Planning a Memorial Day Trip to Estes Park, Colorado 2021

This year I decided to go back to school to get a master’s degree in teaching, and I also started working part-time as a preschool teacher. I love it, but I haven’t had a lot of time to sit down and write on this site. Now, as the school year is winding down, I’m excited to start planning our summer and begin writing again. The first thing on our list is our annual Memorial Day trip to the mountains. It is hard to believe that we will be heading to our cabin in Estes Park, Colorado in just a couple of weeks.

This Memorial Day, we are excited to host our friends who have never been to Colorado before. As we talked through the new timed-entry permit and the restrictions on hiking in areas of the park due to recent wild fires, I realized that planning a trip to Rocky Mountain National Park feels pretty complicated this year. I’ve attempted to summarize the new system below:

Rocky Mountain National Park Timed-Entry Permit

What: 2 hour reservation to enter the park. There isn’t a restriction on how long you can stay. Parking is not guaranteed. Reservations must be made in advance.

Cost: $2/vehicle + normal park entry fees

When: May 28 – October 11 (pilot program)

Where: There are two types of permits, one for the Bear Lake Road Corridor and another for the rest of the park.

Bear Lake Road Corridor + Rest of the Park– required between 5 am to 6 pm.

Non-Bear Lake Pass – required between 9 am to 3 pm.

How: Reservations for May and June can be made online now through recreation.gov. Reservations for July open up on June 1.

More Information: National Park website.

hiking suggestions

Some of our favorite early season hikes such as Hollowell Park, Cub Lake and Fern Lake are inaccessible right now (as of 5/16/21) because of damage caused by wildfires in 2020. Before planning hikes, make sure to check out the latest information on closures here.

This year we hope to visit the Wild Basin, Gem Lake, Lily Lake, Bierstadt Lake, and Sprague Lake.

The Wild Basin tops our wish list because it wasn’t impacted by the wildfires and the elevation is lower compared to other areas in the park, which means typically there is less snow in May/June. There are also several beautiful waterfalls, and the trail is pretty easy for young kids to hike (ages 4- 7).

Gem Lake also avoided fire damage. Even though it is a short hike, it gains a lot of elevation (1,000 ft.). I’m not sure if we will make it to the top, but there are great views along the way and unique rock formations that the kids will love. Even if we make it half way, the hike will be memorable.

Lily Lake is our go-to hike. No matter what time of year or time of day, it’s always a great choice. We enjoy adding the Lily Ridge trail to lengthen the otherwise short hike around the lake.

Bierstadt Lake and Sprague Lake are in the Bear Lake corridor. This means they are popular attractions and require the Bear Lake corridor pass. These start at decent elevations, so it’s possible to encounter slush or even significant snow in May. We’ve spotted elk and moose in this area, and the views of the continental divide are truly spectacular at both destinations.

I can’t wait to share our favorite places with our friends. Even though it’s a little complicated, I know our trip will be well-worth the extra effort. I’m also hopeful that the trails in Rocky Mountain National Park that have been overused will benefit from less traffic, and that those impacted by fire will be soon on the road to a beautiful recovery!

Related Posts:

How to Survive a Long Family Road Trip

Memorial Day in Rocky Mountain National Park

Moose Spotting Makes for a Memorable Morning Hike Around Sprague Lake

A Winter Hike on the Long’s Peak Trail

This post was written by Eric after a quick solo adventure on New Year’s Eve 2020.

Sometimes when I hike, it’s easy to get so focused on the planned destination that I just put my head down and grind through the miles on the approach, paying little attention to the beauty along the way. So on New Year’s Eve a few months back, I set out on a hike with the specific intention not to reach any particular landmark on the Long’s Peak trail. I knew that I didn’t have the experience or gear to attempt a winter summit of the trail’s namesake on my own, nor did I intend to try to cross the steep ridge over to Chasm Lake without much knowledge of the conditions. I just wanted to get some miles in on a snowy trail through the woods, and pop above the tree line for as long as the typically blustery winter conditions would allow.

