How to Experience Everything Rocky Mountain National Park has to Offer

AUTHOR: Connor Ursin with @nationalparktravelers

Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) is the third most visited National Park in the United States. And it’s not hard to get swept away in its beauty, especially in a rad GoCamp camper van!

With high alpine lakes, jaw-dropping mountain peaks in every direction, tons of wildlife, and miles on miles of trails to explore, there’s truly something for everyone!

Before you head out for a weekend camping trip or a day hike in the park’s stretching trails, here’s a guide with everything you need to know to experience Rocky Mountain National Park to its fullest.

What to Know Before You Go

Permits for RMNP

To visit RMNP from May 27-October 10, 2022, you’ll need to reserve a permit in advance. You can find a permit here. We recommend getting the Bear Lake Road Corridor + Full Park Access ticket so you can enjoy the popular areas of the park. 

Safety in RMNP

Altitude sickness is serious. It can be as mild as a light headache or as severe as vomiting and disorientation. If you’re coming from an area that’s at sea-level, try to ease into the bigger hikes towards the end of your trip once you’ve gotten accustomed to the elevation change. 

Pay attention to road closures, the park can still have snow well into July. RMNP provides updates on their website so be sure to check before your trip. 

Weather in RMNP

Expect unpredictable weather conditions. The temp can change by 20 to 30 degrees between high and low elevations, and summer thunderstorms come on quickly. If you’re hiking above the tree line, keep your eyes peeled for rain clouds forming. 

Can You Take Vehicles into RMNP?

To enter Rocky Mountain National Park, you will either need to purchase a seven day vehicle pass for $35 or an annual pass for $55.

If you plan on visiting at least three National Parks/National Designated areas within one year, you can purchase an annual America the Beautiful Pass at the entrance station for $80 which will cover 12 months of entrance fees into any National Park in the US.

Preservation

Please follow Leave No Trace principles when visiting. We’re all responsible for leaving these beautiful areas exactly how we found them and helping preserve the land for future generations ahead of us. 

The Best Time to Visit Rocky Mountain National Park

Each season offers a completely new feel, and this park is great year-round. But the best time to visit Rocky Mountain National Park is from June to September when the snow is (mostly) melted and the hiking trails and attractions are fully accessible. 

The Closest Major Airports to Rocky Mountain National Park

The best way to get to RMNP is to fly into Denver International Airport. From there, you’ll reach the Estes Park entrance in a little less than two hours. You can also enter RMNP from Grand Lake, but for easy access to the park and the most popular trails we’d recommend the Estes Park entrance.

Where to Stay in RMPN

Unlike most popular National Parks, Rocky Mountain has no in-park lodging. Your best bets are its two beautiful gateway towns: Estes Park to the east, and Grand Lake to the west.

We recommend Estes Park as you could spend days exploring this amazing town. Estes Park has many other offerings, ranging from rustic cabins, budget hotels, to luxurious inns. 

A gorgeous, shining lake is framed by mountains in Rocky Mountain National Park

Campgrounds at Rocky Mountain National Park

Longs Peak Campground 

  • Located about 20 minutes south of Estes Park.
  • This small (26 total sites), tents-only campground is forested and at a fairly high elevation of 9500 ft. 

Moraine Park Campground

  • Located inside Rocky Mountain National Park, near the Beaver Meadows Entrance, it’s situated on the north side of Moraine Park.
  • It offers beautiful views of the vast park and the surrounding mountains.
  • This campground requires reservations six months in advance during the summer months.

Best Hikes at Rocky Mountain National Park

Bear Lake

  • Difficulty (easy)
  • Distance (.6 miles)
  • Estimated hiking time (30 minutes)
  • Location (Bear Lake Trailhead)

This is the shortest, most popular hike in RMNP. A flat, easy walk that rewards you with beautiful views of Bear Lake. Note: Many other hikes start at or near this trailhead, Emerald Lake, Lake Haiyaha, Sky Pond, Black Lake, Fern Lake, Flattop Mountain, Hallett Peak. Adding on Bear Lake to these hikes is quick and easy! 

Alberta Falls

  • Difficulty (easy)
  • Distance (1.7 miles)
  • Estimated hiking time (1-1.5 hours)
  • Location (Glacier Gorge parking lot)

Alberta Falls is one of the easiest waterfalls to visit in RMNP. And one of the most spectacular. 

Alpine Ridge Trail

  • Difficulty (easy)
  • Distance (.6 miles)
  • Estimated hiking time (30 minutes)
  • Location (Alpine Visitor Center)

While this is only a 30-minute hike, don’t be fooled — this trail starts at 12,000ft elevation, and takes you up a set of stairs to the incredible lookout point. There you can expect to see plenty of Elk grazing below!

Gem Lake

  • Difficulty (moderate)
  • Distance (3.4 miles)
  • Estimated hiking time (2-3 hours)
  • Location (Lumpy Ridge Trailhead)

This short but strenuous hike leads you to Gem Lake with sweeping views of Estes Park in the background. An easy, must do hike. 

Nymph, Dream, and Emerald Lakes

  • Difficulty (moderate)
  • Distance (3.2 miles)
  • Estimated hike time (2.5-3.5 hours)
  • Location (Bear Lake Trailhead)

If you only have time for one hike in RMNP, this one should be it.

The first lake you encounter is Nymph Lake, then the crowd favorite Dream Lake, until you finally reach Emerald Lake, surrounded by the steep mountain walls. 

Odessa and Fern Lakes

  • Difficulty (moderate-difficult)
  • Distance (7.5 miles)
  • Estimated hike time (4-5 hours)
  • Location (Moraine Park Area)
  • If you’re looking for an escape from the crowds of RMNP. This 7.5 mile trail is perfect. Taking you to two beautiful lakes while gaining more than 1400ft elevation. 

Mills Lake

  • Difficulty (Moderate)
  • Distance (5.4 miles)
  • Estimated hike time (2-3 hours) 
  • Location (Glacier Gorge Trailhead)

One of our favorites from our trip is Mills Lake, a beautiful subalpine lake nestled just below Half Mountain. We watched plenty of trout swimming in the crystal clear water here!

Note: You will pass Alberta Falls on the way to Mills Lake. Once you pass Alberta Falls at about a half mile further, you will see the sign to continue for Sky Pond. 

Sky Pond

  • Difficulty (Hard)
  • Distance (9 miles) 
  • Estimated hike time (5-7 hours)
  • Location (Glacier Gorge Trailhead)

This is one of the tougher hikes in RMNP, but offers by far one of the best views in the entire park that will leave you with lasting memories. The ever-changing trail conditions will keep you engaged on this hike — there’s never a boring moment!

Other Hikes and Things to Do at Rocky Mountain National Park

  • Longs Peak (difficult)
  • Sprague Lake 
  • Mount Ida
  • Drive the highest elevation paved road on the United States to the Alpine Visitor Center
  • Explore the town of Estes Park 

Other Cities to Visit Nearby

If you’re making your trip to RMNP a full road trip, we’d recommend stopping at any of these nearby cities:

  • Boulder
  • Nederland 
  • Black Hawk and Central City 
  • Golden 
  • Longmont 
  • Loveland 
  • Denver
  • Grand Lake 

Hit the Road in a Camper Van this Summer

There are hundreds of National Parks to explore in the US — all with their own unique beauty to offer, epic trails, and stunning campgrounds. And to make the most of your next National Park trip, start with a fully outfitted camper van so you can just hop in and go!

GoCamp has the best camper vans for every adventure, no matter where you end up.

An incredible view of an alpine lake framed by evergreen trees and towering mountains