Dreaming of seeing spectacular alpine lakes and mountain peaks? Rocky Mountain National Park is the perfect place for this, and in this 3-day itinerary, you’ll go on epic hikes passing through the most stunning spots of the park.
If this is your first trip to the park, be sure to read the complete guide to visiting the park first, and then continue reading for a 3-day itinerary to see the best of Rocky Mountain National Park.
Table of contents
- What to know before visiting Rocky Mountain National Park
- Rocky Mountain Itinerary – day one
- Rocky Mountain Itinerary – day two
- Rocky Mountain Itinerary – day three
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What to know before visiting Rocky Mountain National Park
- Location: The nearest city to stay in and to visit Rocky Mountain National Park is Estes Park, where you’ll find hotels, lodges, restaurants, stores, and bars. If you aren’t in Colorado and need to fly here, you can fly to Denver International Airport, rent a car, and then drive for approximately 2 hours until you get to the Estes Park area.
- Entrance fee: The daily access to the Rocky Mountain National Park is US$ 30 per vehicle, US$ 15 per person, and US$ 25 per motorcycle. You should consider buying the America the Beautiful – The National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass. It costs US$ 80 and is valid for one year (starting at the date of purchase).
- Reservation: In addition to the entrance pass, if you’re planning on visiting Rocky Mountain from May 27 and October 10, 2022, you’ll also need a Time Entry Permit. The permit fee is US$ 2; you can book and pay for a time slot here.
- What to pack: pack your hiking gear. Hiking boots, clothes that include an insulated jacket, windbreaker jacket, hiking pants/leggings, and wool socks must be part of your packing list. Hiking poles can be beneficial, too, if you use them.
- Weather and best time to visit: Rocky Mountain National Park is open year-round, weather permitting. Summer and fall are jam-packed because it’s the best time for hiking and driving along Trail Ridge Road. So, if you want to beat the crowds, the best time to visit the park is from October to May.
- Visit the park’s website to learn more about the trail conditions and get the latest alerts.
YOU MIGHT ALSO WANT TO READ: The Ultimate Utah National Parks Road Trip Itinerary
Rocky Mountain Itinerary – day one
Emerald Lake Trail – including Bear Lake, Nymph Lake, Dream Lake, and Emerald Lake
For the first day of your itinerary to Rocky Mountain National Park, start by taking in the park’s highlights and hiking the Emerald Lake Trail. Along this trail, you’ll see the stunning alpine lakes of Bear Lake, Nymph Lake, Dream Lake, and Emerald Lake.
The Emerald Lake Trail is a great option to ease your way into hiking and the higher altitude of Colorado. It’s also a family-friendly hike suitable for almost all levels.
The hike starts at the Bear Lake Trailhead. You’ll reach Bear Lake right after you make your start, though you’ll continue for 0.5 miles to Nymph Lake. After Nymph Lake, you’ll ascend gently for 0.6 miles to Dream Lake. Continuing along the trail, next up is Emerald Lake.
The entire hike along the Emerald Lake Trail, passing through the other alpine lakes, is roughly 3.5 miles (round trip), and it’s one of the prettiest in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Tips for the Emerald Lake Trail at Rocky Mountain National Park:
Emerald Lake Trail is a popular hike, so I recommend going early in the morning to beat the crowds.
One of the best photo opportunities along this hike is sunrise at Dream Lake. So, if you want to experience the sunrise at Dream Lake, make sure to hike straight there, and then head on to Emerald Lake and save Bear Lake and Nymph Lake for last.
On this hike, you’ll see a lot of chipmunks, but do not feed them! I saw some people feeding them, but feeding animal life in a national park is illegal.
Trail Ridge Road
After your fantastic morning taking in the sights along the Emerald Lake Trail, make sure to complete another activity, one of the best the Rocky Mountain National Park offers: drive the Trail Ridge Road.
The Trail Ridge Road is a 48-mile road connecting Estes Park, on the east side of Rocky Mountain National Park, to Grand Lake, on the west side of the park, and is known as Colorado’s “highway to the sky”.
This incredible drive must be on every Rocky Mountain National Park itinerary, as you’ll rise up to 12,000 feet above sea level. You can stop at the many pull-offs and viewpoints along the road to take in the spectacular mountain views of the park.
While on the Trail Ridge Road, if you are still in the mood for some hiking, you can venture the Ute Trail to Tombstone Ridge. This 4-mile hike offers uninterrupted views of Rocky Mountain National Park’s highlights – Longs Peak, Forest Canyon, and the Continental Divide.
If you choose to hike the Ute Trail to Tombstone Ridge, you don’t need to complete the 4-mile path. Instead, you can opt to turn around whenever you want.
