Rocky Mountain National Park & Beyond

Hike to Emerald Lake

We just returned home from one of the most beautiful places on earth, Colorado! Usually we visit this state in the winter for our annual snowboarding trip over the New Year, but this summer we decided to change up our plans and take our boys for a summer visit. I am so glad that we made this decision!

With that being said, since we changed up our original plans a little last minute, I felt completely overwhelmed planning this vacation and I hope that this post helps you with your plans. I had absolutely no reason to be overwhelmed, Rocky Mountain National Park is so easy to maneuver and everything is gorgeous.

I started by checking out the Rocky Mountain National Park website. Always check out the NPS websites, they include valuable information and webcams, etc. This summer you have to have a timed-entry ticket to enter the Park and there are two separate areas of the Park. Kind of confusing right, especially for first-timers! So, hopefully I can break this down for you in an easier way. Timed-entry tickets are available on the first of the month for the following month, so I got our tickets on June 1st for July. They are $2 for each day that you want to enter, plus you have to pay the park entrance fee once at the gate & I believe this is $35 for the week. If you have a 4th grader, they can get the 4th grade pass for FREE and your entire vehicle can enter the park! Click here for your 4th grade Every Kid Outdoor Pass. The Park only releases a certain amount of tickets each day and hold a couple hundred that go live at 5:00 pm for the following day. So, for example, if I wanted tickets for July 15th I could go online (on the Park’s website) on July 14th at 5:00 pm and TRY to get tickets for the following day. But these tickets go fast, so you need to be online and logged in to your account for a quick purchase.

There are a couple of different entrances to get into the Park, we always used the Beaver Meadows entrance coming in from Estes Park. You will need timed-entry tickets for this entrance (and all entrances) unless you arrive before 9:00 am or after 3:00 pm. When you enter here, you can drive along Trail Ridge Road from one end of the park to another, roughly 45 miles I believe. The views are stunning and there are several different areas to pull over and park to check out views or hike trails. You can get a Park map at the entrance and everything is nicely marked off with signs. I highly recommend driving this road at least once on your visit! We found so many neat places to stop for photos and some really great trails with short hikes! Make sure you have a full tank of gas if you plan to drive this road!

Photo from Trail Ridge Road

Once inside the Park there is another entrance area that requires timed-entry tickets unless you arrive before 5:00 am or after 6:00 pm and this is the Bear Lake Corridor. In my opinion, this is the most popular and beautiful area of the park, so be sure to get tickets for this area! Several of our “bigger hikes” were from this corridor. Once inside this area, there are places to park and hop on a bus to go to the Bear Lake parking/trails, but we were able to easily find parking at the Bear Lake parking lot. I was only able to grab tickets for 2 days in the Park, both times in the afternoon, and we still had the BEST visit!

Before I list out our itinerary for the week, here are some helpful tips/things you should make sure to bring with you!

  • Timed-entry tickets (printed or on your phone – make sure to screenshot because service is limited)
  • Dress in layers, it gets cold when rain moves in and out
  • Raincoats – thunderstorms pop up almost every afternoon, be prepared!
  • Water and snacks
  • Sunscreen / hat
  • Camera (my photos are from my iPhone)
  • First aid kit with Band-Aids
  • Binoculars  
  • Hiking boots / shoes
  • AllTrails App
  • Bring a backpack, you must pack out whatever you bring with you, so have something that holds trash

Our Itinerary for the Week

Now, for all of the details and the fun stuff! Since I booked this trip last minute, we were not able to stay very close to the Park like I had wished. I REALLY wanted to stay at the Stanley Hotel (where the Shining was filmed) in Estes Park, but there were no rooms available for our dates. So, we opted to stay in Boulder, CO and we really enjoyed that area. It took about an hour to drive from Boulder to RMNP, so that is the only downside if you don’t like being in the car a lot.

Day 1: We decided to explore the Boulder area on our first full day in Colorado. I used the AllTrails app to find a few hikes close to us and the boys wanted to visit Forsyth Canyon since it was a hike to a waterfall! The app literally gave us directions to the exact parking lot for the trailhead, so I can’t recommend this app enough! This hike was rated as an easy, 3.2 mile out and back hike, and the scenery was excellent! We did in fact hike all the way to the top of a waterfall and opted to walk back after that instead of hiking around and down boulders to the falls, only because we had our border collie with us and she was tired.

Above the waterfall

We also ventured into town and walked around Boulder Creek, which runs through town. The water was cold and flowing fast, but the kids had fun playing in and around the river. You can also get tubes to ride down the river, Jereme and I did this about 17 years ago! We knew the ride was a little crazy, so we didn’t let the boys do it this time!

Boulder Creek

Day 2: Our second day was our first trip to Rocky Mountain National Park! I had timed-entry tickets to the Bear Lake Corridor for 4:00 pm. We slept in and then headed to Estes Park. It took us an hour to drive, so we got there around 1:00 pm. I had a couple of hikes saved on the app again around Estes Park that were not in RMNP, so we decided to walk around Lake Estes before lunch. The views were stunning! Once our walk was over, we headed into town and had burgers and did some shopping. During this time, around 2:30 pm or so, a thunderstorm moved in, so we ran to the car and drove around the town. We saw so many elk out and about, it was really exciting and luckily the rain moved out fast!

Walk around Lake Estes
Elk in town!

