Rocky Mountain National Park

When Is the Best Time

Rocky Mountain National Park can be visited year-round. However, every season has its advantages and drawbacks. Please make sure to read our full season guide below (including monthly weather), seasonal crowd tips, hotel suggestions as well as 7 must-know tips at the end of this article (scroll down).

Additionally, find tips for a great visit without a timed ticket in 2022 after the ‘avoiding the crowds’ section further below.

The best time to visit Rocky Mountain National Park is from mid-June to September. The weather is mostly pleasant during this period, with temperatures above 70°F (21°C). Additionally, snow has typically melted, and the hiking trails are accessible. It’s also peak season and very busy in the park.

Sweet Spot Time
Rocky Mountain National Park can be enjoyed during pleasant weather and without the crowds. Read our tips below.

The best time to visit Rocky Mountain National Park without the summer crowds, an open Trail Ridge Road, and a good chance of pleasant weather is in late spring or in the fall. The sweet spot months are from late May until mid-June and from early September after Labor Day until mid-October.

However, snow is possible at both times at higher elevations. September is also great for wildlife because of the elk rutting season (peak mid-September to mid-October). In fall the air is clear and crisp and the skies are blue.

Best Time for Wildlife Viewing
Amazing Elk near Trail Ridge Road in the summer.

The best time for wildlife viewing in Rocky Mountain National Park is during the spring and fall months. Elk, moose, and deer give birth to their calves during springtime. Fall is the mating season for many animals in the park, from mid-September to October.

The summer months are another great time for wildlife spotting as most mammals like the sun. You will be able to spot moose, elk, bighorn sheep, and mule deer.

Moose can be seen at any time during the day. You can spot moose rather frequently along Highway 34 in the Kawuneeche Valley. They are also seen more frequently on the east side of the park.

Elk: Large herds of elk can be seen during the summer along Trail Ridge Road and in alpine areas. In the fall, groups of elks can be spotted in the Kawuneeche Valley, Horseshoe Park, Moraine Park, and Upper Beaver Meadows in Rocky Mountain National Park.  A great time of day is in the morning or evening, as you can spot elk along the edges of clearings then.

Bighorn Sheep start to move to low elevations in late spring. The best time to spot them is from early summer until fall. Early winter is another possible viewing period. When they descend to Sheep Lakes in Horseshoe Park the best time of the day to spot some is from 9 AM to 3 PM. However, it’s not guaranteed.

Mule Deer: In the summer months, it’s best to look for mule deer at higher elevations along trails and alpine lakes. However, winter is one of the best seasons to spot them when they gather around Moraine Park and Trail Ridge Road. Early mornings and late evenings are the best times of the day for spotting them.

Best Time to Hike
Summer hike in Rocky Mountain National Park

The best time to hike in Rocky Mountain National Park is from late spring to the fall. At higher elevations, patches of snow can still linger on the ground until mid-June. In the winter months, hiking is possible with traction devices.

With over 350 miles of hiking trails in RMNP, there are hiking opportunities for every fitness level, especially in the summer months. From short and very easy hikes to the very strenuous ones.

Top Tip (Very Easy Hikes)

Tip: Venture off Trail Ridge Road to experience the real beauty of RMNP. If you can’t do any strenuous hikes but still want to be awed, then take a look at this guide on Amazon: Best Easy Hikes Rocky Mountain National Park. It covers amazing hikes for everyone,  even suitable if you visit with small children (like 0.5 miles or 2 miles round-trips). But also hikes which are slightly more challenging. Like John Muir said ‘Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt.’

Highlight (Trail Ridge Road & Tours)

With these maps (via Amazon), you won’t miss any of the must-see attractions, as well as short and easy hikes at Trail Ridge Road and everywhere else. 

The stunning Trail Ridge Road is open from Memorial Day (last Monday in May) until mid-October. The official closing date is October 23, but they often close it a few days before that date. Even in June or September, it’s possible that it’s closed for hours or a day due to snow, often between 8 PM and 10 AM.  Make sure to check more tips for the Trail Ridge Road in our section below the season guide (scroll down).

