When you think about the most iconic USA national parks, it’s fair to say that Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado will likely be near the top of most peoples lists…and for very good reason. After visiting all 50 states and a number of other iconic national parks, we finally had the opportunity to visit the heart of Colorado and explore this majestic and historic location. Whether you are visiting for a long weekend or a longer trip, there is plenty to experience. Of course, we prefer to make things a little more challenging and so during our day trip from Estes Park to Rocky Mountain National Park, we intended on experiencing as much as possible.
Given the location of this national park in Colorado, this is one of the most challenging parks to visit, due to potential hazardous road conditions and inclement weather that can cause many of the roads and iconic trails to close down.
Estes Park to Rocky Mountain National Park Routes
Unfortunately, our visit to Rocky Mountain National Park was impacted by the late season snow that caused the iconic scenic drive across the Trail Ridge Road to be closed. Each year, this spectacular road opens around Memorial Day, sometimes earlier and sometimes later. For us, we visited just a couple of weeks too soon but we weren’t going to let that stop us from experiencing the very best of the Rocky Mountains.
Dependent on which direction you are visiting the Rocky Mountains will likely determine which part of the park you can see but undoubtedly, the most iconic route is from Estes Park. Not only can you explore the inherent beauty of the Rocky Mountains, you can also enjoy a town known as “base camp” for this national park. You have a couple of options available to you if none of the roads are closed as follows:
- Beaver Meadows – Most popular entrance located just a couple of miles from Estes Park on highway 36.
- Fall River Entrance – Located 4 miles west of Estes Park on highway 34.
- Wild Basin – Located 19 miles south of Estes Park on highway 7.
Unsurprisingly, we opted for the Beaver Meadows option, not only because it was the most convenient to access but also because it gave us an opportunity to explore two different areas of the Rocky Mountains. As mentioned, we only had one day exploring the Rocky Mountains, so let’s take a look at exactly what you can experience in less than 24 hours. We are also going to include a few additional experiences that you can enjoy dependent on how much time you have in and around the national park.
Estes Park – Base Camp for the Rocky Mountains
Let’s start in the idyllic town of Estes Park. Surrounded by the incredible, awe-inspiring panoramic views of the Rocky Mountains, Estes Park is undoubtedly the perfect place to start your adventure exploring the true heart and soul of Colorado. Before venturing deep into the Rocky Mountains, why not spend a couple of hours exploring Estes Park.
We couldn’t resist taking a stroll around Lake Estes before relaxing along the shoreline and admiring the reflections of the Rocky Mountains in the background on the lake surface. This is the perfect place to enjoy an early morning breakfast or for the more adventurous, perhaps hop on a kayak and cruise around the lake before heading into Estes Park.
Take a quick trip inside the Visitor Center to prepare yourself for the trip deep into the Rocky Mountains but you may be first swayed to head up Prospect Mountain on the Aerial Tramway that will leave you breathless courtesy of the incredible views from the summit.
Paying a visit to the local Safeway supermarket is a smart idea to stock up on food/water supplies before heading through the historic town, perhaps grabbing a latte at Kind Coffee (or Starbucks if you prefer!) and towards the national park entrance.
Welcome to Rocky Mountain National Park
Arriving at the entrance of any national park is pretty exhilarating but I have to admit, when we drove into Rocky Mountain National Park, there was a little something extra, perhaps because of the beauty you could immediately see surrounding the landscape. After the traditional “selfie” at the park sign, we crawled to the gate entrance (visiting over any holiday weekend is going to mean a lot more folks are out exploring) and then quickly passed through given that we have the annual National Park pass.
Our first decision was whether we wanted to head directly to Bear Lake or venture along the Trail Ridge Road, with the knowledge that we could only go so far and would then have to turn around. We decided to opt for the latter and climb high into the Rocky Mountains.
If you follow our recommended itinerary and enter the national park from Estes Park via Beaver Meadows, you will then have a choice to make if the Trail Ridge Road is open all the way…do you want to drive the highest paved road in the US or do you want to venture to Bear Lake and hike some of the most spectacular trails to waterfalls, gorges etc.? Our decision was made a little easier given that we could only drive a short distance along the Trail Ridge Road.
At Estes Park Visitor Center, we read that the Trail Ridge Road was open up to Rainbow Curve, so this was at least going to give us a glimpse of this incredibly scenic road trip. I think it’s fair to say, the part we did see was a mouthwatering experience that just inspires us to return when the full drive is open.
