3-Day Rocky Mountain National Park Itinerary for Great Hikes and a Mob of Bighorns and Elk

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Rocky Mountain mountaintop view
From the Rainbow Curve on U.S. 34, incomparable mountain views take visitors to Rocky Mountain National Park to the top of the world. Photo credit: Eric Jay Toll

To many, it’s a song in their heart. To even more, Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the most popular national parks with visitors. It’s so popular, the National Park Service requires reservations to enter the park. This 3-day Rock Mountain National Park itinerary includes insider tips on how to beat the crowds and skip the NPS timed entry reservation requirement.

With elevations climbing from one to nearly three miles high, no matter the season, planning and preparation are important when visiting Rocky Mountain National Park.

The Blizzard Surprise

“This sure came out of nowhere.”

We were trudging through the deepening snow in a surprise blizzard in our snowshoes, heading back to the car parked at Glacier Basin. It was my first visit to Rocky Mountain National Park in Estes Park, Colorado. Cross-country skis were strapped to our pack, and the track we cut through the basin had already filled in.

“We’re on the right trail.”

“I can hardly see the trees.”

Despite it being early March, the weather around us screamed winter, and I just wanted to get into the car and go back to the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center. Even with the wind at our backs and the near-zero visibility, it was still proof that Rocky Mountain National Park is a year-round destination. We were having a great time in the wild outdoors, blizzard and all, with a fun park itinerary slated for the spring days ahead. The key was being prepared for the unexpected.

With the GPS track on the screen, snacks in the pack, spare batteries and warm clothes, the routine ski run turned into an adventure on the east side of the massive national park. The heavy snow made mountain views impossible, but even in snowshoes, this was an easy hike day trip just a few hours from Denver.

Hot coffee never tasted so good

Snaking through the thick stand of trees over a small mogul, the snow-covered car awaited. In the now heavier snow, it was slow going down Bear Lake Road into the descent past Moraine Park and back to the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center. We were over 8,000 feet above sea level the whole time, an elevation gain of around 3,000 feet from mile-high Denver.

Sitting in the café at the Beaver Meadows visitor center with a hot cup of coffee, we started penciling in a Rocky Mountain National Park itinerary for the summer months.

“This must be a beautiful scenic drive in the summer.”

“It sure is; come back in July.”

Even with the surprise of an unpredicted blizzard, a trip to visit every part of the park in the summer was high on the bucket list. RMNP is a NPS destination for a year-round experience.

Read More: What to pack for a day hike

Alpine Ridge panoramic view on a 3 day Rocky Mountain National Park itinerary
A 360-degree view awaits at the end of the Alpine Ridge Trail in Rocky Mountain National Park. Photo credit: Eric Jay Toll

Chasing the Hat a Few Summers Later

“Oh no!” The shout came from our left on a brilliant July morning under a clear blue sky punctuated with puffy white clouds. Fumbling with the camera, I attempted to grab at the sun hat the wind had captured and was sailing toward the edge. Snatching a piece of it, I couldn’t hold on, but had disrupted its aerodynamics. My companion grabbed the hat.

“Oh, thank you so much,” said a man with a thick Swedish accent, rushing towards us with his companion just behind him. “It’s her favorite hat.”

My companion handed the hat to the woman. Standing on the overlook at the top of Alpine Ridge, 12,000 feet above sea level, all of us were out of breath.

Crossing the Continental Divide

A half-hour earlier, with the car crossing the Continental Divide, it wheezed up U.S. 34, Trail Ridge Road, following the course of a gurgling stream that is the headwaters of the Colorado River. We made the 300-degree curve below Shipler Mountain and climbed the last 3,000 feet with another 300-degree turn to pull into the Alpine Visitor Center. The longest third-of-a-mile hike breathlessly took us the final 200-foot elevation gain from the visitor center to the Alpine Ridge overlook, a full-circle view of the Rocky Mountains. Although it’s a paved, easy hike, you definitely experience the thin air at this elevation.

Gustav and Sara Bergstrom from Sweden were in the last of their four-week exploration of the American West. The four of us took in the panoramic view of the top of the world. I believe we even saw Longs Peak, the highest point and only 14—a peak over 14,000 feet high—in Rocky Mountain National Park.