Seasons (Weather/Wildlife/Nature)

Regardless of the season: The higher into the mountains you go, the colder it gets. In general, RMNP is known for its extreme weather patterns which can change very quickly, as well as wide variations between day and nighttime temperatures. Find detailed weather data here: Climate Estes Park – Colorado

Spring | April – May
Early Spring in Rocky Mountain National Park

 

While it may be spring at lower elevations, it is still winter in Rocky in April and early May.

The weather in spring is unpredictable: Up to 70°F (21°C) on one day and a temperature drop together with blizzards on the next day. It varies between warm and cold, wet and dry. Many trails are still snow-covered well into May, often even at the end of May.

Until early or mid-May, most of the trails above 9000 feet in Rocky Mountain National Park are snow-packed and icy. While snowshoes may not be required on all trails, traction devices that attach to the bottom of hiking boots, along with hiking poles, are strongly recommended tools to help you experience a fun hiking adventure in spring with winter conditions.

After a warm April, trails at lower medium and lower elevations can be snow-free in May but are very muddy. This means you either have to deal with snow or with muddy trails. In general, snowfall is not uncommon in spring. Temperature ranges between 70°F (21°C) and 60°F (16°C).

Summer | June – July – August
Cub Lake in RMNP at Dawn

The most comfortable weather is in the summer months from July to August: The temperature climbs up to 75°F (24°C). However, afternoon thunderstorms can occur and wind is normal. Always prepare for temperature drops of 10-20 degrees Fahrenheit. Keep in mind that the highest elevation trails are snow-covered well into June. Wildflowers are in bloom from late June to early August.

What to wear in the summer? Always bring layers of clothes, even if you don’t plan to hike at higher elevations. A morning can be mild and in the afternoon temps can drop remarkably. Always bring a rain jacket, as well as a warmer long sleeve shirt in your pack. Usually, you can start with a short sleeve shirt for hikes or walks.

Fall | September – October – Early November
Elk in Rut at RMNP by Mark Byzewski, CC BY

Autumn is usually a great time for a visit. September and October bring clear, crisp air, blue skies, and generally dry weather.  Especially in September, it’s generally still mild and warm. However, mornings and evenings can be a lot chillier. Always bring a jacket! Early snow is already possible in October.

Looking for fall foliage? Leaves start changing colors in late August at higher elevations, the peak is around mid-September and the beautiful fall foliage lasts until October in most years at lower elevations. Early October is often still a good time for leaf-peeping at lower elevations. At higher elevations, the vibrant fall colors will be already gone in October.

Elk rutting season begins in September as well and continues through mid-October at least. Like in spring you need to be flexible, check the forecast, and bring gear and clothes for various conditions.

Winter | November – March
Dream Lake in Winter by Max and Dee Bernt, CC BY

Winter in RMNP means snow and arctic conditions. However, lower elevations on the east slope of Rocky Mountain National Park are usually free of deep snow. The west side of the park experiences more snow, less wind, and clear cold days during these months. Most high country overnight trips require gear suitable for freezing temperatures.

Skiing and snowshoeing conditions are best in January, February, and March. There are lots of other exciting activities in Winter: Sledding at Hidden Valley, Winter Wildlife Viewing, Ice Climbing, and more. Visit NPS Rocky Mountain Winter Activities.

Trail Ridge Road: While it’s closed in the winter, keep in mind that you’re allowed to drive the first 8 miles until Many Parks Curve overlook. Depending on weather conditions of course.

Avoiding Tourist Crowds
Lookout (RMNP) by C_Phif, CC BY

With over 4 million visitors each year, Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the most visited Parks in the U.S. Expect the most crowds in summer and fall. The busiest months are June until August, with heavy crowds in July/August. During the week it starts to thin out after Labor Day in September (the first Monday in September), but not on weekends.

