Top Tips for Visiting Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the top visited national parks in the US and spans across 415 square miles and the Continental Divide, with plenty of different areas to explore. From meadows found in the montane life zone to glistening alpine lakes and the towering mountain peaks, there is something for everyone to discover. I have visited RMNP over five times, and every time it’s just as wonderful as the last.

Whether going for a day or staying a week, there are some things you should know about the park, and you’ll love these tips for visiting Rocky Mountain National Park!

emerald lake rocky mountain national park

Tip #1 – Plan Ahead for Passes

This will make or break your entire visit, and you’ll need to plan a few months in advance if visiting in summer to make it happen if you don’t want to get up early!

Due to a high volume of people visiting popular parts of the park, Rocky Mountain National Park has required timed entry passes during the summer between 9 am and 2 pm. Additionally, Bear Road requires a timed entry pass between 5 am and 6 pm MDT. More details on exactly what is needed are below.

Note: This is only applicable if you visit between May 26th – October 22nd.

All vehicles will need two things:

  1. Timed Entry Permit Reservation – there are two options to choose from: a Park Access or Park Access+ Timed Entry Permit
  2. Park entrance pass (including a 1-day or 7-day Vehicle Pass or an America the Beautiful Interagency Annual, Senior, Access, Military, or 4th Grade Pass)

    Park Access Timed Entry Permits are great for visitors planning to drive over Trail Ridge Road, visit the Alpine Visitor Center, explore the west side of the park, hike at Wild Basin, or visit any area of the park located outside of the Bear Lake Road Corridor.

    • Park Access Timed Entry Permits, are required to enter Rocky Mountain National Park between the hours of 9 am to 2 pm MDT. After entering the park with your Park Access Timed Entry Permit, visitors may exit and re-enter the park anytime between 9 am and 2 pm.
    • A Park Access Timed Entry Permit excludes access to the Bear Lake Road Corridor.

    Park Access+ Timed Entry Permits include access to destinations along the Bear Lake Road Corridor and all other areas of Rocky Mountain National Park. These timed entry permits are required to enter the Bear Lake Road Corridor between 5 am to 6 pm MDT.

    • Visitors with Park Access+ Timed Entry Permits who enter the Bear Lake Road corridor and want to exit and return later in the day may re-enter the Bear Lake Road Corridor anytime after 2 pm.

    During the specific times of day when reservations are required, a Park Access or Park Access+ Timed Entry Permit Reservation is needed to visit all areas of the park, including Lily Lake, Wild Basin, Lumpy Ridge, Longs Peak, and all outlying areas.

    Timed entry permit reservations allow park visitors to enter the park within specific two-hour windows, for example, from 8 am to 10 am. Once visitors enter the park within their reservation window, they may stay as long as desired. There is no set time for departure. 

    Only one Timed Entry Permit is required per vehicle (not per person)

    • If there are multiple people traveling to the park in one vehicle, one Timed Entry Permit will cover everyone traveling in the vehicle.

    One person may reserve only one timed entry permit per day

    • You may reserve either a Park Access or Park Access+ Timed Entry Permit.
    • Take time to decide which reservation option is best for your visit!

    Tip #2 – Parking

    Parking can be challenging in Rocky Mountain National Park, even when there are timed entry passes. The good news is you can take a tram from large parking lots into popular hiking areas with limited parking.

    The trams run every 15 minutes and are the easiest way in summer to get to the best parts of the park. We chose to do this over the summer to hike at Bear Lake because parking is so limited, and we didn’t want to end up in the car along the road waiting for a spot to open up.

    Do not park along the side of the roads unless there are signs saying you can. During a visit in the winter, my husband and I learned this the hard way when we saw a bunch of people parking and decided to park too! It was actually an area parking wasn’t allowed, but we didn’t see the sign due to snow, cars, and trees. We were towed, and getting back home that day was a nightmare. Park in designated areas only!

    overlook while hiking to emerald lake rocky mountain national park

    Tip #3 – Bring your own food and water

    Unlike some other popular parks like Yellowstone or Glacier National Park, you won’t find options inside Rocky Mountain National Park. From approximately late May through early October, one restaurant is inside the park.

    The Trail Ridge Store includes a café and coffee bar adjacent to the Alpine Visitor Center along Trail Ridge Road. There are no grocery stores in Rocky Mountain National Park. The Rocky Mountain Conservancy sells limited food items in the park visitor centers and bottled water at Bear Lake and Park & Ride during summer and fall. You can imagine these spots get busy since they are the only options. Most areas take about thirty minutes to an hour to get to a food option, so bringing your own food and plenty of water with you is best.

