Over the past twenty years that my family has lived in Colorado, we have spent many weekends in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Spring, Summer, Winter, or Fall, we have hiked numerous trails, camped (I do not love camping), enjoyed the tourist town of Estes Park, and challenged each other to see who could spot the first elk.
The Top Things to Do in Rocky Mountain National Park
If you come to visit our family, chances are good that we will take you to visit Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park.
We visit the national park so often that we almost always purchase the annual America the Beautiful – The National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass.
Did you know that US Military members receive this pass for FREE?
The pass is also free to all US 4th grade students. Be sure to follow the instructions on the Every Kid Outdoors website.
Not only does having the yearly pass inspire us to visit Rocky Mountain National Park often, but we also plan vacations around other national parks in the United States. It’s a win-win.
In fact, we have had some amazing trips planned to these parks recently: Yosemite, Kings Canyon, and Sequoia National Parks, Great Smoky National Park, and Redwood National Park.
If you love to visit our nation’s greatest parks, I encourage you to invest in an annual pass.
Things To Do In Estes Park
Estes Park, often referred to as the Gateway to the Rockies, is a quaint, yet delightful tourist town. Most weekends from Memorial Day until Labor Day, the streets are bustling with tourists.
The main street of Estes Park is lined with cute shops if you are looking for the perfect Estes Park memento or dining experience. And if you have a sweet tooth for fudge, ice cream or salt water taffy, well, you won’t be disappointed.
Combined, the town of Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park, are two of the top Colorado destinations for families, outdoor enthusiasts, and photographers alike. They pretty much go hand in hand.
Tour the Stanley Hotel
The Stanley Hotel, built by Freelan Oscar Stanley (of the Stanley Steemer fame) sits on a hill overlooking Estes Park and the surrounding Rocky Mountains. It is a grand hotel with modern amenities while also displaying an old-world charm.
Its stately white-pillared architecture and red roof have always reminded me of the grand hotel in “Somewhere in Time.” It feels as though you could step back in time as you walk through the front door of this landmark hotel built in 1909.
Whether you visit as a guest of the hotel, enjoy the grounds, dine with family and friends, or take a guided tour through underground tunnels you’ll quickly see why this hotel is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Hermit Park Open Space, nestled in the hills outside of Estes Park as well as Rocky Mountain National Park features towering Ponderosa pines, meadows, and abundant wildlife.
You can find cabins to rent, camping (RV and tent camping), a group campground for your family and friends, a group pavilion to reserve, and beautiful trails for hiking, horseback riding, and mountain biking within Hermit Park.
These amenities make it a perfect place for an afternoon hike or a rustic weekend getaway.
Rainbow Slide at Fun City
Our girls have always loved stopping at Fun City to ride the iconic rainbow slides.
If you love a little adventure and aren’t afraid of heights, this could be your kind of fun. At only $2 per person per ride, it is a budget-friendly activity.
You can also ride the bumper boats and cars, strap into the bungee trampoline, try a little miniature golf, or challenge your friends to go-kart racing.
If you choose the bumper boats, prepare to get wet. The boats have a central steering column that also sports a water gun. Let the fun begin.
The Big Thompson River and Fall River join together along the Riverwalk in Estes Park. Enjoy the serenity of the river as you wind your way through downtown Estes Park.
Stop in at one of the many tourist shops that line the Riverwalk or enjoy a bite to eat at the variety of restaurants with outdoor seating.
We shared one of our favorite memories while visiting Estes Park with grandparents and sitting on the outdoor patio at Mama Rose’s listening to Dick Orleans entertain as a one-man concert. It was simply delightful.
No doubt a trip to Estes Park isn’t complete without animal sightings. Elk are a common sight even within the town of Estes. You may also spot mule deer, big horn sheep, bears, a variety of large cats, otters, squirrels, chipmunks, and over 250 species of birds around Estes Park and within Rocky Mountain National Park.
While they are awesome and often majestic to look at, it is illegal to feed the animals. And don’t be like the crazy people we see who get out of their vehicles to get a closer look at elk, bears, and moose!
Rocky Mountain National Park Reservation System
TAKE NOTE: Due to the popularity of the park, from May 27 to October 11, 2021, Rocky Mountain National Park requires a timed-entry reservation through their online system if you wish to visit the park between the hours of 5 am and 6 pm.
The reservation can be purchased for a nominal fee of $2. However, interest in RMNP is high and you will need to make your reservation as soon as tickets become available for the next month. Check the website above for the ticket schedule.
In 2021, Rocky Mountain National Park instituted two options on the reservation system.
- Bear Lake Road Corridor + Full Access to the Park
Due to the popularity of the Bear Lake Road corridor of the park, you will be required to a have a specific reservation to visit this area.
If this is your first time visiting Rocky Mountain National Park, you WILL want to choose this option. Bear Lake is stunning and there are many great hikes—short and long—that can be accessed along the corridor.
2. Park Access (excluding the Bear Lake Road Corridor)
With this reservation, you can visit anywhere in Rocky Mountain National Park except for the Bear Lake Road Corridor.
You must visit the park during your reservation window.
