A sunset view of Sprague Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park with tall grasses in the foreground the still water of the lake and mountain peaks in the distance

Three Day Hiking Itinerary in Rocky Mountain National Park

Plan your visit to Rocky Mountain National Park, learn about the best trails, how to prepare for elevation, and experience three days of unmatched alpine hiking.

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Pristine alpine lakes, evergreen forests and snow capped mountains make a perfect backdrop for hiking, which is why Rocky Mountain National Park is such an exciting destination. But how do you know which hikes are the best to do in RMNP? The choices might appear a little overwhelming, but don’t fear. We’ve put together a three day itinerary to guide your visit and ensure you cover the very best these mountains have to offer.

Early morning light hits a hill densely covered in evergreen trees with mountains in the distance in Rocky Mountain National Park

Our Rocky Mountain National Park Itinerary

Orientation to the Area

Two facts about Rocky Mountain National Park: it covers 415 square miles and it’s popular. Due to its size, it would be difficult to see the entire Park in anything less than a week, but three days serves as a great starting point and a way to check off multiple hiking trails.

Because of its popularity, especially during peak season (June through September), it will be busy. To mitigate this, the National Park Service has instituted a Timed Entry Permit System. Between late May and late October, you’ll need to secure a permit in advance.

There are two types of permits, Park Access and Park Access+. Both cost $2 and can be purchased online in the month preceding your visit. Passes also become available in limited quantities one evening prior to the valid date, in case you’re like us and sometimes prefer to fly by the seat of your pants.

The main difference between permit options is that Park Access+ allows you to visit the entire Park, including the Bear Lake Road Corridor, which is where the most popular attractions are. Another difference is the timeframe that a permit is required and allowances for re-entry.

Our advice would be to plan ahead, if possible, and secure the Park Access+. It costs the same and gets you into all areas of the Park beginning as early as 5AM. 

A sunset view of Estes Park Colorado with distant mountains from Gem Lake Trail in the Lumpy Ridge area of Rocky Mountain National Park

In case you weren’t aware, the Rockies are high. As in, lowest elevation of 7,860 feet high. 

Because of all this elevation there’s a good chance you’ll experience at least some mild effects of reduced oxygen. It’s hard enough working out at sea level. At elevation our bodies start complaining even more. The good news is that few people are affected much below 10,000 feet and our itinerary has been planned in a way that gives your body time to adjust before tackling any strenuous hikes.

Trail Ridge Road is the highest continuous paved road in North America and provides a path from east to west right through the heart of the Park. It crosses over the Continental Divide, which is the boundary line separating watersheds flowing east and west. It can be driven during warmer months, typically after Memorial Day and through October. This itinerary assumes you’re visiting during that time. There are amazing things to see and do in RMNP during the winter, but the season does come with road and trail closures.

Estes Park, a town with a population of about 5900, is just east of RMNP and an ideal jumping off point for exploring. There are plenty of hotels, restaurants, and grocery stores to meet your needs. Estes Park also has some attractions of its own worth visiting, including the Stanley Hotel, inspiration for Stephen King’s The Shining.

Day One

For the first morning in the Rockies you’ll want to have that Park Access+ permit handy, because we’re starting with one of the most popular features of the Park - Bear Lake Road. 

Choose your two hour entry window wisely. The earlier the better. Timed entry helps control the crowds, but parking is still limited and trails can become congested as the day goes on. 

Besides, everything in Rocky Mountain National Park looks even more impressive in that early morning light. So, set your alarm for before sunrise and, after hitting snooze a time or two, make your way in.

Enjoy the incredible views (even if it’s still a little dark) as you wind past Moraine Park, along Glacier Creek, to the Bear Lake Trailhead.

From here you have at least three options. Remember, you’ll still be acclimating to the higher elevation and will probably notice your lungs working harder even on flat ground.

The easiest trail to start with is Bear Lake Loop. This walk will only take about 15 or 20 minutes, depending on how long you linger to take in the view. 

