Best things to do in Rocky Mountain National Park

10 Best Things To Do In The Rocky Mountain National Park (2023)

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One of the most popular national parks in the United States, Rocky Mountain is under two hours from the capital of Colorado, Denver. Renowned for its majestic landscape with snow-capped peaks, alpine lakes, and abundant wildlife, it is a dream come true for any adventure lover.

Visiting Rocky Mountain should be on your list whether you want to hit the trails, enjoy the scenery or take a spectacular drive through the park. Many people come to Rocky Mountain National Park to simply marvel at its jaw-dropping scenery. 

There’s a reason why RMNP draws millions. In this article, I will tell you how to make the most out of your visit and explore some of the best things to do in the Rocky Mountain National Park. 

How many days to spend at Rocky Mountain National Park

I recommend about 3 days for your first visit to RMNP to see major highlights of the park and spend some time at Estes Park, the gateway to the park. If you want to do more challenging hikes, enjoy less visited areas, and learn about some of the best things to do in the Rocky Mountain National Park, consider adding more days to your trip.

Have a bit more time? Check out these road trips from Denver. 

PRO TIP: For better experience, join the organized tour of the Rocky Mountain National Park. These tours are great if you don’t have a lot of time, and want to learn more about the park’s history, its ecosystems, and spot some wildlife.

Rocky Mountain National Park entrance fee

Rocky Mountain National Park requires a $35 entrance fee and a Rocky Mountain National Park reservation that has to be made online ahead of your visit. All visitors are given specific time slots on a given date.

If you plan on visiting other national parks in Colorado, and beyond, consider purchasing America The Beautiful National Parks Pass that will give you access to all parks in the National Parks System for the entire year.

Best things to do in the Rocky Mountain National Park

Regardless of how many days you plan to spend at Rocky Mountain National Park, I put together my guide for you that will help you check the best things to do at the Rocky Mountain National Park off your list. 

1. Emerald Lake

One of the most popular things to do in the Rocky Mountain National Park, Emerald Lake is a beautiful alpine reservoir framed by the jagged peaks. When you get on a trail, you will first pass by the Nymph Lake covered by lily pads before arriving at the Dream Lake and proceeding to Emerald Lake, the final point of the trail. This 3-mile hike is considered relatively easy and takes about 1 to 1,5 hours on average to complete. 

2. Sprague Lake

This easy hike is perfect to begin your adventure in the Rocky Mountain National Park. Here you can walk along the trail l around the lake, and, if you get lucky, even spot some wildlife! When I was at Sprague Lake one time, I happened to see a moose feeding on the grass!

3. Longs Peak

One of Colorado’s most famous 14ers’ (Or mountains with an altitude of at least 14,000 feet), Longs Peak is the tallest mountain within the park at 14,259 feet. 

You can see it from many areas including Mountain Overlook, Tundra Communities Trail, and even Estes Park! The 15-mile trail to the top of the mountain is riddled with challenges and requires good orientation and mountaineering skills.

You should ONLY attempt submitting Longs Peak if you have alpine climbing experience because sections of the hike are very exposed and require rock scrambling. If you lack this experience, consider convoying with someone else.

PRO TIP: If you still want to conquer one of Colorado’s 14ers’, consider Quandary Peak outside of Breckenridge or Pikes Peak near Colorado Springs, much easier options that are better suited for less experienced hikers. Another one is Mount Evans that has a scenic byway and can be accessed from Interstate-70.

4. Trail Ridge Road

Driving on Trail Ridge Road is one of the must things to do in the Rocky Mountain National Park. The highest continuous paved highway in the U.S. National Parks System with plenty of hairpin turns and drop-offs guarantees a good dose adrenaline!

The highest point of this alpine highway is located at 12,183 feet. While the climb is pretty steep, the road is well-maintained. Trail Ridge Road is closed during winter because of the treacherous road conditions, however, driving on it in summer is by far one of the most fun things to do in the Rocky Mountain National Park.

Trail Ridge Road spans for 48 miles and connects Grand Lake on the west side of the park to Estes Park on the east side. When you drive on it, you will cross the Continental Divide, a line that separates the river system in North America.

