With our travel plans all thwarted due to this lousy pandemic, we had to improvise our lives quite a bit. There were no shows or festivals to attend and our passports suddenly became fun little notebooks. As we wrote about in our summer recap, we looked to the great outdoors to scratch our travel itch.
After visiting the Great Smoky Mountains, Black Canyon of the Gunnison, and the Great Sand Dunes, we tacked on one more national park before heading back to Mexico. Here’s a recap of our Rocky Mountain National Park glamping adventure with some tips on how to craft your own RMNP itinerary.
RMNP Video Tour
Be sure to read on for a detailed guide on getting to Rocky Mountain National Park, where to stay, some of the best hikes in the park, and more. But first – check out our awesome video tour of RMNP!
This is the first video we’ve shot in 4K with our new toys and we’re pretty proud of it!
Denver to Rocky Mountain National Park
The Colorado capital is the closest major city to RMNP. Your options for getting from Denver to Rocky Mountain National Park are basically renting a car or taking a shuttle.
There’s no public transportation to the park, but there is a shuttle company that will get you from Denver to the Estes Park area. They have several times a day from the airport and can also pick you up downtown at the train or bus station.
This shuttle service isn’t exactly cheap, at $55 one-way or $90 round-trip. Plus you still need to get around town and the massive national park.
That’s why we recommend just renting a car for your RMNP adventure. It’s possible without your own wheels, but you’ll have a much more enjoyable trip with them.
If you can’t rent a car or just don’t want one, you can make it work with the shuttle. The town of Estes Park has free public transportation during the peak summer season, which will get you into Rocky Mountain National Park. Click here for more info and to book the shuttle.
From there you can use the park’s free shuttle service to get to different trailheads. One important thing to note is that there’s no shuttle service along Trail Ridge Road or on the west side of the park. Without a rental car, you would need to sign up for a tour to see that side of RMNP.
Since it was just the two of us and we weren’t camping, we reserved a micro SUV from Avis. When they handed me the keys to a Mini Countryman, I was a bit surprised. It turns out that it’s actually a subcompact luxury crossover SUV and the first of its kind from BMW!
Rachel was skeptical and a bit disappointed at first but ended up loving the Mini by the end of the trip. It wound up being the perfect vehicle for our RMNP adventure.
Where to Stay In or Near RMNP
Originally, we had planned to do some Rocky Mountain National Park camping. We brought our double-decker air mattress out to Denver and even borrowed camping gear from friends.
Mother Nature had different plans, though…
Due to the wildfires in the area, campfires were banned when we visited. That fact coupled with low evening temperatures in the fall deterred us from staying in one of the Rocky Mountain National Park campgrounds.
There are plenty of campsites at and around RMNP. You can reserve spots at Aspenglen, Glacier Basin, and Moraine Park in advance for $30 a night. These tend to book up quickly so be sure to plan ahead. Click here to view your options for Rocky Mountain National Park camping and book your spot.
In addition, there are two campgrounds that are first-come, first-served. These are Longs Peak and Timber Creek, which is the only campground on the west side of the park.
While we decided not to camp, we still wanted to have a Rocky Mountain National Park adventure on a budget.
There are plenty of nice hotels and condos in Estes Park and Grand Lake, all of which were out of our budget range after an expensive month.
I jumped on Airbnb and began searching around for more affordable options near RMNP. When I found some awesome looking teepees on a ranch going for just $50 a night, I jumped on it and booked two nights.
Glamping Near RMNP
I guess you can call 2020 our “summer of glamping,” as we ended up doing it three different times. First we stayed in an RV near the Smokies, then it was a yurt in Kentucky, and finally a teepee outside of Rocky Mountain National Park!
The teepees are part of the Parrish Ranch, a family ranch that once held big square dancing competitions and events. These days they mostly function as a wedding venue. They also rent out a few of the teepees on Airbnb and have RV hook-ups.
I made a wish list with the teepees along with a few other cool glamping options near RMNP. Click here to check it out and be sure to use our link if you’re not on Airbnb yet. You’ll get a discount of up to $65 on your first booking!
It’s a beautiful location along the banks of the Little Thompson River. This made for a great base for a few days of hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park, as it was about an hour to the Wild Basin area and a little more to Estes Park.
The teepees are made of wood and are covered in shingles, so they’re nice and insulated. This truly is glamping, as each teepee has a bed or two, mini-fridge, coffee maker, and microwave. We love camping and all, but this is the life!
We were fortunate enough to find availability at the last minute, as we visited RMNP during the week in the fall. Best of all, we got to chat with the owner for a while. She’s super friendly and told us the story of how the ranch came to be. We’re even thinking about renting the whole place out for a little “reunion” of our own next summer, so stay tuned!
Rocky Mountain National Park Pass
You need to have a pass to enter RMNP. It costs $25 for a 1-day pass for a car or a motorcycle. If you’re on foot or bicycle it’s just $15.
There’s also an annual Rocky Mountain National Park pass, which costs $70.
At that point, you might as well spend the extra $10 to get the America the Beautiful pass. This is good for all national parks and some 2,000 federal recreation sites in total.
We bought the pass back in 2013 when we visited several national parks such as Zion and the Grand Canyon. Since we were going to three parks in Colorado in September alone, we decided to grab one again this year.
It’s valid until next September so we’re hoping to hit Yellowstone, Grand Tetons, and several other parks while we have it. You can click here to order yours online, but be aware that they need to ship it to you. These are also available at national parks all over the country.
Hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park
Of course, the main attraction of RMNP is enjoying the great outdoors! There are countless Rocky Mountain National Park hikes to choose from. In total, there are 355 miles of hiking trails at Rocky Mountain National Park.
These range in difficulty and length so there’s a hike for everyone here. Some trails are flat and easy loops of half a mile or so, such as Bear Lake. Others are quite steep with lots of elevation gain.
Click here for a complete list of Rocky Mountain National Park hikes.
If you’re not used to the high elevation, you may want to take a few days in Denver to get acclimated before heading to RMNP. We’re pretty used to it after living in Kunming and doing things like hiking to Machu Picchu. It can really mess you up if you’re not!
Also, make sure you stay hydrated when hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park. I got a new Osprey day bag with a hydration pack that fits 3 liters of water just for our Colorado trip and it was a great purchase!
Definitely make sure you’re prepared for the unpredictable mountain weather as well. It’s good to have layers and a raincoat or windbreaker. Just because it’s sunny and warm in town doesn’t mean it’s that way on top of one of the mountain trails!
So what are the best hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park? It’s really up to you! Generally speaking, you can break it down into three categories – lake, waterfall, and summit hikes. With a few days to explore RMNP, you can mix it up and do a few of each.
Other Things to Do in Rocky Mountain National Park
You don’t have to be avid hikers like us to enjoy a visit to RMNP. One of the most popular things to do here is driving the scenic Trail Ridge Road. It connects Estes Park in the east to Grand Lake in the west and has some unbelievable views along the way.
Bikes are also allowed on most roads in RMNP. There are no bikes for rent in the park but you can find rentals in Estes Park. This is only recommended for experienced riders.
Wildlife viewing is high on most people’s list of things to do in Rocky Mountain National Park. You might spot elk, bighorn sheep, and moose on a visit to RMNP. There are also some 280 different species of birds in the park.
Other popular activities in the Rockies include horseback riding, fishing, and rock climbing. There’s plenty to do in and around the park to keep you busy for several days.
Our 2-Day RMNP Itinerary
We only had a quick 2-day trip from Denver and timed entry later in the day, so we focused on hiking. If they’re still doing the timed entry when you read this, I recommend trying to book well in advance. Ours was between 3-5 PM and even getting there right at 3 didn’t give us very much daylight.
With the later entry, we got to go check in at the teepee first and explore the ranch a bit. From there we drove into the nearest town of Lyons to grab some lunch. The original Oskar Blues Brewery is there so we decided to head there for some tasty food and smooth drinkin’ beer.
We actually drank their hard seltzer called Wild Basin all summer long after a friend introduced us to it. It wasn’t until our RMNP trip that we realized it’s actually named after a part of the park! We couldn’t resist grabbing some so we could actually enjoy a Wild Basin in the Wild Basin.
It’s about a 45-minute drive from Lyons over to the Wild Basin. This is one of the lesser-known areas of Rocky Mountain National Park, so it’s a good place to come if you want to escape the crowds!
We pulled up to the trailhead at around 4:00 and it was raining. Of course, we forgot our raincoats back at the teepee. After waiting it out for a bit, we decided to go for it. Thankfully the sun came out shortly thereafter and we enjoyed a nice, albeit short hike in the Wild Basin.
With the sun going down, we didn’t make it all that far on the trail. We ended up hiking about 3 miles round-trip and had some great scenery along the way.
After the hike, we made it back to town just in time to hit the market before they closed. For a quick and easy dinner, we picked up some instant pho and vegetable curry with rice. Along with some pints of Sip of Sunshine (one of the best beers in the country), it was a pretty good dinner!
The next day we had plenty of time to kill until our 3 PM entrance to the park. We decided to take the scenic way and stop at Carter Lake. When we realized you need to buy a pass just to drive down there, we opted to just fly the drone instead and keep moving.
It took us about an hour and a half from the ranch to get to Estes Park. This is far and away the busiest, most touristy area of RMNP. We hit the grocery store there to stock up on supplies for the day before getting in the massive line to enter the park.
We got a lot of recommendations from friends to do Alberta Falls and the Loch, so that’s where we went. It’s a beautiful drive from the park entrance to Bear Lake, where you can park and jump on the trailhead.
This is a very popular spot as the loop trail around Bear Lake is quite easy and there’s a big parking lot here. It can fill up quickly but we managed to find a spot as it was later in the day.
Wanting to stay away from the crowd, we skipped the Bear Lake loop trail and headed off towards the falls. It thinned out pretty quick, but we kept our masks handy for passing other hikers.
It was a moderate 3-mile hike from Bear Lake to the Loch. We lingered at Alberta Falls for a while, playing with Rachel’s new gimbal and taking pictures of the fall foliage.
By the time we finally got to the Loch, the sun was going down. We had just enough time to enjoy our little picnic lunch and another Wild Basin before turning around and heading back down the trail.
The last half mile or so was done in the dark with the lights on our phone. By the time we got out to the parking lot, the place was practically empty.
Back at the teepee, we zapped our coconut curry soup and had a few drinks before calling it a night. We managed to hike 9 miles in just two days in RMNP, even with our late entry.
On the way back to Denver the next day, we decided to stop in Boulder for one more hike. We grabbed some lunch and a beer in town and then hiked up to the Third Flatiron with a friend and his dog.
It was a beautiful view from the top and a solid end to another Colorado adventure!
Have you ever been to Rocky Mountain National Park? Tell us about it in the comments!