“We flew into Los Angeles three weeks ago,” Sara said. “We’re going to fly out from Denver early next week, and it’s been an amazing itinerary for our holiday.”

Gustav said they explored Zion, Bryce Canyon, Grand Canyon and Mesa Verde national parks.

“America is so lucky to have these parks,” he told us.

Like us, the Bergstroms were based in Grand Lake, coming in the west side of the park to avoid much of the traffic in crowds from Estes Park on the east side. During the summer, Rocky Mountain National Park visitors are so plentiful that NPS offers shuttle buses on the east side to reduce traffic congestion. There is less visitor traffic from the Grand Lake entrance on the park’s west side. More than 80 percent of RMNP visitors enter through Estes Park.

Rocky Mountain National Park Itinerary

In the summer on the east side, RMNP has a timed entry permit reservation system from May 26 through October 22. A prepaid entrance fee and timed entry permit are required to enter the park, and they are available through Recreation.gov.

Ramping up planning means downloading park brochures and deciding whether to fight the crowds from Estes Park or a meander along U.S. 34 through the park and set up basecamp in Grand Lake lodgings or at a west side campground. We penciled out a four-day itinerary.

For hikers, there are incredible hiking trails of various lengths of difficulty from Trail Ridge Road into the heart of the RMNP backcountry. Well-spaced backpacker campgrounds with breathtaking mountain views, waterfalls and peaceful settings populate both sides of the Continental Divide.

Day 1: The Top of the World

Start the first-day west side visit by dropping into the Kawuneeche Visitor Center, just north of Grand Lake. At about 8,880 foot elevation, it’s a good place to acclimate with a short easy hike on the Livery Trails or the old CRD Trail, which are under a mile around the visitor center and have little elevation gain.

US-34 mountainside view
Two-lane U.S. 34 is the highest continuously paved highway in America, climbing to the sky at Rocky Mountain National Park. The highway links the east and west sides of the park. Photo credit: Eric Jay Toll

Alpine Ridge

Following Trail Ridge Road towards the headwaters of the Colorado River, target Alpine Ridge Trail for lunch. Stopping to take in the sights and clear mountain air at the half-dozen lakes, historic ranch sites and thundering mountain streams and rivers will get you to the Alpine Visitor Center before the lunchtime crowds. There, the park expands to the east and draws you further. Hiking trails, sharing experiences with other hikers and wildlife viewing will broaden the experience of the west side climb.

There’s a snack bar at the Alpine Visitor Center, or pack a picnic from a deli or order a to-go lunch from a restaurant in Grand Lake and enjoy mountain views while munching better food at a picnic area or overlook.

“We couldn’t find a picnic table with a view like this,” said Jaime Pattison of Orange, California. “My partner says I’m wrong, but I think this is a better view than eating on the beach.”

His partner scoffed at the notion and said, “It sure is spectacular, though. It must be a close second to the ocean.”

The two laughed.

A Sea of Wildflowers in July

Because of the elevation and late spring, the meadows were seas of wildflowers on the shores of the mountain peaks. This was especially true at the Forest Canyon Overlook and Rainbow Curve, the last stop on the first day. Between the two, it’s a 360-degree view.

Forest Canyon has a short hike from the parking area but with a nearly 200-foot elevation gain. At almost the 12,000-foot elevation, it’s a trudge. The view of mountain peaks to the south and east makes the trek well worth the effort, and Rainbow Curve satiates the mountain views craving to the north and west.

Returning to Grand Lake from Rainbow Curve adds about 90 minutes to make it a round trip.

Day 2: Easy Does It and Filling the Camera’s Memory Card

Heading out in the early morning from the lodge in Grand Lake, we picked up a lunch ordered the night before from a deli in town and then turned east on U.S. 34. Today’s destination was to turn onto Old Fall River Road and take the long, slow, one-way climb from Horseshoe Park to Chasm Falls and way, way up to Alpine Ridge.

Opened in 1920, the 11-mile road was the original route taking visitors to the top of the Rocky Mountains at Alpine Ridge. With the posted speed of 15 miles an hour and 16 very tight switchbacks without any stops, it’s more than an hour to get to the end. Once on the road, there is no turning back.

