Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado is one of the most visited in the country for a reason! With epic mountain hikes to alpine lakes, tons of wild animals, and a road that goes well above the trees, you may be shocked to hear that it’s totally possible to spend just one day in Rocky Mountain National Park and see it all.
With the right amount of planning, you can easily see all of the top sights in the park. This post will tell you how to do just that while also equipping you with all of the tips you need for a successful day trip to Rocky Mountain National Park.
Let’s start planning your RMNP itinerary!
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Where is Rocky Mountain National Park?
Rocky Mountain National Park is located near Estes Park, Colorado, about an hour’s drive west of Denver. It’s a vast park, and a lot of it has to be seen through hikes or driving along Trail Ridge Road. As one of the most beautiful states in the USA, Colorado is filled with epic outdoor adventures like those at Rocky Mountain National Park.
How to Get to Rocky Mountain National Park
Because of Rocky Mountain National Park’s close proximity to Denver, there are a few ways to get there.
Denver International Airport (DIA)
The first way to get to Rocky Mountain National Park is to fly right into Denver International Airport. DIA is a popular layover spot to the western United States, so it’s pretty easy to get there from the rest of the country.
From the airport, you can rent a car and drive over to Rocky Mountain National Park, and you can get there within an hour and a half via car.
You can also pretty easily drive to Rocky Mountain National Park, especially if you’re in the area. With a car, you’ll have the freedom to stop at other places along the way. You’ll want to take State Highway 7 to Estes Park, and from there, follow the signs to the park.
There is also a shuttle bus that runs from Denver International Airport straight to Estes Park. The price for one way is just $55, but you can also book a round-trip shuttle for $95. You will have to find your own way to the park from Estes Park because the shuttle only runs to the town.
Best Time to Visit Rocky Mountain National Park
Many tourists believe that the best time to visit Rocky Mountain National Park is from late spring to early fall, and that would be a complete lie. This is the most popular place to visit, but it’s way too busy. If you can avoid going during peak season, then do!
Starting in 2021, Rocky Mountain National Park also began implementing a permit system during the popular season. Because of that, you have to book your reservation at least a month in advance to make sure you can even enter the park on your trip.
The best time to visit is between late October and early April. The weather during this time is incredible, and it’s around the time that the Rocky Mountain National Park reservations are no longer in use so that you can go at any time of the day without a reservation.
One thing to keep in mind if you visit during this time is that the trails do start to get pretty icy. However, don’t let that deter you; this is still the best time to visit Rocky Mountain National Park. Just make sure you bring layers and purchase crampons for your boots!
Last but not least, even visiting during the off-season doesn’t guarantee that it won’t be busy; it will just be less busy than during the summer season. I visited in mid-November and had to wait in a two-hour line in my car just to get through the entrance!
Where to Stay Near Rocky Mountain National Park
The best place to stay when visiting Rocky Mountain National Park is Estes Park. Here are some top hotel and resort recommendations for Estes Park!
The Stanley Hotel – $$$
The Stanley Hotel is one of the most iconic places to stay in Estes Park. It tends to be a bit pricer and on average one night costs a little over $300. However, it’s a truly historic hotel that’s also said to be the inspiration behind the hotel in The Shining by Stephen King.
The Inn on Fall River & Fall River Cabins – $
If you’re looking for an affordable place to stay in Estes Park, consider staying at The Inn on Fall River & Fall River Cabins. You can opt to stay in a suite or a luxury cabin. The location is only a short drive from the Rocky Mountain National Park entrance.
The Estes Park Resort – $$
The Estes Park Resort is a great place to stay that’s mid-range priced. The average night costs about $150 here, and it’s located right on the Lake Estes shore. You’ll get great amenities staying here, too, including a patio! If you’re lucky, you’ll get one lakeside.
Boulder Brook on Fall River -$$
Boulder Brook on Fall River is a great place to stay near Rocky Mountain National Park if you want to stay more in the woods. The place looks like a cabin but has fabulous amenities. It’s not that far from downtown Estes Park or Rocky Mountain National Park.
Tips for Visiting Rocky Mountain National Park
If you’re wondering how to make the most of one day in Rocky Mountain National Park, you have to plan wisely. Here are some of the top tips for visiting Rocky Mountain National Park in one day.
Arrive as early as you can. If you’re visiting in peak season, then you need to try to book your permit for as early in the day as possible for many reasons. By arriving early, not only will you be avoiding crowds, but the weather will be cooler, and you’ll have a better chance of getting parking.
In the off-season (late fall and winter), you don’t have to get a reservation, so you can just try to make it earlier in the day to avoid the crowds. If you wait and get to Rocky Mountain National Park around midday, then you risk having to wait in your car for a long time to get into the park.
Book Your Permit ASAP
If you happen to be visiting during peak season, you need to book your permit as soon as possible. They only allow a certain amount of reservations per time slot on each day, so pay close attention to their online calendar to see when permits are available.