I recommend making at least a couple of stops along the way to enjoy the gorgeous scenery along the way. And if you have some spare time, check out the Alpine Visitor Center, the highest visitor center in the United States at the elevation of 11,796 feet.

5. Ute Trail to Tombstone Ridge

While this is a short, easy hike, it offers spectacular views. Located about 7 miles away from Alpine Visitor Center, Ute trail is about 4 miles, however, you don’t have to hike the entire length as incredible scenery begins pretty much right away. If you want to hike the entire length, it should take you between 1,5 to 2 hours. 

5. Continental Dive to Mount Ida

If you are looking for some solitude amid gorgeous alpine views, take a hike to Mount Ida. Most of the hike is above the tree line in the alpine tundra, and it’s significantly colder here than in the rest of the park, even during the summer months, so bring some layers.

This hike is roughly 10 miles (round trip), however, it is more strenuous and less well-known than other trails at Rocky Mountain National Park. In the end, you arrive at Mount Ida at 12,899 feet

PRO TIP: Before you attempt a strenuous hike like Mount Ida, get your bearings on the high altitude and try easier hikes like Emerald Lake or Dream so you could get acclimated. Altitude sickness affects nearly a third of all visitors and should be taken seriously.

6. Alberta Falls

A 1.7-mile round trip to Alberta Falls will bring you to a stunning waterfall that drops from thirty-something feet. When you arrive, you will have a chance to feel the breeze, as the trail brings you very close to the bottom of the waterfall.

The trailhead to Alberta Falls begins at Glacier Gorge Junction along Bear Lake Road and can get a bit congested during weekends. Additionally, parking here can be very tight, with spots filling up well before 9 a.m. during summer. Arrive early or consider taking a public bus that runs through the park frequently and stops at all major trailheads. 

7. Black Lake

The Black Lake Trail is combined with Mills Lake, as you have to pass the second one to get to the Black Lake Trail. The round trip is about 10 miles and is considered moderate. The hike begins at Glacier Gorge Trailhead and takes you past Alberta Falls and toward Mills Lake. The first part of the hike is about 3 miles. From here, you can turn around or continue for the next two miles toward Black Lake.

8. Chasm Lake

Hiking to the gorgeous Chasm Lake is one of the best things to do in the Rocky Mountain National Park. This strenuous trail spans over 8 miles and gains more than 2,500 feet in elevation.

The lake itself sits at the elevation of 11,760 feet at the base of Longs Peak, and since the lake is above the tree line, you should start your hike as early as possible to get done before the storm rolls in the afternoon (If you are visiting in summer). The trail starts at the Longs Peak Ranger Station and meanders through the wooded area before it opens a vast tundra.

9. Sky Pond via Glacier Gorge Trail

Sky Pond is one of the most beautiful lakes at Rocky Mountain National Park. While the hike is pretty long (a round trip is about 9.5 miles) and strenuous, the spectacular scenery along the way is well worth the effort. The trail to Sky Pond begins at the Glacier Gorge Junction. 

10. Moraine Park

While you can spot wildlife in many parts of the Rocky Mountain National Park, one of the best places for wildlife watching is Moraine Park. Carved out by glaciers, this scenic valley can be accessed by driving down Bear Lake Road. 

To see wildlife, take one of the trails that go through the park such as Mills Lake or Bear Lake. To get to Moraine Park, take Highway 36 and after driving past Beaver Meadows Entrance Station make a left turn on Bear Lake Road. Continue for about 5 miles before you see Moraine Park.

Wildlife watching is one of the best things to do at the Rocky Mountain National Park, and sometimes, you can even see deer and elk by the side of the road while driving through the park.

Best time to visit Rocky Mountain National Park

Summer is the busiest time at Rocky Mountain National Park with many visitors coming here to hike snow-free trails, camp, and enjoy the gorgeous alpine meadows dotted with wildflowers (the best time to see wildflowers is late June and July).

However, it can also be very crowded, and if you want a different experience, consider visiting Rocky Mountain National Park in the fall to see the stunning foliage. Winter offers great opportunities for snowshoeing and cross country skiing, however, many of the park’s roads and trails are closed during this time.

