Rocky Mountain National Park Itinerary

WE WENT in late July of 2023!

WE STAYED in Estes Park, at the Estes Mountain Lodge. It's pricy here, especially in the summer, so this was just the best deal we found at the time. 

WE MADE park reservations the day they became available (June 1 for late July -- these vary so check their website!) Reservations cost almost nothing ($2/day) but are absolutely necessary to get into the best parts of the park during the summer. Make sure you get the one that includes Bear Lake Road (also called Bear Lake Corridor). Everything we did on this trip was through that road so you'll need to do the same to replicate this itinerary! 

These processes update every year but some tips:

  • Look into the reservation system months out to know the soonest date you can purchase yours. Set an alarm for that day and do it as soon as possible when it opens. Every time I've tried to get a reservation this way, I've had no problems. 
  • Plan to arrive early. The time window is strict and they can turn you away if you're even just 5 minutes late. We did not leave early enough from Morrison, hit construction in Boulder, and there was a 30 min line at the gate. We barely made it. Factor in traffic, construction, and the line at the gate. 
  • If you can't get a reservation or miss your time window, don't worry! Most parks allow early-risers to get in without reservations (like before 8 am), as well as late-arrivals after 5 pm. 
  • Be ready and willing to ditch your car! The parking lots get smaller and smaller as you drive Bear Lake road and if you're there mid-day in the summer... just stop at the park & ride. It's half up to the top and buses come frequently to take hikers to and from the main trailheads. Just always doublecheck when the last bus of the day is. It's tricky to get a parking spot at the top (Bear Lake) and you'll waste up to 40 minutes if you drive up there and can't get a spot. 


We arrived mid-day and parked at the park & ride, then grabbed a bus to Bear Lake (last stop on the line). We did Alberta Falls to start but this was a mistake seeing as our hike the next day (Sky Pond) would take us right past it. 

Lakes Nymph, Dream, Emerald, & HaiyahaLooping the first three lakes is definitely the most popular hike here. They're all pretty short and easy, but I really recommend adding Lake Haiyaha, which does add an out-and-back detour and some challenge. Honestly, if you have time for only one, I'd head straight for Lake Haiyaha. As of 2023, it is a special color (see pictures below) but even when it's not that color, I think it's the most scenic lake. Emerald Lake is a close second and the other two, while maybe not as as photogenic, are perfect stops on the way there. 

Bear Lake is just a few steps from the trailhead so make sure to check it out too!

The trail for this hikes is one of my favorites of all time. 

Emerald Lake

You'll hit the trail to Lake Haiyaha on your way back. It is a climb and especially at the end, you'll be climbing all over some boulders. You'll want to go when there's good light. We made it just in time for sunset but moved out pretty quick so we didn't have to scramble in the dark. 

Lake Haiyaha, July 2023. 

Here's that insane blue color! It was caused by some fallen debris that caused a glacier-like reaction in the water. It's unknown how long the lake will be like this!


Sky Pond: A 9-mile hike that will take you the day! This starts at the same spot, Bear Lake, and we put in some work to get a parking spot at the top because we knew we might get in after the last bus. You're going to hit Alberta Falls in the first mile. 

Alberta Falls -- it's tricky to get a picture of its full majesty! The trail goes right along side it so you get lots of views. 

You'll be doing 1700 elev gain but it gets better in the second half! You'll get to see a lake or two on the way. 

The last 0.5 mile was absolutely amazing, even better than the final view, in my opinion. You will have to scramble up a "waterfall", which isn't any crazier than a creek, but you might get wet and you'll want well-treaded shoes. 

You'll find the lake at Sky Pond at the end! 

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