Which is the Best Entrance to RMNP?

There are two entrances on the east side of Rocky Mountain National Park and one on the west side where you can purchase your entry, get maps and the newsletter, and all are located near Rocky Mountain visitor centers. But, which one is the best?

On the west side of the Continental Divide, the best (and only) entrance to RMNP is the Grand Lake Entrance, located on US Highway 34, which continues through the Kawuneeche Valley to become Trail Ridge Road as it crosses over to the east side. On the east side of the Divide, there are two Rocky Mountain entrances, each one coming from Estes Park. Most people use the entrances on the east side, as they are the closest to Denver and Colorado’s Front Range, the most populated regions of Colorado. The best one to use varies with the time of year, time of day, and the Rocky Mountain activities desired.

Beaver Meadow entrance station in Rocky Mountain
The Beaver Meadows Entrance Station is the most popular access point in Rocky Mountain National Park/ NPS photo
Map of entrances to Rocky Mountain National Park

Juggling the best entrance to Rocky Mountain has been a preoccupation of mine for the past 25 years, living within five miles of its boundary.  My perspective is this: I want to go to the entrance that will have the smallest crowds and can provide me with the quickest access to the hike, snowshoe, or ski tour I want to do. This philosophy is adjusted when I’m hosting visitors with varying abilities or different interests, such as rock climbing.  Read on for detailed information on all three Rocky Mountain National Park’s entrances, and other access points to the Rocky Mountain wilderness.  

Rules and Regulations Within Rocky Mountain’s Boundaries

  • An entrance fee – in the form of an annual, lifetime, weekly, or daily pass – is required to enter Rocky Mountain National Park.  I have the America the Beautiful pass, which gets me into any National Park unit in the country for just $80/year.  Compare that to a daily or weekly pass of up to $30, it’s a no-brainer for me because I love to visit National Parks!  You can order this pass online or purchase it at the Beaver Meadows, Fall River, or Grand Lake Entrances.  Please note: these entrance stations do not accept cash payments, as of June 2023.
  • A timed-entry reservation is required between May 24 through October 20 in 2024 for the Bear Lake Corridor) and from May 24 to October 15 for the rest of the Park. Find out how to get into Rocky Mountain without a reservation.
  • No pets are allowed on any trail within the Park’s boundaries, leashed or otherwise.  Leashed pets are allowed on roads, campgrounds, and pullouts only.
  • Harvesting of plants and rocks is strictly prohibited within Rocky Mountain’s boundaries.
  • Never feed any wild animal – including birds – encountered in Rocky Mountain.  This is illegal and you can be issued a fine!  Using any sound, especially an elk bugle, to attract an animal’s attention is prohibited as well.
  • Leave No Trace Littering is strictly prohibited – if you pack it in, pack it out!  Other violations under this category include carving into trees, intentionally disturbing the natural environment, and intentional light pollution.
  • Visit the Park’s Rules & Regulation Page for a complete list of what you can and cannot do within Rocky Mountain’s boundaries.
graphic showing National Park passes
There are many options for the America the Beautiful pass; this pass will get you into any national park unit in the country./ NPS photo
people standing in Beaver Meadows Visitor Center in Rocky Mountain
The Beaver Meadows Visitor Center/NPS photo

The Beaver Meadows Entrance Station

This is the most popular entrance station with the most kiosks available to purchase a pass.  This is also the closest entrance to the Bear Lake Corridor.   It’s located near the gateway town of Estes Park, via Highway 36.  Construction in Estes Park along this route is predicted to last until the summer of 2025, so please plan a little extra time to reach this entrance station.

cars waiting in line at entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park
The Fall River Entrance Station is currently under construction until summer, 2024,/NPS photo
display inside Fall River Visitor Center in Rocky Mountain
Inside the Gateway building is the Fall River Visitor Center. Check out the Trailhead Restaurant, too!/ NPS photo

Visit Rocky Mountain with Confidence with
Our Complete Guide to the Trail Ridge Road

Guide includes reservation requirements, driving tips, and things to do along the way.

The Fall River Entrance Station

This station is currently under construction, but it is predicted to be finished by the summer of 2024. The station is located west of Estes Park on Highway 34. This is the closest entrance to Horseshoe Park, Sheep Lakes, Endovalley, Old Fall River Road, and Trail Ridge Road.

The Fall River Visitor Center is just before the entrance station, in the Gateway complex where the Trailhead Restaurant is also located.

This is the entrance I tend to use in the summer as it is much less crowded than the Beaver Meadows entrance.  You can purchase a pass at this entrance station, too.

The Grand Lake Entrance station/NPS photo by Peter Biddle
Gift shop in Kawuneeche Visitor Center in Rocky Mountain
The Kawuneeche Visitor Center/NPS photo

Grand Lake Entrance Station

Located on the west side of the Park near Grand Lake, this is probably my favorite RMNP entrance station.  It’s small, but usually much less busy than the east-side entrance stations.  It is also located on 34, which becomes Trail Ridge Road with access to the east side over the Continental Divide when it’s open. 

This entrance gives easy access to the Kawuneeche Valley: a long, flat valley that is perfect for wildlife viewing and hiking in the summer, backcountry skiing or snowshoeing in the winter, and incredible fishing in the headwaters of the Colorado River. There are trailheads with hikes that range in difficulty from handicapped-accessible to challenging, and you can buy a pass at this entrance station.

