Denver to Rocky Mountain National Park road trip… Where to start? Fly into the capital of Colorado, rent a car, and road-trip to the Rocky Mountains, exploring other incredible destinations along the way. It’s by far the best 5-day road trip itinerary that includes two of Colorado’s main points of interest: quintessential Denver and irresistible Rocky Mountain National Park.
Denver to Rocky Mountain National Park Road Trip: 5-Day Adventure You Must Go on when in Colorado
Rocky Mountain National Park was on my radar for our fall travel. I don’t remember how this area grew on me. But once I created a visual Colorado board, I couldn’t stop thinking of the towering mountains and alpine lakes the state was known for.
The next step was to decide how to get to Colorado. The closest big airport was in Denver. Unlike our other road trips to national parks, such as Spokane to Glacier or Boise to Yellowstone, this 5-day adventure would require significantly less time on the road. The distance between Denver and Rocky Mountain National Park was about 70 miles (1 hour 30 minutes).
For peace of mind, I checked other possible destinations where we could start this 5-day Colorado adventure. Nothing came even close to simplicity and convenience that a road trip from Denver to Rocky Mountain National Park would provide.
5-Day Road Trip from Denver to Rocky Mountain National Park. Is it Enough Time?
The road trip from Denver to Rocky Mountain National Park can be as long as a 2-week adventure or as short as a several-day Colorado excursion. Each place on this itinerary can ask for a minimum of one full day.
For those who don’t have more than a few days to spend in Colorado, the 5-day road trip from vibrant Denver to awe-inspiring Rocky Mountain National Park is certainly enough. In fact, you don’t even need all this time.
We spent nearly 5 days in Colorado. Technically, though, all our adventures, including the road trip from Denver to Rocky Mountain, could fit into 3 full days. You need the other 2 days to get to Colorado and fly or drive back home. For those who travel from nearby places, these logistic matters can take only one day or even less than that.
With that said, let’s dive into this 5-day road trip from Denver to Rocky Mountain National Park and see other destinations in mountainous Colorado along the way.
DENVER TO ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK: 5-DAY ROAD-TRIP ADVENTURE
5-Day Road Trip from Denver to Rocky Mountain National Park: Day 1 – Arrival
Spend the first day as efficiently as possible so you have more time to enjoy the state’s wonders later on. Start your Denver – Rocky Mountain National Park road trip with a flight to Denver International Airport.
This leg of the Colorado adventures took us approximately 2 hours 30 minutes. We left Los Angeles late in the afternoon and stepped on Colorado’s ground around 6:00 p.m.
Things to Know before Planning your Denver – Rocky Mountain National Park Road Trip
TIP: Since the airport is located approximately 40 minutes (25 miles) from the capital of Colorado, you are better off renting a car here. On the other hand, car rental prices are normally higher at the airport.
We skipped all landmarks of the capital on our first day of the Denver – Rocky Mountain road trip. Yet one place couldn’t wait. Heading into the Colorado’s wilderness, we made sure to stop on the outskirt of the city to stock up on some food for the next few days.
Budget Tip: Even those who prefer to eat out while traveling, should get water, some snacks, and everything they might need to pack their own lunches. While this step might be absolutely unnecessary in a city, it’s essential for the Colorado’s wilderness. King Soopers offers great variety of products and caters to locals and travelers with different dietary preferences.
Once the grocery shopping is done, you can finally leave Denver and head to Rocky Mountain National Park. The closest to the park towns are Grand Lake and Estes Park. Both of them are considered gateways to Rocky Mountain and offer multiple accommodations to suit different budgets.
Things to Know: Estes Park usually sees most road-trippers as it’s only 1 hour 30 minutes away from the capital of Colorado. To travel from Denver to Rocky Mountain National Park via Grand Lake, you need to extend your road trip and drive from 2 to 2.5 hours one way.
Tips for Colorado Road Trip in Fall and Winter
If you plan your 5-day Denver – Rocky Mountain National Park road trip in late fall or winter, Estes Park is your best option to enter the park. Set roughly 4 miles from the Colorado mountains, it provides you with access to some of the major landmarks and hiking trails in no time.
The areas closest to Grand Lake may be closed for the season at this time. To get to the popular Bear Lake Road Corridor from here, you’ll need to make a 3-3.5-hour detour. Last but not least, as we discussed earlier, the road trip from Denver to the Rocky Mountain National Park’s areas near Grand Lake is at least 2 hours long.
Where to Stay during 5-Day Denver – Rocky Mountain National Park Road Trip
Save time and spend the next few nights in one place. After trekking through the woods for hours on end, the last thing you want is to move from one hotel to another.
We spent 3 nights at Brynwood on the River. Our room was basic, but had everything we needed to recharge our batteries for the next few days of the nature-infused Colorado road trip. Furthermore, it had a small kitchenette that we definitely made use of.
