Rocky Mountain National Park in 8 hours

If I’m being honest I could spend a week, easily, in Rocky Mountain National Park. We had one day to take it all in after attending a wedding in Fort Collins. I had one major goal for the day: drive the Old Fall River Road.

In the 8 hours we spent in the park, we had to stay on the main roads for most of it. That said, you can only see a peek of the park without some serious backcountry hiking anyways. If you look at a map of RMNP, you’ll notice the entire interior is road-free. That’s amazing for the wilderness of the park, but it does limit what you can see up close (from the road).

Rocky Mountain National Park sign

We started our day at the Fall River Entrance after traveling through Etes Park from Fort Collins. 

The Old Fall River Road is the first automobile road into Rocky Mountain National Park’s “high country.” It opened in 1920. As  history and natural resources lovers, we just had to drive this historic trail road!

The Park Service’s website describes the road as more of a nature trail, accessed by car. The road 9 miles long, one-way (uphill), and slightly tricky to find in your GPS. Use this map link to see the exact starting point. Be prepared to spend some time traveling the road, as the speed limit is only 15 mph due to the sharp turns, narrow spots, and gorgeous vistas.

Small purple wildflowers with a vibrant yellow center.

We only stopped to smell the flowers once or twice on the way up, but given all day I might have stopped as many as 8 or 9 times. After the long and winding automobile nature trail, you’ll find yourself at the Alpine Visitor Center. This place is PACKED.

All of the visitors who drove the main scenic byway (Trail Ridge Road) will meet you at the visitor center. There were many more visitors than parking spots and we had to wait for about 20 minutes to get a spot. Can you skip the visitor center? Yes, but it has clean bathrooms, real food, and AMAZING VIEWS.

A wide valley, rimmed in snow pack, in Rocky Mountain National Park
View from the Alpine Visitor’s Center

After the Alpine Visitor Center, we asked the Park Ranger directing traffic which direction on the Trail Ridge Road offered the best scenic view on the way to Denver. Sadly it was nearly 2PM and we needed to at least start heading to Denver for our flight that evening.

The Park Ranger recommended the Alpine Visitor Center to Etes Park section of the Trail Ridge Road. It was breath taking. I’ve spent a lot of time in the mountains and these views were no joke. About a mile away from the visitor’s center you’ll cross the road’s highest point at 12,183 ft above sea level. Every turn you make along Trail Ridge Road is a scenic masterpiece.

Note: Both the Trail Ridge Road and Old Fall River Road close for more than half the year, due to harsh winter conditions.

Check to see if the road is open when you want to visit:

A young couple, in their thirties, pose for a portrait on the summit of a mountain.
MJ and I at the top of one of the many trails off the Trail Ridge Road.

We stopped at the Tundra Community Trailhead for our only summit hike of the weekend. It was day three above sea level for us, so we were hoping that it wouldn’t lead to headaches and regrets. I was okay, but the husband wasn’t so lucky. The short summit hike took us Floridians about 45 minutes to get up, piddle around and take some photos, and decide it was time to get back in the car. 

We spent time taking breaks, reading the ecosystem informational signs, and watching wildlife. You may hike it quicker if you take fewer stops or if you live at elevation.

A #GoProSession video from the summit of the Tundra Community Trail

Getting back into the car after the Tundra Community Trail, it was evident that the altitude, the trip’s lightning fast schedule, or serious lack of humidity had caught up with MJ. So, I drove us out of Rocky Mountain National Park while he napped. It was a great time to really reflect on the beauty of our National Park System and sing along to the radio with the windows down. 

Leaving Rocky Mountain National Park was hard to do. As frequent campers and backpackers, we love getting out into the wilderness of a park and really connecting to it. There wasn’t time for that, this trip, but I’m certain we’ll be back. 

We had a few hours in Denver to take a whirlwind tour of the Denver Botanical Gardens. If you’re a plant nerd like we are, you will want to make time for that spot! Luckily, it’s open until 9PM in the summer but you need to pay your entry fee prior to 8PM, when the gift shop closes. I’ll write about that stop, soon. 

Have you camped in Rocky Mountain National Park?

Did you hike into the backcountry? I would LOVE to hear about it and start daydreaming about our next hike out west. Please share, in the comments below!

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Rocky Mountain National Park in 8 hours

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