The Perfect Springtime Rocky Mountains Itinerary
May 12, 2019
Table of Contents
Rocky Mountain National Park is an expansive piece of public land comprising 415 square miles of mountains, 350 miles of trails, scenic drives and more than 50 peaks that are over 12,000 feet. The park is only a quick hour and a half drive from Denver. It was the fourth most visited US national park in 2020. The variety of trails, the views above the treeline, the majestic wildlife and the endless nature makes the Rocky Mountains one of my favorite national parks!
As of this writing in July 2021, timed entry reservations are required for visiting Rocky Mountain National Park. Tickets for the following month go on sale on the first of the month prior. (i.e. tickets for September go on sale August 1). Reserve your tickets at Recreation.gov.
The mountains cause unpredictable weather in the Rockies. If you want to ensure the entire park is accessible, including the higher elevation areas, visit during peak summer in July or August.
During the spring and fall, some areas will be inaccessible but you’ll experience a bit less crowds. During the winter, the higher elevation areas get a lot of snow, ice and high winds.
Make sure to note the availability of the park shuttle and the accessibility of Trail Ridge Road when deciding the time of year to visit. The park shuttles typically run from May 27th to October 18th and the opening of Trail Ridge Road follows a similar schedule depending on weather.
I visited in early May 2019 and experienced heavy snow on some of the trails. However, I was still able to drive a good distance on Trail Ridge Road and experience the beauty of the area. It was nice to beat some of the crowds, but I found parking at the trailheads to be difficult without the shuttles. Overall, I think May is a great time to visit as long as you have the right gear and you’re prepared with backup plans if the weather doesn’t cooperate.
My trip to the Rocky Mountains was the first time I’ve hiked on snow and ice. It was difficult and would have been much easier with the right gear! If you are hiking in snowy conditions, make sure you are prepared.
- Bring or rent crampons, microspikes or snowshoes. For the hiking I did in May, microspikes would have been perfect. They clamp onto your hiking shoes and dig into ice to create traction. You can generally fly with microspikes in your carry on, but it’s up the discretion of the TSA agents. They are definitely okay in a checked bag. You can also rent microspikes and all kinds of gear in Estes Park. Check out Estes Park Mountain Shop for a variety of rental options.
- Another item that can help a lot in the snow is trekking poles. Trekking poles are not allowed in carry on luggage so be sure to check your bag if you bring them from home. They are also available to rent at Estes Park Mountain Shop.
- Bring sunscreen and reapply every two hours. On a snowy and sunny day, the sun reflects off of the snow and can expose you to double the amount of UV than usual. Also, be sure to apply the sunscreen on the bottom of your chin, we got burnt here from the sun reflecting upward! Finally, bring chapstick to protect yourself against dry lips in the cold.
- Wear many thin layers to keep you warm without overheating. It is best to have a synthetic base layer, an insulating fleece layer, a shell jacket to protect from wind and a puffy jacket as the outer layer. In May, it was chilly but sunny, so it was helpful to options with multiple layers.
Estes Park is a town at the base of Rocky Mountain National Park that includes a variety of accommodations, shopping, restaurants and activities for visitors. The town got its start with the establishment of a dude ranch in the late 1860’s, but it became a tourist destination when the Stanley Hotel opened in 1909. Ever since, it’s been a resort destination for all types of people and is the perfect town to stay or visit in as you explore the vast and awe-inspiring Rocky Mountains.
The Stanley Hotel is an iconic place to stay in Estes Park, CO. The hotel opened in 1909 and hauntings have been reported there since 1911. Most notably, the hotel inspired The Shining book when Stephen King stayed there in the 1970’s. There is said to be 8 haunted rooms, with room 217 and 401 being the most haunted!
The hotel has multiple buildings and four different options for accommodations. There is the original historic hotel, where you’ll find the haunted rooms and typically the most affordable rates. This is where I stayed! Also on the property, you can stay at ‘The Lodge’ which offers more modern and updated rooms with a boutique feel. Then there is the ‘Aspire’ portion, which has apartment-style rooms with kitchenettes. Finally, there are ‘Residencies’ which are more like condos with multiple bedrooms; great for a large group.
There are also four restaurants at The Stanley. You’ll find a la carte fine dining at The Cascades, 1,200 types of whiskey to try at the Whiskey Bar and delicious southern style breakfast food at Georgia’s. For coffee and quick snacks and gifts, there is Colorado Cherry Co in the main lobby.
If you’re staying at The Stanley for it’s paranormal activity, be sure to go on one of their tours. They offer day and night tours that tell stories of the historic hotel. I’ll talk more about the night tour in the itinerary below.
