Rocky Mountain National Park in One Day

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Last August, in order to escape the Phoenix heat, Adam and I planned a weekend getaway to Colorado. Our original plan was to visit and explore Denver, but after some discussion we realized that seeing Rocky Mountain National Park was on the top of both of our to-do lists, so we stayed in Boulder instead. We had so much fun exploring the shops and restaurants in the city, walking around Pearl Street, and visiting the local breweries. Boulder is about an hour from Rocky Mountain National Park (and less than an hour from the airport), so it’s a great place to stay if the park is part of your itinerary. 


We accidently planned our visit to Rocky Mountain NP during a free admission weekend. We were nervous about crowds, so we decided to get an early start. I’m so glad we did that. We ended up being ahead of all of the crowds during the day and we were the only car on the road in the morning when this handsome guy stopped on the side of the road.


As we entered the park there were two cars in front us, way up ahead. Right after they passed, that elk came up from the bushes below and stopped right along the road as we approached. We both said it was one of our favorite moments from the trip.

Adam and I decided to start our day at Bear Lake. All of the articles I read said that the parking lot fills up early so we decided to head straight there first. We are so glad we followed this advice and I would strongly recommend doing the same if you ever visit. Don’t get distracted by the other sights along the way! You can stop on the way back. Anyway, the lake is just a short walk from the parking lot so it’s perfect if you or people in your group are unwilling or unable to hike much.


Bear Lake is absolutely beautiful and it was such a great place to start our day. The water is so clear and was so calm – look at the reflection of Hallett Peak in the water! We only walked around part of the lake, but the full trail is less than a mile and is rated easy.


Bear Lake is also where the trailhead for the Emerald Lake hike begins. There are so many different hiking trails that you can take in Rocky Mountain National Park (this site will help you sort by distance and difficulty). We looked at a few different trails, but we ended up picking the Emerald Lake hike based on convenience (we were already there and had a parking spot) and distance/time (the 3.5 mile hike only takes a couple hours and give us plenty of time to visit the rest of the park).


We also picked that trail because there are two other lakes on the way to Emerald Lake. The first lake is Nymph Lake and it’s a steady half-mile climb from the Bear Lake Trailhead. It’s a popular trail so a lot of it is paved and it would be a great short hike if you don’t want to do the full hike. I loved the lily pads covering the lake.


The trail to Dream Lake is fairly steep in some places and you gain a bit of elevation, but the higher trail leads to some amazing views along the way. It’s a little over a half-mile to the junction for Lake Haiyaha. Keep right and the foot of Dream Lake is just ahead.


The view is simply stunning and because we got an early start, there were only a few other people around so it was such a peaceful moment. The water is clear enough to see fish in the lake.
 
 
From there it’s on to Emerald Lake. The trail continues around the shore of Dream Lake, deeper into the Gorge. Just past the lake, there’s a series of steps and quite the altitude gain…the high altitude here is no joke! It’s about 0.7 miles to Emerald Lake, for a total of 1.8 miles…and it’s worth every step!


We shuffled across the rocks to the right and found a flat spot to relax for a bit. Hallett Peak is directly in front and Flattop Mountain is to the right. You can see waterfalls in the distance and with binoculars, climbers on Hallett Peak!


After taking in the view and surroundings we hiked the 1.8 mile return trip back to the car. Our next stop was Sprague Lake for our PB&J picnic lunch. We started to walk around the lake, but after seeing the other 4 lakes, Sprague Lake didn’t seem as impressive so we headed on to our next stop (sorry Sprague Lake).


After circling back on Bear Lake Road, we turned left on the main entrance road (US 36) towards Deer Ridge Junction. We took Fall River Road at the junction and headed to the Alluvial Fan. The drive through the park is so pretty. We pulled off a couple of times to take some pictures and check out the overlook areas.


Anyway, we did the short hike to the Alluvial Fan from the first parking lot, but later realized that there was another parking lot that was closer…oops! The alluvial fan was created when Lawn Lake flooded the area in 1982. It was interesting to see and I’d recommend it as a quick stop.


