Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the most visited parks in the US, and it’s no wonder! From it’s valleys, to it’s alpine lakes, and highest tundra, it offers stunning scenery at every turn. I was already in love with Colorado when we visited RMNP, but it tipped me into fanaticism. Let me tell you about a sunrise over the peaks as we traversed a trail in twilight, about the chipmunks who likely inspired Alvin, and the absolute solitude of a mountaintop lake at dusk. This is the ideal guide to Rocky Mountain National Park in a week!
First Stop- Estes Park
The three eastern park entrances are in or around Estes Park, making it the central hub. It’s as touristy as it gets, but offers plenty of accommodation and dining choices. Even in town, nature is never far away. During our first trip in, we encountered a family of elk! They ate the library’s flowers and led the babies through the Dairy Queen parking lot.
Where to Stay
With so many options, it can hard to choose a place to stay, but I can’t recommend Taharaa Mountain Lodge highly enough! A bed and breakfast of the untraditional sort, the lodge is about 5 minutes outside of town, making it a perfect retreat from the crowds. Each room has a private balcony, and there’s a hot tub with mountain views.
So, it is a bed and breakfast, in that you receive breakfast every morning, but it’s unique from other B&Bs I’ve encountered. Taharaa has about 20 rooms, a spa and sauna, and a wonderful steakhouse, Twin Owls. Since so many hotels and B&Bs have gone to bagged breakfasts during COVID, I assumed the worst, but was pleasantly surprised. Each night, guests receive a menu for their breakfast selections the following morning. Breakfast options change daily, and everything was absolutely delicious! It’s all made to order and served in the dining room or on the deck. If it’s warm enough, don’t miss a breakfast on the deck. The views are great, and the hummingbirds zip about singing!
Dining in Estes Park
The town has plenty of restaurants, but read reviews before you go. I hate to say it, but quite of them are tourist traps- high prices and mediocre food. Here are just a few options we genuinely enjoyed.
Twin Owls Steakhouse
A must for a special occasion or just a nice dinner! Twin Owls has been in Estes Park for over 20 years, but recently moved to the Taharaa Mountain Lodge. Be sure to make a reservation, as this restaurant fills up practically every night. We ate here twice and loved it both times. From appetizer to dessert, everything was excellent. Request a seat on the patio for beautiful mountain views!
I’m always craving pasta, and Mama Rose’s has just the thing- the whole menu is Italian pastas. They also have a decent wine menu, and lovely porch seating with views of the river. After a day hiking, filling up on carbs is just the thing!
Coffee on the Rocks
This café is on the road to the Beaver Meadows Park Entrance, making it a great stop for breakfast in the morning, or to pickup a picnic lunch. They have freshly made sandwiches, soup, breakfast and bakery items, coffee, beer and wine. It’s a cute little café with lots of outdoor seating around the duck pond. Grab some dried corn in the café and you’ll be the ducks’ new best friend.
Things to Do in Town
No one comes to Estes Park for the town, but there’s plenty to do if you’ve had enough hiking or can’t get into RMNP because of timed entry.
Estes Park Welcome Sign
Driving from Denver, you’ll pass the Estes Park welcome sign on Highway 36. There’s room for several cars to pull off, and you should, but not just for the sign and views beyond it. The Estes Park Welcoming Committee, i.e. the local chipmunks that live around the sign, are priceless! They will run right up to you, and might even climb up your leg. It’s illegal to feed wildlife in the national park, but these little guys don’t even want food, they’re just friendly! Is it silly to admit they made my day?
I’m not a shopper, but there are some unique and interesting local stores. The town has several outdoor outfitters, should you need camping supplies or, in my case, a new pair of boots. Two shop worth calling out- The Ark and Craftsmen in Leather.
The Ark is a literal ark with gem sluicing outside, and antiques and novelties inside. Driving by, we had to stop and see what it was, being so random!
Craftsmen in Leather got my vote for it’s taxidermied rattlesnake in the window! They have unique leather, including rattlesnake, and my favorite- rattler keychains.
Estes Lake is a great, and easily accessible, spot for fishing, boating and walking. Kayaks and canoes are available for rent during the summer. It’s also a great place to spot elk in town. In August and September, the park is plastered with warning signs- elk in rut!
We honestly saw more wildlife around Estes Park than we did in RMNP! Elk are frequent, especially in the neighborhoods surrounding downtown, and herds of deer are everywhere.
Snowy Peaks Winery
Estes Park’s only winery, Snowy Peaks makes their own wine, and also sells other Colorado wineries’ products. They have an extensive cheese and meat selection. While we don’t travel with kids, it was fun to note they have a non-alcoholic cider tasting for children. It kept those sitting behind us entertained and included.
Relax by the River
Both Big Thompson River and Fall River run through Estes Park. There’s a nice walk along the river, behind the shops and restaurants on Elkhorn Avenue. The Riverside Plaza has a playground and musical art. It’s a peaceful area, hidden from the hustle and bustle street side.
The reason everyone came in the first place- Rocky Mountain National Park! Before we get to the trails and awesome stuff, let’s talk about park entry. RMNP will be instituting timed entry again May through October 2022. When I first begin planning our trip to the park, the timed entry threw me off, but don’t let it deter you.
