Spend the Perfect Day in Rocky Mountain National Park

Picture perfect alpine lakes, high mountain drives, and plenty of wildlife await you in this crown jewel of the National Parks System. If you only have one day in Rocky Mountain National Park, you’re going to want to make it count.

The park has 415 square miles of territory to cover – which is quite a bit if you have one day in Rocky Mountain National Park. This gorgeous high-altitude park is home to some of the most scenic places in Colorado, so having a game plan for your day in Rocky is absolutely essential.

If you’re looking for trusted, local knowledge about how to plan your Rocky Mountain National Park itinerary, then you’re in the right place.

I visit this park at least 6 times a year. And considering that I’ve lived in Colorado for the past 12 years, you literally can’t find any better info about how to craft the perfect one-day itinerary in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Not to mention, as the 4th busiest national park in the country, Rocky Mountain NP gets crowded – like mega-crowded. So much so a reservation system is in place to enter the park.

It’s my mission to empower you to visit Colorado like a local, not a tourist. So if you want the secrets to beating the crowds with one day in Rocky Mountain National Park, then keep reading.

About this Local Guide to Spending One Day in Rocky Mountain National Park

Here’s what we’ll cover in this mega-guide to the best Rocky Mountain National Park itinerary:

  • Practical info for visiting Rocky Mountain np, including local tips for beating the crowds.
  • Info about the Timed Entry Reservation System for Rocky
  • The best time to visit Rocky Mountain National Park
  • Your ultimate one day in Rocky Mountain National Park itinerary for summer
  • Winter Rocky Mountain National Park itinerary for one day in the park
  • Where to stay
  • Nearby attractions
  • Additional local Colorado travel planning resources
One day in rocky mountain national park

Practical Info for Visiting Rocky Mountain National Park

Just 90 minutes from Denver, Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the most accessible parks in the US. When it comes to visiting Rocky Mountain National Park like a local, there are a few key tips you need to know to plan your trip.

Cost to Enter Rocky Mountain National Park

It’s $25 per vehicle to enter Rocky Mountain National Park or free with the America the Beautiful Annual Park’s Pass ($80 for 12 months). You don’t get any ins-and-outs, so once you’re in the park, plan on being there for the entire day. 

Rocky Mountain National Park is Not Dog Friendly

Dogs are not allowed off of the pavement, meaning you can’t take them hiking, to visit overlooks, or pretty much do anything but keep them at your campsite or in your car. Not really fair considering that dogs can easily overheat in vehicles. If you’re planning on spending one day in Rocky Mountain National Park, leave Fido at home.

You’ll Want to Be at the Park EARLY

If you want to beat the crowds at Rocky Mountain National Park, plan on being here well before sunrise. Some of the biggest trailheads fill up very early. Here’s a look at what to expect.

  • Longs Peak Trailhead: Fills by 2 am
  • Bear Lake Trailhead: Fills by 4:45 am (shuttle available)
  • Glacier Gorge Trailhead: Fills by 4 am (shuttle available)
  • Lumpy Ridge Trailhead: Fills by 8 am

Trail Ridge Road Closes

Trail Ridge Road is not maintained over the winter and you’ll want to check conditions before you plan to drive. Closures typically happen from October through early June.

Local Tip: Snow can last well into July, so be sure to check road conditions prior to heading out.

Leave it Better Than You Found it

As with all visits to national parks, you want to practice Leave No Trace. This means picking up your trash, staying on trails, not building rock stacks (cairns), following fire bans, not feeding wildlife, and not picking wildflowers. Always listen to signs and ranger directions to make your one day in Rocky Mountain National Park the most enjoyable experience.

Pack Your Lunch!

There aren’t many eating options inside of Rocky Mountain National Park. In fact, there’s only one small cafe at the Alpine Visitor Center. I’ve never eaten there, since it’s more time-effective to just pack your own lunch. If you’re going to spend one day in Rocky Mountain National Park, come prepared with a cooler filled with snacks, lunches, and drinks. Don’t forget a baggie for trash too!