It’s completely free to get a permit; just make sure you get one in time for your trip, or you won’t be able to go.
Note: If you’re visiting in the off-season, you don’t need a permit.
Use the Shuttle
Rocky Mountain National Park has a few shuttle bus routes, but they are only open during peak season. There are three routes: the Bear Lake route, Hiker Express Route, and Moraine Park route. The buses run from around 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. for Bear Lake and Moraine Park but run from 7:30 a.m. to 10 a.m.
The Bear Lake bus and Moraine Park bus both run very frequently and come by every ten to fifteen minutes. Just wait at the stop and hop on! You can park at the park and ride lots or at one of the trailheads.
Plan Your Day Ahead of Time
The key to one day in Rocky Mountain National Park is planning your itinerary ahead of time. Try to have exactly what you want to do for the day completely mapped out, and try to stick to a schedule roughly.
Prepare For Rough Weather
No matter the time of year, Rocky Mountain National Park’s weather can change in an instant. Prepare by bringing layers to wear, and if you ever do a more challenging hike like Long’s Peak, you can always turn around at any time because of the weather conditions.
Rocky Mountain National Park’s altitude is pretty high, and you won’t be used to it, especially if you’re from out of state. At a higher altitude, you need to stay hydrated and drink lots of water throughout the day.
Don’t rush yourself either; you need to give yourself time to breathe and catch your breath. These hikes will always be here on another day, and it’s best for you not to get altitude sickness!
Be Careful Around Wildlife
Rocky Mountain National Park is known for its wildlife, so you need to be careful and respectful around the animals you come across. This includes being slow and driving safely on the roads. The animals tend to come out the second the sun starts to go down.
Purchase an America the Beautiful Pass
Save yourself tons of money by purchasing an America the Beautiful Pass. This is a great deal if you know you’ll be visiting more than two parks during any given twelve months of the year.
What to Pack for Rocky Mountain National Park
You must pack wisely for one day in Rocky Mountain National Park. Here are some of the musts for your packing list.
There is only one place to buy food in Rocky Mountain National Park (and it’s only open part of the year) so be sure to purchase snacks and bring them with you for your trip. Things like granola bars, pretzels, and trail mix are great for a day in the park.
A great way to prep for lunch is to also bring a lunch with you. Either purchase a to-go meal from one of the great places to eat in Estes Park or head to a local grocery store and make your own meal to bring with you.
Definitely bring a 32-ounce Hydro Flask or Nalgene bottle. You should try to drink at least a gallon of water during your day in the park. Even if you don’t think you’re dehydrated, you probably are at the altitude.
Don’t try to visit Rocky Mountain National Park without hiking boots. So many people make the mistake of visiting in sandals or sneakers, which is terrible for hiking. Invest in a pair of hiking boots, and they’ll last you for a while!
As mentioned earlier, you for sure need to bring layers. Rocky Mountain National Park weather can change in a second, so be prepared. The more layers, the better so that you can stay comfortable throughout the day.
Even if you are visiting in winter, you should wear sunscreen! Sport sunscreen is an excellent option because it was made to stay on even if you get sweaty, making it perfect for one day in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Crampons and Hiking Poles
A visit in winter means you need crampons to put on the bottom of your hiking boots. Hiking boots are not good enough when the trails start to get wet and icy.
Also, consider bringing hiking poles no matter the time of year so that you can have better balance on the trails. They most likely won’t be needed on the easier trails but are still a great purchase if you’re the kind of person that likes to hike with them.
Put everything that you’re bringing for the day in a backpack. You could consider investing in a nice hiking pack or just get a regular backpack. Anything to hold all of your stuff while you’re on the trail will do!
Where to Eat Near Rocky Mountain National Park
Similar to the best places to stay, you’ll want to grab meals in Estes Park. These are some of the top places to eat by RMNP!
Ed’s Cantina and Grill
First up is Ed’s Cantina and Grill, located right in the downtown area of Estes Park. They have mid-range prices and serve Mexican food and focus mainly on sustainability, making it a great place to eat near Rocky Mountain National Park.
Park Theatre Cafe
For an affordable place to eat, head to Park Theatre Cafe. This joint serves up sandwiches, wraps, salads, and more! Keep in mind that the Park Theatre Cafe is only open during the summer and is available for carryout, making it a great place to stop if you’re looking for a meal to bring into the park.
Mama Rose’s Restaurant
The best Italian food in Estes Park can be found at Mama Rose’s Restaurant. With meals ranging from lasagna to spaghetti, your Italian craving will genuinely be filled here. This is a great spot to stop for dinner in Estes Park.
Penelope’s Old Time Burgers
For a quick greasy meal, look no further than Penelope’s Old Time Burgers. This place has a super vintage vibe and creates unique burgers, including ones made from elk. All the fries are also hand-cut. This is one of the top places to eat near Rocky Mountain National Park.
What to do During One Day in Rocky Mountain National Park
Now it’s finally time to learn all of the best things to do on a day trip to Rocky Mountain National Park!