Below are some pictures from an absolute treat of a hike—the weather was perfect. Though the temperature was in the single digits at the trailhead, there was almost *no* wind, which again, can be quite rare on the east side of Rocky Mountain National Park during the winter months. The trail was generally well-packed, so snowshoes were not required (yak tracks were helpful). It was also wonderful to be nearly alone on one of the busiest 14er trails in all of Colorado; a stark contrast from the parade of headlamps that ascend through the early morning darkness during peak “summit season.” With no objective to achieve, I was able to just soak in the incredible surroundings and be more present for the entire adventure.

I hope to build on this memorable experience and take a “destinationless” approach to hiking more often throughout the year.

Hiking in snow Rocky Mountain National Park
Snowy Trail Conditions
Granite Pass Rocky Mountain National Park
Granite Pass – near where I turned around for the day
Chasm Lake trail
On the way back – I wandered down the Chasm Lake trail for a bit
Chasm Crossing
If you look closely, you can see someone making the “Chasm crossing” along a steep ridge
Coyote in snow Rocky Mountain National Park
Back under the tree line, I was greated by a friendly coyote on the trail (excuse the iphone zoom quality)

A New Year’s Eve Getaway in Estes Park, Colorado

Standing under the evergreens on our snowy hike up to Nymph Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park filled my heart with gratitude and relief. Just a few months ago, we were anxiously watching the news and hoping that the wildfires would be contained. Although the damage was substantial, thanks to the incredible effort by firefighters (and perhaps some good luck and answered prayers), Rocky Mountain National Park is open and beautiful.

Here is a map of the Area Closures due to fire damage.

America the Beautiful Park Pass

We bought our annual America the Beautiful Park Pass which covers entrance into national parks and federal recreation lands for the entire family. For us, this is a great deal because we go to the park frequently, plus we feel good about financially supporting the national parks. You can learn more about the pass here.

Details about day passes entrance fees for Rocky Mountain National Park as well as upcoming free days can be found on the nps website.

Nymph Lake

The hike to Nymph Lake begins at the Bear Lake trail head. The journey to Nymph Lake is only .5 miles. Our girls were eager to play in the snow and thrilled that the lake was frozen solid.

Hike to Dream Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park

Cozy cabin in estes park

I spent a lot of time during our trip sitting next to the fire in our cabin, reading books, and drinking coffee. I read 37 books in 2020 which beat my previous year by 11 books. My 2020 favorites include Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson, The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo, and Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. If you enjoy reading on vacation, check out my Book Lovers Guide to Estes Park, Colorado.

In 2020, COVID-19 made us weary of airport travel. We were also navigating the school calendar for the first time as our oldest started kindergarten. This meant fewer trips to the mountains last year. The positive side is that we were able to rent our cabin to many families who wanted a safe and relaxing vacation spot. We are reinvesting the rental income we earned into a couple of upgrades including new flooring throughout the first level. Learn more about renting our cabin here.

Solitude Cabins in Estes Park, Colorado

Hike around lily Lake

I’ve lost count of how many times we’ve written about Lily Lake on our site. Lily Lake is our favorite destination because it is easy, fun, and family friendly. A trip to Rocky Mountain National Park without a stroll around Lily Lake feels incomplete.

Lily Lake Hike in Rocky Mountain National park
Lily Lake in the Snow

Sledding in rocky mountain national park

Hidden Valley is the only place where sledding is allowed in Rocky Mountain National Park. We have been taking our girls to this spot every year. It is a blast! You can rent sleds and other winter gear at Estes Park Mountain Shop.

Sledding in Rocky Mountain National Park

Sprague Lake

Sprague Lake is a half mile loop. We enjoyed this hike on New Year’s Day. This felt like a good start to the year even though life remains a little uncertain. Typically, I’m very goal-oriented, but this year (for now at least) I’m not writing a list of goals. I love to hear what other people do to celebrate the beginning of a New Year, so please feel free to share your reflections in the comments below.