During the off season, enter the park like you would anywhere else. During the summer months, however, book your entry time online. You have two options: 1) Full park access (including the Bear Lake Corridor), or, 2) Park access without the Bear Lake Corridor. The 2022 timed entries can be booked beginning May 2.
However, there are some exceptions worth noting. You can enter the Bear Lake Corridor before 5am or after 6pm without a reservation, and rest of the park before 9am or after 3pm. The park service also releases entries every day at 5pm for the following day. We decided to visit spur of the moment, so I hadn’t booked in advance, but was able to snag any time I wanted at the 5pm release. Ok, that meant searching for cell signal in the park some days, which is only available around the entrance (for T-Mobile anyway), but we managed!
The Bear Lake Corridor is the most popular area of the park, but don’t be discouraged if you can’t access it. There are plenty of other trails in the park! My park highlights are broken up by Bear Lake Corridor and everything else.
In addition to the timed entry permit, you still need to pay the entrance fee. I highly recommend an America the Beautiful Pass, if you plan to visit 3+ National Parks in a year. If you are a veteran or a 4th grader, you can qualify for a free annual pass.
Bear Lake Corridor Trails
There is a small parking lot at the Glacier Gorge Trailhead, which you’ll come to before the Bear Lake Lot. It’s worth checking for a parking spot here to access many of the Bear Lake trails. Otherwise, try the Bear Lake Lot, it’s much larger. The ranger station will often say the lot is full, but you might get lucky. Before 6am or after 3pm we had no problem.
Nymph Lake to Dream Lake to Emerald Lake- 4.1 roundtrip
This is one of the most photographed and trafficked trails in the park, and it’s for a reason. Plan to do the entire trail, don’t turn around at Nymph or Dream Lakes, keep going! At just 4.1 miles roundtrip, it’s not a hard hike. The elevation gain is mild and the hardest part are the short set of high stone stairs right before Dream Lake.
Go early or late, or you’ll fight for parking and be overrun by crowds of less than serious hikers on the trail. We rolled into the Bear Lake parking lot before 6am and it was already half full. Plenty of hikers set out by 4am, we met quiet a few returning as we were just starting out.
We got to watch the sunrise over the mountain tops as we began the trail, and saw a mink (or maybe it was a weasel) scurry by at Dream Lake. The lakes become more awe inspiring as you progress. Nymph is small, and studded with lily pads, Dream Lake is gorgeous with it’s mountainous backdrop and long shoreline for exploring, but Emerald is the most dramatic! The sharp peaks seem to rise from out of it, and upon our arrival, the wind starting howling across the water, as if we had some to some otherworldly lake from a fantasy story.
Lake Haiyaha- 7 miles roundtrip
Lake Haiyaha is easily a destination unto itself, but can be tacked on to other hikes. From the Bear Lake parking lot, it about 1.1 miles to the junction for Dream Lake or Lake Haiyaha. We decided to attempt it on the return from Emerald Lake. The first half of the trail, after diverging from the junction, is a series of steep switch backs. When you’re ready to give up, you’ll come to sharp corner with amazing views and a scary drop off. Enjoy the view in the video below, and yep, that’s me crouched against the mountain with a momentary panic attack over the heights…*embarrassed*. From there, it’s not bad. Going back down is always easier too!
Alberta Falls 1.6 miles roundtrip
Albert Falls is also heavily trafficked, simply because it’s so easy to reach. Just 1.6 miles from the parking lot, it’s pretty busy. We did an evening hike to Mills Lake and passed it en route. At around 4pm, it wasn’t crowded.
Mills Lake- 5.8 miles roundtrip
If you only have time for one Bear Lake Corridor trail, this is it! 5 miles from the Glacier Gorge lot or 5.8 from Bear Lake, it’s a moderate trail to a stunning lake! We arrived at the lot around 3:30pm on a 4-6pm timed entry. The crowds were heading back by then, and once we passed Alberta Falls, we only saw a handful of hikers.
The trail has some wonderful views, and a pretty creek crossing. Near the end, the trail disappears and turns to large, flat rocks. We saw bighorn sheep tracks in the mud between the rocks, but didn’t see any actual sheep, sadly. When you start to wonder if you’ve gone off trail, you’ll come to Mills Lake.
It was surreal, we were the only people there. The mountains peaks reflecting sundown, a calm lake, an osprey overhead. So quiet we felt compelled to whisper, I imagined we had entered nature’s cathedral, a place heaven touched earth. I wish I could fully impart the beauty and awe, but my words and even photos don’t do it justice. We’re planning a backcountry camping trip this summer so we can see this place at both dawn and dusk.
The lake is named for Enos Mills, often called the Father of Rocky Mountain National Park. He was a chief advocate for the creation of this national park, spending his life here as a guide and naturalist. His statue stands in Estes Park today, and I felt compelled to pay it a visit after seeing Mills Lake. Thank you Mr. Mills!
