How to Make the Most of One Day in Rocky Mountain National Park
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The Rocky Mountains have long captured the imagination and spirit of exploration. Early American explorers saw them as a fortress wall to overcome in search of better prospects out west; today they continue to divide the continent between the (still) wild and generally less developed west and the agricultural stretches of the Great Plains, Midwest, and Atlantic coast.
Despite their impressive presence, you might be surprised to learn that while the Rockies is a combination of private or public lands – but only a small amount is protected as a National Park. It takes about 90 minutes to reach Rocky Mountain National Park from Denver, making it highly accessible and perfect for those in Denver or those passing through who love the great outdoors.
I’ve visited Rocky Mountain National Park a few times – my family lived in Colorado for 10 years! It’s one of those great parks that give you a chance to get out and explore; that’s probably why it’s so popular during the summer months.
If you’re planning a trip to Rocky Mountain National Park, or want to learn more about the park after reading my Colorado National Parks road trip guide, you’ve come to the right place. If you only have one day in Rocky Mountain National Park, here’s how to spend it.
In this post, I promote travel to a national park that is the traditional lands of the Cheyenne and Núu-agha-tʉvʉ-pʉ̱ (Ute) peoples. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.
This post was originally published in April 2021, and updated in July 2021 to provide the most up-to-date information on visiting the national parks this year.
Planning Your Visit to Rocky Mountain National Park
Before jumping into my suggested itinerary for one day in Rocky Mountain National Park, I want to go over some of the basics and logistics. I find answering these questions in advance helps you have an awesome, hiccup-free trip to Rocky Mountain National Park.
Different Areas of Rocky Mountain National Park
The best place to start when planning a trip to Rocky Mountain National Park is to understand the park’s five separate regions:
- The North Region
- The Alpine Region
- The West Region
- The East Region
- The South Region
Since you only have one day at Rocky Mountain National Park, you won’t have time to visit all of the different regions. For this itinerary, you’ll spend most of your time in the East Region with short stops in the North, Alpine, and West Regions.
Rocky Mountain National Park Fees
As part of the National Park system, Zion operates under the same rules as other parks. You’ll either need to pay an entrance fee or use a National Parks Pass to enter.
Here are you options:
- The private vehicle entrance fee, good for 1 day, is $25. Note that this is different from other parks that offer a 7-day entry pass.
- An annual America the Beautiful Pass is $80. This gets you into every national park and all fee-collecting federal lands. I got my first one in 2019 and it’s such a money-saver that the America the Beautiful Pass is totally worth it! You can get the America the Beautiful Pass from REI.
You can read more about the fees – and check that the above is accurate – on the Rocky Mountain NPS website.
Driving & Parking in Rocky Mountain National Park
There is one main road that winds its way through Rocky Mountain National Park: the Trail Ridge Road. This winding road connects the two main entrances of the park (Estes Park and Grand Lake) and makes its way through four of the five regions in Rocky Mountain National Park.
It is important to note that sections of Trail Ridge Road are closed during the winter for safety reasons. During that time of year, you’ll need to make alterations to your one day at Rocky Mountain National Park itinerary.
As for the parking situation, you should be able to find parking spots at all of your stops, unless you visit on the busiest days, such as the weekends in the summer and fall. There is also a National Park shuttle available to help manage crowds and traffic.
New for 2021: This summer, you will need two timed entry reservations for Rocky Mountain National Park. You’ll need reservations both to enter the Bear Lake Road Corridor and for the rest of the park excluding the corridor. This is helping control park capacity and traffic. You can arrange both on Recreation.gov. Learn more on the RMNP NPS website.
Hotels & Camping in Rocky Mountain National Park
Since Rocky Mountain National Park has two entrances, Estes Park and Grand Lake, you have two options of where to stay. However, I highly recommend staying in Estes Park, as it is closer to the best Rocky Mountain National Park sites and it is a bit more visitor-friendly.
A few of the best accommodations in Estes Park include The Stanley Hotel, The Estes Park Resort, and The Maxwell Inn. But if you’d prefer to stay in Grand Lake, a few of the best accommodations there include The Historic Rapids Lodge and the Grand Lake Lodge.
