Estes Park to Grand Lake

Today I’m sharing about a recent day trip from Estes Park, Colorado to Grand Lake, Colorado. We typically make this voyage several times each summer because we enjoy it so much.

We always rise early to start our mountain adventures, but this year we have an extra reason to get an early start. Rocky Mountain National Park’s new timed-entry permit system is designed to help regulate traffic. If you get into the park before 9:00 AM or after 3PM, you don’t need to worry about a permit to drive over to Grand Lake. However, you still need a park entry pass. There is more information on the national park’s website.

We traveled over Trail Ridge Road to the Alpine Visitor Center. When we went in early June, the seasonal highway had just opened so the snow was still piled high from a recent storm.

We didn’t realize that the Alpine Visitor Center has reduced hours in the late spring, so we waited around a little bit until they opened the doors at 10:30 AM. (Starting June 13, the doors open at 9:30 AM). At the visitor center we purchased a RMNP animals themed puzzle and some postcards to send to friends and family back home. We also enjoyed a cinnamon roll and hot chocolate in the cafe.

As we continued our drive down Trail Ridge Road towards Grand Lake, Colorado, it was shocking to see the wrath of the 2020 wildfires that burned 30,000 acres of the national park. Even though the fires are no longer roaring, some areas remain dangerous because of higher risks for falling trees, landslides, and flash flooding. Before planning a hike, it’s a good idea to check the National Park’s website for current closed areas (here) and to visit park visitors centers to get the latest trail information.

The fire not only impacted the forest, but also the people who live nearby. An art exhibit called Troublesome Stories: Tales from the wildfire opened in the town of Grand Lake. The gallery is free to the public. You can learn more here.

We were relieved to see that the hike into the East Meadow was open. The hike to East Meadow begins at the East Inlet trailhead at 8,390 ft in elevation. We followed the East Inlet trail for .3 miles to Adams Falls.

Adams Falls

This is one of our favorite hikes on the West side of Rocky Mountain National Park because it is beautiful and easy for our young kids to hike on their own. We wrote more about this destination in our post, Peaceful Hike to East Meadow in Rocky Mountain National Park.

On the way to East Meadow

Past the falls and into the meadow, we spotted a moose in the distance.

Moose in Rocky Mountain National Park
East Meadow

Grand lake colorado restaurants

We spent a little time in the meadow before turning around to head back to the trailhead. We worked up an appetite on our hike and decided to try a new Caribbean restaurant called One Love Rum Kitchen. We were able to get a picnic table outside where we enjoyed our meal. My husband and I enjoyed the flavorful blend of spices that they used to season the food. Our kids prefer basic flavors.

Next, we strolled down to Grand Lake where the girls (ages 4 and 6) enjoyed splashing in the water and playing in sand. This was the highlight of the day for them.

Our last stop was for a scoop of ice cream at Grand Lake Chocolates. Then we started our journey back over Trail Ridge Road to our cabin in Estes Park. The distance between Estes Park and Grand Lake is 46.5 miles and when I googled it this morning, it says it takes an hour and a half. I would plan for at least two hours each way because of traffic and sight-seeing.

Things to do in grand lake colorado

For us, this felt like a full day, but you could easily extend this day trip by adding more hikes. Some of our family’s favorite hikes in this area include the Ute Trailhead, Tundra Communities Trailhead, Alpine Ridge Trail, Lake Irene, and Coyote Valley.

Another way to add on to the day trip is renting a boat or kayak in Grand Lake. Last year we rented a kayak which we wrote about in a post called Kayaking Grand Lake, Colorado.

My final suggestion is to check out the locally owned shops and art galleries on the boardwalk in downtown Grand Lake.

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 CorridorĀ 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

Waterfalls Galore in Rocky Mountain National Park’s Wild Basin

Calypso Cascades is a short hike in Rocky Mountain National Park's Wild Basin. Calypso Cascades hike features waterfalls and wild flowers.

We just got back from an amazing week in the mountains. I can’t wait to share all about our experience with the new timed-entry reservation system, how we chose which hikes to go on, and a few tips sprinkled in. This post also features trail details and pictures of Calypso Cascades, one of our favorite spots in Rocky Mountain National Park.

rocky mountain national park timed-entry

Rocky Mountain National Park has a new reservation system. We chose the 6:00 am to 8:00 am entry time for each day of our trip. People can go into the park before 6:00 am and after 5:00 pm without a reservation, so parking can still be limited in popular areas. Overall, the experience was easy and we appreciated that there was less traffic in the park.

wild basin is less crowded

We chose to hike in the Wild Basin for our first hike of the trip because we expected it to be less busy given it’s more remote location. The Wild Basin is located approximately 19 miles south of Estes Park on Highway 7. Once you turn off the highway, the drive turns into a bumpy, narrow dirt road leading towards the Wild Basin trail head. There is no shuttle service in this area of the park. Even though it is typically less busy, the parking lot still filled up around 8:00 am (on a Sunday in July). Luckily, we found a parking space around the corner from the main parking area.

If you are having a hard time deciding which hikes to try in Rocky Mountain National Park, I created a fun chart to help you decide.

wild basin is lower in elevation (8,500 ft)

The elevation is lower in the Wild Basin than other areas of the national park which was helpful for our first day on the trails as we acclimated to the higher altitude.

Waterfalls in the Wild Basin area of Rocky Mountain National Park

wild basin waterfalls

There are several destinations you can reach from the Wild Basin trail head. We decided to hike to Calypso Cascades because it is relatively short at 1.8 miles each way. The trail begins flat and wide with towering pine trees. At .3 miles into the hike, you will pass Copeland Falls. There is signage pointing to the upper and lower falls. There have been several occasions that we stopped right at this point because of weather or tired kids.

