If you only have one day in Rocky Mountain National Park, what should you do?
The answer to this question depends on several factors…the time of year you plan to visit Rocky Mountain National Park, if you are traveling with children, how much you like to hike, and if you are acclimated to the higher elevation.
With one day in Rocky Mountain National Park during the summer and early fall, you have enough time to hike one of the trails, drive the legendary Trail Ridge Road, and visit the top sights in the park. For a big chunk of the year Trail Ridge Road is closed (from mid-autumn through late spring), making part of the park inaccessible, at least by car. You can still get around, but it might be on skis or snowshoes, rather than by vehicle.
In this post, learn how to spend one day in Rocky Mountain National Park, with several different suggestions based on travel style and the timing of your visit.
Important Things to Know Before You Visit RMNP
Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the highest national parks in the USA. There are sixty mountain peaks over 12,000 feet and many of these top out over 13,000 feet. Longs Peak, at 14,259 feet, is the only fourteener in the park.
The elevation of the lowest sections of the park range from 5,600 to 9,500 feet. If you are coming from sea level, you will feel the effects of the altitude as soon as you do anything strenuous. At this elevation, it’s not enough to cause altitude sickness, but you will tire and get out of breath easily.
Many hikes top out over 9,000 feet, with some reaching up to 13,000 and 14,000 feet. If you are coming from a lower elevation, I recommend skipping the hikes to the taller peaks and staying low. There are plenty of great hikes you can choose from that don’t climb high into the mountains.
Snow can linger on the trails as late as July, especially for the trails at higher elevations. Also, it can snow every month of the year in Rocky Mountain National Park. In July, we hiked through a snowstorm on the way back from Sky Pond. In early autumn, the snow really returns, covering the roads and trails, turning the park into a wintery wonderland.
If you plan to visit Rocky Mountain National Park in the summer, afternoon thunderstorms occur quite frequently. It’s best to hike in the morning and to be below the tree line by 1 pm.
If you plan to visit Rocky Mountain National Park from late spring through early fall, you will need a Timed Entry Permit to visit some areas of the park. Learn more here.
Finally, Trail Ridge Road, the main road the cuts across the park, is open from Memorial Day to mid-October. During the remainder of the year it is closed due to snow.
Elk on Trail Ridge Road
One Day in Rocky Mountain National Park: Best Things to Do
With one day in Rocky Mountain National Park, here are the best things to see and do:
- Drive Trail Ridge Road (late spring through early fall)
- Bear Lake
- Emerald Lake
- Dream Lake
- Alberta Falls
- Alpine Visitor Center
- Alpine Ridge Trail
- Go Hiking
Rocky Mountain National Park is best seen from a hiking trail. There is something here for everyone, ranging from easy, lakeside strolls to short hikes to waterfalls to challenging hikes up the tallest peaks. I will discuss these hikes in more detail below, or you can click over to our Best Hikes in RMNP post now to learn more (it will open in a new browser tab so you won’t lose your spot here).
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One Day Itinerary: Summer
This summer itinerary works best from Memorial Day through mid-October, when Trail Ridge Road is open. The weather is warm, the days are long, and this is the best time to visit Rocky Mountain National Park if you plan to go hiking.
In the summer months, it is best to hike in the morning, in order to avoid the afternoon thunderstorms.
Morning: Bear Lake
Bear Lake is a beautiful lake that is tucked away in the Rocky Mountains. Numerous trails start right from this spot, so if you only have one day in Rocky Mountain National Park, this is a great place to visit.
Parking at Bear Lake
The parking lot at Bear Lake is large but it fills up fast! Plan on getting here no later than 7:30 am to make sure you get a spot. If you are coming from Estes Park, this drive takes 30 minutes.
If you get here late and there are no more parking spaces, you will have to drive back down Bear Lake Road to the Park and Ride and then ride the free park shuttle back to Bear Lake. It’s not a big deal but doing this will eat up some of your precious time. Learn more about the shuttle here.