Elk cow and calf
Two elk calves walk with their mother cow across Willow Park in Rocky Mountain National Park. Photo credit: Eric Jay Toll

Finding an Elk

The drive was well worth it. At Willow Park, there was a herd of elk feeding in the meadow, and we had to stop twice for mobs of bighorn sheep to cross in front of us. It seemed like the same mob, and we had to stop for another flock on the road back to Grand Lake just below Alpine Ridge.

On the second day, we spent much of our time in pullouts along Trail Ridge Road and the few pullouts on old Fall River Road, taking photos and watching wildlife. It was a nice setup for the crowds we’d be experiencing the next day.

Days 3: Hoofing it, OMGs, Clear Alpine Lakes and Navigating Crowds

With heavy-duty hiking boots in the car and a hearty picnic lunch on the back seat, we set off early to beat the crowds at RMNP and head for the east side of Rocky Mountain National Park. The nearly two-hour drive sparked with the sunrise glistening off the Alpine lakes we passed over the Continental Divide and town towards Estes Park.

Hikers sitting on sunny rocks
Casual hikers bask in the warm sunlight and take in the sounds and sights of Ribbon Falls in Rocky Mountain National Park. Photo credit: Eric Jay Toll

At the junction with Bear Lake Road, we turned south and headed towards the Glacier Gorge Trailhead for our first hikes. In the park-and-ride parking lot, we took the hiker shuttle to our destination trailheads to navigate the crowds.

Despite the cool temperatures, we didn’t have to worry about a surprise blizzard this time. This was the trail where I cross-country skied years earlier.

This is What It’s Like Without Snow

Without the deep snow and blinding wind, it was a moderately challenging hike past Bear Lake and Nymph Lake to Dream Lake. These are just three of the 23 Alpine Lakes in RMNP. Trekking into the gorge and across the tundra gives the feeling of being in another world entirely. We passed through a shimmering grove of aspen trees to reach the edge of the tree line.

Stretching the trip into this area turned the day into a road trip. We returned to the lodge in time for dinner and quickly conked out for the night.

We liked it so much that we added on a fourth day in the same area hiking the challenging Flattop Mountain Trail above Emerald Lake across the chasm from Hallett Peak.

Getting up the following day for the trip back to Denver from Grand Lake, we took U.S. 40 for expediency, soaked in the views and headed for home packed with memories, three filled SD cards from the camera and newly muscled legs that reminded us of every hike whenever we stepped from the car.

Shuttles and Transit

Particularly on the park’s east side, visitor volume and traffic are so high that parking areas fill early in the day. RMNP offers free shuttles and transit routes to alleviate traffic, and transit runs from Glacier Basin Campground to Bear Lake and Sprague Lake to Moraine Park. The Hiker Shuttle Route runs from the Estes Park Visitor Center and stops at any park-and-ride parking lot on the way to the collection of trails at Glacier Basin.

Entrance Fee

A day trip into Rocky Mountain National Park costs $30 per vehicle; you can get a seven-day pass for five dollars more per vehicle. If planning visits to three or more national parks or federal land areas, the best bargain is the America The Beautiful Interagency Annual Pass. The $80 annual pass provides admission to all federal lands in the United States and its territories. When you’re over 62 years old, that $80 buys a lifetime pass. Various entrance fee programs are offered by the National Park Service, and five free entrance days during the year.

Getting There

Rocky Mountain National Park’s east side is accessed at the Fall River entrance outside Estes Park, about 90 minutes north of Denver. Add 30 to 60 minutes during the summer for congested traffic making the same trip. It’s best to travel very early in the day.

If the west side is the base camp for a visit, it’s another two hours through Boulder via Estes Park and over U.S. 34 to Grand Lake through the park or three hours from Denver on U.S. 40, skirting the park traffic. Either road is filled with mountain views and collected mountain peaks.

Find Places to Stay Near Rocky Mountain National Park

There are lots of options for hotel stays near Rocky Mountain National Park, including vacation rentals. Use this interactive map to help you find a place to stay in the area.

A travel writer and photographer in Phoenix, Arizona, U.S., Eric Jay Toll has been writing for She Buys Travel from its earliest days. Specializing in the American West and outdoor adventures, Eric also treks in Mexico and Canada, and forays into Europe. He lives with his dog, Chaco, who occasionally joins road trips and camp outs, but tends to be a Downtown Diva.
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