Bierstadt Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Our 5 Most Popular Colorado posts in 2020

I always think it’s fun to see what our readers are finding on our site.

Our fifth most popular post was extra sweet. The Best in Estes Park: A Cinnamon Roll Showdown.

The Estes Park Winter Bucket List was the fourth most popular post this year. Although it was written in 2019, the list remains a good one! On our New Year’s Eve trip we checked off several bucket list items including sledding, winter hikes, shopping for a Christmas ornament, sitting by the fireplace with a good book, and swimming at the Estes Valley Community Center.

The Homer Rouse Trail – a Dog Friendly Trail in Estes Park, Colorado and the updated version Homer Rouse Trail – Revisited (written in 2019) continue to be among the most popular posts on our site.

The second most popular post was A Trail Less Traveled: Hollowell Park to Mill Creek Basin in Rocky Mountain National Park which was written in 2019. We returned to Hollowell Park this summer and wrote about it here. The wildflowers were beautiful! If this is a hiking destination you want to try, make sure to check in with the national park service. According to their website, ‘Trails that remain closed in the Bear Lake area include the Fern Lake Trail, Cub Lake Trail, the Mill Creek Basin, and Hollowell Park.’ (as of 1/4/2021).

The most popular post was 7 Romantic Things To Do in Estes Park, Colorado. This post was actually written in February of 2019, but most of the points remain true except that the Dunraven has a new location by Lake Estes.

If you are on pinterest, I’d love for you to check out our profile. I typically add videos on pinterest that aren’t included in the blog posts.

coming soon

I’m going to ask my husband Eric to post his favorite moments from our recent trip too. Some of his pictures are AMAZING. I can’t wait to share them here soon. I’m also excited to share about our latest Estes Park food adventure. A post about our Asian Takeout Extravaganza is coming soon.

Happy New Year!

-Kelly

Ute Trail from Alpine Visitor Center in Rocky Mountain National Park

Last week I was feeling sentimental and decided to print pictures from our summer adventures. I was surprised when a package of 143 prints came in the mail. I need to buy a new photo album to fit them all in! I think that is a good problem to have. The summer of 2020 has been challenging, so I am thankful we’ve been able to capture 143 fun moments.

This hike along the Ute Trail in Rocky Mountain National Park contains several of these exceptional summer memories.

Rocky Mountain National Park Ute Trail near Alpine Visitor Center
Hiking on the Ute Trail

Our family entered in Rocky Mountain National Park from the east side of the park near Estes Park during our reserved timed entry window. We drove up Old Fall River Road to the Alpine Visitor Center then parked and walked around to take in the landscape from the viewing deck.

My cousin and his high school age sons came in from the west side of the park near Grand Lake. We were thrilled to meet them for a morning hike.

elk in rocky mountain national park off of trail ridge road
Elk on the mountain side

The trail begins right across from the visitor center (11,796 ft of elevation). Trail Ridge Road can get terribly busy, so we held our kids’ hands while crossing.

This section of the Ute Trail leads down to Poudre Lake and Milner Pass. The hike to Poudre Lake is four miles each way. If you have two cars, you can park one at the Alpine Visitor Center and the other by Poudre Lake to avoid the return trip back up.

wildflowers and mountain views along ute trail in rocky mountain national park. colorado hikes
Mountain Views from the Ute Trail

Instead of juggling cars, we decided to cut the hike short. We followed the trail for approximately one and a half miles until we reached a couple of tarns off the path. We returned the way we came. The return trip was uphill, but it felt doable even with young kids.

I loved every second of this hike. It was fun catching up with my cousin and his kids, the views were unbelievable, the weather was perfect, the wildlife was exciting, and the flowers were beautiful. We even got a rare family photo of all four of us mostly looking at the camera.

similar hikes in Rocky mountain National Park

The Most Underrated Hike in Rocky Mountain National Park. Following the Historic Ute Trail.

This post covers another section of the Ute Trail

A Land of Extremes: Tundra Communities Trail in Rocky Mountain Natonal Park


Alpine Ridge Trail