There is a reason over 4 million visitors flock to Rocky Mountain National Park each year. The Park is chock full of hikes, road side photo ops, incredible vistas, and up close experiences with wildlife. Being in Winter Park puts you SO close to this magnificent national park. If you are starting to plan your trip to Winter Park, make sure to carve out a day to explore the Park. We love getting a slice of the great outdoors whenever we can and have done many day trips to Rocky Mountain National Park. Below is everything you need to know to make the most of a day trip to this amazing park.
Please Note: Rocky Mountain National Park will be implementing a pilot timed entry permit reservation system again for 2022. The system will begin on May 27, 2022. There will be two types of reservations available.
- Option 1 will be for Park Access Plus the Bear Lake Road Corridor (from the junction of Trail Ridge Road to the Bear Lake Trailhead), which will include the entire corridor and access to the rest of the park. This reservation period will be from 5 a.m. to 6 p.m.
- Option 2 is for Park Access, Does Not Include Bear Lake Road. This permit provides access to all areas of Rocky Mountain National Park, not including destinations along the Bear Lake Road corridor. This reservation period will be from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Permits issued using the reservation system will allow park visitors to enter the park within two-hour windows of availability. The reservation system will apply to all areas of the park.
First Things First – Plan Ahead
The first thing you will want to do is plan ahead. There is no wifi or phone service in large portions of the Park, so you don’t want to waste precious time trying to figure out where to go and what to do once you get there. Another important thing to plan for is leaving home early. Rocky Mountain National Park is about an hour drive from Winter Park and the parking lots fill up FAST, especially if you are wanting to do a hike. Even if you aren’t hiking, there is only one main road through the park and the RV’s and other folks that flood to the park every year are all trying to get there early too. It’s true what they say- the early bird gets the worm! Something else to think of ahead of time is hydration. You are at 12,000+ feet in Rocky Mountain National Park and that type of altitude can really cause problems if you aren’t properly hydrated. Start drinking plenty of water the day before your trip. Finally, if you are doing any hiking, you will want to make sure to pack some rain gear, even if the weather isn’t calling for rain. There are regular afternoon thunder showers in the summer and you don’t want to get caught off guard when a gully washer passes through.
For the Non-Hikers
Just want to see some beautiful sights and not break a sweat? Driving Trail Ridge Road through the park is one of the most sweeping, majestic mountain drives you can find. You don’t even have to leave the comfort of your car to make the trip well worth it. Plus, the drive is littered with spots to pull over and snap a great picture. Keep your eyes peeled for Rainbow Curve, Forest Canyon Overlook, Lava Cliffs and Many Parks Curve just to name a few. Throughout most of the summer there are still patches of snow at the top, so go ahead and have yourself a summer snowball fight while you are up there. Not many people can boast that they have done that! Keep in mind that Trail Ridge Road is only open from Memorial Day through mid-October. Click here to view a time lapse video of the drive.
Please Don’t Touch
One of the most spectacular things about Rocky Mountain National Park is the amount of wildlife there is right at your fingertips….well, not exactly your fingertips because you don’t want to get too close, but you are guaranteed to see some from your car window! Every time I have driven Trail Ridge Road I’ve seen multiple elk and sometimes herds of up to 200! One of the Park’s most prevalent animals is the elk and what a treat to catch a glimpse of them during rutting season! Sometimes you can hear them before you see them when they make their distinct high pitched bugling calls. It is a truly unique experience and Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the only places you can get this close to it. Click here for more information on the wildlife that call Rocky Mountain National Park home and for some wildlife etiquette.
If you are traveling from Winter Park, you will enter Rocky Mountain National Park on the West side after you pass through the town of Grand Lake. For this blog I have chosen hikes I love on the West side so you can get there earlier and get a parking spot. For those of you who want an easy hike option, I highly recommend Coyote Valley Trail. Being only one-mile round trip and relatively flat, this trail is appropriate for all age and skill levels. When I say all skill levels, I mean it. It is one of two wheelchair accessible trails in Rocky Mountain National Park. This hike offers beautiful views of Kawuneeche Valley and crosses over The Colorado River. On top of all that you will get views of Never Summer Mountains and, fingers crossed, some wildlife. Another easy hike if you are wanting to squeeze one in on your round trip over Trail Ridge Road to Estes Park, is Big Meadows. Park at Green Mountain Trail for this 3.6 mile round trip hike that has some really cool views. Big Meadows is the largest montane meadow in Rocky Mountain National Park which means elk, deer and even moose can often be spotted grazing there.
Local’s Tip: locals often go after 3pm to just do a drive or quick hike. In the summertime it stays lighter, longer. Go after dinner and watch for wild elk!
Looking for something a little more challenging? Gotcha covered. Check out Cascade Falls. These falls are about a 40 or 50 foot drop through a narrow chute and are breathtaking. The hike is 6.8 miles round trip and the difficulty level is moderate. Once you get to the falls you can view them from below or from above. To get to the views above the falls you have to do some scrambling so please be cautious. The hike to Granite Falls is another one I recommend highly. This hike is 10.4 miles round trip so depending on how fast you hike, you might not have time to do much else in the park on your day trip. Get ready for picturesque views, lovely evergreen forests, wonderful paths along a creek, and, of course, a waterfall. A bonus with this hike is that you will see Big Meadows along the way. That’s a 2-for-1 hike!. There are TONS of other hike options In Rocky Mountain National Park, so if you want to find one that sounds more appealing to you click here for a list and descriptions of other hikes.
Pit Stops at the Park
Someone in your group will inevitably need a pit stop along the way. There is a Visitor Center towards the beginning of each entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park and the Alpine Visitor Center is at about the halfway point through the Park. If you are out and about hiking, there are some other interesting visitors centers sprinkled throughout the park as well.
If you aren’t planning on doing any hiking, I would highly recommend driving the whole length of Trail Ridge Road and grabbing lunch in Estes Park. This cute little mountain town is worth exploring and has one of my favorite book stores to pop in and chat with a sales lady about the latest good books. You can even call a friend and have them watch you LIVE on the Estes Park Taffy Cam! Want to take a different route back home? Take Old Fall River Road. This one-way, windy dirt road starts on the Estes Park side and takes you to the Alpine Visitor Center. On this route you pass the Alluvial Fan which is a .3 mile hike to get to but totally worth it.
There is really no reason NOT to go to Rocky Mountain National Park for the day. It truly has some of the best views of alpine splendor and wildlife the nation has to offer. If you have any more questions about the park or how to make the most of a day there, please call and talk with one of the employees at Winter Park Lodging Company. We are the experts!