Another hiking opportunity at Trail Ridge Road is the Alpine Ridge Trail, a 0.6-mile round trip easy hike starting at the Alpine Visitor Center. When you arrive at the visitor center, hike up the staircase to the viewpoint.
Although relatively straightforward, the Alpine Ridge Trail hike might be challenging since you’ll be at 12,000 feet. So, take your time and make stops whenever necessary.
Rocky Mountain Itinerary – day two
Lake Helene, Odessa Lake, and Fern Lake Trail
On the second day of your itinerary to Rocky Mountain National Park, take some time to check out this less popular hike – the trail to Odessa Lake and Fern Lake, with a quick stop at Lake Helene.
I recommend hiking Odessa Lake and Fern Lake as an out-and-back hike starting from Bear Lake, so your day will begin at the same point it did on the previous day – at the Bear Lake trailhead.
This hike is approximately 10 miles long (round trip), and some parts can be exhausting due to loose rocks and multiple elevation changes.
Starting from Bear Lake, you hike up almost 1,200 feet, then descend around 600 feet before arriving at Odessa Lake. Continuing onward, you’ll descend another 550 feet to reach Fern Lake. Then you’ll have to repeat it all in the opposite direction as you head back to Bear Lake.
The hike to Odessa Lake starts in a forested area, though you’ll be able to spot the mountain peaks now and then.
Eventually, at the highest point, you’ll find yourself at a corner with remarkable alpine scenery. After this part, you’ll start your way down through loose rocks until you reach an intersection where you can choose to continue to Fern Lake or turn left to Odessa Lake. Turn left, cross the bridge and find yourself at the awe-inspiring alpine Odessa Lake.
After spending some time at Odessa Lake, head back to the bridge and continue onward to Fern Lake – approximately 0.6 more miles.
Once you’ve taken in all the beauty of Fern Lake, it’s time to head back to the Bear Lake trailhead. Hike back along the same route from where you came, though make a quick stop at Lake Helene on your way back.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a sign indicating the path to Lake Helene, but when you find yourself at an intersection, you’ll know you’re there – just look for an unmarked trail that will take you to Lake Helene.
The hike to Odessa and Fern Lakes was hands down my favorite at Rocky Mountain National Park. Even though it was strenuous, it offered stunning mountain and lake views and the peace of being in an untouched place.
Rocky Mountain Itinerary – day three
Chasm Lake Trail
Since you’ve been working your way up (literally), it’s time to finish your 3-day itinerary in one of the most challenging but beautiful hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park – Chasm Lake.
Chasm Lake is a strenuous 9-mile hike (round trip) with more than 2,500 feet of elevation gain. However, it offers astonishing views along the way, and at the end, you’ll be graced with the presence of the gorgeous Chasm Lake right at the base of Longs Peak – the tallest mountain at Rocky Mountain National Park.
The trail to Chasm Lake begins at the Longs Peak Ranger Station. In the beginning, you’ll walk through a forested area before reaching a bridge warning hikers about the risk of lightning. Past this, you’ll hike through the open tundra, so take your time to gear up and put on your windbreaker or insulated jacket.
As you walk through the exposed tundra, you’ll start having magnificent views of Longs Peak, and if you go during fall as I did, the vivid fall colors will range from yellow to red.
While hiking your way up, make sure to take in the beautiful views.
Near the end, you’ll see a waterfall called Columbine Falls and Peacock Pond – a beautiful blue water pond at the bottom of the falls. Some mistake Peacock Pond for Chasm Lake – but it isn’t it. So don’t turn around at Peacock Pond, as you still have some way to go.
Continue walking along the path where there will be a short steep rocky climb at the last part of the Chasm Lake hike. Unfortunately, there isn’t a clearly indicated path, so you will have to find your own way up by following the steps of the previous hikers.
At the top is Chasm Lake. Admire the entire panorama before turning around for the hike back.
If you have more time at Rocky Mountain National Park or want to try a different hike than the ones above, add Sky Pond Trail to your list. This is a roughly 9-mile hike (round back) offering the whole package – waterfalls, mountain views, and alpine lakes. However, be aware that, at some point at Sky Pond trail, you’ll have to rock scramble up around 100 feet through a waterfall.
For other tips for visiting Rocky Mountain National Park, read the First Timer’s Guide to the Park
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- Bryce Canyon National Park: The Complete Guide to Bryce Canyon National Park
- Zion National Park: Best Hikes in Zion National Park
- Canyonlands National Park: The Complete Guide to Canyonlands National Park
- Petrified Forest National Park: How to spend one day in Petrified Forest National Park
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