The Rest of the Park
North Deer Mountain Trail- 5.2 miles out and back
This is a quiet and easy hike, located at the Deer Mountain Trailhead. It’s easily overlooked with limited off road parking right before the junction at Falls River and Trail Ridge Roads. Honestly, we found it killing time until our Bear Lake Corridor entry, but were pleasantly surprised. The main trail heads straight, while North Deer Mountain branches off to the left. In late August, the trail was lined with wild flowers, and offered sweeping views of Horseshoe Park and the mountains beyond. We only encountered one other couple, having the rest of the trail to ourselves. I hoped to see some wildlife, but no such luck around lunchtime.
Most famous for the bighorn sheep that visit in late spring and early summer, it’s a wonderful spot for wildlife viewing. We didn’t see a single sheep in late summer, but we did see a coyote close up, and a herd of elk under a full moon.
Rangers are here during opening hours and can provide wildlife sighting updates and other interesting details. There are no trails through the meadow, reserved for wildlife only. We visited during various times of day and kept hearing about a moose at the lake. He never did turn up, but we did see a huge herd of elk right at dusk. Head back into the park after dinner and spend some time at Sheep Lakes, no telling what you might see!
Endo Valley Picnic Area
Endo Valley Picnic Area is located at the base of Old Falls River Road, the dirt road up the mountain. It’s tucked away behind huge pines, and is easily missed. I could have easily spent all afternoon lounging about here, but hiking called. We had a lovely picnic by the creek. All the picnic sites are fairly private, no close neighbors, and many feel more like campsites than a picnic area.
Alluvial Fan East Trail- 0.5 mile out and back
A short, paved path to the Alluvial Fan, this is a trail for anyone. It leads to a bridge across the river, amazing views of the boulder field and above it, a waterfall. The waterfall and boulders were all the result of a 1982 flood, caused by a burst dam upriver. The flood waters wreaked havoc in the park, all the way into downtown Estes Park. Today, it’s a peaceful sight.
Trail Ridge Road & Alpine Visitor Center
The highest continuously paved road leads to the highest visitor center in the United States. Trail Ridge Road is easily an adventure unto itself, with multiple pulls offs along the way. Beginning in the valley, the road climbs through three zones in a matter of minutes, from the aspens, to the firs, and finally the stark alpine tundra. At its highest point, the road reaches 12,183 feet in elevation.
It’s 48 mile long, connecting the eastern and western halves of the park, but we only drove it to the Alpine Visitor Center, sitting at about half way to Grand Lake. Along the route, you can pull off at Rainbow Curve for sweeping views, the Lava Cliffs, or a handful of other beautiful stops.
Be forewarned- it’s a two lane road with no shoulder, few rail guards, and plenty of twists and turns. There’s a point where both sides completely fall away, leaving just that tiny strip of blacktop across what feels like the top of the world. You gain elevation quickly, so if you’re not used to it, don’t try this drive on your first day in the Rockies.
The Alpine Visitor Center has a medical post and first aid signs all over the parking lot, so I’m guessing quite a few people experience altitude sickness. Its the nicest center is the nicest in the park, with a unique giftshop offering local goods, Native American crafts, and even some locally crafted obsidian knives. The Café at Trail Ridge offers surprisingly good food, including chili, pierogies, burgers, salad and more.
The views from the center are amazing, and wildlife is common. Elk in the valleys, pikas and marmots on the tundra. There are multiple trails departing from around or near the center, including Alpine Ridge Trail, Tundra Communities Trail and others.
Wild Basin feels like a park unto itself, and with its own entrance at the Wild Basin Ranger Station located in Allenspark, about 20 minutes south of Estes Park. It has three trailheads, the most popular being the Wild Basin Trailhead. Past the ranger station, follow the dirt road until it ends in the parking lot. There is overflow parking along the road, before you reach the trailhead, and if you see an opening, you might want to grab it. We arrived at 9am, and parked in the closest overflow. By 9:15, everything was full and cars were turning around. Despite that, the trail was not crowded. There isn’t enough parking for it to get that busy!
Ouzel Falls- 5.4 out and back
Beginning at the Wild Basin Trailhead, you will pass numerous falls on this route. Once you each Ouzel, you can turn back, or continue to Ouzel Lake, or continue even further to Bluebird Lake.
While this route lacks some of the stunning views of other trails, it also lacks the crowds. What it might be missing in Rocky Mountain views, it makes up for in the number of falls. You’ll come to Lower and Upper Copeland Falls, and Calypso Cascades before reaching Ouzel Falls. With a 40 foot drop, it’s the most impressive of the falls on this trail. Before the bridge at Ouzel, follow the rough path to the left. It’s easy to miss, but will lead to a beautiful vantage point beside the waterfall.
So how long should you stay? This itinerary takes at least 5 days, but would be best in a week. For a short visit, it’s accessible enough that you could see a few highlights, but they’ll leave you thirsting for more! Keep in mind the altitude, if you’re not accustomed to it. With most of the park at 8,500 + feet, you need a day or two to acclimate. We hit the trails full speed the first day, and it left us completely winded. By day three, a 7 mile hike uphill felt easier than a level 2 miler on day one.
Looking for more? Check out these other adventures in Colorado too!