The best time to avoid crowds in Rocky Mountain National Park is from November to April when visitation is at its lowest. However, the weather conditions are getting more difficult in the winter months with lots of snow.

Also, try to avoid National Public Lands Day at the end of September. Entrance to all National Parks is free then and RMNP will be extremely busy on this day/weekend! Visiting mid-week in September means fewer crowds as well as enjoying elk rutting and pleasant fall temperatures at the same time.

In general from July through September: Avoid weekends and/or go early in the morning to beat the crowds. In the peak months arrive between 7 and 8 AM to get a parking spot. Usually, it starts to get busier after 9 AM. Especially popular entrances like Estes Park or trailheads like Bear Lake Trail are extremely busy.

West Side vs. East Side: In general, the west side (Grand Lake) is less crowded than the Eastern side (Estes Park Entrance). Regardless of the month, season, or entrance: Go as early as possible, head out on a trail, hike a few miles from the busy areas and you won’t see too many others.

Avoiding Crowds | Without Timed Tickets

Rocky Mountain National Park
Chasm Lake – Can be reached from Estes Park (20 minutes drive + 2 hours hike)

In 2022 between May 27 and October 10 you need to make a reservation (timed entry ticket) when entering Rocky Mountain National Park:

  • From 9 AM – 3 PM (excluding Bear Lake Corridor)
  • From 5 AM – 6 PM (including Bear Lake Corridor)

Read more details here: NPS – RMNP Timed Entry Permit The tickets for the whole park (including Bear Lake) are sold out extremely fast. The best way to avoid the hassle with the timed entry tickets AND to avoid the crowds regardless of timed tickets:

Book a hotel in Estes Park (via booking.com see below) for 1-2 nights. Then get up early enough to enter the park before 9 AM (you don’t need any timed ticket in that case!)

  1. Day 1: Drive the stunning Trail Ridge Road and enjoy the most beautiful viewpoints along the road. Google Maps – Estes Park > Trail Ridge Road. You can enjoy hiking trails as well if you like.
  2. Day 2 (Optional): Drive south to Long Peaks Campground and hike 4 miles from their to the stunning and gorgeous Chasm Lake. Google Map – Estes Park > Chasm Lake
  3. Day 3 (Optional): Enjoy many more gorgeous drives and hikes from Estes Park without the need to enter Bear Lake Corridor, where a timed ticket is needed.

Rocky Mountain National Park
Trail Ridge Road View

We highly recommend staying in Estes Park and driving Trail Ridge Road as well as heading out for other destinations. Ask park rangers for more tips when you are there. That way you avoid the crowds and congested roads on Bear Lake Corridor even when no timed tickets are required. The only thing you need to remember during the ‘timed entry ticket’ period: If you leave the park, you can only re-enter after 3 PM (or 5 PM when using the Bear Lake Corridor)

Hotel Tips (Estes Park vs. Grand Lake)


Stanley Hotel [Estes Park, CO] by Sean Hobson, CC BY

Where should you stay? Estes Park or Grand Lake? Estes Park is bigger and has a lot more lodging options as well as restaurants compared to Grand Lake. Also, if you’d like to hike, then Estes Park (east side of RMNP) is the starting point for the most popular hikes. The most popular and stunning overlooks along Trail Ridge Road can be reached easily from Estes Park.

From Grand Lake (western side of RMNP) it takes about 3 hours to drive back and forth to reach the eastern side. However, Grand Lake is still a little quieter than Estes Park and animals like moose can be spotted more often near Grand Lake. Bottom line: If you have time, stay in Estes Park as well as Grand Lake. Check the our favorite lodging possibilities for both areas and make sure to save both links for later:

Find three of our personal favorite lodging options in Estes Park below (Tip: Bookmark your preferred hotel):

  1. Appenzell Inn: We had the best experience at the Appenzell Inn: Great views, super friendly staff, very clean, huge and nice rooms, really good food. Tip: Book two or three months in advance if possible.
  2. The Blue Door Inn: Budget Tip! Looks like a motel from the outside, but they got really nice rooms. Renovated in 2017.
  3. The Stanley Hotel: Intriguing history! This was the inspiration for Stephen King’s ‘The Shining’. Fantastic views, fascinating night tours, beautiful, clean, friendly staff. Possible downside: Bathrooms can be small.

