A road trip from Denver to Rocky Mountain National Park takes you through some of the most breathtaking scenery this country has to offer. With so many things to do in Denver and the park, make sure to plan ahead for this inspiring journey so you can turn your attention to the unforgettable things to do ahead of you.
Planning Your Road Trip
Anyone who has traveled anywhere knows the importance of organization. Do your research before you arrive, so you're not rifling through rucksacks with no destination in sight.
What to Pack
You’ll want a pair of sturdy hiking boots or shoes that will get you into the Rockies. If the thrills of river rafting or kayaking are your thing, pack some water shoes as well. Traction or spikes for icy trails can be crucial if you expect to hike with snow on the ground.
Winter or summer, you can expect dazzling sunshine, so make sure you have sunscreen, a sunhat, and sunglasses. Bring a daypack to carry each day’s necessities, and stash a first aid kit in the bottom of that pack.
You’re going to also need insect repellent as well as plenty of water. If you plan on night hikes, you might want a star map (or a star app on your phone), as well as a headlamp for safety on the trails. And don’t forget your phone charger — especially if it's solar!
As for clothing, prepare for every kind of weather, and plan to dress in layers. Even in the summer, you might get rain. If you’re going during the winter months, prepare for the breathtaking beauty (and cold) that snow brings.
Pack a fleece and a rain jacket at least, and bring your winter coat, mittens/gloves, a warm hat, and ultra-warm socks for snowy weather. Jeans and other cotton wear aren’t your best choices; opt instead for layers made of moisture-wicking fabric.
Planning Your Itinerary
Your journey from Denver to Rocky Mountain National Park is a unique, personal one. You might want to explore the quaint mountain town of Estes Park and use this picturesque spot as your jumping-off point.
You can feel the electricity around the park’s many waterfalls, so include Ouzel Falls, Cascade Falls, or Adams Falls on your itinerary. If you love fishing, get yourself a license, and head to Lake Haiyaha or Fern Lake to tickle those trout. Rock climbing at Lumpy Ridge and Longs Peak provides a thrilling way to reach a peak.
Historic, scenic drives are a great way to introduce yourself to the park’s various ecosystems, and the 48 miles of Trail Ridge Road lets you visit all of them at once. You can also get off your feet (and go off-road) a different way with horseback riding and mountain biking.
And, of course, Rocky Mountain National Park is a major destination for hiking, whether you prefer a gentle stroll along a river or a challenging climb to an inspiring peak.
For any of these choices, you’re going to need some maps for your trip. The National Park Service offers a plethora of free, downloadable maps, including a map of the whole park plus trail guides for Bear Lake, Kawuneeche Valley, the Fall River area, Longs Peak, and Wild Basin. Summer and winter trail guides are available, as are snowshoeing and cross-country ski maps.
How Long Does It Take to Drive From Denver to Rocky Mountain National Park?
While the excitement will make it feel like you're there in a jiff, the journey is about 70 miles. Plan on 1.5-2 hours of travel time from Denver to Rocky Mountain National Park — just long enough to blast through your favorite road trip playlist.
Your most direct route from Denver to Rocky Mountain National Park takes you through Boulder via I-36 and the Denver-Boulder Turnpike. The longer route, U.S.-287, keeps you off the interstates but adds another 20 minutes to the journey. Of course, plan on extra time if you’re traveling through inclement weather.
Best Time to Visit Rocky Mountain National Park
Spring makes its presence known in a dramatic way at Rocky Mountain National Park, as wildflower blooms explode with color and beauty.
Hiking trails open up in the spring, though Trail Ridge Road is typically closed until May. By late spring, you should be able to start rock climbing.
During the spring months, you may be treated to the delightful spectacle of baby moose, deer, and elk toddling their way through meadows. And if you want the park (mostly) to yourself, this is the time of year to avoid crowds and commune with nature almost solo.
Summer in Rocky Mountain National Park is the height of peak season. All the ranger-led programs are active, and you can enjoy access to areas of the park that are rarely open, such as Ute Trail and Chasm Lake.
If you’re a backpacker, head to those higher elevations to admire amazing wildflowers and free-flowing waterfalls. You’re likely to spot wildlife all through the park — and if you like to fish, the trout are biting all summer long.
Stunning autumn foliage will take your breath away once temperatures drop at Rocky Mountain National Park. Hillsides will quiver with gold when the aspens start to turn in late September, and elk will emerge from the woods for mating season — that strange bugling sound you hear comes from male elk sparring over females, so don’t get too close!
Autumn is also a wonderful time for hiking, especially before the first snow in late October. Pull out your fishing rods for close encounters with trout at Dream Lake, Glacier Creek, and Roaring River.
Scenic Attractions Along the way
While Rocky Mountain National Park is a destination worth the journey, you can enhance your enjoyment by checking out these scenic attractions on the road from Denver to the Rocky Mountains.
1. Lookout Mountain
Astonishing views beckon in every direction from Lookout Mountain. And yes, you can drive all the way to the peak if you don’t want too much delay in your trek from Denver, Colorado, to Rocky Mountain National Park.
Boulder is on your way to Rocky Mountain National Park from Denver. Stop for a coffee or microbrew at Pearl Street, a pedestrian haven that’s the heart of Boulder’s social life. You might plan your visit around one of the city’s many beer fests or art fairs, or check out the town’s thriving music scene.