Staying in a cabin in Estes allows you to feel cozy while gazing up at the mountains. Check out Fall River Cabins, Solitude Cabins or Timber Creek Chalets for cabin rentals. Timber Creek Chalets offers dog friendly units at an additional fee.
Camping in the Rocky Mountains is also a great option to be close to the trails and enjoy the outdoors. There are three campsites you can reserve in advance; the Aspenglen, Glacier Basin and Moraine campgrounds. All three of these are close to Estes Park. You’ll be closer to the Rockies while still near to the restaurants and shops. Glacier Basin is the closest to the hikes I recommend below. Be sure to check several months in advance as they fill up quickly. There are also a couple first come - first serve campsites: Longs Peak and Timber Creek. Longs Peak is close to Estes Park and a good base point for hiking to this iconic peak. Timber Creek is deep in the park and accessible only during the summer.
Hike to Emerald Lake, have dinner in Estes Park and enjoy the Stanley Hotel ghost tour.
The Rocky Mountains have over 300 miles of trails. This will barely scratch the surface, but this is what I recommend if you are looking for hikes close to Estes that are accessible in the spring.
The hike to Emerald Lake is a popular and gorgeous hike 30 minutes from Estes Park. Note that the parking lot fills up quickly to make sure to get there early. You’ll pass by four lakes during the climb up, each one prettier than the last. The trail is 3.3 miles and when I visited in May it was covered with several feet of snow. The lakes were also all iced over, making for gorgeous scenery. At times it was hard to tell where exactly the trail was, but there were many other people around to follow.
At the base of the trail off to the right, you can walk around Bear Lake. As you ascend up the trail, you’ll pass by Nymph Lake, then Dream Lake and then Emerald Lake at the top. At Emerald Lake, you’ll be rewarded with beautiful views of Hallett Peak framing the lake and see skiers descend the mountain peaks. The entire trail has stunning views and this is an amazing hike for your first time visiting the Rocky Mountains.
I resorted to sitting and sliding down the trail on a coat a couple of times on my way down the Emerald Lake Trail. Once again, don’t make my mistake and be sure to acquire microspikes!
If you have time, Alberta Falls is a great add on to the Emerald Lake trail. Take a left from the Bear Lake Trailhead and the waterfall is a little less than a mile away. It is an addition of about 1.6 miles round trip. Alberta Falls is a beautiful waterfall that is especially cool to see frozen in the winter.
- Bierstadt Lake - The Bierstadt Lake trail climbs upward through some switchbacks and then circles around Bear Lake. It is 3.2 miles and right on the way to the Emerald Lake Trail. The views of the lake are stunning.
- Sprague Lake - The Sprague Lake trail is a flat .8 mile walk around the lake with beautiful views of the mountain peaks surrounding you. It’s a great short walk to tack onto a longer one nearby; it’s located just a few minutes from Emerald Lake and Bierstadt Lake.
- Sky Pond - If you are looking for a longer, more challenging hike, try the 8.5 mile Sky Pond trail. You can begin at the Glacier Gorge Trailhead or the Bear Lake Trailhead and pass Alberta Falls early on in the hike. There is a steep rock scramble at the end of the hike as you ascend to Lake of Glass and then Sky Pond, but you will be rewarded with incredible views. Make sure you have microspikes if you do this hike in the winter.
Personally I feel that a visit to a national park visitor center is a must while traveling. The Beaver Meadow Visitor Center is the closest to Estes Park. If you are in need of information, trail conditions or trail conditions, the rangers will be able to help you. It is also a place to learn about the surrounding nature and purchase a memorable souvenir to take home.
You can also purchase an American the Beautiful national parks pass at the visitor center! The park pass costs $80 and grants you entry into over 2,000 federal recreation sites. This is a great deal considering a one day pass into the Rocky Mountains is $25.
After a day of hiking, enjoy dinner in Estes Park.
- Sweet Basilico - If you are in the mood for comforting Italian food, Sweet Basilico offers a wide selection of pizza and pasta with views of the Big Thompson River.
- Dunraven Inn - Dunraven Inn is another Italian option with water views of Lake Estes. The walls are covered in dollar bills and the interior is made up of rustic wood with huge windows facing the lake.
- The Rock Inn Mountain Tavern - The Rock Inn Tavern serves American food with a great selection of salads, warm bowls and entrees. The restaurant gives you the feeling of being in a log cabin with wood beams and a warm wood-burning stove.
- Seasoned Bistro - For a high end dinner, check out Seasoned Bistro, an American restaurant with rotating dishes. They serve delicious food with exciting flavors and have a range of cocktails to enjoy with your meal.