This is Ute, Arapahoe, and Cheyenne Land

It’s always a great idea to educate yourself about the park’s original inhabitants. Three different tribes called this area home – the Cheyenne, Ute, and Araphoe people. The Ute were a nomadic bunch and one of their migratory trails – the Ute Trail is still in use today.

rocky mountian national park itinerary

Timed Entry into Rocky Mountain National Park

From May 28th through October 11th a timed entry permit is required to enter Rocky Mountain National Park. If you’re visiting the Bear Lake Corridor, you’ll need a special timed entry permit for just that area (it’s also good for the rest of the park, so you’ll only need the special Bear Lake Corridor permit).

Timed entry permits are free, but you’ll need to pay to enter the park as well. You can reserve your spot online one month in advance, starting on the first of the month. So for July, you can snag your spot starting June 1.

Local Tip: If you’re planning on entering Rocky on weekend, reserve your permit the day they open up in order to get your desired time slot.

One Day in Rocky Mountain National Park Itinerary for Summer

With just one day in Rocky Mountain National Park, you can see a lot of the park’s top spots. This itinerary is a full day that delivers you amazing mountain scenery, wildlife spotting opportunities, and scenic driving.

Sunrise Hike

Start your one day in Rocky Mountain National Park right with a sunrise hike! No matter what level of hike you’re looking for, you can savor the sunrise in RMNP.

Local Tip: The Glacier Gorge Trailhead typically fills up before 4:30 am in the summer – especially on weekends. Nearby Bear Lake Trailhead will also be full by 5 am. Both trailheads require a special timed entry permit after 5 am from mid-May through mid-October.

Easy Trail – Nymph, Dream, & Emerald Lake

The hike to Emerald Lake is an iconic hike in Rocky Mountain National Park, and hiking it at sunrise is simply spectacular. This is an extra special Colorado lake hike, because along the way to Emerald Lake, you’ll also pass Nymph Lake and Dream Lake. You get three alpine lakes for the price of one 3-mile hike!

You’ll need to get an early start to see the sunrise, which is a good thing, because this trail starts at the Bear Lake Trailhead, one of the most popular areas in the entire park. If you get there early enough, you might be able to snag a parking spot, otherwise, you’ll have to take a shuttle.

From the trailhead, you’ll veer to the left (away from Bear Lake) and make your way to Nymph Lake. Continue on the well-marked trail to Dream Lake, where you’ll want to pause to take a few pictures of the gorgeous view. But don’t get too distracted before heading onto Emerald Lake in time to watch the sky catch fire as the sun rises over Hallett Peak.

Local Tip: As one of the top hikes in US national parks, this one sees quite a bit of traffic.

one day in rocky mountain national park itinerary

Moderate Trail – The Loch/Sky Pond

For an absolutely stellar sunrise hike, make your way to The Loch. This is truly one of the best hikes in Colorado, offering simply spectacular views along the way, topped off with a gorgeous alpine lake.

Start from the Glacier Gorge Trailhead (wake up extra early to avoid the crowds) and head along the trail to Alberta Falls. Enjoy the waterfall, then continue to climb up to a beautiful valley where you can see mountain peaks all around. Once you reach The Loch, you’ll find plenty of places to sit and enjoy the sunrise, illuminating an incredible look at the Cathedral Spires formations.

If you have more time before the sunrise,  you can continue on the trail to Sky Pond for more breathtaking scenery.

Local Tip: Many people consider Sky Pond to be difficult, especially if you aren’t acclimated to the altitude. However, if you take your time, you’ll be able to reach this fantastic viewpoint.

Difficult Trail – Chasm Lake

One of the very best hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park, Chasm Lake is strenuous but absolutely worth the effort, even if you have to get an alpine start (aka well before the sun rises) to catch the sunrise at the base of the iconic Longs Peak.

Start this 8.5-mile round trip hike at Longs Peak Trailhead. The hike is steep and rocky, with around 2,500 feet of elevation gain as you make your way through subalpine forest and eventually exposed alpine terrain. The area is known for pikas, so keep an eye out to spot some of these cute little critters.

When you reach Chasm Lake, you will have an obstructed view of the Diamond on Longs Peak as it is bathed in the glow of the sunrise.

one day in rocky mountain NP

Have an Early Lunch

Make a stop at the accessible Sprague Lake for a tranquil lunch at an alpine lake. There are a few picnic tables and toilets here. The paved trail that winds its way around Sprague Lake delivers peaceful mountain views.

Take your time to smell the pines and soak up the beauty of the park around you.