5-Day Road Trip from Denver to Rocky Mountain National Park: Day 2 – Bear Lake Trailhead and Trail Ridge Road
Stop 1: Cub Lake
Instead of heading straight to favorite lakes in the Bear Lake Road area, we ventures to its lesser-known jewel – Cub Lake. A trailhead to this subalpine lake sits off Fern Lake Road in Moraine Park.
You can spend the whole morning of your first day of Denver – Rocky Mountain road trip admiring elk grazing on wide meadows right next to the road. Alternatively, limit this activity to 30 minutes or so and head deeper into the woods and eventually to your first destination.
Cub Lake nestles up in the mountains, 2.3 miles from the trailhead. While most of the hike is easy, the last stretch can literally take your breath away. So take it easy and slow your pace along this steep incline. Soon the trail levels out and the lake comes into view.
Stop 2: Bear Lake
Once back at the Cub Lake Trailhead, jump into your car and drive to the Bear Lake Trailhead. The area is dotted with the scenic alpine lakes and hiking trails, ranging from easy to strenuous. All of these surrounded by the majestic Colorado mountains…
Truth be told, you can spend most of the time devoted to the Denver – Rocky Mountain road trip here and barely scratch the surface of what the area has to offer.
The first stop is Bear Lake. The namesake of the entire region sits right behind Bear Lake ranger station. It allures visitors of all walks of life with panoramic views of Long Peaks and Hallett Peak. The 0.6-mile path is virtually flat and loops around the lake.
Stop 3: Alberta Falls
A left fork of the trail junction behind the ranger station brings you closer to some of the highlights of the entire Denver – Rocky Mountain road-trip adventure. The trailhead divides further into two routes.
Stay on the left trail here. Descending deeper into the woods, the 2-mile, round-trip path runs through a lodgepole pine forest and snakes between trembling trees in an aspen grove. Eventually, it stops at the bottom of massive rock slabs with roaring Alberta Falls behind them.
Stop 4: Trail Ridge Road
Those who road-trip from Denver to Rocky Mountain National Park during a peak season should stay in the Bear Lake area and explore other hikes. Parking in the national park is challenging at this time. So try to drive less and hike more.
TIP: For more recommendations, refer to day 3 of this Denver – Rocky Mountain National Park road trip itinerary. In this case, spend the next day in the Trail Ridge Road area.
If you trade the hustle and bustle of Denver for the serenity of Rocky Mountain in early fall, devote the second half of the day to driving along Trail Ridge Road. One of the highest paved roads in the country, the scenic drive stretches out for 48 miles, between Estes Park and Grand Lake.
The scenic drive is usually closed from early or mid-October though late May.
Stop 4: Estes Park
Finish the second day of your Denver – Rocky Mountain National Park road trip in the town of Estes Park. Slightly pricey, compared to other small towns in Colorado, it’s a great place to dine and shop.
For budget travelers who prefer to cook their own meals, it offers such grocery stores as Safeway to stock up on food if you haven’t done it yet.
5-Day Road Trip from Denver to Rocky Mountain National Park: Day 3 – Bear Lake Road Corridor and Estes Park
Stop 1: Nymph, Dream, and Emerald Lakes
Start the third day of your Denver – Rocky Mountain road-trip adventures with a hike to Nymph, Dream, and Emerald Lakes. The three-lake trail starts behind the Bear Lake ranger station (at the Alberta Falls trail junction). The 3.6-mile, round-trip hike includes trekking though a dense pine forest, sporadic patches of open areas, and rocky and wooden stairs at the steepest slopes.
While each lake adds its own unforgettable charm to the hike, you can stop and return to the trailhead at any moment. Some visitors, especially those who drive from Denver early in the morning to spend just one day in Rocky Mountain National Park, often wrap up this hike at Nymph Lake, saving the other two for another time.
Stop 2: Lake Haiyaha
Those to hike all the way to Emerald Lake may want to add Lake Haiyaha to their Rocky Mountain adventures. Following the Nymph, Dream, Emerald Lakes Trail for nearly a mile, the Lake Haiyaha Trail departs from the route at the Dream Lake trail junction. From here, it sprints uphill, zigzagging along a cliff edge with panoramic views of the Glacier Basin area below.
The 4.4-mile, round-trip hike is somewhat tedious and surely test those Denver – Rocky Mountain road-trippers that are not used to tramping uphill.
Stop 3: Bierstadt Lake
The next destination on your 5-day Denver – Rocky Mountain National Park road trip itinerary is Bierstadt Lake. You can reach this secluded alpine lake wilderness by trekking along a 1.6-mile trail that starts near the northern shore of Bear Lake.
If you long for some of the best photo opportunities in Rocky Mountain National Park, start your hiking adventure at the Bierstadt Lake Trailhead. The area sits 2.7 miles from the Bear Lake Trailhead and has its own parking lot.
Stop 4: Estes Park or Old Fall River Road
Finish the third day of the Denver – Rocky Mountain road trip in downtown Estes Park. The area is dotted with cozy restaurants, authentic gift shops, and ample places to relax after the 2 days in the mountains.