Hikes that Start at Bear Lake
Several great hikes start at the Bear Lake Trailhead. Here is the list and our recommendations.
Bear Lake. This is the most popular hike in Rocky Mountain National Park. The entire hike is less than a mile in length, making it great for all ages and ability levels. A well-graded trail circles around the lake. This hike takes about 30 minutes of your time.
Alberta Falls. Alberta Falls is one of the most popular waterfalls to visit in Rocky Mountain National Park. From the Bear Lake Trailhead, the hike is just over 2 miles round-trip and will take about an hour and a half.
Nymph, Dream, & Emerald Lakes. On this hike, you get to see four very pretty alpine lakes (Bear Lake, Nymph Lake, Dream Lake, and Emerald Lake) over a relatively short distance. This is a great hike for almost all ages and ability levels. It is 4.2 miles round trip. You can add on Lake Haiyaha for a total distance of 6.2 miles.
Odessa Lake & Fern Lake. This is a much longer hike, coming in at 10.7 miles. But this trail gets much less foot traffic than Emerald and Dream Lakes so if you want a quieter hike, this is one to consider.
Sky Pond. This is our favorite hike in RMNP, but due to its long distance and high elevation, it might not be a good idea if you are coming directly from a lower elevation. This hike is just under 10 miles and tops out at 10,880 feet. Note: if you plan to hike Sky Pond, it is better to park at the Glacier Gorge parking lot, which is also on Bear Lake Road.
Note: Several more hikes start at Bear Lake, but due to their long distance, massive elevation gains, and the amount of time it takes to do these hikes, I do not think that these are good options if you only have one day in Rocky Mountain National Park.
For families with young kids and for those who don’t like to do a lot of hiking, I recommend the easy stroll around Bear Lake plus the hike to Alberta Falls.
For families with older kids or for those who like the idea of hiking to several beautiful, iconic lakes, hike to Emerald and Dream Lakes and either do the easy stroll around Bear Lake or hike to Alberta Falls.
For hikers, I recommend Dream and Emerald Lakes if you are not acclimated to the higher elevation. Tim and Tyler hiked Odessa and Fern Lakes on our first day in the park and we came right from sea level (we live on the east coast of the USA). Meanwhile, Kara and I hiked Bear, Nymph, Dream, Emerald and Haiyaha Lakes. If you are acclimated to the elevation, Sky Pond is an awesome hike.
One More Recommendation for Hikers
If you are acclimated to the elevation, the hike to Chasm Lake is another one of our favorites in Rocky Mountain National Park. This hike does not start at Bear Lake. It starts on the east side of the park, on Highway 7 south of Estes Park.
For the first part of the hike, you will share the trail with hikers on their way to Longs Peak. Once the trail splits, the hike gets a little easier and you are treated to breathtaking views of Longs Peak, Columbine Falls, and Peacock Pond. After one final short and strenuous climb you will be standing at Chasm Lake. This hike is 8.2 miles long and tops out at 11,800 feet.
If you choose to hike Chasm Lake, you will be skipping Bear Lake. I think it is better to drive Trail Ridge Road in the afternoon than visit Bear Lake.
Afternoon: Trail Ridge Road
Once you are finished at Bear Lake, hop back into your car. It’s time for the best scenic drive in Rocky Mountain National Park. From Bear Lake Road, turn left onto Highway 36 and continue on to Trail Ridge Road.
Trail Ridge Road is the highest paved through road, not only in Colorado, but also in the entire US national park system.
For 48 miles, this road runs from Estes Park in the east to Grand Lake in the west. 11 miles of this road is located in the alpine tundra, which is above the tree line. It reaches its highest point at 12,183 feet and crosses the Continental Divide at Milner Pass.
This is a gorgeous drive. Along the way, there is a good chance that you will spot bighorn sheep and elk. The views from the overlooks are stunning. A few great hikes start and end along this road. And you can also visit the Alpine Visitor Center, the highest visitor center in the USA.