And take a moment to marvel at the Flatirons. You can’t miss them — they’re the huge, slanted wedges of sandstone that hover over the city, visible from just about everywhere. You can get amazing views from Chautauqua’s meadows, or you can dust off your trekking poles if you have time for a little extra adventure.
Depending on the route you choose from Denver, Colorado, to Rocky Mountain National Park, you may pass through the charming, historic town of Lyons, home to plenty of public art and art galleries. If you have time for a life-changing farm-to-table dinner, the famed Blackbelly Farm Dinner at Lyons Farmette will have you salivating for more.
Wow-Worthy Circus Acts!
Get ready to be amazed in Denver! Jaw-dropping Cirque du Soleil performances are just a click away.
Accommodation Options Near the Park
Rocky Mountain National Park demands more than a one-day visit to soak in everything to see and do — and that means finding a high-quality place to stay. Whether you prefer luxury lodging, rustic camping, or the cozy intimacy of a B&B, the area around the park will make sure you’re well cared for.
1. Estes Park
You don’t have to rough it when visiting Rocky Mountain National Park — not when you have luxurious resorts available. The Estes Park Resort lives up to its name with a spa that’s likely to tempt you off the mountains.
Della Terra Mountain Chateau also prioritizes its body treatments, and it offers a wide variety of accommodations that make it perfect if you’re traveling with a large group.
Stephen King fans don’t have to think twice about where they’re staying, heading straight for the Stanley Hotel, which you’ll recognize from The Shining.
If outdoor fun is your thing, consider a cabin at the YMCA of the Rockies, which comes complete with archery, snowshoeing, and campfire programs. Cabins pair with luxury at The Evergreens on Fall River, where your private home-away-from-home is likely to offer a hot tub and fireplace.
2. Camping Sites
Rocky Mountain National Park's five campgrounds offer patches of land for laid-back travelers. Or, if you’re truly intrepid, you can make arrangements with the park to join wintertime backcountry camping treks.
Your other winter camping option is Aspenglen Campground. Plan to carry your own water in, and bring a shovel to deal with snow.
Summer camping brings many more choices. Longs Peak Campground, at 9,500 feet, is for the most seasoned tent campers, and you’ll need to make reservations. You also have to reserve your spot at Glacier Basin Campground, an ideal choice for hikers since it sits right at the start of several of the park’s most exciting trails.
Timber Creek Campground, the only camping spot on the west side of the park, is right on the Colorado River, so bring your fishing gear.
3. Local B&Bs
Romance is right in the name of Romantic RiverSong Inn, and the wine and chocolates you’ll find in your room add to the ambiance.
At The Inn on Fall River, you’ll hear the sounds of the stream right outside your window. The Allenspark Lodge invites you to stay in a quaint log cabin with an amazing home-cooked breakfast awaiting you each morning.
Activities in the Park
Rocky Mountain National Park is sheer bliss for nature lovers, no matter what season you visit. Check out some of the most loved activities the park offers.
1. Hiking Trails
There are amazing hikes for all endurance levels in Rocky Mountain National Park, and you’ll want to snap Instagram-worthy pics on each of them. Bear Lake Trail is a short, easy hike that’s kid-friendly, and Sprague Lake Trail is ADA-accessible and incredibly beautiful at the same time.
If you’re up for 2 or 3 miles of hiking, check out Dream Lake, or climb Deer Mountain, the easiest peak experience in the park, culminating in an out-of-this-world view as a reward.
You’re up for a major challenge? Then lace up those boots and climb to Sky Pond, way above the treeline, with lots of waterfalls on the way and a view that can’t be surpassed at the end of the trail.
The climb to Timberline Falls transports you into the world of glaciers and ultra-tall peaks. As a bonus, you can even scramble alongside the waterfall to reach the breathtaking Lake of Glass.
2. Wildlife Viewing
Dawn and dusk are the best times to spot wildlife in Rocky Mountain. You’re likely to see elk and mule deer throughout the park, especially in lower elevations. Head to Sheep Lakes for summertime views of bighorn sheep, and keep your eyes peeled for moose in the Kawuneeche Valley. Remember to stay three bus lengths away from large animals for safety.
Rocky Mountain National Park is also a birder’s paradise. Look for eagles and falcons along Trail Ridge Road, and head above the treeline to spot the elusive white-tailed ptarmigans.
3. Ranger-Led Programs and Night Sky Observation
Park rangers love to introduce visitors to the park with programs aimed at adults and kids. Learn about the animals and birds of Rocky Mountain National Park, the history of the park, or the intricacies of weather and wildfire — or join a ranger for a nature walk at Lily Lake, Sprague Lake, or Trail Ridge Road.
Kids can enjoy discovery hikes and pop-up junior ranger activities. The Rocky Mountain Conservancy offers in-depth classes, some of which even earn you college credit.
The amazing park rangers keep education going after hours as well with their Astronomy in the Park programs. Starting at the Upper Beaver Meadows Trailhead, you’ll get to view the thrilling universe above with no city lights to dim your view of the wonders overhead.
Making the Most of Your Trip
Rocky Mountain National Park invites you into a world of inspiring natural beauty and heart-pounding views. Plan your trip ahead of time to soak in the best of what you love about the Rocky Mountains.
And when you head back from Rocky Mountain National Park to Denver, keep the thrills coming with a visit to our shows in Denver.