Go On a Hike
With just one day in Rocky Mountain National Park, you have to go on at least one hike. Here are a few of the easier hikes that aren’t as long but still offer incredible views along the way.
Bear Lake Trail
Bear Lake is the most popular hike in Rocky Mountain National Park because it’s more of a walk than a hike. Most of the entire hike is flat, and the views are incredible. The lake is right near the parking lot, and the trail just goes all around the lake.
This trail is one of the shorter ones on this list at only 0.7 miles with an elevation gain of 50 feet. There are many spots to pull off and sit around the lake too. Make sure you get on Bear Lake Road, which is easy to miss right after the main entrance!
Emerald Lake Trail
The Emerald Lake Trail is arguably the best in the entire park and it starts at the Bear Lake trailhead. It’s about 3.2 miles round trip, and it’s an out and back trail. Along the way, you’ll pass Nymph Lake and Dream Lake. You can even pull off at Bear Lake too.
This trail is best hiked in the summer months if you don’t like hiking on ice. However, hiking it in the winter offers views that will truly take your breath away.
The Emerald Lake Trail is one of the few hikes that offers impeccable views the entire way. You won’t be bored, that’s for sure, and the hike can usually be completed within three hours or so, depending on how fast you hike.
Glacier Gorge Trail
This is another easy-rated trail, but it is a bit longer at about 5.8 miles long. Glacier Gorge Trail is a loop trail with quite a bit of elevation, 1,130 feet, but it still can be done in just a matter of hours.
You’ll even pass the popular Alberta Falls along the way. In the winter, this waterfall becomes frozen and is totally epic.
Chasm Lake Trail
If you want to do a hard hike during your one day in Rocky Mountain National Park, hike to Chasm Lake. This is slightly under nine miles, and it’s an out and back trail with 2,500 feet of elevation gain.
This hike is known for being pretty steep, so if you do it in the winter, just be prepared. The gusts on the mountain can also be nasty depending on the time of year.
If you choose to do this trail, know that it is probably all that you’ll have time for during your day trip to Rocky Mountain National Park.
Sprague Lake Trail
The Sprague Lake Trail is an easy trail that’s less than a mile. It’s a loop trail with just 36 feet of elevation. It’s a great trail for all types of travelers and is a super leisurely stroll compared to some others on this list.
Trail Ridge Road
Trail Ridge Road, also known as the highway of the sky, brings you 12,000 feet up in elevation. The road can be terrifying to drive if you don’t like heights and is only open during the peak season because it gets so icy.
The best way to spend an afternoon in RMNP is to drive the road and stop off at all of the viewpoints. Some of the ones that you can’t miss include:
- Forest Canyon Overlook
- Many Parks Curve
- Farview Curve
- Gore Range Overlook
- Rock Cut
Alpine Visitor Center
The highest visitor center in the United States out of all national parks is the Alpine Visitor Center! It’s along Trail Ridge Road and is an absolute must-visit. Even though Rocky Mountain National Park has three visitor centers, this is the one you should be sure to visit.
You’ll have incredible views from the visitor center, and you can learn more about the park there. The only restaurant in Rocky Mountain National Park is here, so you can grab a snack if you want.
Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the best places to stargaze in because the views are grand, so you for sure have to stop by once the sun goes down during your one day in the park. There are many pullouts throughout the park where you can stargaze, but you can also continue going to Bear Lake or stopping along Trail Ridge Road to watch the stars.
Catch the Sunrise
By starting your day early, you can easily catch the sunrise in Rocky Mountain National Park. The views at sunrise are unlike those throughout the rest of the day. I highly recommend going to one of the lakes because you can catch the sun’s warm colors and the mountain reflecting off the water. It’s truly magical.
Sprague Lake is one of the best spots for sunrise, as is Nymph Lake, Dream Lake, Bear Lake, and Emerald Lake.
Keep in mind that Rocky Mountain National Park hours are 24 hours so there shouldn’t be much of a line if you get there early.
Suggested Rocky Mountain One Day Itinerary
- Wake up and head straight to Bear Lake to start hiking the Emerald Lake Trail. Stop at one of the lakes along the way to catch the sunrise.
- On the way back, consider stopping at Alberta Falls, another fantastic spot in the park.
- Eat lunch right at Alberta Falls, and then make your way back to the parking lot.
- Hop in your car and drive Trail Ridge Road. Stop at the Alpine Visitor Center and all of the suggested viewpoints listed above, including Forest Canyon Overlook, Many Parks Curve, Farview Curve, Gore Range Overlook, and Rock Cut.
- Head back to Estes Park to grab dinner from a local restaurant.
- After dinner, go to Rocky Mountain National Park to stargaze at Bear Lake!
Truthfully, with just 1 day in Rocky Mountain National Park, you can see many top highlights. Hopefully, this post has helped you plan your trip. You’ll genuinely have a blast during your visit!