Trail Ridge Road

After your morning hike, your Rocky Mountain National Park itinerary absolutely must include a drive along Trail Ridge Road, the highest continuous paved road in the US. This is one of the best scenic drives in Colorado, and it’s a perfect way to spend the afternoon in RMNP while seeing as much of the park as possible.

It takes about 2 hours to drive Trail Ridge Road one way, including traffic and stops. Here are some of the highlights and overlooks along the way (in order if you start from Estes Park).

Rainbow Curve

Take in the panorama of the Alluvial Fan, Beaver Ponds, and Horseshoe Park from this awesome overlook.

Forest Canyon

Check out views of the Continental Divide and keep an eye out for marmots and bighorn sheep in Forest Canyon.

Rock Cut

This overlook offers amazing views of alpine tundra, the Gorge Lakes, and Longs Peak. You can stretch your legs with a quick hike on the short Toll Memorial trail to get the best views.

Lava Cliffs

Here you can see the lava that created the geologic formations of the Rocky Mountains nearly 70 million years ago.

Gore Range

Get above treeline at this overlook for excellent views of the Gore Range.

Alpine Visitor Center

Sitting at 11,796 feet, this is the highest visitor center in any of the National Parks. The Cafe at Trail Ridge next to the visitor center makes a great place to grab lunch with views of the Fall River Cirque.

rocky mountain national park one day itinerary

Medicine Bow Curve

Check out the Medicine Bow Mountain Range (also known as the Never Summer Mountains) and views of Wyoming in the distance to the north.

Milner Pass

This overlook marks the Continental Divide at 10,759 feet. You’ll also see Poudre Lake, the source of the Cache La Poudre River.

Fairview Curve

Stop at Fairview Curve to look for elk who love to spend time in the marshy landscape of the Kawuneeche Valley.

Sunset Views

End your perfect one day in Rocky Mountain National Park with a breathtaking sunset view at one of these spots.

Many Parks Curve

Save the best overlook on Trail Ridge Road for last, and head to Many Parks Curve to catch a spectacular sunset. This spot is located 6.8 miles from the Beaver Meadows entrance to the park. From here, you can see Horseshoe Park, Moraine Park, and Estes Park, as well as the Mummy Range, Deer Mountain, and Longs Peak.

Lumpy Ridge

A separate section of Rocky Mountain National Park, Lumpy Ridge is an area with great hiking trails and some of the best rock climbing in Colorado. Hike to Gem Lake and scramble up the rocks to get a panoramic view and watch the sunset over the granite cliffs with Longs Peak in the distance.

Local Tip: This area is located very close to Estes Park and outside of the main area of the park. It’s an ideal choice if you’re tired from an early alarm and want some down time before sunset since you can stop in Estes and chill.

wildflower hikes in rocky mountian national park

Alternative One Day in Rocky Mountain National Park in Winter

When the peaks are covered in snow, the park takes on stunning scenes from a winter wonderland. If you’re looking for the perfect Rocky Mountain National Park itinerary for winter, check out this local line-up of must-see winter attractions in Rocky Mountain NP.

Catch the Sunrise at Dream Lake

As one of the top winter hikes in Colorado, seeing the sunrise at a frozen Dream Lake is what gives this hot spot it’s name. Continue a little over a mile further uphill to reach the stunning Lake Haiyaha. 

We did this hike on sunrise for New Years Day and despite the biting wind, the views still bring a smile to my face.

Local Tip: Pack PLENTY of layers and a thermos of something warm. It’s often very cold and very windy during the winter at this location.

rocky mountain national park winter itinerary

Visit Bear Lake and Sprague Lake

Once you’ve returned to the Bear Lake parking area take a gentle walk around Bear Lake, you can even see the tip of the peaks you were once right next to. 

Afterward, stop by Sprague Lake to get a zoomed-out view of the Bear Lake Corridor area. If you don’t want to hike for sunrise, Sprague Lake is an easily accessible sunrise spot.

Scope Out the Many Parks Overlook

Once you’ve had your fill of hiking, soak up the views at the Many Parks Overlook. Just beyond the overlook is the closure of Trail Ridge Road. If you’re into snowshoeing and cross country skiing, you can certainly walk or ski the road.

