Rocky Mountain National Park Itinerary

Whether you’re a seasoned outdoor recreationalist or a city dweller seeking a change in scenery, check off some of your bucket list items at Rocky Mountain National Park and the gateway town of Estes Park.

An alpine lake reflects the surrounding peaks on a sunny summer day  in Rocky Mountain National Park
An alpine lake in Rocky Mountain National Park
Downtown Estes Park lights up in the shadow of Rocky Mountain National Park
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Only in this national park can you cross the continental divide and take in the views from the nation’s highest paved road — or push yourself to new heights on breathtaking hikes accessible to all. In Estes Park, follow in the steps of Stephen King and discover where the idea for one of the greatest horror movies of all time took root or meander the charming main street for one-of-a-kind finds. 

There’s so much to discover that you could spend days in this area of the Rockies, but if you’re short on time, here’s how to spend a glorious day in and around Rocky Mountain National Park.

Note: Rocky Mountain National Park requires a timed-entry reservation from late May through early October. Learn how to get your timed-entry permit

Pro tip: A seasonal Bustang route will take you to Estes Park and the national park from downtown Denver from late May to early October. Additionally, the park will be running a Hiker Shuttle seven days a week from late May through early September and weekends through October. The shuttle runs from the Estes Park Visitor Center to the RMNP Park & Ride Transit Hub, where you can transfer to other park shuttles. A park-entrance pass and reservation for the Hiker Shuttle are needed. Learn more on the park's website.

Morning

One of the most popular parks in the country, Rocky Mountain National Park welcomes 3.4 million visitors each year and still manages to nurture cravings for solitude. 

Daybreak is the best time to explore the park’s stunning see-through lakes, sweeping meadows and dew-spritzed forests. Enter through the park's eastern entrance in the town of Estes Park and take a drive on Trail Ridge Road, the highest paved through-road in North America. This rollercoaster route crosses the Continental Divide and offers breathtaking photo ops as you climb past subalpine forests and windswept tundra to 12,183 feet above sea level.

Enjoy an easy family wildflower hike to Gem Lake or Bridal Veil Falls, while those seeking a little more challenge can try the 2.8-mile trek to Mills Lake. You’ll be rewarded with grand views of 14,259-foot-tall Longs Peak and the Keyboard of the Winds, a whimsical rock formation named for its shape. If you have an abundance of energy, try the 7.25-mile Five Lakes Loop, passing some of the park’s most famously picturesque lakes, as well as a roaring waterfall along the way. Accessible trails include favorites like Bear Lake, Alluvial Fan and Sprague Lake, and you can also reserve an all-terrain wheelchair from Estes Park Mountain Shop.

Rocky Mountain National Park offers top-notch wildlife watching with more than 3,000 elk and 800 bighorn sheep that live in the park. For prime opportunities to catch a glimpse of some of the park’s residents, make a stop at Moraine Park, a U-shaped valley that’s a regular gathering spot for bugling elk.

Inside the park, the Rocky Mountain Conservancy offers year-round seminars, guided fly-fishing, naturalist tours, hiking and photography classes. Estes Park and surrounding Rocky Mountain National Park are also superior birding spots, with more than 315 species to be seen. Grab your binoculars for a self-guided exploration of Matthews-Reeser Bird Sanctuary, or opt for a ranger-led bird walk within the national park.

Try your hand at fly fishing or spin fishing with a guided tour from Estes Angler in the park’s pristine lakes and streams March through November. Kent Mountain Adventure Center offers guided hikes of varying lengths and difficulty, introductory climbing courses and guided snowshoe treks, as well as cross-country and backcountry skiing. Or, get above it all in a different way at Estes Park’s own Jurassic Park. This climbing area just south of town features rock outcroppings, slabs and routes that make for a perfect outing.

Afternoon

Estes Park is the gateway into the national park, but it’s also a destination unto itself. Stop by The Barrel, a seasonal al fresco beer garden, and window-shop along Elkhorn Avenue, Estes' bustling main thoroughfare. Filled with one-of-a-kind stores, several fine restaurants and plenty of places for an afternoon snack, the area is just steps from the park’s eastern entrance. Stop for coffee and sit outside on the Riverwalk.

One block off Elkhorn, the beautifully landscaped path follows the Big Thompson River as it flows through town and hosts street performers in the summer. Take the path east for a tranquil walk around Lake Estes, or stop at the marina to rent bikes, pontoon boats or kayaks. Then, enjoy a glass of wine inside Snowy Peak Winery’s tasting room, the new Elkins Distilling Company, Rock Cut Brewing or Lumpy Ridge Brewing Co., a former gas station with a scenic beer garden and new brews on tap regularly.

Or ride 1,100 feet up the side of Prospect Mountain on the Aerial Tramway for fantastic views of Estes and the surrounding peaks. (The tramway is currently closed, but check back for updates.)

Evening

Wind down with dinner at the storied Stanley Hotel. The elegant 109-year-old, white-pillared landmark sits on a hill overlooking downtown Estes Park. Guided tours take you through an underground tunnel and reveal how Stephen King was inspired to write The Shining while staying in room 217. Stop by the beautifully crafted antique Cascades Whiskey Bar to choose from 250 different wine labels and the largest whiskey collection in the state.

Newer to the town's dining scene, the farm-to-table cuisine from Seasoned – An American Bistro and Bird & Jim’s artisan approach have locals raving. Or, liven things up at Lazy B Chuckwagon & Supper Show, where a crowd-pleasing, cowboy-style chuckwagon dinner is followed by a Western musical stage show.

Winter Fun

From extreme sports such as ice climbing and backcountry splitboarding to more relaxed activities like snowshoeing and curling up by the fire, Estes Park also caters to winter visitors. It’s easy to get there year-round and offers an alternative to the bustling ski resorts. A handful of new snowshoe tours pair with yummy side activities like fondue and whiskey tasting. Connect with Estes Park Mountain Shop, Colorado Mountain School and Kent Mountain Adventure Center for all the gear and guidance you may need.

Get Sidetracked

Depending on your approach, you might go through lovely Lyons on your way to Estes. With galleries and public art on nearly every corner, the Planet Bluegrass epic summer music venue and plenty of craft beer, this small town is worth a stop. Tubers and kayakers roll through the whitewater park, MainStage Brewing Company on Main Street makes for some unique sipping opportunities and the winter outdoor ice-skating rink brings simple cold-weather pleasure.

Want more?

Watch a video on exploring Rocky Mountain National Park on horseback

Read about Colorado's three other amazing national parks