The other low exertion options from here are Alberta Falls via the Glacier Gorge trail and the Emerald Lake Trail. The latter will actually take you beyond Bear Lake to Nymph, Dream, and finally Emerald Lake, with an optional 1.8 mile out-and-back to Lake Haiyaha.

It’s a rather easy 1.6 miles from the parking area to Alberta Falls and back. Even if you’re trying to ease into the next few days you can add this to the Bear Lake Loop. Alternatively, if you’re feeling full of energy and motivation, check off all these trails for a total up to 7.2 miles.

Trail Details:

Bear Lake Loop |  0.6 miles, 20 ft elevation gain, 20 mins

Nymph-Dream-Emerald (Haiyaha Lakes) |  3.2 miles, 702 ft elevation gain, 1 hr 45 mins (+1.8 miles, +324 ft)

Alberta Falls | 1.6 miles, 226 ft elevation gain, 45 mins

A cloudy early morning light looking over Nymph Lake surrounded by evergreen trees and mountain peaks looming in the background

Let’s talk about food. Any good hike should be closely followed by good food.

The afternoon agenda involves driving the famed Trail Ridge Road. That being said, the only food stop along that route is located 20 miles from Bear Lake Road at the Trail Ridge Store. They do serve fresh, made to order sandwiches, salads, soups and have plenty of snack options. 

However, if you’d prefer to eat sooner you can easily hop back into Estes Park and have your choice from a variety of restaurants. For a quick bite we recommend Boss Burgers & Gyros or Smokin’ Dave’s BBQ & Brew, less than 10 minutes outside the Park.

If you entered RMNP during the Timed Entry period with a permit you’ll be able to come back in, keeping in mind that you may have to wait in a long line at this point.

With some extra planning you could also pack a lunch, stop at one of the many picnic areas inside the Park, or take it along with you for the drive and eat at one of the overlooks or other stopping points.

You’ll want to allow four hours or more for the Trail Ridge drive itself, including stops. You’ll be taken from around 8,000 to up over 12,000 feet in elevation. Along the way, you can stretch your legs at numerous scenic overlooks, including Many Parks Curve, Rainbow Curve, Forest Canyon, and Gore Range.

A first person perspective from inside a vehicle driving down the Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park by Tevin Trinh

Photo credit: Tevin Trinh

Have another break and enjoy the views from Alpine Visitor Center, the highest in the National Park System. Next door is the Trail Ridge Store.

Continue on to reach the Continental Divide and then end this half of the drive at the Holzwarth Historic Site. Have a glimpse here at what life was like for a family of homesteaders in the early 1900s.

Once back in Estes Park, settle in for a relaxed evening and a meal. Great dinner options include the casual yet upscale Bird & Jim (reservations recommended) or The Rock Inn Mountain Tavern, a rustic spot with live music.

Day Two

The second day begins early again, this time with a moderate hike. With plenty of hydration and a good night’s sleep you should feel ready to tackle one or more of the following: 

Deer Mountain is a moderate trail that gives you the reward of panoramic summit views without venturing deep into the Park. It tops out at just over 10,000 feet looking out over Moraine Park and Upper Beaver Meadows. 

Bierstadt Lake Trail starts with a climb and then levels out for a flat walk around the lake with amazing views along the whole way.

Cub Lake is another nice option that begins adjacent to the open landscape of Moraine Park before venturing back into a steep valley where the lake is nestled. The trail is a great place to spot wildlife and a backcountry permit can even be obtained for an overnight at the Cub Lake campsite.

One final way to get your blood pumping on day two is the steady climb up to The Loch. The views at this alpine lake are some of the best in the Rockies. Just note that this constitutes the first half of Sky Pond Trail, so if you’re looking to complete that entire hike you’ll want to save it for day three.