    Several areas for picnicking provide tables, and sometimes restrooms and fire grates. All picnic areas are first-come, first-served, and most can be found on the park map.

    Restaurants and grocery stores can be found in the local communities of Grand Lake and Estes Park.

    Tip #4 – Choosing where to stay in Rocky Mountain National Park

    Unlike some national parks, there are no overnight accommodations in Rocky Mountain National Park. There are many lodging options in the nearby communities of Estes Park and Grand Lake. Many people also make it a day trip from Denver or Boulder which are a little further away but have a wide variety of hotel options.

    Choosing somewhere close by to stay is best if you are visiting for multiple days. Choose which area to stay in based on what you’ll be doing in the park.

    Estes Park, the eastern gateway town, is the most popular Rocky Mountain National Park lodging option. This hub offers excellent park access and a lively vibe. West of the park, Grand Lake is a quieter gateway town for those who prefer solitude and don’t mind the longer drive to the Bear Lake area.

    boat dock on grand lake rocky mountain national park

    Grand Lake

    Grand Lake is perched on the western edge of Rocky Mountain National Park and is the largest natural lake in Colorado. It is also located on Trail Ridge Road, just outside the park. The park provides endless entertainment, from hiking and wildlife watching in summer to cross-country skiing and snowshoeing — and more wildlife watching — in winter.

    The lake itself, which has a historic boardwalk that dates back to Wild West days, the Grand Lake Marina, and the highest-altitude yacht club in the world, is popular with boaters, waterskiers, swimmers, anglers, paddleboarders, and anyone wanting to stay on or near the water. The marina rents many types of boats and paddleboards, including sunset tours, and there are sandy spots for beach activities.

    Estes Park

    Estes Park is a town in northern Colorado. It’s known as a base for the Rocky Mountain National Park, home to wildlife, including elk and bears, plus miles of trails. The park’s Trail Ridge Road winds past craggy peaks, forests, and tundra. Nearby are the wilderness areas of Roosevelt National Forest. The Estes Park Aerial Tramway connects the town to the summit of Prospect Mountain for views over the valley.

    Downtown Estes Park is the perfect spot to do some shopping at the many local, independent stores in the downtown area. Shop around and find a gift for someone back home or something special for yourself. More than 200 retailers, restaurants, and attractions line the street.

    Consider a stay at the historic Stanley Hotel. It’s famous for a few reasons. First, for its historical place in Estes Park’s history and the area’s development. Second for its connection to Stephen King and The Shining, and lastly for the supposed hauntings and paranormal activity associated with the hotel.

    Tip #5 – Prepare for the altitude

    With elevations from 7,860 feet to 14,259 feet, Rocky Mountain makes you feel like you are on top of the world; it can also make you feel lightheaded or even sick with the elevation change. Within the park’s boundaries are 77 mountain peaks over 12,000 feet high and the Continental Divide. The park’s Alpine Visitor Center also sits at the highest elevation of all National Park Service sites.

    Make sure you are prepared ahead of time for this with the tips below for dealing with altitude sickness:

      1. Frequent small meals of easily-digested carbohydrates, drinking plenty of water, and avoiding alcohol and additional salt will all help to protect you against developing altitude sickness.
      2. Stay hydrated. Drink more water than you think you need to. Pedialyte and Propel help with altitude sickness. You can buy it as little dry packs and add it to water.
      3. Start slowly, pace yourself, and remember to listen to your body until you perfect a comfortable stride.
      4. Acclimatize yourself to the elevation by staying a couple of nights at higher altitudes before starting your trip to allow your body time to adjust.
      5. Ascend slowly and carefully when symptoms of altitude sickness present themselves.
      6. Be aware of your body’s temperature, as sweat can sap your energy. Wear light-colored clothes during the summer months and dark-colored clothes during the winter months to absorb or repel sunlight.
      7. Learn pressure breathing, a technique that overcomes nausea. Purse your lips and exhale fully to allow the carbon dioxide in your lungs to escape and force oxygen into your lungs.
      8. Take antioxidant vitamins such as A, C, and E to help minimize the effects of high altitudes.
      9. Discuss your medical history and explain that you are going up to elevations greater than 8,000 to 9,000 ft., and schedule an appointment with your doctor to get prophylaxis medications before you leave if needed.
      10. Ensure you’re not allergic and get a prescription for acetazolamide from your doctor.