Want to save money? Check the following selected hotel deals at RMNP. Tip: If you don’t book now, bookmark the hotel link(s) and check back daily if possible. Check this link if you can’t see the deal finder below: Rocky Mountain National Park Hotel Deals.

Booking.com

Rocky Mountain National Park’s 415 square miles encompass and protect spectacular mountain environments. Over 300 miles of hiking trails, wildflowers and wildlife. Visit our Bear Lake Trail description as well

Trail Ridge Road

“Almost every 1/2 mile a parking lot for a scenic overlook!” Covering the 48 miles between Estes Park on the park’s east side and Grand Lake on the west, Trail Ridge Road is one of the most spectacular and scenic drives. Eleven miles of this road travel above treeline, the elevation near 11,500 feet.

As it winds across the tundra’s vastness to its high point at 12,183 feet elevation, Trail Ridge Road offers amazing views, many wildlife sightings and spectacular alpine wildflower exhibitions, all from the comfort of your car. More details: Trail Ridge Road NPS. Google Maps: Trail Ridge Road from Estes Park to Grand Lake (optional: send to your phone)

Expert Insider Tips
7 More Tips to Avoid Crowds

  1. Peak season with massive crowds is from mid June until early September. Labor Day weekend (3 day holiday) is in the Top 10 visitation days. Crowds start to dissipate after Labor Day (first Monday in September).
  2. In September it gets slightly less busy but 50% more people visit on weekends. Go on a weekday in September to enjoy a quieter visit. The last weekends in September (foliage + elk rutting) have the highest attendance throughout the year.
  3. The west side (Grand Lake) of RMNP is less crowded than the Eastern side (Estes Park). More than 80% of the visitors arrive through the east entrances of the park.
  4. In peak season or on weekends: Start your scenic drive on Trail Ridge Road between 7 and 8 AM.
  5. Go hiking! Head out on a trail, walk a couple of miles from the busy spots and you won’t see too many others. However, start your hikes as early as possible or/and avoid popular trails like Bear Lake Trail in peak season.
  6. Not an early morning bird? Hike late and start at 3 PM. However, some park rangers hesitate to suggest this time of day due to possible afternoon thunderstorms.
  7. Rough deadlines for getting parking spots at different trailheads: Glacier Gorge: 6 AM, Bear Lake: 7:30 AM, Wild Basin Corridor:  9:30 AM.

 

Quick Facts and Tips

  • Always check the weather forecast right before you go.
  • Unpredictable weather and summer afternoon thunderstorms are not uncommon.
  • Dress in layers, bring rain gear and pack plenty of water.
  • The Longs Peak and St. Vrain trailheads are entrances where it is legal to enter RMNP without paying a fee.
  • Drive the Old Fall River Road
  • Check the list of Hiking Trails
  • Check the official Road Status report
  • Check the official Maps 
  • Additional Resources: Wildlife Watching NPS and  Places To Go NPS
  • Consider booking a memorable tour: TripAdvisor Rocky Mountain National Park Tours & Activities
  • Slow down, be quiet, turn off your cell phone and every other device! Just look, listen, smell and feel this pure and majestic area. Absorb the experience of being there, … on top of the world.
Maps/Guide

Don’t get lost! We highly recommend this map for anywhere you plan to go at RMNP. It’s a true life saver and the best one available for this park. We have used it for ourselves. Excellent quality paper and beautiful colors. Some hikers say they have used this one for over 10 or even 20 years. It’s also water resistant and very tough. That means you can use it for a really long time.


click image for details and reviews!