Trail Ridge Road – Highest Paved Road in USA
If you love epic scenery, there are not many roads in the United States more spectacular than the Trail Ridge Road that passes through Rocky Mountain National Park. Rising to an elevation of 12,183 feet, this is the highest, continuous paved road in the US. But because of this, there is only a relatively short window each year where this road is open. We visited during the Memorial Day weekend which is notorious for being the time of year where the road completely opens – unfortunately, late season snow prevented that during our visit.
The beauty of this road is that there is a gradual climb to the summit and even when the majority of the 48 mile road is closed, there are still segments that remain open. We were able to drive as far as Rainbow Curve which is 12.8 miles into the drive from Beaver Meadows Visitor Center. Don’t think that just because the remainder of the drive is closed that this is hardly worth visiting because at 10,829 feet, the views from this overlook are breathtaking and well worth experiencing.
Throughout the drive to Rainbow Curve, there are several opportunities to get out and explore. Whether you are intrigued by the wildlife (deer, elk etc.) or simply want to admire the panoramic natural beauty, you can quickly lose track of time while exploring this segment of Trail Ridge Road.
One of the highlight attractions is Many Parks Curve, a viewpoint at an elevation of 9,620 feet. As you are driving up, head beyond the overlook and leave your car in the parking lot before walking back down to enjoy the awe-inspiring scenery. If there is any point along the first 13 miles of the Trail Ridge Road that you cannot afford to miss, this is definitely the spot!
For those of you that love the great outdoors and prefer to be exploring Rocky Mountain National Park on foot, head to the scenic Bear Lake trailhead to enjoy a plethora of hiking options, regardless of your skill level.
As you drive along Bear Lake Road from Highway 36, there a few notable spots worth visiting but be prepared for an incredibly busy stretch of road with limited parking options. We strongly recommend using the free shuttle system and parking at the “Park and Ride” location near Glacier Basin.
The free shuttle offers three different stops, each with unique experiences worth exploring. The first stop is at Bierstadt Lake, the second is Glacier Gorge and the final stop is Bear Lake. We opted to go all the way to Bear Lake with intentions of experiencing a couple of the iconic trails, notably Alberta Falls and Dream Lake. Unfortunately, we again weren’t really prepared for the conditions when we arrived at Bear Lake.
With time against us and the trails being incredibly icy, we opted to follow the short Bear Lake Loop which offers incredible views across the lake and gorgeous backdrop of the Rocky Mountains. The majority of Bear Lake was still frozen and this quickly reminded me of our visit to the Canadian Rockies when we faced a similar experience at Moraine Lake and Lake Louise near Banff. But this should take nothing away from the beauty of Bear Lake…even when it’s predominantly frozen, it’s a gorgeous sight and a place you can easily relax and enjoy the scenery.
If you have more time and are not afraid of the snow and ice, please come prepared with ice cleats to put on your shoes and also hiking/trekking poles will come in handy as you try to navigate the potentially treacherous trails. Here is a list of the trails you can enjoy from Bear Lake (distances are one-way from Bear Lake Trailhead):
- Alberta Falls – 0.8 miles
- Bear Lake Loop – 0.5 miles
- Dream Lake – 0.8 miles
- Emerald Lake – 1.5 miles
- Lake Helene – 2.9 miles
- Mills Lake – 1.8 miles
- Nymph Lake – 0.5 miles
- The Loch – 2.1 miles
Regardless of what time of the year you visit Rocky Mountain National Park, it’s a spectacular experience that everyone should have on their bucket list. It’s definitely worth noting and checking ahead of time what is open due to the seasonal weather conditions but even if the iconic Trail Ridge Road is closed, you can clearly see from the above that there are plenty of experiences to enjoy.
Estes Park is an idyllic “base camp” town at the Eastern entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park and is well worth exploring prior to your visit. Of course, this is the ideal spot to purchase plenty of supplies before you head deep into the national park.
Although there are various scenic drives available to capture a variety of different overlooks and viewpoints, the real beauty of Rocky Mountain National Park is found when you head outdoors and start venturing along the myriad of hiking trails throughout the park. You definitely need to visit this national park well prepared and with appropriate outdoor gear. This is good practice for any national park visit but particularly when you wander out into the depths of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains.