Rocky Mountain National Park straddles the eastern and western slopes of the continental divide, and its array of landscape types, immense diversity of wildlife, and abundant access opportunities have made it one of America’s most visited national parks. On a given day in “the Park,” as it’s known locally, visitors have a chance at seeing bighorn sheep, moose, elk, and bears, among many others, and spending 2 or 3 days in Rocky Mountain National Park makes getting a look at some of these amazing animals a near certainty.
If you’re planning to visit Rocky Mountain National Park, expect a lot of outdoor activity at altitudes ranging from roughly 8,000 feet at the lowest to more than 14,000 feet for anyone daring enough to traverse the highest peaks, such as Longs Peak.
The Rocky Mountain region just over an hour northwest of Denver where this park is located is also ideal for a brief stay thanks to great base camp locations in the towns of Estes Park and Grand Lake. Both towns have a wide variety of lodging options, including the family-favorite YMCA of the Rockies near Estes Park.
Camping inside the Park is also an option, whether you’re looking to car camp with a fire pit and latrine nearby or obtain a backcountry permit and venture back into the woods.
No matter how you choose to spend your nights on your Rocky Mountain National Park itinerary, this vast wilderness area has something to offer for rugged explorers and casual sightseers alike.
How Many Days in Rocky Mountain National Park?
As you’re thinking about how many days to spend in Rocky Mountain National Park, first consider whether you want to plan your itinerary around Estes Park or Grand Lake.
If you’re coming from the eastern slope where Denver is located, as many travelers are, Estes Park is a more convenient base since you won’t have to make the additional drive over Trail Ridge Road to the western side of the Park.
That said, Trail Ridge Road is arguably one of the most scenic roads in the USA (and one of the highest in elevation), with soaring views of alpine tundra and abundant wildflowers in the summertime, so any visitor should keep this in mind as a possible day trip.
For the purposes of this Rocky Mountain National Park itinerary, we’ll focus mainly on activities near Estes Park on the eastern slope for two days, with a possible day trip over the Divide to Grand Lake.
The eastern slope portions of RMNP near Estes Park are primarily accessed via the Beaver Meadows and Fall River entrance stations, and in fact, planning two days around hiking and exploring these two zones is not a bad way to structure a visit.
Fall River is named after the main river that flows through this valley, whereas Beaver Meadows lies just a 5 to 10-minute drive over the slope to the northwest and is named for the often-flooded lowland areas that are home to the namesake beavers.
Spending 2 to 3 days in Rocky Mountain National Park is a perfect way to get outside in either of these two areas, with a day to spare to make the trek over the Divide to the western slope.
Getting to and Around Rocky Mountain National Park
The good news for travelers flying into Denver International Airport is that it’s very doable to rent a car and plan on most all of your transportation around the Park happening on paved roads or forgiving dirt roads.
Even minivans can handle just about anything in here, so there’s no need for a 4-wheel-drive, high-clearance vehicle, especially in the main areas near Estes Park and the Beaver Meadows Entrance.
You can browse Rentalcars.com to find car rentals across major suppliers, or alternatively, check out Outdoorsy for RVs and campervans if the Rocky Mountains are a detour on a longer trip such as from Denver to Moab or Denver to Phoenix.
If you’re coming from the eastern slope via Denver or Fort Collins on Colorado’s Front Range, you’ll be looking to get on either Highway 36 or 34, respectively.
When driving from Denver, you’ll pass through Boulder where 28th Street turns into US 36, the highway you’ll follow for the next roughly 40 minutes before dropping into the Estes Valley.
For drivers coming from the north through Fort Collins, Interstate 25 will take you to US 34, which then runs up the Big Thompson River canyon to the Estes Park Valley.
Visitors coming from the western slope—assuming they’re not making the descent all the way down I-70 to Denver first—will typically head for Grand Lake before making the drive into Rocky Mountain National Park through the Grand Lake Entrance Station.
Once you enter the Park, getting around is as easy as finding parking (you’ll want to always check on hours and the latest on parking/timed entry reservations, when applicable) at or near your chosen trailhead and then setting out on foot.
Be mindful of seasonal elk enclosures, as there are times of the year when these animals are given extra protection and certain parts of the Park are closed to hikers and all visitors.