Where to stay at Rocky Mountain National Park

While Rocky Mountain National Park has plenty of camping options during summer, it has no hotels. And since camping spots within the park tend to fill up very quickly, make a reservation ahead of time. A standard fee for most campgrounds here is $30 per night during summer and $20 per night during winter.

Rocky Mountain National Park Campgrounds

  • Moraine Lake Campground: The only campground in Rocky Mountain National Park that’s open year-round, Moraine Lake Campground is located in a secluded area near many great trails. It also has a Discovery Center nearby. 
  • Aspen Glen Campground: This campground is one of the best places for wildlife spotting as it’s often frequented by elk who come to graze at the nearby meadows. 
  • Longs Peak Campground: A popular option for those who are getting ready to climb the eponymous mountain, Longs Peak Campground is located at an elevation of 9,405 feet and is great for getting used to the altitude before the strenuous climb. Don’t forget to bring warm clothes, as it gets really cold up here!
  • Timber Creek Campground: The only Campground on the west side of the Rocky Mountain National Park, Timber Creek is located near the Colorado River and has plenty of things to do.
  • Glacier Basin Campground: If you are looking for a campground near some great hikes, look no further: Glacier Basin sits right near trails to Sprague Lake, Emerald Lake, and Bear Lake. This campground also has plenty of space for relaxing and picnicking, so you will never run out of things to do. 

Hotels near Rocky Mountain National Park

Luckily, the nearby Estes Park offers plenty of hotels from the haunted Stanley Hotel that inspired Stephen King’s “The Shining,” to small unpretentious stays like Hotel Estes that are great for crashing for the night before continuing your adventures the next day.

Estes Park is a destination in itself with great restaurants, hiking and kayaking, so make sure to spend some time here before (or after) you check out RMNP.

  • Peak to Peak Lodge – located about 5 miles away from the entrance to the Rocky Mountain National Park, this classic motel has all of the basic amenities that you will need after a day of adventuring.
  • Appenzell Inn – The Swiss-inspired inn comes with neatly decorated rooms and great amenities such as fireplace and spa bath. The place gets very good reviews!
  • Estes Mountain Lodge a great basic motel about 25 minutes away from the park that offers a nice stay with basic amenities and free parking.

Things to know before visiting Rocky Mountain National Park

Before you plan your trip to Rocky Mountain National Park, be sure to get familiar it’s some of its specifics. Taking a trip to a high alpine environment requires knowledge and preparation, as the environment here is drastically different from many other national parks located at lower elevations.

1. Weather

The weather in the Rockies can be unpredictable. It’s not uncommon to experience all four seasons in just one day with hail in the morning and bright sun and high temperatures just a few hours later. Always check the forecast before planning your activities at Rocky Mountain National Park!

2. Elevation

The elevation of Rocky Mountain National Park ranges between 7,860 feet and 14,259 feet making it one of the highest parks in the United States. This means that if you are not used to the high terrain, you might experience altitude sickness at some point. Always carry enough water with you and watch out for symptoms such as dizziness, headache, shortness of breath, headache, and loss of appetite.

Try to spend at least one day in nearby places like Boulder or Estes Park where you can get used to the altitude change before continuing your trip to Rocky Mountain.

3. Wildlife

Rocky Mountain National Park is home to a wide array of wildlife such as marmots, moose, and black bears. While these animals are adorable, you should admire them from a distance. Avoid feeding them and always pack up all your food. Wild animals can be attracted to the smell of food and if they end up eating it, they can get sick and become reliant on human food which could lead to losing their hunting instincts.

4. Afternoon storms

If you’re going to hike at Rocky Mountain National Park, you should know that thunderstorms are common in the afternoon during the summer months. Always check the forecast before leaving for the day and do your best to wrap up your hiking by noon, if the forecast calls for rain. This is especially true if you are going to hit trails at higher elevations that are prone to lightning strikes.

5. Leave no trace rule

As with other national parks, always pack up and throw away your trash whether you are hike or picnic. Trash is not only harmful for the environment, it also poses dangers to animals who are attracted to the scent of leftovers and might get into the habit of feeding on it and lose their hunting instincts as a result.