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How to Get into Rocky Mountain National Park Without a Reservation

cars waiting to get into Rocky Mountain National Park's east side
Even with a reservation, you may encounter a line to get into Rocky Mountain National Park’s Beaver Meadows Entrance (on the east side) (author photo)

Are you visiting Rocky Mountain National Park but haven’t secured a timed-entry reservation? Can you still visit the park?

Timed-entry reservations are not absolutely necessary to get into Rocky Mountain National Park, even during the peak visitation months of July through October. There are several workarounds that can give you a wonderful experience, even if you can’t get a reservation.

Want to know how to (legally) get around it? How about a day in Rocky Mountain without a reservation? I’m a local and today I’m going to share with you my go-to plan when I don’t have a reservation.

Timed-Entry Reservations at Rocky Mountain

Kudos to the planners, those who take months preparing for their trips to Rocky Mountain National Park. They’ve reserved campsites six months prior and booked their timed-entry reservations for the exact dates and times they want to visit Colorado’s most popular national park.  I really, really admire those people.

Other people (like me) are more spur-of-the-moment when they visit Rocky Mountain. Maybe they’re in a gateway community like Estes Park or Grand Lake for a wedding but they want to hike, too. Maybe they live on the Front Range and wake up to a day off with perfect autumn weather and decide to head up to the Park for the day. In my case, it might be a dramatic sunset after work that calls me into the mountains.  

But during the busy season, when timed-entry reservations put a cap on how many people can enter at any time, a visit to the Park gets less spontaneous and more complicated. Also confusing is the “pilot” nature of this program: the system has changed a bit every year since it was implemented in 2020 and there’s every indication it may look completely different in 2024 as Park officials develop a permanent visitation strategy.

In 2023, in order to visit the Bear Lake Corridor (the most popular area of Rocky Mountain) from May 26th to October 22nd, reservations are required between the hours of 5 a.m. and 6 p.m.  For the rest of the Park, you need a reservation between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. These two options are explained in detail on Rocky Mountain’s website.

Here are Some Tips for Navigating the Reservation Process:

  • For the planners out there, you can get timed-entry reservations starting at the beginning of each month prior to the month you want to visit (i.e., Sept. 1st for the month of October).  At the time of this writing, all reservations have been released (but not yet fully booked) for 2023.
  • For us last-minute folks, about 40% of available time slots are held back and released the night before, exactly at 5 p.m. MST. These sell out fast, so I recommend getting your profile set up on recreation.gov prior to that time.
  • Your reservation gives you a two-hour window (timed entry) to enter Rocky Mountain, but once you are in, you may stay as long as you like.
  • Entry into the Park–any time of the year–requires an entrance fee; I recommend getting the America the Beautiful Pass which will get you into every National Park unit in the country for around $80/year.
water fall, rocks, pine trees
golden aspen trees on dirt road
Fall foliage along Old Fall River Road (author photo)

My Favorite Road Trip Without Using the Timed-Entry System

I avoid using the reservation system altogether because frankly, I’m just not that organized. My solution?  Enter the Park early (very early if I’m visiting Bear Lake) or later, after the reservation time period ends.  My strategy has as much to do with visiting Rocky Mountain during its most beautiful times (morning and evening) as it is with avoiding the long lines of people with reservations at the entry stations of Rocky Mountain. 

Yes, even if you have a reservation, there will be long lines to get into the Park within your two-hour window.  There also may be no parking at Bear Lake when you get there during your reservation period.  But, if you roll in before 5 a.m. to watch the sunrise in Moraine Park, you’ll have the entire day to explore the Bear Lake Corridor.  (Re-entry to this area between 5 a.m. and 6 p.m. will require a reservation, however).

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.

Map of Old Fall River Road in Rocky Mountain National Park

My favorite Rocky Mountain road trip in the summer and fall doesn’t involve timed-entry reservations at all.  From Estes Park, I make sure I get into line at the entrance station well before nine. Once inside, I make my way to Endovalley.  Just before the picnic area is the beginning of an 11-mile, one-way-up dirt road to the top of the Continental Divide, Old Fall River Road. This road is open seasonally and generally closes in early-mid October. Please check Rocky Mountain National Park’s website for updates.

This steep road has deep potholes and no guardrails, but the experience of driving it is extraordinary, as long as you’re not afraid of heights. The road empties out into the back of the Alpine Visitor Center’s parking lot.  From the lot, turn west onto Trail Ridge Road toward Grand Lake. 

marot on dirt road with trees
Along Old Fall River Road, please break for marmots! (author photo)
autumn foliage on the tundra in Rocky Mountain National Park
Rocky Mountain National Park’s tundra is striking in the fall, as seen along Old Fall River Road (author photo).

Grand Lake, Colorado

With stops for bathroom breaks, photo ops, and short hikes along the way, it can take you all the way to lunchtime to get to this quaint, small town. There are lots of places to eat or get snacks in Grand Lake, and the lake itself offers a swimming beach, boat rentals, and several piers with wonderful views of Colorado’s largest natural lake. 

Coming back east, make sure you re-enter Rocky Mountain from Grand Lake after 2 p.m. and travel back to Estes Park on Trail Ridge Road (half of which you haven’t seen yet). 

This is a great last-minute way to see nearly everything the Park has to offer and makes for a full day of experiences.   

Other ways to avoid the timed-entry reservations for your vehicle would be to take the Hiker’s Shuttle into and out of Rocky Mountain from Estes Park or to book a tour with a local guide company.

water, clouds, blue sky, lake, dock, paddleboards, canoes
The view from the dock of Grand Lake, Colorado’s largest natural-water lake (author photo)
shops, flower pots, boardwalk sidewalks
Grand Lake, the gateway community to Rocky Mountain National Park, has quaint shops along its main street with wooden sidewalks. (author photo)

From October 23 to Memorial Day weekend 2024, no timed-entry permits are required (although an entrance fee or pass is). Other possible restrictions to getting into Rocky Mountain would be when the Park is closed (very rare) or if the Colorado Traction Law is in effect and you don’t have a suitable vehicle or tires for icy and snow-packed conditions. Both Old Fall River Road and Trail Ridge Road are open seasonally and will close, cutting off travel to both sides within the Park, sometime in October. 

Alternatives to Rocky Mountain National Park

Forest Service land with countless opportunities for hiking, camping, fishing, and picnics surround Rocky Mountain; in particular, the Indian Peaks Wilderness is amazing. Autumn is arguably the most exciting time in and near the Park, with the elk rut and beautiful golden aspen leaves quivering in the breeze.  

A driving tour on the Peak-to-Peak Scenic Byway (from Estes Park, Highway 7 to 72) is a great way to “take the long way” to Denver or Blackhawk to experience many of these sights and sounds this time of year.

While the national forests surrounding Rocky Mountain are suitable alternatives to the park itself, nothing beats the real thing.  It may take a little flexibility but anyone can enter Rocky Mountain without a reservation, any time of the year. I do it several times per week! 

Is There Anything Else I Should 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.

MORE INFORMATION FOR YOUR TRIP TO
ROCKY MOUNTAIN

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

LEGAL INFORMATION

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