The variety of landscapes across the United States is breathtaking and forever awe-inspiring. Having lived in Washington State, I became very acquainted and appreciative of the National Park Service. I was within a day trip of three National Parks, which afforded endless adventures and experiences. When Justin and I were planning our trip to Colorado, we created our loose itinerary around our plans to see Rufus du Sol at Red Rocks Amphitheatre on August 11th (AMAZING!!). When we decided to stay in the mountainous town of Boulder, we knew we’d have to make a trip to Rocky Mountain National Park.
From Boulder, the drive to RMNP is less than an hour, so there was no way we’d miss it. We woke up early on Friday morning, got coffee (Boulder coffee shops for the WIN), and headed to the park without a set itinerary. We learned we both enjoy the method of “going with the flow” when indulging in a new place – particularly when there’s only ONE day to experience it! We could have spent the entire day doing a long hike (SO MANY OPTIONS), but our intention was to get a true feel for the park with diverse experiences, see as much as we could, and fill our spirit of adventure.
Read on for the ULTIMATE itinerary to get a flavor of Rocky Mountain National Park, featuring: a highway to the sky, alpine lakes, lots and lots of pretty mountainous rocks, and a scenic drive!
Rocky Mountain National Park
Driving into Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) from the Fall River Entrance (east in Estes Park), we were greeted with a long, winding road through an open landscape before towering, rocky peaks came into view. Rocky Mountain National Park features 415 square miles of wilderness and spans the Continental Divide.
- Woodrow Wilson signed the Rocky Mountain National Park Act on January 26, 1915 (so it’s >100 years old!)
- The Trail Ridge Road (“highway to the sky”) was built in the 1930’s during the Great Depression
- Longs Peak is the park’s fourteener, with its first ascent in 1868
- Alpine sunflowers, or Rydbergia grandiflora, are brilliant, yellow flowers that burst from the tundra ground where it’s difficult for many flowers and trees to survive. They bloom during the very short growing season, which is about 6 weeks in July. AND THEY ARE AMAZING.
- As of 2021, there is a timed entry permit system in place for visitors from May 28 to October 11 (jump to ‘Getting Here’ for details)
Justin and I did an epic job of going with the flow for our ONE DAY at Rocky Mountain National Park. Having scored a 7:00-9:00am timed entry for RMNP + the Bear Lake Corridor, we decided to head to Bear Lake first. There, we each spoke with a Park Ranger to gather suggestions on hikes and things to see in the area. After doing about 5 miles of hiking, we drove the Trail Ridge Road across the sky from Estes Park to Grand Lake. We stopped in Grand Lake for early dinner before retracing our steps to Estes Park. We arrived back in Boulder at 8:30pm with hearts full of adventure.
Bear Lake Area
If you’re looking for accessible, quick day hikes to get a flavor for the park, visiting the Bear Lake region of RMNP is highly recommended. See below for the trails Justin and I selected!
When we arrived at the park (8am), Bear Lake Trailhead’s parking lot was full (as was Sprague Lake, Storm Pass, Bierstadt Lake, and Glacier Gorge Trailheads), so we took a shuttle from the Park & Ride in the Bear Lake Corridor. Keeping this in mind, it’d be wise to get to the park early! The shuttles were super easy though if you can’t get a spot at the trailhead (TH).
We planned a hike starting at the Bear Lake TH featuring 4 lakes, a waterfall, elk, wildflowers, and mountain vistas. We essentially connected a bunch the trails in the area, ending at Glacier Gorge Trailhead to ride the shuttle back up to our car. Our chosen route included: (1) Bear Lake Trailhead, (2) Nymph Lake, (3) Dream Lake, (4) Emerald Lake, (5) Bear Lake, (6) Alberta Falls, (7) Glacier Gorge Trailhead.
Instead of doing Bear Lake 5th, we could have done it second (first stop on the trail), as it is only 0.7 miles total from the Bear Lake TH to do the Bear Lake loop. Our favorite spot was undoubtedly Emerald Lake, which is where we stopped for some lunch and kombucha (our new favorite, Rowdy Mermaid, is a Boulder local brand). We were SURE Flattop Mountain was on the left from our view (below), but it turns out Flattop Mountain is not so aptly named… AND you can summit it! (#goals)
- Emerald Lake (our favorite!!): 4.1 miles round-trip from Bear Lake Trailhead with 774 feet of elevation gain. You’ll also pass Nymph Lake and Dream lake en route. Keep your eyes out for elk! Overall, the trail is well marked. It does have some creek crossings, bridges, and narrow paths/rocks, so it’s been rated as moderate difficulty.
- Lake Haiyaha: a popular, 7-mile out and back trail from Bear Lake Trailhead with 980 feet of elevation gain, known for its views of the Glacier Basin area. You can also make it a loop for a longer hike by adding Alberta Falls.
- Please visit Rocky Mountain National Park’s website for other Suggested Hikes!
- Bear Lake is an accessible trail, though a bit more rugged than others listed on RMNP’s website. It’s a 0.7-mile loop from the Bear Lake Trailhead.
- Please visit Rocky Mountain National Park’s website for Accessible Trails, or the Disabled Traveler’s Companion website for RMNP.
Trail Ridge Road
Driving the Trail Ridge Road (U.S. 34) could be an all-day adventure alone! We stopped wherever our hearts desired along the highway to the sky, feeling overwhelmed with things to look at. The Alpine Visitor Center has a little shop and info center, which is located at 11,796 feet above sea level. While here, the skies began to darken. By the time we were exiting the gift shop, it was raining and… HAILING!! No thunder or lightning though. Apparently thunderstorms are frequent in the afternoon at RMNP! Be aware of lightning safety.