Other Rocky Mountain Access Points

  • Speaking of the west side, the East Inlet and North Inlet Areas can be accessed through the Town of Grand Lake. Trailheads leading over and/or along the Continental Divide offer challenging, long hiking in Rocky Mountain. Alternately, the hike to Adams Falls from the East Inlet Trailhead is a very easy hike to a beautiful waterfall. Parking for these trailheads is designated; try not to park anywhere else unless you want to hear about it from the people who live nearby!
  • Located along Devil’s Gulch Road on the northeast side of Estes Park, the Lumpy Ridge Area includes one of the most popular hikes in Rocky Mountain, to Gem Lake via the Lumpy Ridge Trail. Along the ridge, there are numerous hiking and world-class rock-climbing opportunities, too! There is a good-sized parking lot near the trailhead. Please note: climbing opportunities are limited during raptor nesting periods.  Please refer to Rocky Mountain’s Raptor Closures page for complete information.
  • The best way to access the Cow Creek Trail is to hike from the Lumpy Ridge Trail, since the parking is almost non-existent at the Cow Creek Trailhead, located at the former McGraw Ranch. The ranch buildings were sold to the NPS in 1988 and it now houses researchers and their guests while they work in Rocky Mountain.  You can access the McGraw Ranch from Devil’s Gulch Road in Estes Park; you will need to drive down the private dirt road to get to its very small space for parking. About 5-6 cars at a time can park there at one time.  Do not park along the dirt road leading to it, it’s a private road and people who live along it do not allow parking on the side of the road. The Cow Creek Trails connects with other trailheads, such as the West Creek Trail and the Lumpy Ridge Trail. Cow Creek is the best trailhead to use for a relatively level hike to Bridal Veil Falls, a beautiful excursion. Early morning will be your best chance to get a spot in the designated lot during the summer.
view of rocks at Lumpy Ridge in Rocky Mountain
The view from the Lumpy Ridge parking area./author photo
trail along mountain in Rocky Mountain
The Cow Creek Trail is a beautiful, relatively level trail that leads to Bridal Veil Falls./author photo
Wild turkeys on trail in Rocky Mountain
Wild turkeys on the Cow Creek Trail./author photo
  • While you cannot purchase a pass at the Wild Basin Entrance Station, it is manned by a ranger during the busy summer season. This entrance is located south of Estes Park and can be accessed via Highway 7 (the Peak-to-Peak Highway), just after the striking St. Catherine of the Rock Catholic church. In the winter, the Wild Basin road is closed to vehicles, so it is necessary to park at the Sandbeach Lake Trailhead (just across from the Wild Basin Lodge) and walk a mile or so to reach the Wild Basin Trailhead.  This makes this area perfect for snowshoeing or skiing during winter! In the summer, you can drive on this road up to the Wild Basin Trailhead, which is recommended for everyone of all hiking abilities!  In a quarter of a mile on this trail, you have reached Copeland Falls, the most easily-accessed waterfall in Rocky Mountain.  Hike about 1.5 miles further and the trail slopes slightly up to reach Calypso Cascades.  Hike less than three miles from the trailhead and you’ve reached the third waterfall, Ouzel Falls. Further on, the hiking becomes more strenuous and the trail connects to more difficult routes. The alpine lakes in this area are stunning.
  • Unlike the Wild Basin station, The Longs Peak Area is manned by a ranger full-time, year-round.  This is where you can hike on the Longs Peak trail, all the way up to the top of this peak.  This is a dangerous hike that requires the proper gear and weather conditions; check in with the ranger at the station to make sure you are equipped for this long, steep trek which includes quite a bit of climbing. Also connecting from this trail are hikes to the Estes Cone (watch for signs), a more moderate hike to the Eugenia Mine via Moore Park, and several others.
  • The most easily accessible natural lake in Rocky Mountain is located along Highway 7, with a parking lot just off the highway.  Lily Lake’s main trail is a short, easy stroll around the lake but there are options to connect with more strenuous routes. Just across the highway is the Twin Sisters Trailhead, a wonderful yet challenging hike to the summit!  This is a popular stop, all year round, so getting there early in the day or later in the afternoon is recommended.
In late spring, Copeland Falls swells with runoff from snow melt. / author video
small waterfall in forest
In fall and early winter, Copeland Falls slows down quite a bit! /author photo
Longs Peak with clouds around base
Longs Peak towers over low-lying storm clouds during February 2023./author photo
paved trail into mountains
Lily Lake Trail/author photo
Reflection of hill in lake
Lily Lake / author photo

I hope you enjoy Rocky Mountain National Park’s many opportunities to access some of the most spectacular landscapes in the country!

What Else Do I Need to Know?

Rocky Mountain is crowded!

Need a game plan to avoid the crowds? Check out our itinerary

Most travelers want to visit the most popular sites and still avoid the crowds. We have a detailed itinerary that gives you a step-by-step game plan so you can get to the best places at the right times.


ROCKY MOUNTAIN TRIP PLANNER: To read or watch all of our content about Rocky Mountain National Park, check out our Rocky Mountain Homepage

THINGS TO DO: There is so much to do including hiking, swimming, taking a tour of the Stanley Hotel, and driving Trail Ridge Road and Bear Lake Road

GREAT CITIES TO STAY OR CHECK OUT: Explore some amazing cities nearby including Estes Park

KNOW BEFORE YOU GO: Find out about getting into Rocky Mountain without a reservation, if the park is too crowded, and all about altitude sickness

WATCH: Enjoy videos of gorgeous Rocky Mountain National Park while learning our best tips for visiting by watching our Rocky Mountain YouTube Playlist


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