From towering peaks to glassy lakes to herds of majestic elk, Rocky Mountain National Park has a ton to offer. The good news is, even if you only have a weekend you can pack in a ton of incredible scenery, gorgeous hikes and picture-perfect Rocky Mountain sunrises and sunsets. We’ve put together a 2-day itinerary of our favorite things to do in the park from sunrise missions to scenic drives to horseback riding. You’ll explore the park’s east side near Estes Park, as well as the west side near Grand Lake.
Rocky Mountain National Park requires a timed-entry reservation in addition to your park pass during peak season, which is from May 26 to October 22, 2023. Make your reservation early before they fill up. But don’t worry. If you don’t have a reservation, you can still enter the park before or after reservation hours, if you have camping reservations or are going on a guided tour.
DAY ONE ON THE EAST SIDE
Watch the Sunrise at Bear Lake
Bear Lake is a stunning place to watch the sunrise but getting up early isn’t just to see the world light up. The Bear Lake parking lot often fills up extremely early on summer mornings, so planning to get there in the dark gives you a better shot of snagging a parking space. Catch first light as it rises over Hallett Peak and Flattop Mountain by arriving at least 30 minutes before dawn. Follow the 1.1-mile trail around the lake until you reach a good viewpoint and then take in the show.
If parking is full, you can park at the Bear Lake Road Park & Ride and get on the first shuttle at 6:30 a.m. You may miss sunrise, but early morning views of the glassy lake are still worth it.
Hike to Emerald Lake
After watching sunrise, head back to the trailhead and follow the trail to Emerald Lake. This 3.5-mile roundtrip hike fits in a ton of incredible scenery in a short distance. You’ll pass Nymph and Dream lakes on the way to your final destination, Emerald Lake with the surrounding peaks reflected on its surface.
The trail gains 700 feet as it climbs to Emerald Lake, which sits at 10,110 feet above sea level. While this trail is relatively short, the altitude may make it feel much more strenuous. Pack at least two liters of water per person to help combat the effects of altitude.
Spot Elk in Moraine Park
After grabbing a picnic lunch in Estes Park and getting a dirty chai milkshake from Kind Coffee to keep you going, head to Moraine Park, a large open meadow where elk love to congregate. Stop at a pull-out and enjoy your picnic while try to spot one of these majestic creatures. If you’re feeling up to more walking, trails circle Moraine Park and offer great opportunities to spot elk and other wildlife. Park at the Moraine Park Trailhead to access them.
If you’re visiting from mid-September to mid-October, you might catch the elk rut, where male bull elk try to attract the attention of female cow elk. At this time of year, the bulls sport impressive racks and assert dominance by tussling with other male elk. You’ll also hear elk bugling across the park. It’s a great time to wildlife watch but be sure to stay at least 25 yards from elk and other animals while viewing them.
Take a Scenic Drive on Trail Ridge Road
After a day spent on the park’s eastern side, take Trail Ridge Road, the highest paved road in any U.S. national park, over the Continental Divide to the western side near Grand Lake. You’ll climb up and out of the trees and drive across the alpine tundra with expansive views of the Rocky Mountains all around you. At its high point, the road reaches 12,183 feet. It’s a beautiful drive in the evening light and worth catching the sunset from up high. If you’re nervous driving mountain roads, it may be better to leave earlier so you don’t have to drive the switchbacks in the dark.
Make sure to stop at the Alpine Visitor Center along the road. You can buy snacks, drinks and souvenirs here, but it does close at 5 p.m., so if you’re planning a sunset drive, the doors may be locked by the time you arrive. Follow the short Alpine Ridge Trail that leaves from the complex to take in the views and watch the setting sun. It’s often cold and windy above the trees, so make sure to bring a warm and windproof jacket and a warm hat for when the sun goes down. Listen for the high-pitched squeals of tiny pikas in the scree and a whistling call that means yellow-bellied marmots, a relative of the groundhog, are in the area. Both are extremely cute to watch.
DAY TWO ON THE WEST SIDE
Get On the Water at Grand Lake
While not technically in the national park, Grand Lake hugs the park’s western border and is the perfect way to spend a morning on this side of Rocky Mountain. Rent a pontoon boat at Headwaters Marina near downtown Grand Lake. You can cruise around the lake, or take the canal under Rainbow Bridge to Shadow Reservoir for even more time spent on the water. If human-powered is more your speed, rent a stand-up paddleboard at Rocky Mountain SUP or a kayak from Mountain Paddlers. Both outfitters are located near the marina.
The earlier you can get out on the water, the better. Early mornings mean calmer surfaces, making for a less bumpy ride and easier paddling. Keep your eyes peeled for moose and other critters as you explore the lake.
If you didn’t pack a picnic lunch to enjoy on the water, choose from a variety of restaurants in Grand Lake’s historic downtown. Whatever you decide on for lunch, make sure you stop by Miyauchi’s Snack Bar for an ice cream cone. Their inventive flavors like chocolate rosemary and lemon basil make them a favorite stop.
See a Waterfall
A short walk up the East Inlet Trail, you’ll find picturesque Adams Falls. Hike 0.3 miles with a little more than 100 feet in elevation gain and you’ll reach an overlook which gives you a great view down into a rocky chasm. Below, the falls drop 55 feet over several steps. You can turn around here for a quick nature walk, or head farther down the trail. Another half-mile brings you past most of the crowds to picturesque East Meadow. The trail continues for miles, so hike as far as you like before heading back to the car.
Go Horseback Riding
Head back to the park’s east side to Glacier Creek Stables (rockymountainhorserides.com), the only stables in the park. You can choose from a two, three or five-hour trail ride through the national park. The two and three-hour rides are offered in the afternoon. The two-hour ride is great for kids six and up, while the three-hour ride is better suited to kids 14 and up. If you’re interested in the longer, five-hour ride, rearrange your schedule since this one only leaves in the mornings.
Atop your horse, you’ll experience incredible scenery and hopefully spot wildlife as you explore the trails with your guide.
Since Glacier Creek Stables is inside the park, a trail ride reservation can be used to enter the park without a timed-entry pass. There are also horse stables in Grand Lake, Allenspark and Estes Park that will take you on park trails. For more information, visit www.nps.gov/romo/.
Download an official Rocky Mountain National Park map for basic road and attraction locations. Want a detailed topographical map of trails in the park? Buy the National Geographic Trails Illustrated Map for Rocky Mountain National Park at REI.com. The map includes trails, trailheads, points of interest, campgrounds, lakes and much more. Or get the Trails Illustrated Rocky Mountain National Park Day Hikes map with 16 detail maps, trail mileages and difficulty ratings. Both maps are printed on waterproof, tear-resistant material.