Rocky Mountain National Park on a Budget
Updated: Sep 17, 2023
Everyone's budget is different and your trip may look different depending on timing, travel costs, etc. This is only meant to be a guide based on my own experiences.
Rocky Mountain National Park is my seventh National Park visited and I can see why it's called 'The Land of Extremes'. I visited at the end of season and was met with picturesque views and far less traffic than would be expected during peak summer hours. As you move about the park, be prepared for quick changes in weather as you may experience sun, rain, snow, and everything in between. Read on, or use the links, to see my budget, adventures, insights on the park, and several pictures from the trip.
In This Article:
This budget is what I estimated for 2 people to spend a total of 5 days traveling: 1 day driving to the park, 3 days in the park, and 1 day driving home.
After deciding we wanted to travel to Rocky Mountain National Park, I began researching unavoidable costs, as well as what activities we wanted to do in the park. After cutting down non-essentials, our final number came out to $1,100 or $550 a person. This is what fit into our budget and limited vacation time. Below is a breakdown of where this was allocated.
Lodging - $140 ($35/night x 4 nights)
We decided to stay in the park at Glacier Basin Campground. Most sites book up months in advance, but select sites open up only 2 weeks in advance. We snagged a site close to the entrance and centrally located to water and the restrooms. Glacier Basin is also located near several of the popular sights, which really cut down on drive time.
Park Pass - $35 7-day pass
To enter the park you will need a park pass. There are several options available for purchase: Day pass ($25), Week pass ($35), or the America the Beautiful annual pass ($80)
The America the Beautiful pass is good for a year and can be used at a number National Parks and other federal sites. We are planning to go to multiple parks within the next year, so this is the option we selected.
If you're not staying in the park you will also need a timed entry pass for every day you plan on being in the park. These are $2 a day, reservations open a month in advance and they sell out quick -- especially the Park Access + Bear Lake Rd. You can only enter the park during your scheduled time.
Supplies - $100
To prepare for camping, we needed to get a few more supplies for our campsite such as propane for the camp stove, head lamps, etc.
This also includes firewood, which can be purchased for $7.50 a bundle at the campsite. Note: Purchases at the campsite are cash only.
Food - $250
To keep this cost down, we made a majority of our meals at the campsite and only ate one meal at a restaurant.
Gas - $575
This was our largest budgeted item. We drove 13 hours one way to the park, as well as driving several miles inside the park to see the sights.
Based on 3 days in the park. Trails and items are elaborated on the insights section.
To make the morning less chaotic we packed the car the night before, and we rolled out of the driveway at 4:15am. We stopped about 4 times with the last stop being in Loveland to stock our cooler at the Walmart. Our total drive time was just over 13 hours and our campsite was set up by 6:00pm. We spent the evening making dinner and chatting with the rangers, and we were tucked into bed by 8:45pm. The campsite was quiet, but we were not prepared enough for the cold and woke up in the night to put on extra layers.
Our alarms went off at 4:45am. We hadn't planned to do our sunrise hike so soon after driving, but the park ranger assured us that this would be our best weather day. We made it to Bear Lake Trailhead and started our hike before 5:30am. The lot already had several cars parked with hikers getting a jump on the most popular trail, but we had the path to ourselves. With both headlamps, we were able to navigate the 1 mile path up to Dream Lake; it was so dark we managed to pass Bear Lake without even knowing it was there! Our early morning paid off and we sat on the rocks eating breakfast, watching the sun come up, and just before the sun broke the horizon the mountains rimming Dream Lake glowed a vibrant orange.
After the sun had fully risen, we continued on to Emerald Lake. By now other hikers were on the path and we all enjoyed the views together. Rimmed with rocks and plenty of places to sit and eat, the local fauna joined us. Chipmunks and golden-cheeked ground squirrels ran everywhere trying to steal unaware hikers' snacks. My favorite part was watching them scurry around and play in the rocks. They knew we were just visitors and this was their view every day.
Once our snacks were eaten, we pushed on to Lake Haiyaha. This lake came up several times in researching trails and was recommended by the ranger at our campground, and it did not disappoint. The trail was similar to the others, but once you neared the lake there was a bit of rock scrambling to get over boulders and finally take in the spectacular view. It's no surprise that one of our fellow hikers chose this spot to propose to his partner. The lake seemed to blend into the sky with a vibrancy you would think was manmade. We sat on the rocks in the sun and looked for fish. Unfortunately, I forgot to double check my boots were tight enough and I rolled my ankle on the boulders on the way back. Despite the pain, it was well worth the trek out and I navigated the 2.5 miles back with little issue.