PRO TRAVEL TIP: It can be 20 to 30 degrees cooler on the alpine tundra than in Estes Park or Grand Lake. Make sure you bring extra layers, even during the summer months. On an early morning in July, it was only 34 degrees at the Alpine Visitor Center during our visit.
As you drive west on Trail Ridge Road, there are numerous overlooks. Our favorites are Rainbow Curve Overlook, Forest Canyon Overlook, and Gore Range Overlook.
Forest Canyon Overlook. Trail Ridge Road runs along the top of the ridge in the distance.
Another view from Forest Canyon Overlook.
You will also pass the trailhead for the Ute Trail to Tombstone Ridge. This is our favorite short, easy hike in RMNP. For the entire hike, you are walking along the alpine tundra, with unobstructed views of Longs Peak, Forest Canyon, and the Continental Divide. It is 4 miles round-trip and great for kids.
As you get closer to the visitor center, keep an eye out for bighorn sheep. We frequently see them near the Tundra Communities trailhead.
Stop at the Alpine Visitor Center, the highest visitor center in the USA. From here, you can walk up the Alpine Ridge Trail. It’s a very short hike (just over a half-mile round trip), but it will literally take your breath away. This hike starts just under 12,000 feet of elevation and it is a stair climb to the top. But the views are spectacular and there is a good chance that you will see elk from the trail.
The view from Alpine Ridge Trail. In this photo you can see the Alpine Visitor Center and Trail Ridge Road.
The view from the Alpine Ridge Trail.
If you continue beyond the Alpine Visitor Center on Trail Ridge Road, you can go all of the way to Grand Lake, if you like. For those with an interest in historical sites, make sure you visit the Holzwarth Historical Site and learn more about the life of Colorado homesteaders.
Return to Estes Park for dinner.
What About Lunch?
The only place that you can get food inside the park is at the Trail Ridge Store, a café and coffee house that sits next to the Alpine Visitor Center. You can have lunch here, depending on your timing. We have not been inside of this café so I do not know what kind of food is served.
Your best bet is to pack a picnic lunch. This saves you time from driving into Estes Park to get lunch.
However, if you are doing well on time or only plan to do a very short hike in the morning, going into Estes Park for lunch is not a bad idea. There are lots of great restaurants to choose from. Just note that when you re-enter the park, you may have to wait in line to pass through the entrance booth.
For restaurant recommendations, check out our guide to Estes Park.
One Day Itinerary: Winter
Visiting Rocky Mountain National Park is a much different experience in the winter than the summer months.
Trail Ridge Road will be closed, limiting your visit to Bear Lake and the eastern side of the park. Grand Lake and the western side of the park will also be accessible but with more to do on the east side, and its easy access from Boulder and Denver, I think this is the better place to put your time if you only have one day in Rocky Mountain National Park.
The hiking trails will still be open, but you will need to wear snowshoes or traction devices. Snowshoeing to Dream Lake is a popular winter time activity, as is cross-country skiing.
With lower crowds this time of year, there is no need to get to the Bear Lake Trailhead super early in the morning. You can arrive mid-morning, hike one of the trails that start at Bear Lake, and then spend the afternoon and evening at Estes Park.
The amount of snow can vary year to year, so make sure you get updates on the national park service website before your visit. I have been to RMNP in March when there was very little snow on the ground and I was able to go hiking without any special gear.
How to Get Here
Denver International Airport is the closest major airport. From here it takes an hour and a half to drive to Estes Park, the gateway into Rocky Mountain National Park.
Driving distances and times to nearby destinations:
- Denver: 64 miles, 1.5 hours
- Boulder: 37 miles, 50 minutes
- Colorado Springs: 135 miles, 2.5 hours
- Aspen: 200 miles, 5 hours
- Grand Junction: 260 to 290 miles, 5 to 6 hours
- Cheyenne, Wyoming: 87 miles, 1.5 hours
- Rapid City, South Dakota: 375 miles, 6 hours
If you are on a road trip through Colorado, I recommend driving the Peak to Peak Scenic By-way, either before or after your visit to Rocky Mountain National Park. This road connects Central City with Estes Park, running alongside the eastern edge of Rocky Mountain National Park.
