How to get in to Rocky Mountain National Park

Updated: Apr 7, 2021

Our local Estes Park Facebook groups have been overwhelmed recently by residents and visitors alike trying to figure out how to navigate the NPS reservation system and the associated restrictions during this COVID-19 thing.

Since the government speaks only in an alien legalese language, let me see if I can break it down so everyone can understand it. Please keep in mind that this is a fluid situation that seems to be changing every day.

As of June 18, 2020:

You can enter the park and drive over Trail Ridge road from both Estes Park and Grand Lake. Almost everything is accessible by vehicle except old Fall River Road west of Alluvial Fan. The road did close for a few days when we had a summer snow storm that made trail ridge road impassable, but it has been plowed and reopened. You can walk up old Fall River road by foot or bicycle if you choose, but you can't drive on it yet. We are expecting inclement weather in the next week, so it is possible that we may get snowed over on the tundra again which would most likely close the road on the Estes Park side up to Rainbow Curve.

Wild Basin has reopened and you do need a reservation for that, too.

You will need a reservation to enter the park between the hours of 6 am and 5 pm. As far as we understand, you are permitted to leave and return without limit on the same day as long as you first arrive within 2 hours of your initial reservation time.

For example, if you make a reservation for 8 am to enter the park, you will need to check in by 10 am in order to be counted. This hasn't really been enforced up to this point, but we have heard that they will begin scanning and tracking reservation entries soon.

You need one reservation per vehicle.

Your reservation must be made online here. There is currently no way to acquire a pass in person.

You must pay a $2 reservation fee even if you have an interagency, golden access, or other 'unlimited' park access pass.

You do not need a reservation to enter the park with a tour guide such as Estes Park Guided Tours.

Since it is a government computer system with high demand, the NPS reservation website does experience outages and bugs. It can be difficult to make reservations at times. There is no alternative, and there is nothing anyone can do about it. You'll have to wait it out if you're having issues.

You cannot make a reservation same-day.

You cannot enter before 6 am without a reservation and get back in before 5 pm if you choose to leave the park.

Camping in the park is very restrictive. In addition to the usual COVID social distancing measures, most campgrounds are restricted to around 50% capacity if they are even open. You need a reservation for these as well. There are no first-come-first-serve camping sites available. You will need a reservation for backcountry campsites as well.

Your camping reservation counts as your entry pass for the given date.

If you arrive in Estes Park or Grand Lake and you're counting on camping in the park, have a backup plan to get a hotel room or other private accommodations. I recommend McGregor Mountain Lodge in Estes Park. Most camp sites are already pre-booked up to the end of available reservations. You cannot make reservations beyond what is available on the website in any way. You'll have to wait until they update their system or lift COVID restrictions.

You do not have to wear a mask outside. You are required to wear one when entering any building, including restrooms.

Dogs are not allowed outside of parking lots in RMNP.

With all that in mind, your best bet is to follow these steps:

1. Make your hotel or camping accommodations for the dates you want to visit.

2. If you have made in-park camping accommodations, you're done.

3. If you're staying anywhere else and want to drive your own vehicle into the park, make your reservations here. Alternatively, you may enter the park before 6 am or after 5 pm without reservations.

4. If you have any breathing issues or live closer to sea level, you may consider bringing supplemental oxygen with you. Driving straight up to 12,000 feet can leave you feeling dizzy or give you a headache if you are not acclimated to this type of elevation and oxygen deprivation. These canisters really work, and I often bring them with me on hikes to shorten my respiratory recovery time.

5. Bring your mask. You'll need a restroom eventually.

6. Bring warm weather and cold weather clothing. It's a 70-80 degree summer in Estes Park, but it's always windy and mostly winter conditions on the tundra up on Trail Ridge Road. Be prepared for rain, hail, and snow.

7. Download music or podcasts on your phone before you come. Cell reception in the park is very limited since they do not allow cell towers to be built in the park.

8. Don't come at the moose, bears, and elk, bro. Remember that this isn't a petting zoo. These animals can be very tolerant of humans in the area, but they will attack you if they feel threatened. Don't be this person. Nobody will feel bad for you, and it will be your fault.

You may also be fined or jailed for harassing wildlife. Also, you'll be ruining the experience for everyone else. We constantly have people drive up, get out of their vehicle, and start walking directly towards a massive animal while they scream and shout with excitement to other people in the car. Don't do that. You're lucky if they just run away.

I used to think it was obnoxious how often people would warn everyone about harassing wildlife, but it does seem to be a driving need for at least 50% of our visitors. Please stop doing that. Unfortunately, we have to keep telling people.

9. Pack in and pack out your trash, or at least just put it in a garbage can. You're a grown adult. Stop spreading it around our pristine wild lands.

Take only photos, and leave only footprints. Enjoy!

Let me know if you have any other questions. I'll get back to you as soon as I get back to cell phone service.

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