Calypso Cascades is a top hike  located in Wild Basin of Rocky Mountain National Park.
Calypso Cascades

But we were having a good day so we continued the hike which begins to steadily gain in elevation. (You climb 780 ft total). There is a picturesque wooden bridge over the cascades which is a wonderful place to take in the scenery or get a family photo. For hikers who want more of a challenge, you can continue on to Ouzel Falls. This time we stopped for a snack after the bridge and headed back down the trail the way we came.

kid carrier for hiking

Our 5-year-old hiked to Calypso Cascades on her own without much trouble or complaints. Our 3-year-old rode in a kid-carrier. We own a Deuter kid carrier like this one which we purchased when our oldest child turned one and a half years old. My husband is the parent who takes on the challenge of carrying our daughter on his shoulders. Carrying an extra 30 pounds up a mountain is tough, but at least the carrier helps distribute the child’s weight so he is more comfortable. My daughter enjoys sitting up high to see the views. A carrier feels safer than carrying a child when they are too tired to walk on their own because it frees up adult hands to catch yourself in case you trip or stumble. Buying our own kid carrier has been a good investment because we have used it for both girls and also shared it with friends and family. However, if you don’t want to buy a kid carrier, you can rent them at Estes Park Mountain Shop.

Kid Carrier for hiking
Make sure to get a kid carrier with a rain roof for unexpected mountain rain storms

pack layers (And Masks) when hiking in the mountains

We enjoyed the cooler mountain temperatures. Many days we started off in sweatshirts or jackets in the morning and took off layers by afternoon when temperatures rose into the 80’s.

We also started our hikes with face masks by the trail head and parking lot, but took them off when we could keep a minimum of six foot distance from fellow hikers. The state of Colorado currently has a face mask mandate for COVID-19.

Wildflowers bloom in the summer months in Rocky Mountain National Park's Wild Basin area

The forest, summer wildflowers, wooden bridges, and waterfalls all make the hike to Calypso Cascades a unique experience.

related posts you might enjoy

Best Waterfall Hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park

Sweeping Mountain Views and Waterfalls – Our Favorite New Hike in Rocky Mountain National Park’s Wild Basin

Family Friendly Waterfall Hike in Rocky Mountain National Park’s Wild Basin

Into the Wild Basin (featuring Ouzel Falls)

*This post contains an affiliate link for kid carrier. Thank you for your support!

Planning Our July Trip to Rocky Mountain National Park

Growing up my Nana claimed that after the 4th of July holiday, summer always flies by. I’m not ready for this summer to be over, so I’m hoping our upcoming trip to Rocky Mountain National Park will slow down time. I can’t wait to relax in the mountains before we have to worry about the uncertainty of the 2020 school year. (Plus, I may be in denial that my oldest is starting kindergarten).

dream hike

I have a long list of hikes I want to attempt during our upcoming trip to the mountains. Dream Lake is at the top of my list. The hike begins at Bear Lake trail head in Rocky Mountain National Park. The first section climbs uphill. Soon you arrive at Nymph Lake which is known for it’s lake lilies. The hike up also includes mountain views and a waterfall.

The total distance is 1.1 miles each way. We’ve hiked to Dream Lake several times as a family, but this will be the first time my 5-year-old daughter will hike it on her own. Other hikes on my wish list include Hollowell Park, Calyspo Cascades in the Wild Basin, and Black Canyon Trail in the Lumpy Ridge area of RMNP.

Rocky Mountain National Park has a new timed entry system. We reserved early morning spots for each day of our trip through recreation.gov. It will be interesting to see how the new system affects traffic in these popular hiking destinations.

Dream Lake Rocky Mountain National Park
Dream Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park

dream Drive

I’m also eager to explore the Alpine Tundra. Our plan is to drive up Old Fall River Road and connect to Trail Ridge Road. Potential hikes along our way include the Tundra Community Trail and Poudre Lake.

The views on the tundra are incredible. In the past we’ve hiked the Alpine Ridge Trail and a portion of the Ute Trail. I highly recommend both.

Hiking on the Tundra in Rocky Mountain National Park

dream day trip

Although we will be spending most of our vacation in Estes Park, we want to take a day trip to Grand Lake, Colorado. Potential activities near Grand Lake include renting kayaks or hiking from the East Shore trail head. In the past we’ve enjoyed hiking the East Meadow and Coyote Valley. If you are looking for a place to stay on the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park, I recommend checking out this spot in Granby.

Grand Lake Colorado

dream dinner with views

I’m excited to head up into the mountains where we can take advantage of the cooler temperatures. I’m on the lookout for restaurants with patios. Latitude 105 is at the top of my list. I also want to check out Dunraven’s new location near Lake Estes. We’ve listed all our favorite restaurants in Estes Park here.

dream dessert

We are pretty loyal to our favorite ice cream shop in Estes Park. I can’t wait to get a big scoop at Hayley’s!

Best Icecream in Estes Park, Colorado

kid-sized dreams

I asked my girls what they want to do on our trip. They said they want to get hot chocolate at Coffee on the Rocks and pick out a rock at the Red Rose Rock Shop next door.

Rock Shop Estes Park Colorado
Rock Shop in Estes Park, Colorado

finding balance

Beyond all of the fun dreams I have for our trip, I want to be intentional about the way I use my down time. I’m going to challenge myself to take significant breaks from social media feeds and news updates while I’m away, basically a social media detox. I’m going to focus on being in the moment out in nature and spending quality time with my family.

At the same time, I also want to come back with some awesome new content to share here. Last month we saw tremendous growth in traffic. I’m excited to see how many people are visiting and hopefully finding helpful information about Rocky Mountain National Park and Northwest Arkansas. Thank you for following!