Golden morning light over a view of The Loch Vale in Rocky Mountain National Park with tall mountains n the distance

Get some rest in the afternoon by picnicking at Upper Beaver Meadows (near Cub Lake and Deer Mountain) or Hollowell (up Bear Lake Rd from Bierstadt Lake).

Spend some time relaxing at Moraine Park, which used to be the site of a resort and golf course. If you’re fortunate enough to be visiting during the elk rut in September or October, find a place to park and, from a good distance, watch as bull elk compete for attention from the females. The sound of clashing antlers and the echo of a bugle call carry through the meadow, making for an unforgettable experience.

A woman stands facing away from camera in the foreground with a golden sunrise lighting up Moraine Park in Rocky Mountain National Park and a pink sky
@lorjorexplore on Instagram: Bull elk bugle call in Moraine Park

Finally, finish off your day in the Park with a stop at one of our personal favorites, Sprague Lake. For the level of scenery and easy access you get this lake can’t be beat. Take the time to stroll around the entire perimeter and marvel at the surrounding mountain views during golden hour.

Trail Details:

Deer Mountain |  6.0 miles, 1394 ft elevation gain, 3 hrs 30 mins

Bierstadt Lake |  2.9 miles, 620 ft elevation gain, 1 hr 30 mins

Cub Lake | 5.2 miles, 705 ft elevation gain, 2 hrs 15 mins

The Loch | 5.4 miles, 1062 ft elevation gain, 3 hrs

Sprague Lake | 0.8 miles, 36 ft elevation gain, 30 mins

A woman facing away from the camera on a rustic wooden pier overlooking Sprague Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park at sunsetReflection of evergreen trees on the perfectly still water of Sprague Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park at sunset

Day Three

With multiple hikes under your belt and a couple days of acclimation it’s time to finish strong. There are plenty of opportunities for longer trails and peak bagging in RMNP. We’re going to suggest some of the most scenic and highly rated treks under 9 miles:

Sky Pond Trail is at the top of the list. The sawtooth peaks surrounding this alpine lake and incredible views looking back down toward the Bear Lake Corridor from more than 10,000 feet of elevation are enough to leave you breathless. It’s not the only body of water you’ll encounter though. The Loch and Lake of Glass are equally beautiful stops along the way.

For much of the hike up Glacier Creek will be on your left and you’ll get to enjoy a view of Alberta Falls if you didn’t already make it there on day one. 

Once in the last half mile stretch, just beyond Lake of Glass, you’ll encounter Icy Brook, tumbling down over a 100 foot drop called Timberline Falls. Here you’ll need to scramble up the rock, which can become icy and slick depending on the weather. Be sure to bring traction if conditions call for it, which can be the case well into summer.

A female hiker stands posed on a rock in front of Sky Pond and the surrounding sawtooth mountain peaks in Rocky Mountain National Park

Another spectacular hike is Chasm Lake, located in the southeastern portion of the Park. Making the trip up to Chasm will give you close up views of Long’s Peak, the highest in RMNP.

It’s important to arrive here especially early. The popularity of this trail and the fact that you don’t pass an entrance station, meaning no entry permit is needed, can result in the parking lot filling fast.

Chasm Lake sits above the treeline in an alpine tundra environment. Once again, the elevation of this hike means that weather conditions can be unpredictable and the ice and snow will last late into the year. Traction may very likely be necessary.

For three miles you’ll be on the Long’s Peak Trail, at which point you’ll meet a junction for Chasm Lake Trail and a vault toilet.

During the last mile up to the lake there is a boulder field that requires rock scrambling, with rock cairns indicating the best path.

A photo by Andy Sanchez of low clouds hanging over the mountains on the Chasm Lake Trail in Rocky Mountain National Park

Photo credit: Andy Sanchez

A third option, also in the southeastern portion of the Park, is Twin Sisters Peak. The trail will lead you on a steep climb through subalpine forest above the treeline. It can become very windy above the trees and near the summit, but the pay off is yet another excellent view of Long’s Peak and its close neighbor Mount Meeker.