On our descent down is when we realized we had somehow passed Bear Lake in the dark without even realizing it. Located less than a mile into the trail, I would definitely recommend this beautiful lily-covered lake to those who don't feel up to the full trek up to one of the other three lakes mentioned.
After about 6 hours of hiking around the lakes, we returned to our car and visited the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center. Here I got my traditional postcard and got to ask questions to the park rangers. We learned a lot about the park and learned how to tell the difference between a chipmunk and a golden-cheeked ground squirrel! We went back to the campsite to have lunch and plan the rest of the day. I am a current MBA student and with no service in the park we had to spend the late afternoon in Estes Park at the local Starbucks so I could complete my assignments. Afterwards we went to Shakes Alive! and got sweets at Rocky Mountain Chocolate.
We ended our day cooking dinner over the campfire and attending the Indigenous Connections performance at the amphitheater. Shelley Morningsong and her husband, Fabian Fontenelle, performed several songs and dances and shared their culture. Shelley has recently authored a children's book, which was also available for purchase at the visitor centers.
On our third day we finally got to sleep in! Before we left the campsite, we checked the weather forecast posted at the Ranger Station; because there was a chance of rain, and conditions can change fast, we made sure to bring extra layers to be prepared for the day ahead.
We drove Trail Ridge Rd. starting at Bear Lake Rd. to the Alpine Visitor Center. This was the absolute best way to see a bigger portion of the park than just hiking. We stopped at every major pull-off we saw, and at one of them the couple taking our picture asked if we had seen the moose...we missed one pull-off and it happened to be the one with the moose! We immediately drove back a little ways to Hidden Valley and were fortunate enough to see what one of the rangers called, "The biggest bull she'd seen all season." After watching him eat for a while, we began back up the mountain until we reached the Alpine Visitor Center. This is the highest elevation visitor center in the park at 11,796 feet.
After reading the available information at the visitor center and watching the elk in the valley below, we began the walk up Alpine Ridge Trail. Despite being mostly paved, this was a steep path with 200 feet of elevation gain in just over a quarter of a mile. The views were great, but we were happy we had packed layers as it was about 15-20 degrees colder than down at our campsite. The elevation at the top was 12,005 feet and much windier than even at the base of the trail. There were also several informational signs along the way; including one explaining why people feel like there's less air the higher in elevation they go!
By the afternoon, worrisome clouds were beginning to roll in, but we were determined to make it to Tombstone Ridge. This point on the Ute Trail marks the end of trail maintenance and is about 2 miles from Trail Ridge Rd. In researching our trip we read that this would be the best place to see marmots and pikas, as well as have stunning 360 degree views along the ridgeline. Unfortunately, the latter didn't happen. The clouds were so thick that at some portions you couldn't see 100 feet down the trail. However, this hike was relatively flat and we did see several marmots and even managed to see a few pika. While I wish we could've seen more of the area, hiking inside of a cloud was an experience all itself!
We ended the day at the McDonald's in Estes Park so I could finally complete my last assignment. At this point, the weather had turned so cold in the night that we opted to sleep in the car rather than brave the tent!
Our last day of activities we decided to see what was in Moraine Park. Since the elk were in rut we got to hear several males bugling and see the herds wandering the fields. Our first stop was to visit the Moraine Park Discovery Center. The rangers there pointed us towards Cub Lake, whose trailhead was just across the road. The journey to Cub Lake was just over 2.5 miles one way and along the way we saw marmots, and even dusky grouse. We later spoke with a ranger who said he had never seen grouse in the park for himself! This trail had all kinds of terrain, but what made it most challenging was when it began to rain half a mile from the lake. We pushed through the cold and the rain and I'm glad we did! Cub Lake was covered with hundreds of lily pads and was worth the challenge.
Once we made it back to the car the skies really opened up and it poured for a few hours; we took the opportunity to eat at a local restaurant in Estes Park. Bird & Jim had a cozy atmosphere and a delicious menu made with seasonal ingredients sourced locally. We had a hamburger with fries and a smoked pheasant chowder and both were amazing!
