Discover Rocky Mountain National Park: What to See and Do

Get a complete visitor guide with driving directions, best times to go, top rated hikes, and the best spots for camping overnight.

Straddling the Continental Divide, Rocky Mountain National Park is home to towering mountains, crystal-clear lakes, rolling tundras and an abundance of wildlife. For thousands of years, glaciers have shaped this northern Colorado park, creating the area’s spectacular scenery.

Pack hiking boots before loading up your car and beginning an unforgettable encounter with nature at Rocky Mountain, one of the most visited U.S. national parks.

Rocky Mountains Visitors can hike through Glacier Gorge and around Mills Lake at Rocky Mountain National Park.


Getting to Rocky Mountain National Park

There are a number of routes for driving from Denver to Estes Park. Take U.S. Highway 36 to pass through Boulder and Lyons, or drive the Peak to Peak Scenic Highway between Black Hawk and Estes Park for remarkable views of the Front Range mountains.

Getting Around the Park
If you’re looking to hike or sightsee on the east side of the park, avoid traffic by parking your car at the Fairgrounds Park & Ride in Estes Park or at the Park & Ride on Bear Lake Road inside Rocky Mountain. Free shuttle buses connect the Estes Park and Beaver Meadows visitor centers with Park & Ride lots, and popular destinations and trailheads in the park.

Best Times to Visit

Rocky Mountain is open 24 hours a day year-round but is affected seasonally by road closures and weather conditions. With hiking trails completely thawed by early July, mid-June to mid-August is the park’s busiest time of the year. During this period, you can beat the crowds by visiting earlier or later in the day.

Tundra flowers bloom in early July and turn crimson in early September, while subalpine wildflowers bloom in May, and aspens turn golden in late September. Birds and other animals abound in the summer, but for travelers who love wildlife watching, plan your vacation in fall, winter or spring, when animals like elk and bighorn sheep roam at lower elevations. In winter, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing begin Dec. 31 on the west side of the park and Jan. 7 on the east side.

What to See and Do

Go for a Drive

Trail Ridge Road reaches an elevation of 12,183 feet, making it the highest continuous paved road in the United States and the first scenic drive travelers should take in Rocky Mountain. Hop on this 48-mile-long road (typically open from late May to mid-October) from the Beaver Meadows, Fall River or Grand Lake entrances and drive through the heart of Rocky Mountain from Estes Park to Grand Lake, or vice versa.

For another scenic and adventurous drive, the narrow, one-way, gravel Old Fall River Road winds uphill from Horseshoe Park to Fall River Pass and is open in spring, summer and fall. Travelers should take this drive slowly and enjoy the view.

Trail Ridge Road From Trail Ridge Road, Rocky Mountain visitors can see wildlife like bull elk.


Take a Hike

More than 350 miles of hiking trails offer visitors a range of leisurely strolls, strenuous climbs and multiday backpacking adventures at Rocky Mountain.

The flat, half-mile Bear Lake Loop trail circles scenic Bear Lake and makes for an ideal hike with kids. Continue on to Emerald Lake for a longer, 3.6-mile round-trip hike. If you’re driving, turn off Trail Ridge Road onto Bear Lake Road and park in the Bear Lake parking lot. Visit early before the lot fills up around 8:30 a.m., or make use of the free Bear Lake Route shuttle from the Park & Ride lot inside Rocky Mountain.

On the west side of the park, drive 8 miles north of Grand Lake on Trail Ridge Road and leave your car in the small parking lot by the Coyote Valley Trailhead. This flat, 1-mile trail follows the banks of the upper Colorado River, where kids will love spotting moose during the morning and early evening hours.

Bear Lake On a clear day, look for Rocky Mountain reflections in Bear Lake.

If you’re seeking a more challenging excursion, hike to Baker Pass. Enter the 12.1-mile trail at the Bowen/Baker Trailhead, about 6 miles north of the Grand Lake entrance. Those who take on this hike will begin in Rocky Mountain National Park and travel through the Never Summer Wilderness of the Arapaho National Forest, cross the Continental Divide and enjoy incredible panoramic views of mountains and alpine meadows.

Other Activities

Experience the high country on horseback, or join a seasonal Colorado River rafting tour from an outfitter such as Rapid Transit Rafting, which departs from Estes Park. Kayaks and canoes are also permitted on all park lakes except Bear Lake. During winter, check Rocky Mountain National Park’s calendar for free skiing and snowshoeing ranger programs.

Where to Sleep and Eat

Though no lodging is available inside the park, visitors can camp inside the park at locations such as Moraine Park Campground. It’s located on the eastern side of Rocky Mountain and is the only campsite in the park open year round. On the western side of the park, visitors can camp along the Colorado River at Timber Creek Campground. Alternatively, drive 3 miles east from the Beaver Meadows entrance to Estes Park, an alpine town with accommodations, shopping and dining. Try StoneBrook Resort, a peaceful retreat, or Alpine Trail Ridge Inn, a clean and well-appointed motel. To stay close to nature, head to campgrounds Paradise on the River, Aspenglen or Jellystone Park.

Estes Park offers a wide variety of food. For a hearty breakfast and an early start, head to Notchtop Bakery & Café, or to get a taste of the area, order elk off the menu at Baba’s Burgers & Gyros. There is only one restaurant inside the park (at the Alpine Visitor Center), so travelers should stock up on food or pack a picnic before driving deep inside Rocky Mountain.

Estes Park entrance Driving into Rocky Mountain National Park’s Estes Park entrance at sunset is especially beautiful.

On the west side of the park, drive 2 miles south from the Kawuneeche Visitor Center to Grand Lake, a smaller and quieter town than Estes Park. Multiple hotels, inns and cabins can be found in and around Grand Lake, including Elk Creek Campground cabins, Colorado Cabin Adventures and Winding River Resort.

Planning on visiting the Rockies?

Rent a car at Denver International Airport

About the Author

Rebecca Gross is a writer and researcher who loves adventure and travel. She has a master’s in the history of design and specialized in the visual culture of postwar American travel, writing her thesis on the visual experience of America’s national parks. Rebecca hails from New Zealand, lives in Australia and regularly visits the States.