The same cautions apply for this trail however, if icy and snowy conditions exist on Sky Pond or Chasm Lake the trail to Twin Sisters may be in better shape.

Remembering our rule about good food following a good hike, we’re going to suggest that you cap off this trip with a meal in Estes Park. Visit Rock Cut Brewing and their daily rotating food truck for a high calorie meal and (if it’s your thing) a celebratory beer.

If you’re in town through the evening and don’t have to travel home, we have one last suggestion. We never like to let a good sunset go to waste. Just outside the main body of RMNP, north of Estes Park is a hidden gem. In fact, that’s its name. At the Lumpy Ridge Trailhead you’ll find Gem Lake Trail.

You can do the whole 3.8 mile hike, but at this point your legs have probably had just about enough. Take the trail up a mile or so into the Lumpy Ridge portion and find one of many scenic spots to watch the sun dip below the horizon.

Trail Details:

Sky Pond | 8.6 miles, 1771 ft elevation gain, 6+ hrs

Chasm Lake | 8.0 miles, 2552 ft elevation gain, 6+ hrs

Twin Sisters Peak | 7.4 miles, 2493 ft elevation gain, 5+ hrs

A woman in a red jacket stands on a boulder looking out over Estes Park Colorado and Rocky Mountain National Park from the Gem Lake Trail as golden light illuminates the distant mountains

The Essentials

Where to Eat Breakfast in Estes Park

We recommend breakfast on the go for each day of your visit to make the most of early morning conditions, smaller crowds, and to avoid afternoon storms. But, if you find yourself with a little extra time after 7 AM or, if you’re weird (just our opinion) and drink coffee in the afternoon, you’ve got to make a stop here:

Coffee on the Rocks | Right on the Big Thompson River with a private duck pond as well. Take your brew outside and enjoy it in one of many comfy seats near the water.

Where to Eat Lunch in Estes Park

There’s no shortage of dining options for lunch around Estes Park. We like to eat casual and quick when we’re doing a lot of hiking and want to maximize our time in the Park. Here are our top suggestions:

Boss Burgers & Gyros | Whether you like a gyro, burger, or a hot dog they’ve got it all. Great seasoned fries and onion rings as well.

Smokin’ Dave’s BBQ & Brew | Everyone loves a great BBQ restaurant, which is exactly what this is. Rotating selection of draft beers for your post-hike needs also.

Where to Eat Dinner in Estes Park

After a day of hiking, lunch is a necessity. Dinner should be an experience. Again, there are plenty of dining options to meet your preferences, but here are some choices that serve up a great meal:

Rock Inn Mountain Tavern | Relaxed, rustic atmosphere offering comfort food and live music.

Bird & Jim | Upscale but casual with locally sourced ingredients. On the pricier side, but absolutely delicious, with some affordable options.

Where to Get Dessert in Estes Park

The Sundae Saloon | You’ve probably never had a square scoop of ice cream before. Stop in here for a uniquely shaped treat that will also satisfy your sweet tooth.

Where to Stay in Estes Park

Cozy cabin getaways or the full hotel experience. They’re both available in Estes Park. Anywhere with a hot tub is where you’ll find us after many miles of hiking.  


Stanley Hotel | Beautifully preserved historic hotel with additional options for a more modern and luxurious stay. The inspiration for Stephen King’s The Shining and known for its paranormal folklore.

Best Western Plus Silver Saddle Inn | Cozy, newly remodeled rooms with impressive mountain views from the back. Indoor heated pool and hot tub.

The Maxwell Inn | Historic boutique hotel with a charming alpine feel. Has a community firepit and hot tub open year-round. 

Rental Properties

Updated Cabin in Amberwood Estes Park | A modern cabin with a rustic look and feel hosted by Amberwood Cabins. Located between Estes Park and RMNP. 

