky Mountain National Park- ALL the wildlife!  Please review all wildlife safety here- Wildlife Safety

6. And as always, please remember to Leave No Trace

Cell Service: Cell service is not reliable throughout most of the park.  Free wifi is available at most visitor centers.

2 Day Itinerary

Day 1

Recommended Timed Entry: 6am-8am 

*The closer to 6am, the better, to avoid long searches for parking. 

*This is a lighter hike day to give everyone in your crew a little more time to get acclimated to the elevation before tackling the longer hikes.    

Trail Ridge Road Scenic Drive- Out of all the scenic drives we’ve taken over the years, this one easily makes it into the top 5.  Trail Ridge Road is 48 miles one-way from Estes Park to Grand Lake, with spectacular views for every single mile of it.  It will truly have you feeling on top of the world!  It will also be your access to the rest of the day’s sights and hikes!   There are many pull-offs for stunning mountain views. They are well labeled on any park map, so I will not go through them all below.   Also, if you miss one or can’t find parking, remember you will pass the overlook again on the way back!

*We prefer to stay in Estes Park, so that is the direction this itinerary will take you. If you are staying in Grand Lake, complete the itinerary in reverse.

Tundra Communities Trail- This trail is a 1.2 mile out and back trail through the Rocky Mountain Tundra.  It is paved the entire way and is wheelchair and stroller accessible. It would even be a relatively easy walk if it were not located at an elevation of 12,000 feet.  There are informative signs along the way if you need to sit and catch your breath😊

*Also, the tundra ecosystem is very fragile, so please remain on trail. 

Alpine Visitor Center- The Alpine Visitor Center is the highest facilities in the park.  The Visitor Center is small but informative, with a small gift shop and rangers available.  It does not open until 9, so if you started the day early, I would hike the Alpine Ridge Trail first and then check out the visitor center right when it opens. 

Alpine Ridge Trail- The Alpine Ridge trailhead is located right across the parking lot from the Visitor Center.  You cannot miss the very long and steep set of stairs that are the majority of the actual trail.  Roundtrip it is 0.6 miles and entirely paved, but very steep and at a very high elevation.  Take it slow, with frequent breaks if needed.  The views from the top are spectacular!

Milner Pass/Poudre Lake- At well over 10,000 feet, Milner Pass is located on the Continental Divide, with phenomenal views of Poudre Lake and access to one end of the Ute Trail.  The Ute Trail is 8 miles roundtrip so you would need at least a half day to hike it.  However, since it is an out and back, you could easily hike as far as you would like before heading back the way you came.  There was quite a bit of snow here in June, and my kids love snow, so we did hike several miles of the trail before heading back to the car.  There are also restrooms available just off the parking lot. 

Coyote Valley Trail- Even with starting the day at 6:30, this was the only stop where we had to wait for parking.  The trail is a flat, easy, 1 mile trail that is both wheelchair and stroller accessible.  After having trouble finding a spot in the lot, we almost skipped this trail and thank goodness we didn’t.  We saw so many moose!  Wildlife was everywhere on this trail!  To keep a safe distance- three bus lengths- we had to take this trail pretty slow, as we had animals on either side of the trail most of the way. 

Kawuneeche Visitor Center- We made a quick stop at the the visitor center on the west side of the park to check out the exhibits and use the facilities. 

East Inlet Trail (Adams Falls)- Continue past the Kawuneeche Visitor Center toward Grand Lake to arrive at the East Inlet Trailhead.  Follow signs for West Portal and the gravel lot will be just past it.  The parking lot is large, so you should not have a problem with parking, even later in the day.  If you just travel to Adams Falls this trail is 0.8 miles roundtrip.  The falls overlook is absolutely stunning.  I also recommend walking up the stone stairs and continuing the East Inlet Trail for a bit.  It has amazing views the whole way! And definitely inspired me to put it on a backpacking trip list, in the future! After making it back to the parking lot, it is time to head back to Trail Ridge Road and more beautiful mountain views as you make your way to Estes Park. 

Lily Lake Trail- If you are staying in Estes Park and looking for an evening hike, I would recommend adding the Lily Lake Trail to this day. The trailhead is just 12 minutes from downtown Estes Park. The loop trail starts just off the parking lot.  The entire loop is 0.8 miles and is both wheelchair and stroller accessible.  The beautiful lake is a great way to end your evening and hopefully see some wildlife as well!

Day 2

Recommended Timed Entry: 6am-8am

*Make sure your timed entry ticket includes Bear Corridor today.

*If you can not find a spot in the main lot.  Park in the Park and Ride, and take the free shuttle to the Bear Lake Trailhead.

Nymph/Dream/Emerald Lakes- The day starts with my absolute favorite hike-ever.  If we are lucky enough to visit RMNP ten more times, I would hike this trail every single time.  Hopefully I didn’t over hype it, but I just love this hike.  You will not regret it!

With the new timed entry, we had no problems finding a spot in the main Bear Lake lot and we arrived at the lot just before 7am.  Going up the trail at 7am, we traveled with almost no one- on the way back down, we saw crowds of people headed up. If you want to enjoy the quiet, I would recommend starting this trail early!

This trail begins at the Bear Lake Trailhead.  The trail is easy to follow, and roundtrip to Emerald Lake is approximately 3.2 miles with almost 700 ft of elevation gain.  The hike between Dream Lake and Emerald Lake will be the most difficult, mostly because even in June, there was quite a bit of snow to scale up and down.  But the views at Emerald Lake….so worth it! 

Alberta Falls via Bear Lake Trailhead- From Bear Lake, this is a 1.8 mile rt, moderately difficult, out-and-back trail. Normally, I would recommend this hike for another day but the falls are too gorgeous and too close to miss, even with only 2 days in the park.

Bear Lake- The Bear Lake Trail is a 0.6-mile loop around the beautiful Bear Lake.  It is both wheelchair and stroller accessible with gorgeous lake and mountain views the whole way.  I would suggest doing this after your big hike if you would prefer to miss the crowds up at Emerald Lake. It is just minutes from the parking lot, shuttle pick up/drop off and restroom facilities.  There are also rangers available to answer any questions you may have. 

Moraine Park Discovery Center- After Bear Lake, I would head to the Moraine Park Discovery Center.  The entire upstairs is filled with educational exhibits as well as sightseeing opportunities.  There is also a gift shop on the main floor.  Moraine Park is a great place to catch all kinds of wildlife sightings and fabulous mountain views, especially in the evenings. 

Sprague Lake- If you are staying close enough to the park that it is feasible for you to come back to the Bear Lake Corridor in the evening, I would wait and hike Sprague Lake then.  If you cannot return in the evening, hike Sprague Lake right after Bear Lake instead. If you have managed to miss all park wildlife so far, you will definitely sight some- particularly moose- at Sprague Lake in the evening.   The trail is a flat, easy, wheelchair and stroller accessible trail.  It is 0.8 miles and perfect for all ages.  We had no trouble finding parking in the lot right off of the trailhead in the evening.  However, if you are visiting during the day, I would recommend the park and drive shuttle. 

Hope you have a wonderful adventure!

family photo for Always Exploring

Meet the Johnsons

Welcome to Always Exploring! We are the Johnsons. We would love to have you follow along as we explore the world one adventure at a time! Here you will find itineraries to all of our explorations that will hopefully be helpful in your own adventure planning!

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