Cap off your night with some paranormal occurrences at The Stanley. The night tour takes you through the main hotel along with a theater building next door. You’ll get many chances to take photos on the hunt for floating orbs and spirits. You might even see a door shut on its own. Other notable parts of the tour included exploring the tunnels in the basement of the hotel and visiting the ballroom where a piano is known to play by itself. I personally didn’t experience anything paranormal, but it was still interesting to tour the hotel at night.
As of March 2021, tours are limited to 10 people, masks are required and advanced reservations are needed.
Drive Trail Ridge Road, go on a short hike and have a drink in Estes Park.
Spend half a day driving as far as you can on Trail Ridge Road. Trail Ridge Road peaks at over 12,000 feet, well above the treeline. The 48 mile drive offers breathtaking views of the mountains and trees, and offers many opportunities to spot wildlife like bighorn sheep and elk.
The distance you’ll be able to drive depends on the weather and time of year. Typically the road is fully open from Memorial Day weekend until mid-October. When I visited on May 12, 2019, the road was open until the Rainbow Curve Overlook.
There are multiple scenic overlooks along the Trail Ridge Road drive. If you stop at only one, make it the Many Parks Overlook. This overlook is located at a hairpin turn so it has almost 360 views of the area. You’ll have views of the Bighorn Mountain, the Mummy Range and the alluvial fan (a rock field that was created by a 1982 flood).
The Trail Ridge Road is worth the time whether you can drive the whole thing or just a couple miles. It’s amazing to climb above the trees and see the landscape from above. I was also impressed to see several feet of snow plowed right on the edge of the road, allowing cars to make the journey.
If you are looking for an easy hike on the way out of Estes Park, check out Lily Lake. The trail is just .8 miles and goes around the lake. There are also trails that ascend up the mountain a little bit and allow you to get a great view of the water below. Another option nearby is the 4 mile hike to Lily Mountain. This trail is actually located in the Roosevelt National Forest and not the national park, meaning you can bring your dog! The hike has a steep rock scramble at the end but rewards you with 360 views of Rocky Mountain National Park mountains and valleys.
The contrast of elevation between visiting Lily Lake and Emerald Lake the day before was stunning. There was no snow or ice at all at Lily Lake in May.
Another trail just a bit further south from Lily Lake is the Wild Basin Trailhead. This area is home to multiple waterfalls and lakes and tends to be less crowded than the hikes further north. Take the 5.3 mile trail to Ouzel Falls (in the winter, add an additional couple miles because the closer parking lot is closed for the season). On the trail, you’ll pass by Copeland Falls and enjoy incredible views of the surrounding peaks.
If you have time, Estes Park has some great breweries and wineries to relax after hiking.
- Rock Cut Brewing - Rock Cut Brewing has a wide selection of refreshing beer to enjoy in their taproom or patio. The brewery also has a variety of board games and a food truck parked right outside.
- Elkins Distilling Co - Elkins Distilling serves award-winning whiskey in a rustic atmosphere. Enjoy a sampling flight of Elkins’ many whiskey varieties or a delicious mixed drink on their dog-friendly patio.
- Snowy Peaks Winery - Sample a flight of delicious wines at Snowy Peaks. Enjoy your wine on their heated patio with a delicious charcuterie board.
Coming from Estes Park, I recommend taking the Peak to Peak Scenic and Historic Byway for amazing views of national forest land. The scenic byway was the first scenic byway established in Colorado and is 55 miles long. You’ll see rocky peaks, beautiful trees (great for fall foliage) and babbling streams. The drive will add more time to your trip, but it’s worth it for the views. Heading south, I took the drive on Hwy 7 until it turned into Hwy 72 and then turned onto Hwy 119 to head to Boulder. The scenic byway also continues south towards Denver.
If you are stopping in Boulder, I recommend checking out Avery Brewing Company. The brewery has a large facility with indoor and outdoor seating and serves great beer and food.
- There are so many incredible trails in the Rocky Mountains for all skill levels. You can hike to the 14 miles to the top of Long’s Peak, stick with short flat hikes, or anything in between. My favorite resources for finding hikes in the Rocky Mountains are All Trails, RockyMountainHikingTrails.com and the national park website.
- Ride the Estes Park Aerial Tramway. The tramway offers incredible views of the surrounding mountains and Estes Park. It is typically closed until the end of May and has not operated during Covid-19, so be sure to check if they are open before planning this activity.
- Go whitewater rafting. This is another activity that is only available in the warmer months (June - August) and hasn’t been open during the pandemic. If you are visiting in the summer post-pandemic, check out these experiences. You can enjoy a full day trip on the Colorado River and experience wild rapids as you travel through incredible scenery.
- Combine your trip to the Rocky Mountains with a trip to Denver! Check out my two day itinerary for Denver to plan your trip.
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