Secluded Mountain Cabin | Incredible views right along the Big Thompson River with a covered hot tub and seating area. Enough space for a family or small group.

When to Visit Rocky Mountain National Park

June through September is the high season in RMNP. Snow has melted in most places, lingering at the highest elevations. Trail Ridge Road is open to drive. Average highs during these months will be in the mid to upper 70s and lows typically dip into the 40s. Weekends during this peak season can see 50% more visitors, so if at all possible aim for a stretch of weekdays. 

The second half of September into the first half of October is incredibly busy, but for good reason. The elk rut is happening and the aspen trees are golden. Views are spectacular and the weather is enjoyable. 

Because of drastic seasonal weather changes RMNP is really lacking what would elsewhere be considered a ‘shoulder season’. The temperatures rapidly drop off after mid-October and the snowfall begins. 

Similarly, in early to mid May winter is still lingering. If you really wanted to avoid summer crowds you could plan a visit for late May when the mountains start to see their first signs of thawing, but should still anticipate a lot of snow and difficult conditions. Memorial Day weekend is also one of the busiest times of the year.

A Few Safety Tips


Because of the Rockies’ high elevations it’s important to acclimate your body as long as possible before any strenuous activity. Symptoms of altitude sickness are rare below 10,000 feet, so you shouldn’t expect to feel ill, but you will notice some difficulty even with normal walking or light hiking.

Here’s what you can do, starting well before your trip, to minimize the effects of elevation:

Stay hydrated. Drink twice as much water as you normally would. Make that: drink twice as much as you’re supposed to. None of us actually drinks enough water. 

Avoid alcohol, tobacco use, and any depressant medications such as sleeping pills. Save the beers to celebrate your last, longest hike.

Eat carbs! We got this from doctors, so it’s probably not even made up. Your body will use less oxygen while burning carbs, so now’s your chance to sneak in an extra pastry.

If you’re hiking and begin to feel symptoms (fatigue, nausea, headache, shortness of breath), start heading down to lower elevation immediately, give yourself time to rest, and hydrate.

Afternoon thunderstorms

During the summer afternoon thunderstorms are a regular occurrence. They begin to move in around noon and there’s a high likelihood of storms between 1 and 3 PM. This can be very dangerous for hikers, especially those above the treeline.

To avoid them, start your hike as early as possible. We love hitting the trail at or before sunrise anyway, because you get to see the views in the best lighting and avoid large crowds. 

Use the afternoon to relax and eat a few altitude-sickness-eliminating-cookies. (That’s how we’re justifying them from now on). Often the storms will clear and the skies open back up after 4 or 5 PM. 

Prepare for snow

Large amounts of snow can hold out in these mountains, even as late as June or July. Make sure you’re hiking in a good pair of waterproof boots that have decent traction. (Tennis shoe hikers.. why are you the way you are?) 

We’d highly recommend bringing a pair of microspikes or crampons in case you hit an especially slick area. It’s a pretty big disappointment when you want to check off a trail, but can’t complete it because you don’t have enough traction. We carry these Yaktrax Pro Traction Cleats and they’ve served us well.

Hiking poles are another option to help you keep your balance on the trail.

Packing for Trail Ridge Road

Don’t be caught unprepared for the drive down Trail Ridge Road. A few extra items in the car will make for a more enjoyable ride and could save the day in an unlikely emergency. Here are some suggestions on what to bring:

  • Hat, sunglasses, sunscreen, and window shades
  • Water & snacks
  • Extra layers, rain jacket or poncho, an umbrella
  • Portable chargers
  • Roadside emergency kit
  • Basic first aid kit
  • AAA membership
  • Camera!
  • Paper map and/or download the NPS app

Need some National Parks travel inspiration? Follow us on Pinterest for more.

A woman facing away from the camera on a rustic wooden pier overlooking Sprague Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park at sunset with text overlay that says Three Day Itinerary Rocky Mountain National Park

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