Dreaming of seeing alpine lakes and mountain peaks? Rocky Mountain National Park is the perfect place for this, and in this 3-day itinerary to visit the park you’ll pass through the major and stunning spots everyone must see while there. Make sure to read my complete guide to visit the park first, and read on for my 3-day itinerary to Rocky Mountain National Park.
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 highlights of the park and hike 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, as it’s 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 doing the Emerald Lake Trail at Rocky Mountain National Park:
This is a very popular hike, so I recommend going early morning to beat the crowds.
Additionally, one of the best photo opportunities along this hike is sunrise at Dream Lake. So, if you’re wanting to experience the sunrise at Dream Lake, make sure to hike straight there, and then head on to Emerald Lake after 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.
After your amazing 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 has to offer: 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 considered Colorado’s “highway to the sky”.
This wonderful drive must be in every itinerary to Rocky Mountain National Park, as you’ll rise up to 12,000 feet above sea level and, from the comfort of your car, stop along 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 try the Ute Trail to Tombstone Ridge, which is a 4-mile hike offering uninterrupted views of Rocky Mountain National Park 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 full 4-mile path but can opt to turn around whenever you feel like it.
Another hiking opportunity at Trail Ridge Road is the Alpine Ridge Trail. This is a 0.6-mile round trip easy hike starting at the Alpine Visitor Center. When you arrive at the visitor center, just hike up the staircase to the viewpoint.
Although relatively easy, the Alpine Ridge Trail hike might be tough since you’ll be at 12,000 feet of elevation. 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 start 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 and then descend ˜600 ft before arriving at Odessa Lake. Continuing onward you will descend another ˜550 feet to arrive at Fern Lake. And then repeat it all, in the opposite direction, as you head back to Bear Lake.
The hike to Odessa Lake starts out in a forested area, though you’ll be able to spot the mountain peaks every 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 on your way back, make a quick stop at Lake Helene.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a sign indicating the path to Lake Helene, but when you find yourself in an intersection, you’ll know you’re there – just look for an unmarked trail which will take you to Lake Helene.
The hike to Odessa and Fern Lake 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 that comes with being in an untouched place.
Rocky Mountain Itinerary – day three
Chasm Lake Trail
Since you’ve been working your way up (literally), now it’s time to finish your 3-day itinerary in one of the most difficult, but also beautiful hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park – Chasm Lake.
Chasm Lake is a strenuous 9-mile hike (round trip) that has more than 2,500 feet of elevation gain. 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 ranging 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, at the last part of the Chasm Lake hike, there will be a short steep rocky climb. 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 check out a different hike than the ones above, you can try the Sky Pond Trail. This is a roughly 9-mile hike (round back) offering the whole package – waterfalls, mountain views, and alpine lakes. Be aware that, at some point at Sky Pond trail, you’ll have to rock scramble up ~100 feet through a waterfall.
And after you’ve spent your 3 days at Rocky Mountain National Park, head to Boulder, Vail, or Aspen.
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