Snow-capped mountains, icy lakes, rivers and creeks, waterfalls and wildlife. Rocky Mountain National Park captures it all and more.

We visited at the end of May, and there were sections of the park that were still not open because of snow – most notably, Trial Ridge Road and Old Fall River Road, both on the northern end of the park. In addition, Bear Lake—one of the more popular destinations in the park—was still partially covered with ice, and the trail around the lake was snow-covered, making portions of the trail too slippery and treacherous to pass. Plus, on the day we visited Bear Lake via the park’s shuttle system, it was COLD, windy, and snowy.

It was not nearly enough, but given the weather conditions and the closures, we only spent two days visiting the park. I’d like to go later in the summer to visit sections of the park we could not get to. Old Fall River Road, for instance, doesn’t even open until July, and we didn’t even think about going to the western section of the park (Grand Lake entrance) since we could not access it driving over Trail Ridge Road and it would have required us to drive down to the west side of Denver then over to Granby (2.5-3 hours from Estes Park).

We had some wildlife sightings—a young moose, most definitely elk, and a few different birds. The Magpie is a chatty, colorful bird. It might look like it is just black and white, but its wings are strikingly deep blue.

Here’s what you need to know about ENTERING Rocky Mountain National Park:

  1. As with other national parks, AN ENTRANCE FEE is required unless you have some type of national park pass. The park is now cashless, so a credit card is needed if you plan to pay the entrance fee or buy a national park pass at the entrance station.
  2. A TIMED ENTRY RESERVATION is also required during the busy season (2024: May 24 through October 20). It is $2.00 per vehicle. This park has two different kinds: “Timed Entry” and “Timed Entry + Bear Lake Road.” If you can get one, just go for the “Timed Entry + Bear Lake Road.” They are both the same price, but it keeps your options open for whatever you decide to do once you get into the park. You must reserve these through Recreation.gov.Generally, 60% of these 2-hour window timed entry reservations are available several (maybe six?) months in advance. The other 40% are released at 7:00 pm MDT the night before your chosen arrival date. Please visit Rocky Mountain National Park’s website and Recreation.gov for additional information.THEY DO NOT SELL TIMED ENTRY RESERVATIONS AT THE PARK ENTRANCES! YOU MUST RESERVE THEM ONLINE.
  3. They now offer a HIKER SHUTTLE RESERVATION service from the Estes Park Visitor Center in Estes Park to the shuttle system at the Park & Ride area on Bear Lake Road in the park. It is also $2.00 and is reservable at Recreation.gov.NOTE: We reserved this for one of the days that we went into the park. On the one hand, it was nice. Estes Park Visitor Center has a parking deck with plenty of parking. We could bypass the line of cars getting into the park because we were on a shuttle bus. We were driven down Bear Lake Road to the Park & Ride area to utilize the park’s internal shuttle system to go to Bear Lake, with stops at various trailheads (Glacier Gorge, Storm Pass, Bierstadt Lake, and Sprague Lake).ON THE OTHER HAND: We were carrying backpacks with water, a picnic lunch, and snacks. None of the stops had picnic tables, PLUS the weather wasn’t particularly pleasant, so we were lugging around heavy packs with no place to comfortably sit to eat. We would probably NOT do the HIKER SHUTTLE again since it goes ONLY to the Park & Ride area on Bear Lake Road. And the shuttle system from this Park & Ride ONLY goes down Bear Lake Road. In the future, we will opt for the “Timed Entry + Bear Lake Road” and park at the Park & Ride area to ride the internal shuttle system. That way, we can keep our picnic lunch in our vehicle and return to it when we are ready to eat but not ready to leave the park.

A couple of other notes for those new to Rocky Mountain National Park:

  1. Bear Lake Road is considered a destination in and of itself. It is not far from the Beaver Meadows Entrance Station, but during the busy season (May-October), Bear Lake Road does have its own entrance gate where they check to be sure you have a Timed Entry Reservation specifically for it. Bear Lake is at a high elevation at the end of this road, but there are many stops and trailheads along the way. The Park & Ride area, which is about halfway down the road, is surprisingly huge and is where you can park your vehicle and ride the shuttle system up to Bear Lake (or one of the trailheads on the way to Bear Lake).
  2. There is NO FOOD to purchase in the park—there are no cafes, stores, etc. So pack plenty of food and drink in your vehicle so you can enjoy your day in the park.
  3. Some trails and campgrounds are on the eastern side of the park as you drive down Route 7 from Estes Park. Some require a time entry reservation, but only until about 2:00 pm.

We hope you find this information helpful, especially if your time at Rocky Mountain National Park is short. If you can, plan for 2-4 days there. Dedicate one day to stops along Bear Lake Road and the other days elsewhere. If you make it to the Grand Lake entrance, that will be a day or two in and of itself.

Most of all, tap into your wanderlust and enjoy soaking in the beauty surrounding you.

[Check out the beginning of our 2023 Summer travel adventure to Alaska: Alaska Road Trip – Installment 1 and see some of our travel videos at our Riveting Journey YouTube channel.]
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