From there we took the Old Fall River Road up to the high country. Old Fall River Road is an 11-mile one- way dirt road that is only open part of the year. There are multiple switchbacks, some are very tight, and no guardrails along the road. But don’t worry, it’s safe and the road is pretty well maintained. We took our little rental Mazda up it with no problems. It’s a fun way to get more of a wilderness experience while driving through the park.



Well, we almost had problems. The last mile or so of the drive, it started hailing. By the time we reached the top, it was really coming down and turned to heavy rain not long after. I would have been a little nervous if we were still on that road during that weather…but we made it. At the top of the road is the Alpine Visitor Center. At around 12,000 feet about sea level, it’s the highest elevation visitor center in the National Park Service.


It’s crazy to see the change in landscape as you change elevation. The pine forest landscape is now alpine tundra. It was a lot colder up there and the high elevation was noticeable (especially with my asthma). The visitor center had some interesting exhibits on the tundra, a gift shop, and a cafeteria. We split a salad while we waited out the rain and prepared for our return trip.


Unfortunately, because of the rain our return trip down Trail Ridge Road was not as scenic as it normally would have been. We stopped at the Lava Cliffs to take a couple pictures, but a lot of the landscape was hidden by cloud cover.


Regardless, Rocky Mountain National Park is absolutely beautiful and we really enjoyed our day there. Hopefully we’ll make it back again so we can hike some of the other trails and explore the parts of the park that we missed on this trip. We were really happy with our itinerary for the day, so if you plan to visit someday, this would probably be a good starting point for your trip plans. I also want to mention a few tips: start early (you’ll beat the crowds and have more time in the park), bring your own food (there’s only a couple places in the whole park where you can get food), pack a jacket (it’ll be colder in the park than wherever you’re staying), and watch for wildlife.

 
 
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23 comments:

  1. Sounds wonderful. It's on our bucket list but when is still a mystery.

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    1. Hopefully you'll make it there someday soon!

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  2. My son lives in Denver so we've done RMNP a few times now. We've seen a good amount of wildlife - and even done it in the snow. But we've not done any hiking there yet so that's next on my list. It is a beautiful area of the country, isn't it?

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  3. Your photos are gorgeous! I am a fan of National Park but have not been to Colorado yet. I like that one lake is called Dream Lake. Seems like an ideal name. #TPThursday

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    1. Thanks Ruth! We are big fans of the National Parks too!

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  4. Pinned! Fantastic views, trails to suit everyone and you saw elk! You sure packed a lot into one day. I love national parks they are awesome. #Wkendtravelinspiration

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    1. I love the National Parks too! We bought a year pass last fall, so we'll be visiting a lot more National Park this year!

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  5. Gorgeous pictures!! this would be perfect for us, we love to hike with the little ones :)

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    1. I bet the little ones would love spotting the fish in the lakes!

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  6. Bear lake looks beautiful. Enjoyed reading about your hike in the Rocky mountain national park. #Wkndtravelinspiration

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    1. It's so beautiful! I couldn't get over how clear and calm the water was!

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  7. I've never visited an American national park and I so want to - looks so beautiful, and peaceful, there! #wkendtravelinspiration

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    1. Hopefully you'll make it to one someday! All of the National Parks that I've been to are amazing!

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  8. Even though it was cloudy for part of the day, that would have been atmospheric in itself. What a lovely day.

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    1. That's such a great way to think of a cloudy day!

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  9. Wow, your pictures as exactly what i would expect a national park in this part of the country to look like. Wonderful! hope to get there next time we are out that way.

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    1. Hopefully you'll get a chance to visit soon!

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  10. Oh. My. Gosh!! Take me there now!! Rocky Mountain NP is really high on our list too!! Well really all the National Parks are, but the CO parks in particular. Love this post!! Thanks for all the tips!

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    1. Visiting all of the National Parks is on our list too!

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  11. What a beautiful place to visit!

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    1. It's so beautiful there! Hopefully we'll make it back someday so we can check out the other trails!

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  12. I've always preferred adventure travel and nature sights over urban destinations. I haven't been to this park but I want to now! It's so beautiful!

    Global Girl Travels

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