Sunrise from the top of Alberta Falls.
Where to Stay
In Rocky Mountain National Park
If you want to stay in the park, you will be limited to campgrounds. There is no lodging inside Rocky Mountain National Park. Aspenglen, Moraine Park, and Glacier Basin are the most popular campgrounds and these get reserved well in advance. Longs Peak and Timber Creek Campgrounds are easier to get reservations.
In Estes Park
With numerous hotels and restaurants, and a great location near the heart of Rocky Mountain National Park, Estes Park is a great place to stay.
The Stanley Hotel. This historic hotel is one of the top places to stay in Estes Park. This is the hotel that inspired Stephen King to write The Shining.
The Stanley Hotel offers a wide range of rooms. The rooms within the main hotel building get mixed reviews. Some visitors complain of noise and hot temperatures in the summer (there is no air conditioning). The Aspire rooms are higher-end, modernly decorated rooms but many people state that they are overpriced for what you get. The Residences are one, two, three, and four bedroom houses that come equipped with a full kitchen. On our most recent visit we stayed in The Residences at #402 and it was wonderful.
WorldMark Estes Park. This very highly rated property offers two-bedroom apartments that can accommodate up to six people. It is located just outside of Estes Park, on the south side, an excellent location for driving into the park.
The Inn on Fall River & Fall River Cabins. This property is located west of Estes Park on Fall River Road, so you will have a longer drive to get into the heart of the park. However, this property gets rave reviews. You can stay in a cozy cabin with a river view or a well-decorated suite. There is even a three-bedroom house that can accommodate up to nine people.
For more information about where to stay and where to eat, read our Guide to Estes Park.
Park Hours: Park entrances are open 24 hours a day, 365 days per year.
Park Fee: $25 per vehicle, valid for 1 day. If you plan to visit for multiple days, consider purchasing the Rocky Mountain National Park Annual Pass ($70) or the America the Beautiful Pass ($80 and valid for all of the national parks for one year).
Get updates on trail closures and park conditions on the national park service website. And don’t forget to reserve your Timed Entry Permit in advance if you plan to do this itinerary between May 28 and October 11, 2021.
Where Are You Going Next?
If your visit to Rocky Mountain National Park is part of a bigger road trip through Colorado, here is more information for your trip.
- COLORADO NATIONAL PARKS: The Colorado National Parks: Travel Guide & Itinerary
- COLORADO ROAD TRIP: The Perfect Colorado Itinerary: National Parks & Scenic Drives
- ROCKY MOUNTAIN: Top 10 Things to Do in Rocky Mountain National Park
- ROCKY MOUNTAIN: 15 Great Hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park
- ROCKY MOUNTAIN: How to Plan the Perfect Rocky Mountain National Park Itinerary
- ROCKY MOUNTAIN: How to Hike Nymph, Dream & Emerald Lake
- ESTES PARK: Best of Estes Park: Things to Do, Where to Eat & Where to Stay
- GREAT SAND DUNES: 8 Amazing Things to do in Great Sand Dunes National Park
- MESA VERDE: Top 10 Things to Do in Mesa Verde National Park
- BLACK CANYON OF THE GUNNISON: Best Things to Do on the South Rim
- SCENIC DRIVES: 9 Spectacular Scenic Drives in Colorado
If you have any questions about how to spend one day in Rocky Mountain National Park, let us know in the comment section below.
If this is part of a bigger road trip through the USA, visit our United States Travel Guide for more inspiration and travel planning tips.
You Might Also Like:
- NATIONAL PARKS: The Complete Guide to the US National Parks
- UTAH: Arches, Canyonlands, and Capitol Reef National Parks: 10 Day Road Trip Itinerary
- SOUTH DAKOTA: One Week in South Dakota: Black Hills & the Badlands
- WYOMING: One Perfect Day in Grand Teton National Park
- TEXAS: The Best of Big Bend: 10 Best Things to Do in Big Bend National Park
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