Sled at Hidden Valley

Did you know there’s an old ski resort in Rocky Mountain National Park? Pack your sled and go for a ride down one of the old ski hills at Hidden Valley. The parking area has a small warming hut and toilets.

Grab a Hot Cocoa at Kind Coffee

After a day in the park, head to Kind Coffee for a warm, cozy drink. Kind Coffee has an array of baked goods and toasty drinks on offer, perfect to warm those rosy cheeks!

Drive the Peak to Peak Highway

Just because Trail Ridge Road is closed doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a scenic mountain drive. Consider taking the long way back to Denver or go for an evening drive along the Peak to Peak Highway. As one of the top scenic drives near Denver, it delivers plenty of mountain magic.

When is the Best Time to Visit Rocky Mountain National Park?

You can certainly visit Rocky Mountain National Park throughout the year. However, if you’re looking to hit the highlights, I’d recommend visiting anytime from mid-June through September.

This also happens to be the most crowded time for the park. If you want to skip the crowds, April, October, and November are great times to check out the park.

Where to Stay

You’ll find a wide variety of places to stay near Rocky Mountain National Park, in a wide radius of locations, from right inside the park to nearby towns including Estes Park, Lyons, and Granby.

Inside the Park

If you’re into camping and can snag a coveted campsite, you can stay right in Rocky Mountain National Park. The park has 5 developed campgrounds: Aspenglen, Glacier Basin, Moraine Park, Timber Creek, Longs Peak. Which one to choose depends on where you’ll be exploring – and where you can find an available spot!

Wilderness camping in RMNP is allowed in many designated areas, including Bear Lake and Longs Peak. A permit is required for all backcountry camping in the park.

rocky mountain national park in one day

Outside the Park

The most famous place to stay near Rocky Mountain National Park is The Stanley Hotel in Estes Park. The lodging is luxurious, but the hotel might be haunted – or at least it was in Stephen King’s The Shining.

For a more modern experience, check out the A-Lodge in Lyons. The “A” stands for adventure, and this hotel makes a great basecamp for exploring Rocky Mountain National Park and the surrounding areas. The “adventure concierge team” can even help you book outdoor activities from rock climbing to river rafting.

A little further afield in Lyons – with emphasis on the word “little!” – you can stay in one of the unique tiny homes that make up WeeCasa. From the sleek Ski Haus to the adorable Gnome Home, you’ll surely find the perfect tiny house for you to spend a night or two.

If you want to stay on the west side of the park, you can go glamping in Granby in the yurt village at the YMCA Snow Mountain Ranch. Each yurt can sleep up to 6 people, and you’ll get a picnic table, fire ring, and access to the communal bathhouse.

Nearby Attractions

While you won’t run out of things to explore in one day in Rocky Mountain National Park, you’ll also discover plenty of amazing places nearby, so you might need to extend your trip!

Estes Park

The eastern gateway to RMNP, Estes Park is the perfect place to have dinner during your one day in Rocky Mountain National Park, then stroll along the Riverwalk to wind down your day.

Granby

On the western side of the park, explore the mountain town of Granby and spend some time boating, fishing, or swimming on the waters of Lake Granby.

Peak to Peak Highway

Drive from Estes Park through the Front Range on this scenic byway, which passes through Allenspark, Nederland, and Clear Creek Canyon, making it one of the best scenic drives near Denver.

Indian Peaks Wilderness

Located between Boulder and Rocky Mountain National Park, the Indian Peaks Wilderness is an amazing area for hiking and backpacking (permits are required) on the 133 miles of trails. 4th of July Trailhead is the starting point for many awesome hikes, including Arapaho Pass, Caribou Pass, and Diamond Lake.

Brainard Lake Recreation Area

Brainard Lake is popular for boating and fishing, and you can camp at Pawnee Campground. This is also the main trailhead for accessing Blue Lake, Long Lake, and Lake Isabella in the Indian Peaks Wilderness.

Additional Colorado Travel Planning Resources

Headed to Colorado? Get local travel knowledge with these resources:

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Visiting Rocky Mountain National Park but only have a day? If you only have a short time for your visit to Colorado's most famous national park, here's where to hike, what to do, and what to see in Rocky Mountain in one day.

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Meg aka Fox is a 30-something who's born to explore. Her mission is to get you out on your greatest adventure. She'd rather be dirty than done up.