Also note that having a reservation does not guarantee parking. You can make use of the shuttle systems once you are in the park on Bear Lake Road to reach Bear Lake.
There are some roads, trail systems, wilderness campsites, and cross country zones that are currently closed due to the Cameron Peak and East Troublesome Fires from the summer of 2020.
Check NPS.gov for the most up to date openings and closures.
Things to Do in Rocky Mountain National Park
Drive Trail Ridge Road
Trail Ridge Road is the highest continuous paved road in the United States.
Designated as both a scenic and historic byway, Trail Ridge Road crosses the Continental Divide just over 12,000 feet.
The road is only open from Memorial Day through the middle of October, and even then you may encounter some snow and much cooler temperatures.
Trail Ridge Road links Estes Park from the east to Grand Lake in the west. The road winds through Rocky Mountain National Park offering some of the park’s best views.
Be sure to stop at the Alpine Visitor Center and check out the panoramic vista surrounding you.
Climb to the Elevation Marker at the Alpine Visitor Center
The Alpine Visitor Center, located along Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park, is the highest visitor center in the national park system. The views are stunning. Even more so if you set off up the hill to the elevation marker at 12,006 feet above sea level.
If you happen to play the license plate game, chances are you will find a few out-of-state plates in the parking lot as the Alpine Visitor Center is a popular tourist destination.
Drive Old Fall River Road
After 19 years of living in Colorado, my husband and I along with our youngest daughter, finally drove the Old Fall River Road to the Alpine Visitor Center and then on to Grand Lake.
Before Trail Ridge Road was finished in 1933, Old Fall River Road was the means of accessing Rocky Mountain National Park’s high country.
If you drive it today, note that it is a one-way gravel road without guard rails starting at Endovalley. The road is 11 miles long with numerous switchbacks and a posted speed limit of 15 miles per hour.
Whether you have your own snowshoes or rent from the shops in Estes Park, be prepared for some amazing winter scenery within Rocky Mountain National Park.
Chris and I snowshoed to Alberta Falls and then from the falls up to Bear Lake. I don’t think I have ever felt my heart pound with so much exertion.
If you are going to venture out on snowshoes, just remember that the elevation in Rocky Mountain National Park is much higher than many tourists are accustomed to.
Taking pictures is one of my favorite hobbies, and even though we have been to Rocky Mountain National Park dozens of times, there is still something beautiful that I find each time to we enter the park.
I always have my camera handy.
Play in the Snow
One of our girls’ favorite memories is hiking to Alberta Falls in the snow on New Year’s Day and playing on the falls.
The falls had frozen over and we jumped off ledges, built a snow fort, and threw snowballs. Rocky Mountain National Park is perfect for making family memories Winter, Spring, Summer or Fall.
The park is open to hiking all year round. Just be sure to come prepared for the weather. Read 10 Essentials for Your Best Day Hikes.
Check out the Fall Foliage
Fall Foliage in the park is stunning. While the colors aren’t always as varied as in other national parks, the vibrant yellows of the aspen trees in Rocky Mountain National Park can’t be missed.
To be fair, our family has never ridden horses in the park, but we see evidence that horses have been on the hiking trails.
There are a number of stables where you can schedule rides in the park.
Favorite Hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park
While it does have some incline, this hike is fairly doable for young children. And the reward of seeing the falls at the end keeps you going. You hear the roaring of the falls long before you ever see them.
The hike to Alberta Falls in Rocky Mountain National Park begins from the Glacier Gorge Trailhead, located on Bear Lake Road almost 8 miles from the turn-off at Highway 36. Due to the extreme popularity of the Bear Lake Road area you may want to consider using the free park shuttle to reach the trailhead during the peak tourist season.
Roughly one-quarter of a mile from the parking area, just after crossing Chaos Creek, the trail briefly converges with the Glacier Creek Trail. After walking a very short distance the Glacier Creek Trail splits off to the right and heads toward Bear Lake. To continue on towards Alberta Falls hikers should turn left at this junction.Rocky Mountain Hiking Trails
You will be astounded at the power of this 30-foot waterfall as it thunders down a small gorge on Glacier Creek.
Be prepared with good hiking shoes. We have seen so many tourists setting off in flip flops and heels!
I love my Oboz Hiking Boots.
As Chris and I ventured out on more winter hikes in 2021, we hiked to Mills Lake for the first time. Chris found the Mills Lake hike on the highly recommended AllTrails App. This hike continues on above Alberta Falls.
We had always stopped at Alberta Falls in the past without realizing there was so much more to see.
If you hike this trail in the snow, as Chris and I did, you will definitely need some cold-weather gear and crampons. The crampons made a HUGE difference and kept us from slipping in a number of spots.
And if you venture out on the ice, you can always say, “I walked on water!”
When you make the choice to hike to Mills Lake, you can also veer off to the right of the fork at Mills Junction (1.6 miles past Alberta Falls) and hike on to The Loch—another lake.
As we have only been in the winter, the goal for Chris and I now is to hike both Mills Lake and The Loch in the summer. And perhaps explore even beyond to Sky Pond or Black Lake.