There is also the option to camp in Rocky Mountain National Park. There are five campgrounds in this national park, although most are only open in the summer. These include the Aspen Glen, Glacier Basin, Longs Peak, and Timber Creek Campgrounds. But there is one campsite, the Moraine Park Campground in the East Region, that is accessible throughout the year.
In the summer, you will need to reserve these campsites in advance. But in the winter, the Moraine Park Campground functions on a first-come, first-serve basis.
What to Do in Rocky Mountain National Park (When You Only Have One Day!)
Now that we’ve gotten the logistics out of the way, let’s jump into how I suggest you spend one day at Rocky Mountain National Park.
Catch the Sunrise at Sprague Lake
If you only have one day at Rocky Mountain National Park, you’re going to want to wake up early to make the most of your day. And don’t worry, the early wake up call will be worth it, thanks to the stunning sunrise over Sprague Lake.
You have two options during your time at Sprague Lake. First, you can simply walk a short distance on the Sprague Lake Trail until you find the best view of the sunrise. As an alternative, you can hike the entire 0.9 miles around the perimeter of the lake to see this natural wonder from all angles. Personally, I’d go with the second option, because Sprague Lake is stunning and the hike is relatively easy.
Hike the Nymph, Dream, and Emerald Lakes Trail
If there’s one thing that you must do during your one day in Rocky Mountain National Park, it’s hike. There are over 300 miles of hiking trails within the park to choose from! I highly recommend hiking the Nymph, Dream, and Emerald Lakes Trail.
While on this 3.6-mile trail, there are so many things to see, making it one of the most popular hikes in the park. You can see a glacier, towering mountain peaks, and of course the three stunning lakes.
If you’d like to extend this hike, you can also visit Bear Lake and Lake Haiyaha. To loop around Bear Lake, you’ll need to hike an additional 0.6 miles. And if you add Lake Haiyaha to your route, you’ll end up hiking an additional two miles.
Lunch in Estes Park
Since Estes Park is just a ten-minute drive outside of Rocky Mountain National Park, you can wander into town for lunch. Estes Park is a popular outdoor destination, but it’s also well-known for the Stanley Hotel – which is supposedly haunted and inspired the Stanley Kubrick film The Shining.
A few of the best restaurants in town include Seasoned, Bird & Jim, Ed’s Cantina & Grill, and Mama Rose’s Restaurant. My favorite spot is Nepal’s Cafe, which is run by a local Nepalese family and makes incredible momos.
Drive on the Trail Ridge Road
This 48-mile scenic road connects Estes Park to Grand Lake – and you’ll be driving on it for the rest of your day in Rocky Mountain National Park. But don’t worry you’ll be making loads of worthwhile stops! And while you’re driving, you can still admire the views of the sparkling lakes, towering mountains, and thriving evergreens.
While on the Trail Ridge Road, you’ll climb an additional 4,000 feet in altitude! To help you acclimate, be sure to stay hydrated during the drive.
Stop at the Alpine Visitor Center
Your first stop on the Trail Ridge Road is the Alpine Visitor Center. At nearly 12,000 feet high, the Alpine Visitor Center holds the special title of being the highest visitor center in the U.S. While there, you can learn about the alpine tundra ecosystem, find out more about the Trail Ridge Road, and maybe even buy a souvenir.
Search for Wildlife in Kawuneeche Valley
So far, your one day at Rocky Mountain National Park has included lots of hiking and driving. Kawuneeche Valley offers a little something different. Located at the end of the Trail Ridge Road, Kawuneeche Valley is known for its abundant wildlife. While there, you can see moose, elk, bighorn sheep, mule deer, and more.
It is important to note that you won’t see all of the animals all-year round. Most of the animals like to pop into Kawuneeche Valley for just a few months out of the year.
Visit the Town of Grand Lake
Just ten minutes away from Kawuneeche Valley is the town of Grand Lake. While this isn’t technically part of Rocky Mountain National Park, it’s a great place to admire the lake views, take a stroll along the boardwalk, or grab an early dinner. A few of the best places to eat in Grand Lake include Grand Lake Lodge Restaurant, Sagebrush BBQ & Grill, and Grand Pizza.
Watch the Sunset at Forest Canyon Overlook
After spending time in Grand Lake, you’ll turn around and drive back on Trail Ridge Road towards Estes Park. Your first stop is Forest Canyon Overlook.