2 to 3 Days in Rocky Mountain National Park Itinerary
Whether you choose to spend 2 days in Rocky Mountain National Park or 3, it’s a good bet that you’ll be doing some hiking each day.
RMNP does have an ample number of sightseeing opportunities that can be enjoyed from the comfort of the paved road—including the wide-open glacial valley of Moraine Park that lies within 5 minutes of the Beaver Meadows Entrance and often hosts a massive herd of elk—but some of the true gems are a little bit “off the beaten path.”
To put things in perspective, Rocky Mountain National Park reportedly has 355 miles of hiking trails, and some 118 of the trails are considered “moderate” in difficulty. This means that even someone from a lowland state who’s never been above 2,000 feet elevation in their life should be able to find an enjoyable trail.
Areas like Dream Lake, Sprague Lake, the Alluvial Fan, and the Cub Lake Trailhead all offer a chance at a short hike or even just an opportunity to stroll out into a field, spread a picnic out on a boulder, and enjoy views of Rocky Mountain elk from a safe distance. And other hikes like the Hallett Peak climb, Lawn Lake, and Sky Pond will offer fun challenges for seasoned hikers and mountaineers.
Day 1 – Estes & Moraine Park
Take a Walk Through Downtown Estes
If you’re camping in the Park you may prefer to head straight there, but especially if you’re staying somewhere in Estes Park, be sure to visit downtown. A stop at a local breakfast favorite like Kind Coffee or The Egg is a great start to the day, followed by a stroll down East Elkhorn Avenue, the main drag.
The many outdoor shops lining the road stand ready to outfit you with any piece of missing gear you might need, whether that’s a new hydration bladder for your Camelbak or a new pair of hiking boots.
Less-essential souvenirs are also in no short supply, as you can find shops selling handmade leather crafts, books and vinyl records, works by local artists, saltwater taffy and other sweets, and everything in between.
Pay special attention to the scene at Bond Park, a local favorite venue for outdoor concerts and festivals. Depending on the day, you’ll find everything from Western storytelling and singing to wine and beer-tasting festivals taking place here. Events are sometimes free, and other times there may be a price of admission.
Moraine Park for Hiking and Stargazing
As you drive intothe Park on Bear Lake Road after passing through the main entrance at Beaver Meadows, you’ll wind your way down to Moraine Park.
This valley, with the Big Thompson River bending its way through the middle, offers wide-ranging views of the entire Continental Divide, with the silhouettes of Longs Peak, Mt. Lady Washington, The Sharkstooth, and others playing prominent roles.
You can access the trail that heads out into the middle of this valley via a parking area on the river near Bear Lake Road, or you can take a right turn before the parking area and drive out past the Moraine Park Campgrounds to roadside access or the Cub Lake Trailhead.
Once you’re in the valley and assuming you’ve timed things to be out here after nightfall, the stargazing is world-class on a clear night. There is a small amount of light pollution that creeps in from Denver to the east, but the high elevation and relative lack of civilization to the west make for striking views of constellations, planets, and the Milky Way.
Bringing a blanket out with you and spreading it on the ground can be an easy way to lie down on your back for viewing, and having a pair of binoculars and a headlamp or flashlight is also crucial.
Day 2 – Trail Ridge Road & Horseback Riding
The Western Slope Via Trail Ridge Road
Trail Ridge Road is actually a stretch of US Highway 34 that entirely traverses Rocky Mountain National Park, and it would be hard to argue against this “Highway to the Sky” as a contender for the most scenic road in America.
This highway isn’t for the faint of heart, however, as it ranges up to an elevation of more than 12,000 feet before dropping down toward the Kawuneeche Valley and the western slope of Rocky Mountain National Park.
There are several overlook points and an alpine visitor’s center along the way, so plan on stopping and getting out of your car for some sightseeing. That is, assuming you’re able to drive this route, as Trail Ridge Road routinely gets covered beneath feet of high-country snow and is closed if visiting the Rocky Mountains in the wintertime.
Between the months of roughly May to October, when the road tends to be at its most passable, keep an eye out for alpine wildlife like mountain goats, bighorn sheep, and pikas. The last are amazing little mammals that look like a cross between a rabbit (their close relative) and a mouse.