We headed to the Park right before 4:00 pm, and didn’t wait in line for more than 5 minutes to enter. We drove right to the Bear Lake parking lot, used the restrooms at the trailhead, and began the hike to Emerald Lake, which is rated as a moderate 3.2 mile out and back hike. It was AMAZING!!!! This one is probably my favorite hike ever. We followed the signs along the trail and passed by two other lakes, Nymph Lake and Dream Lake, before getting to Emerald Lake. Our boys, ages 10 and 7, did great on this one. Check out these views!

Nymph Lake

Dream Lake

Emerald Lake

Day 3: I was not able to get tickets into RMNP for this day, see I told you they go fast! So, I found a hike near Boulder in a small town named Ward. Even though it was only about 25 miles from our hotel, the drive took about an hour through the mountains. We went to Brainard Lake Recreation Area to hike Isabelle Glacier. This area also requires timed-entry tickets and it costs $12 for those reservations. We had reservations for 2:00 pm for the Long Lake area, which is where the Isabelle Glacier trail begins. If you want to do this hike, make sure your tickets are for the Long Lake area, you will get a ticket if you park in the wrong parking lot (per the park ranger at the entrance). This hike is rated as a moderate 5.5 mile hike on the AllTrails app, but the sign at the trailhead only had it as 2 miles from the start of the trailhead. We absolutely loved this hike and it was quiet the adventure. When we got about 1.8 miles into the hike, a thunderstorm popped up and we put on our raincoats and hunkered down and waited out the storm. We had gone way too far to just turn around and head back! I am sure the views would have been so much better on a clear, sunny day, but we still thought the entire hike was breathtaking and really enjoyed this one!

This was along the trail to Isabelle Glacier

Waiting out the thunderstorm!

The end of the trail to Isabelle Glacier

Day 4: This day was my boys’ most favorite day! We rafted the Poudre River (near Ft. Collins) with A Wanderlust Adventure. We chose the Taste of Whitewater for beginner/immediate levels and we spent about 2 hours on the water. It was definitely and adrenalin rush and something that I am so, so happy we experienced! I mean, just check out the excitement from our photos! The price is $70 per person and they offer a full photo package for $55, which included about 50 photos and a video!

Day 5: This was our last day at Rocky Mountain National Park and we had tickets to enter Bear Lake at 2:00 pm. We decided to get up early and head to RMNP by 8:00 am so that we could enter without timed-entry tickets. We drove all of Trail Ridge Road on this day before we were able to enter the Bear Lake Corridor. The views were amazing, we pulled over at several different places, visited the Continental Divide, and did two short hikes between 8:00 am and 2:00 pm. We packed a picnic lunch and ate on one of our hikes, too.

Pull-off along Trail Ridge Road

This hike was right off the parking lot from the Continental Divide!
This is the Colorado River Trail Hike off of Trail Ridge Road

You will see animals everywhere in the Park!

At 2:00 we headed to Bear Lake and hiked to Alberta Falls. It was beautiful, a little crowded, but beautiful nonetheless. We loved just sitting and watching the waterfall before heading back. AllTrails has this hike rated as an easy 1.6 out and back hike. It was pretty easy, but the end of the hike is all uphill right before getting back to the parking lot and we saw a lot of people stopped for a rest in this area.

Along the trail to Alberta Falls

Alberta Falls!

The boys loved this trail!

From here, we decided to drive over to Sprague Lake (you will see the signs) because I really wanted to see a moose and my research kept pointing me in this direction. Sprague Lake is a super easy loop around a small lake and only about 0.8 miles total. We arrived around 5:00 pm and within about 25 minutes we got to see a mama moose with her baby walk through the water and find a place to stop and munch on grass! It was truly amazing and we probably watched these moose for almost an hour before they left the area! Please remember that with moose and bear, you should keep your distance! The park ranger told us that’s about 3 bus links away. We stayed with the park ranger and I just zoomed in on my photos. My day was totally made and we were all so excited to see these animals in their natural habitat!

This is the trail around Sprague Lake
Mama and baby moose!!!

Views around the lake

Day 6: This was supposed to be our drive home, but we just loved our summer visit so much that we decided to extend our trip and head to Crested Butte for a few days! It’s about a 4.5 hour scenic drive from Boulder! It was also truly amazing and I will blog about it soon! In the meantime, check out my favorite photos from CB below.

Mount Crested Butte
Views from Judd Falls trail
Slate River

Please feel free to message me with any questions if you are planning a trip to RMNP or Boulder! I am always happy to help and offer my advice and tips. We definitely did not see it all and I look forward to another visit, but I hope this information helps other first-timers or hikers with kids! Stay safe out there and Happy Travels!


5 thoughts on “Rocky Mountain National Park & Beyond

  1. Is it possible to really travel with a dog, what do you do with it when doing tours or other places that don’t allow dogs? My daughter and I are planning a road trip next year and she wants to bring her dog


    1. Hi! We just traveled with our border collie, on a 10 day trip, so it’s possible! We booked a pet friendly hotel & had to pay a fee. Our dog is extremely calm, fully potty trained, and very easy to travel with. You cannot hike many trails in RMNP with pets, so we never brought her on those days. She did do 3 other full days of hiking with us. When we did tours, she stayed at the hotel. Colorado is overall very dog friendly state!


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