There are a few places to catch the sunset in Rocky Mountain National Park, but Forest Canyon Overlook is one of my favorites. From there, you can watch the fiery colors of the sunset paint the snow-capped Rocky Mountains.
I highly recommend staying 15 to 30 minutes after sunset, as that’s when the beautiful colors really start to come to life.
Forest Canyon Overlook is about halfway back to Estes Park on the Trail Ridge Road. While at first another hour of driving might seem like a lot, you won’t regret it once you look up at the night sky.
After the sun has set, Trail Ridge Road becomes the perfect place to go stargazing; thousands of stars dot the night sky! If you’d like to really take it in, you can stop at one of the pull-outs along the side of the road. If not, you can simply admire the magical sky as you head back to your home away from home in Estes Park.
And there you have it – the perfect way to make the most of your one day in Rocky Mountain National Park. Do you have questions about this one-day Rocky Mountain National Park itinerary? Let me know in the comments!
Thank you for such wonderful suggestions. We spent the day in RMNP yesterday after some shopping in Estes. While the Trail Ridge Rd was unfortunately closed still, we took the long way around to Sprague Lake and saw 2 moose! The Lake was absolutely fantastic!! We hiked around the whole thing and took so many pictures! Thanks again for such a great article. It really helped
Awesome, Debbie – I’m so glad to hear it! Thanks for sharing 🙂
A nice plan. My question is when you get to the town of Grand Lake ( which you said technically isn’t part of the park ) and turn around and come back are you allowed back ( in ) even though your Bear Lake corridor pass was from 7-9 back at beaver meadows?
Sounds like you’re asking a really specific question here, Scott. I don’t actually advise the Bear Lake Corridor Pass, but that pass *must* be used during your reservation window. In terms of access to the rest of the park, you’ll still be paying the park entry fee, so that won’t be an issue.
Do you have any advice on where to go with someone that needs a wheelchair at times.Thanks,Rod
Thanks for reaching out – I recommend heading over to the RMNP site to see what they advise for accessability.
Hi, a few corrections. Aspen Glen campground is closed until further notice, and visitors do not have to purchase two reservation permits. Only one. They have the option of buying a timed reservation permit for the Bear Lake corridor which includes the rest of the park, or a permit for only the rest of the park. Either/or depending on their destination.
Thanks so much for these corrections, Morgan! Things are changing so fast it’s hard to keep up!
Great information! We live in Colorado and spend a lot of time in Grand Lake, but are just beginning to explore RMNP. I would agree with your Grand Lake restaurant recommendations, and I can add a little more detail. Grand Lake lodge is very cool and you can explore the historic lobby whether you stay and/or eat there or not. It’s more of a fine dining location, but in Colorado, dressing up means wearing your “nice” jeans! One note- the East Troublesome wildfire of 2020 came almost to the door of the lodge, but fortunately the first responders saved the lodge and the town. Grand Lake pizza is awesome. They even have excellent gluten-free pizza. We were there in September of 2021 and they were still carry-out only due to COVID. Sagebrush is very casual and is a great place to grab a beer and BBQ or other pub-type food. Grand Lake also offers miniature golf, go-carts and lots of little shops on the Main Street.
Thanks so much for reading, Diane, and for all the extra info! It’s very helpful for my readers and I really appreciate it!
We are planning a quick stop in RM, with an overnight stay at Moraine Park Campground, and then leaving the next day for the airport. I love your post! This helps us out so much! We’re basically driving in the reverse direction of your itinerary, but it’s nice to have a mental idea of the route!
Would a sun rise trip to Sprague Lake and then the Nymph, Dream, and Emerald Lakes Trail (+/- Lake Haiyaha) be feasible for a leave time of 3:30-4pm? I’m not sure how strenuous the trail is for the average hiker
Thank you again for a very informative post!
Great question, Lisa. I’d say the Nymph, Dream, and Emerald Lakes Trail is a moderate hike for most people; you should plan on it taking 2.5-3.5 hours depending on your hiking speed. I hope that helps!
Great post. We have one day in the park. We are coming from Steamboat Springs, so the plan was to enter the Grand Lake Entrance and exit Estes Park. Would you have a different recommendations?
Sounds like a great plan!