Even if you don’t see them, you’re sure to hear their territorial squeaks among the rocks if you venture very far among the rocky scree slopes above 10,000 feet.
Horseback Riding on the Grand Lake Side
If you decide to make the roughly 1.5-hour drive all the way up and over Trail Ridge Road to the town of Grand Lake, this is a good opportunity to book an afternoon of horseback riding in the Park. Local businesses Winding River Resort and Thunder Horse Outfitters offer scenic trail rides through RMNP and surrounding areas that are often just one or two hours in length.
Experiencing a ride through beautifully rugged mountain country on horseback with flowing streams and high peaks as a backdrop is sure to feel like a dream come true to fans of Western films and culture.
Day 3 – Glacier Gorge Hike
Hike Glacier Gorge
Situated at the top of Bear Lake Road just before the parking area for Dream Lake, Glacier Gorge Trailhead is an excellent starting point for a full or half-day of hiking.
This trail is populated by wildlife ranging from deer and elk to grouse and snowshoe hares, and there is a scattering of alpine lakes at the top, depending on which route you choose.
One of the most popular lake destinations in Rocky Mountain National Park, The Loch, is located here, and hikers who make the extra effort to continue beyond its crystalline waters will make a waterfall scramble up to Lake of Glass and on to Sky Pond.
Sky Pond is perched just shy of 11,000 feet, and the surrounding views of columbine stands, snowfields, and towering peaks like the Sabre and Petit Grepon are nothing short of breathtaking.
For more casual hikers, keep in mind that stopping several miles short of Lake of Glass and Sky Pond at either Timberline Falls or The Loch is always an option.
Dinner in Estes
Once you’re back down in Estes, there are a few local favorite restaurants that are worth considering for your trip’s last dinner.
Have More Time?
Guided Fly Fishing
Rocky Mountain National Park is brimming with opportunities for avid and beginner fly anglers alike. This fast-growing sport is perfectly suited to the wild trout-filled waters of the Park, and several area outfitters have guides readily available at most any time of the year.
Heading out to fish streams like the Big Thompson, Fall River, and Glacier Creek, or any of the Park’s many high lakes, is an excellent way to spend a full or half-day.
Visit the Stanley Hotel
Fans of Stephen King’s The Shining won’t want to miss out on this one, as Estes Park’s very own Stanley Hotel is said to have been the inspiration behind the story.
And though the actual film directed by Stanley Kubrick wasn’t filmed here on location, fans of the book will enjoy learning about the hotel’s reputed history of paranormal activity that inspired King’s writing. The hotel also has a great restaurant, bar, and a massive front porch area where you can relax and enjoy views of Longs Peak.
Where to Stay in Rocky Mountain National Park
If you’re looking for the perfect place to stay near Rocky Mountain National Park, then you can’t go wrong with Estes Park. There are lots of options available in this town and countless amenities that make it a great home base. If you’re wondering where to rest your head, have a look at these suggestions:
Murphy’s River Lodge – This rustic lodge located close to the center of Estes Park is an excellent choice.. There are countless rooms available to suit all kinds of travelers, a heated indoor swimming pool and hot tub and a great continental breakfast is available each morning. Click here to see their availability
Streamside on Fall River – Another great hotel option in an incredibly scenic location, this lodge has a number of fantastic rooms available. All rooms are clean and comfortable and some are equipped with a kitchenette or a river-view patio. There are also barbecue facilities and a hot tub available for all guests to enjoy. Click here to see their availability
Private Rental – If you’d rather have your own than stay in a hotel, a private vacation rental is a great option for you. There are lots of great properties available in Estes Park, including this grand cabin with panoramic mountain views or this comfortable home in downtown Estes Park. Click here to browse more private rentals in Estes Park!
Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse other hotels in Estes!
With this itinerary, you’re sure to get a feel for both the eastern and western slopes of the Rockies and have a chance to explore two classic Colorado vacation towns in Estes Park and Grand Lake. Spending 2 to 3 days in Rocky Mountain National Park is ideal as a short getaway for anyone with a sense of adventure and a desire to see the wild, undeveloped lands of the American West.
Are you planning a 2 or 3 day itinerary in Rocky Mountain National Park? Have you visited before? Let us know in the comments!