Trail Ridge Road is 48 miles of endless alpine views. Its highest elevation is 12,183 feet. During the climb, the drive begins in montane forests with beautiful ponderosa pine trees (HAVE YOU EVER SMELLED ONE BY THE WAY?? Literally smells like butterscotch!!!!) before transitioning to thick subalpine forests, where pine and spruce treesdot the highway. At treeline, the alpine tundra is home to a harsh environment for growth and you’re met with wind-battered, stunted trees.
According to one of the Park Rangers, there are currently 7 glaciers at Rocky Mountain National Park, with many other ice structures visible from the road. When driving east, we had blue skies and beautiful, expansive views. When driving west, the clouds were more ominous and the landscape was moody and dramatic. We could not have asked for a better experience. We stopped a few times to get out and walk around, which led to us losing our breath quite a bit haha.
We were so stoked to have a JEEP WRANGLER to drive through the terrain. While it was ridiculously fun, we will keep in mind to exercise caution in the future. Just because you have a fun car doesn’t mean you need to have any extra fun. We were warned in a very forward way to drive slowly and respect the wildlife/landscape. Noted.
We made a stop for early dinner at the end of Trail Ridge Road (really starting to feel like I should start singing “follow the yellow brick road…”). Grand Lake is where Lane 8 did his epic sunrise set, which Justin and I have watched quite a few times.
While here, we stopped at Sagebrush BBQ & Grill for fresh bison & Colorado beef burgers, which was much needed. We were both feeling the change in elevation and weather from our travels across Trail Ridge Road. They had a variety of options, including Rocky Mountain Oysters…. which I was not brave enough to try (:
Despite it being against guidelines for when at altitude (hydration is key), we also grabbed a beer at The World’s End Brewpub, which had $1’s all around the ceiling and walls (a sure sign it’s a local/awesome spot).
Rocky Mountain National Park is home to nearly 60 species of mammals, more than 280 recorded bird species, six amphibians (including the federally endangered boreal toad), one reptile (the harmless garter snake), 11 species of fish, and countless insects (including a surprisingly large number of butterflies).
RMNP is home to over 350 bighorn sheep, which were nearly extinct in the 1950s! There are marmots all over–yellow-bellied ones, to be precise. You may also find pika scurrying around talus (rocks), which are adorable hamster-looking rodents who make these cute sounds. Please note, they are NOT the inspiration for Pikachu from Pokemon (am I alone in assuming this?).1
Before even entering the park, Justin and I spotted elk along the highway! After my experience at Yellowstone National Park where I thought I saw a moose (it was an elk), I now know (kinda) how to differentiate between the two animals. Did you know elk and moose are part of the same family? They’re in the deer family (Cervidae), with moose being the largest in the fam.
All bulls (males) in the deer family grow antlers annually, typically in early spring, and take 3 to 5 months to fully develop. The antlers are covered with velvety skin. During mating season (“rut”), they will rub their antlers on trees to remove the velvet and assert dominance. After the rut, they’ll rub antlers on trees again to help drop them.
Side note: I may or may not have refreshed my memory on the above facts while sitting in a McDonald’s restroom before entering the park. I was worried we wouldn’t have service and I NEEDED to know… (:
If entering the park between May 28 and October 11, 2021, a timed entry permit must be purchased ahead of time. You can purchase them HERE, or scan the QR code below to access the website. Each permit costs $2 and allows for entrance into the park within two-hour windows. There are TWO permit options:
- Bear Lake Road Corridor + Entire Park (from junction of Trail Ridge Road to the Bear Lake Trailhead), which includes Bear Lake and the entire park (available 5m to 6pm)
- Rocky Mountain National Park, EXCLUDING Bear Lake (available 9am to 3pm)
Justin and I were able to get our reservations the night before at 5pm when 25% of available permits are released. I logged into NPS.gov before 5pm, then refreshed the reservation page so I could select my permit, time window, and then pay/log off in time to lock in our reservation. When we arrived on Friday morning, all reservations were already booked for the day. Another option would be to purchase the permit one month before arrival on the first day of the previous month. For example, if we wanted to reserve August 13, we would have logged in on July 1 at 10am MDT to reserve a time.
While I don’t love the inability to be spontaneous when arriving, it worked well for us to have a reservation and plan ahead. It’s important to stay updated on visitation information for all National Parks.
Be sure to check the NPS website for updated transportation options. As of 2021, the Bear Lake shuttle was operational, but the shuttle from Estes Visitor Center is NOT operational. These shuttles provide a wonderful way to get around the park and access areas where trailheads may be full.
Please note, there are NOT shuttles that run across the Trail Ridge Road or on the West side of the park.
- Due to variable weather and high elevations at Rocky Mountain National Park, be sure to pack a variety of layers! It can be a little cooler at elevation. PLUS, you may get a surprise rain or hail storm. (We were in a hail storm in August… haha)
- Stay hydrated! This will help with the altitude and just being healthy in general (:
- Keep a map with you, as cell service can be spotty. P.S., Anyone else LOVE when your cell phone loses service? It’s the best feeling.
- Practice Leave No Trace principles – pack OUT whatever you bring (including you and your dog’s poop) and leave all of nature the way you find it. Learn more HERE.
- Do NOT feed the wildlife, pretty pretty please. I promise they have the food they need.
- Take care of yourself at altitude. Learn more about altitude illness and prevention HERE.
What do you enjoy seeing in the National Parks?
Have you been to Rocky Mountain National Park? What did I miss?
1Pikachu’s name derives from a combination of two Japanese onomatopoeia: ピカピカ (pikapika), a sparkling sound, and チュウチュウ (chūchū), a sound a mouse makes, says producer Satoshi Tajiri. Pikachu’s look is inspired by a squirrel. So… not as closely related to the mountain pika as I thought.