We then headed to the 9-hole golf course to play a round of disc golf. The disc golf course does follow the golfers and was a bit confusing at times, but the view of Estes Lake was lovely and the path was lined with several streams and native flowers.
We headed back to the park for the last time to see some last minute sights. We stopped at the Alluvial Fan and enjoyed the waterfall. Since we had had such good luck seeing animals, we decided we wanted to look for a bear or bighorn sheep before we had to leave. We had heard that a bear was spotted near Bierstadt, but bighorn sheep were more likely to be seen at Sheep Lakes or Endovalley. Ultimately, we decided that we were too exhausted for another hike and that we'd take Trail Ridge Road on the Horseshoe Lake side to Sheep Lakes and what do we see? A BEAR! He was a young-adult cub and still small, up on the hill side eating berries. With less than 30 bears in the whole park getting to see one on our first trip was an unexpected surprise. We couldn't have asked for a better end to our trip!
We had packed up the entire campsite the night before and slept in the car so when we woke up all we had to do was get our things situated in the car. It was another 13 hours on the road before our trip was finally at an end.
Below are my thoughts on the activities we did in the park. Your own experiences may vary based on season and weather.
Bear Lake Road Trails
Located less than a mile from the trailhead, This is an easy hike with a beautiful view. This is one of the most popular hikes in the park, so get there early if you want seclusion. We hiked up past Bear Lake on our morning hike and took time on the way back down to enjoy the lily pads.
This was truly the most beautiful view we had the entire trip. We hit the trail by 5:15am to beat the sun and had the trail to ourselves. At just over a mile one-way, this was a moderate trail (particularly in the dark), but the views we were rewarded with were worth it. We sat with our backs to the lake and watched the sun come up, and even saw shooting stars. Just before the sun clears the tree line, if you face the lake the mountains and trees turn a vibrant orange and you see the mountains reflected back in the lake. I definitely recommend this hike for sunrise, but be prepared with a head lamp and warm clothes to make the hike in the dark.
Another beautiful lake, completely different than Dream or Bear. As one of the most popular trails, it's unlikely you'll have this space to yourself. Chipmunks and golden-cheeked ground squirrels abound, but DO NOT FEED THE WILDLIFE. They are extremely social and were begging all the hikers for food. We sat for a while enjoying the scenery and some snacks.
The last lake we saw on our Bear Lake Trail hikes was Lake Haiyaha. A vibrant turquoise, the water looks dyed but is actually a result of the natural minerals of the mountain. This lake was the most challenging part of the hike as the trail runs into boulders that you have to carefully pick your way through, but there were people of all ages able to reach this area. Even though there were a lot of other hikers, we still managed to find a secluded, quiet spot.
Trail Ridge Road:
Trail Ridge Road spans a majority of the park, the portion that we drove was from Bear Lake Rd. to the Alpine Visitor Center. This was definitely a must-do as it afforded us many views of the park from its multiple overlooks. At Hidden Valley we were fortunate enough to see a large bull moose eating the willow plants, and we saw several elk! Climbing in elevation, it's important to dress for the weather where you're going, not where you're starting. By the time we reached the Alpine Visitor Center we had seen several shivering adults and children who hadn't anticipated in the 20 degree drop in temperature.
Alpine Ridge Trail:
Not so much a trail as it is a path, you climb the steps high above the Alpine Visitor Center to a staggering 12,005ft. There are several informational signs to read along the way and stunning views.
Ute Trail to Tombstone Ridge:
If you want to see yellow-bellied marmots, this is the trail for you! We passed several colonies of marmots who have made the rocks their home. I was very glad that we had brought our packs with layers, water, and snacks; we were slow going through this trail as we looked for animals and clouds rolled in quickly making it very cold. Also, we didn't see many pika, but if we were quiet you could hear them chirping in the rocks.
This was an area of the park adjacent to the Glacier Basin Campground. Unfortunately, the campground at Moraine Park was under construction, but I'm sure it would be a nice place to stay. As we walked around the park we could hear the elks' bugles the whole time.
This trail had it all, meadows, valleys, rocks, forest. I'm sure the trail would've been more enjoyable if we hadn't been caught in the cold rain, but Cub Lake seemed to be a better version of Bear Lake. While there was no easy path down to the water's edge, you could still admire its beauty from the trail.
The Alluvial Fan was the most accessible trail we did, but I would recommend going up the east side as the path from the west was very steep.