Alternately, you can drive along Old Fall River Road and soak up other sights of Rocky Mountain National Park. This route, however, works only for summer road trips. Mostly gravel, the 11-mile mountainous road remains close from early October until early July.
5-Day Road Trip from Denver to Rocky Mountain National Park: Day 4 – Boulder and Denver
Stop 1: Peak to Peak Scenic Byway
It’s hard to name this destination a stop as the byway starts in Estes Park and runs for 55 miles until it stops in Central City. The scenic drive presents different sights of Colorado beyond those that you see in Rocky Mountain National Park and Denver. The area is stunning any time of the year. In fall, though, it brightens up with a profusion of vibrant shades the season brings on.
Stop 2: Nederland
Drive time from Estes Park: 1 hour
42 miles into the scenic drive, and you are in Nederland. This small town enhances your road trip from Rocky Mountain National Park to Denver with its cozy coffee shops, historic train cars at the Train Cars Coffee and Yogurt Company, and overwhelming charm of rural Colorado.
Stop 3: Boulder
Drive time from Nederland: 30 minutes
Roughly 17 miles from Neverland sits Boulder. Surrounded by the Colorado’s rocky giants, this eccentric city makes your transition from serene Rocky Mountain National Park to bustling Denver as smooth as possible.
Spend a few hours strolling the streets of downtown Boulder. If time permits and you feel inclined to learn more about the city and its history, step inside the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art. Before you leave the city and head to your final destination, Denver, check out opulent decor of the Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse.
Stop 4: Denver
Drive time from Boulder: 30 minutes
Once back in Denver, you can forget about your Rocky Mountain National Park’s adventures for a while and dive straight into the bustling city life of Colorado’s capital. One of the largest cities in the state, it pampers you with some of the best restaurants and cafes, kitschy gift shops, and impeccable architecture.
Ideally, you need at least two days to sample and taste the urban vibe and glamour of Denver. But if your 5-day Denver – Rocky Mountain National Park road trip itinerary allows for only half a day, make the most of it.
Start your excursion with indulging in Colorado’s cuisine at numerous eateries in downtown Denver. Here you can also go on a shopping spree and pick up some souvenirs to take home.
If rich cultural heritage of the city calls you, head to historic Larimer Square or multifunctional Denver Union Station. Apart from offering transit services, the latter hosts some of the best shopping and dining outlets in the capital.
READ MORE: Highlights of Denver and Boulder in One Day
Denver – Rocky Mountain National Park Road Trip: Where to Stay
Denver boasts a myriad of hotels, motels, and resorts that can suit different budgets. Alternatively, you can stay in Aurora, located 13 miles from the capital of Colorado.
For those who have an early morning flight, look no further than Econo Lodge Denver International Airport. This budget hotel offers simple, yet comfortable rooms with free parking.
5-Day Road Trip from Denver to Rocky Mountain National Park: Day 5 – Departure
Our airplane back to California was leaving Colorado in the wee hours of the morning. If you stay in the state for a longer time, expand your Denver – Rocky Mountain road trip itinerary with a few destinations near the city. Some places to check out include the Buffalo Overlook and Golden Gate Canyon State Park.
5-Day Denver – Rocky Mountain Road Trip: Map
The Best Time to Set off on Denver – Rocky Mountain Road-Trip Journey
The area between Denver and Rocky Mountain National Park is accessible all year round. Similarly, most of the roads and trails within the national park welcome the visitors during all seasons, rain or shine.
Keep in mind, though, that snow may slow you down. You may need to skip some of the destinations outlined in this Denver – Rocky Mountain road trip itinerary due to heavy snowfalls and seasonal road closures in winter.
Fall brings the area to life, adorning it with vibrant yellow, red, and orange hues. It’s by far the most glamours time of the year to go on a road trip though Colorado.
Other Things to Know before Going on a Road Trip from Denver to Rocky Mountain National Park
Timed Entry Permit
As of the summer season of 2021, a timed entry permit and an entrance pass are required to enter Rocky Mountain National Park from late May through mid-October.
Change of Clothes
The weather in Denver and Rocky Mountain National Park can vary drastically. While the city may still boast warm, sunny days, the mountains are often conquered by gusty winds, frequent rains, and occasional hail by this time. So pack for both warm and cold seasons, especially if you’re going on a road trip from Denver to Rocky Mountain in late fall or early spring.
Make Your Own Meal
Packing your own lunches can certainly save you money. More time on your hands is another advantage of cooking for yourself instead of depending on local restaurants and cafes that sometimes are hard to find.
I’d encourage you to try some of the local delicacies in Denver. In Rocky Mountain, though, rely on your own cooking skills and a small kitchenette in your hotel room.
Parking Issue in Rocky Mountain during Summer Season
Start the 2 days you spend in Rocky Mountain National Park early (this is not so relevant to your adventures in Denver or Boulder). During the busy summer seasons, parking lots here fill up quickly. So claim your spot at sunrise or use park shuttle to get around.
Snow Chains in Winter
The snow chains are required to drive on the snow-covered roads between Denver and Rocky Mountain National Park in winter.