    Tip #6 – Weather can change quickly

    Rocky Mountain National Park is noted for extreme weather patterns. Shaped by elevation, slope, and exposure, these patterns can change rapidly. Always be prepared for varying weather – conditions can change rapidly. Plan to check the weather before your visit or any long hikes so that you are adequately prepared!

    For detailed weather information on all locations inside Rocky Mountain National Park, visit the National Weather Service’s page for RMNP at https://www.weather.gov/bou/rmnp.

    Temperatures are often moderate at elevations below 9,400′ (2,865 m). At higher points, like Bear Lake, Trail Ridge Road, or Longs Peak, it may snow even in July. Summer days in July and August often reach the 70’s or 80’s and drop into the 40’s at night. All temperatures given are in Fahrenheit.

    Tip #7 – Great views are everywhere, but hiking is worth it

    One of the cool things about Rocky Mountain National Park is that you can drive across the entire park through beautiful mountains, making quick stops with incredible views. However, hiking is worth the time in the park. Below are a few of my suggestions for where to go in RMNP.

    Best Wildlife – Kawuneeche Valley

    Located on the west side of Trail Ridge Road, Kawuneeche Valley is known for its abundant wildlife. This area is much different than others on this list! While there, you can see moose, elk, bighorn sheep, mule deer, and more. The Never Summer Mountains look down on the headwaters of the Colorado River in this view of the Kawuneeche Valley.

    It is important to note that you won’t see all of the animals all year round. Most animals like to pop into Kawuneeche Valley for just a few months out of the year (summer months are best). This is a great spot to sit back and relax for the day while looking out for wildlife and taking some leisurely strolls through the valley trails.

    view of river along trail ridge road rocky mountain national park

    Best Drive – Trail Ridge Road

    Trail Ridge Road is the most famous drive in Rocky Mountain National Park and an excellent way to see what the park offers. It was built in the 1930s and stretches about 48 miles from Estes Park to Grade Lake. It takes about 1.5 hours to drive the road without any stops, but adding a hike and all the scenic overlooks will take you much longer.

    Trail Ridge Road takes you over the Continental Divide (stop at the Alpine Visitor Center), which separates the rivers that run to the Atlantic and Pacific. It goes from Alaska all the way to Cape Horn.

    Other great stops include Many Parks Curve Overlook, Forest Canyon Overlook, and Gore Range Overlook. Bear Lake is also located along Trail Ridge Road.

    Best Hiking – Bear Lake

    As mentioned above, Bear Lake Corridor is located along Trail Ridge Road, but you can easily spend an entire day here alone. Bear Lake is full of hikes to do and beautiful views to take in. So many lakes and waterfalls are accessible from this area. Below are a few to consider.

    Nymph, Dream & Emerald Lakes. 3.6 miles out and back, easy to moderate. This hike is one of the best things to do in Rocky Mountain National Park. On this hike, you get to see four beautiful alpine lakes over a very short distance. It’s an excellent hike for families and makes a great intro to hiking in the park.

    Bear Lake. 0.8 miles round trip, easy. The hike begins just beyond the Bear Lake Ranger Station. As the trail circles the subalpine lake, it passes through a forest of spruce, fir, lodgepole pine, and aspen. It’s well paved and the start of the hike for Nymph, Dream, & Emerald Lakes.

    Alberta Falls. 1.7 miles total, easy. At just over eight-tenths of a mile from the trailhead, hikers will arrive at Alberta Falls, one of the more popular hiking destinations in Rocky Mountain National Park and widely regarded as one of the best waterfall hikes in the park. The scenic 30-foot waterfall thunders down a narrow gorge on Glacier Creek and offers hikers an excellent spot to enjoy a relaxing picnic. In the winter, this waterfall becomes frozen!

    Glacier Gorge Trail. 5.8 miles long, easy to moderate. Glacier Gorge Trail is a loop trail with quite a bit of elevation, 1,130 feet, but it still can be done in just a matter of hours. You’ll pass the popular Alberta Falls along the way.

    Last Tips for Visiting Rocky Mountain National Park? Have fun and enjoy!

    Let’s just end by saying that this is one of my favorite national parks, and you are bound to have fun when using these tips for visiting Rocky Mountain National Park. Check out my guide if you only have one day in Rocky Mountain National Park too!

    Plan your visit to Rocky Mountain National Park with these helpful tips. From stunning alpine lakes to towering peaks, make the most of your trip.
    Plan your visit to Rocky Mountain National Park with these helpful tips. From stunning alpine lakes to towering peaks, make the most of your trip.
    Meghan

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