If you make the trip, not only will it be warmer in the summer, but you will also have longer daylight hours to explore around each of the lakes.
If you choose to hike the 4.9 miles to Ouzel Lake, you will also pass Copeland Falls (only 0.3 miles from the parking lot), Calypso Cascades, and Ouzel Falls before you reach your destination.
Start at the Wild Basin Trailhead just outside of the small town of Allenspark in the southeast corner of Rocky Mountain National Park. This is a well-traveled trail with many young families who like to hike to the lower falls.
The parking lot is busy, but with a little patience, you might find a spot close by. If not, there is overflow parking that you probably passed as you drove in.
Check out 10 Essentials for Your Best Day Hikes for all of the essentials whether you choose to hike in the summer or winter.
I love my Oofos Recovery Sandals after a long hike.
They don’t help much with the dirt though.
Deer Mountain Trail
If you are looking for a little more challenge in your hiking, Deer Mountain Trail ascending from Deer Ridge Junction will have you huffing and puffing up the trail in no time with the 1120 elevation gain over 3.1 miles.
It is a popular hike with limited parking so it is recommended that you arrive early.
As you reach the top, you are treated to amazing views of both Rocky Mountain National Park and Estes Park in the east. Should you ever wish to enjoy sunrise views over Estes, well then, you shouldn’t have a problem finding a parking spot!
In an attempt to go on 21 hikes in 2021, Chris and I try to go hiking fairly regularly. Our girls are pretty consistent in declining our invitations to join us.
We hiked the East Portal Hike outside of Estes Park in June.
With the new reservation system, you have to have a timed slot in order to get into the Rocky Mountain National Park. We missed out on getting reservations when we were out of range in Yosemite.
Chris, however, found this cool hike where we actually didn’t have to go into the park to reach the trail head and we were able to skirt around the edge of the national park.
Around Bear Lake
The hike around Bear Lake is a nature trail (go counter-clockwise) to follow interpretive guides published by the Rocky Mountain Conservancy that provide historical, natural, and geological information at 30 different marked spots along the 0.8 mile trail.
The interpretive guide is a small booklet that can be purchased at the trailhead.
The nature trail is beautiful to follow with or without the guide and you’ll certainly find some picturesque moments along the way.
Typically the hike to Bierstadt Lake is an out and back hike from Bear Lake. However, you can choose to hike to Bierstadt Lake and then continue on around the lake to the opposite end.
Once you reach the lake, follow the posted signs to the Bierstadt Lake Trailhead on Bear Lake Road. Shuttle buses within the Bear Lake Road corridor of Rocky Mountain National park make stops here for pickups and will return you to the Bear Lake parking lot.
Lily Lake Loop
If you are looking for a fairly easy hike for the whole family with minimal elevation gain, the Lily Lake Loop is a great option. The trail is handicapped accessible and only 0.8 of a mile in length.
There is not a lot of shade along the trail so you may want to wear a hat, your sunglasses and put on some sunscreen.
Lily Lake is within Rocky Mountain National Park in the southeast corner of the park. It is free to visit without a park pass or a reservation.
Ypsilon and Lawn Lake
Whether you are going to Ypsilon Lake or Lawn Lake, both hikes begin at the Lawn Lake Trailhead. The switchback trail skirts up the side of the mountain behind the Alluvial Fan and follows Roaring River.
A word about the Alluvial Fan.
An alluvial fan is a triangle-shaped deposit of gravel, sand, and even smaller pieces of sediment, such as silt. This sediment is called alluvium. Alluvial fans are usually created as flowing water interacts with mountains, hills, or the steep walls of canyons.National Geographic
The Alluvial Fan in Rocky Mountain National Park was created in July of 1982 when the Lawn Lake Dam gave way and flooded the area as well as Estes Park. Massive rocks and boulders crashed down into the valley, leaving behind a huge pile.
A trail and bridge were built in 1985 and the area became a popular tourist stop within the park. The Front Range Flood of 2013 totally wiped out the infrastructure of the area, depositing sediment up to 15 feet deep in some places.
To hike to Ypsilon or Lawn Lake, you would reach the trailhead by driving 2.1 miles into Rocky Mountain National Park through the Fall River Entrance Station on Highway 34. Turn right at the sign for Old Fall River Road.
After hiking approximately 1.4 miles, you will arrive at the Ypsilon Lake Trail junction with the Ypsilon Lake Trail heading off to the left. Continue on the trail if you want to hike to Lawn Lake.
Give yourself plenty of time if you plan to hike to either lake. Ypsilon Lake is 9 miles round trip and Lawn Lake is 12.6 miles round trip.
We have never actually made it to either lake. We used to hike with young kids and it was too far to go all the way to Ypsilon when we hiked with them.
Chris and I started out for Lawn Lake recently on a cloudy afternoon. We turned back when the skies began to turn dark and thunder boomed. We logged about 7 miles that day.
Final Thoughts on Things to Do in Rocky Mountain National Park
Rocky Mountain National Park is a national treasure within Colorado. It covers an area of 415 square miles with the Continental Divide running north to south through the park. After 20 years of visiting the park, we are still finding new hikes and areas to explore.