The contrast between Rocky Mountain National Park and its neighbors Arches and Canyonlands is striking. Snow-covered peaks and alpine lakes make way for desert vistas and colorful rock formations on the stunning 300-mile drive between Colorado and Utah. Discover three unique national parks on this four-day itinerary.
Get there & around
Denver makes for a great starting point of the trip. Low-cost airline Frontier has headquarters in Denver, so cheap flights are available from all over the country. Rent a car in Denver to navigate between the three National Parks. It’s about an hour and half drive from Denver to the Rocky Mountain National Park entrance in Estes Park. Free shuttle busses run between Estes Park and the trailheads in RMNP. The incredibly scenic Trail Ridge Road takes you to the other side of RMNP in about two hours. From here, the drive to Moab, Utah is around five hours.
In order to minimize time spent in the car and maximize time in nature, opt for a stay in Estes Park. This mountain town at the base of Rocky Mountain National Park allows you to get in and out of the park in no time. We stayed two nights in Beaver Brook On the River. The cosy condos have a patio next to the Colorado river. Two shared hot tubs allow for relaxation after a day of hiking. The town of Moab is the gateway to explore Eastern Utah’s national parks. The Aarchway Inn is conveniently located on the road to both Arches and Canyonlands National Park.
Day 1 – Rocky Mountain National Park
The Rockies’ snow-covered peaks follow you around in Estes Park. Fuel up for a day of hiking in Notchtop Bakery & Cafe. Their extensive breakfast & brunch menu is served with a top notch view of the Rockies. The delicious Summer Cobb Salad is like a mountain of protein.
The roads in Rocky Mountain National Park are crowded in summer weekends. Unless you’re an early riser, be prepared for a line at the park entrance. There is parking at the start of most popular trails, but it tends to fill up quickly. Alternatively, free shuttle busses leave from the Park & Ride inside the park and serve most trailheads. An express Hiker’s shuttle is also available to take you from downtown Estes Park to the Park & Ride.
Start at the Bear Lake Trailhead. The Bear Lake Trail is an easy 0.7 mile loop around Bear Lake. It’s a popular short hike for all skill levels.
After warming up around Bear Lake, get ready to hike the most popular trail in Rocky Mountain National Park. The Emerald Lake Trail starts from the Bear Lake Trailhead. On this 3.1 mile trail, you hike past several alpine lakes before arriving to Emerald Lake. During Memorial Day weekend, the trail was still partly covered in snow. Be prepared for a slippery adventure if you’re not wearing hiking boots.
The Rockies are great for wildlife spotting. Chipmunks, ground squirrels, a curious marmot, colorful birds, mule deers and a moose all crossed our path.
Unwind from the first day of hiking at The Rock Inn. The cosy interior reminds of Twin Peaks’ Great Northern Hotel. Watch the sunset over the Rockies with a delicious glass of The Federalist Red Blend. On the menu are local specialities, including dill-horseradish trout and elk sausage.
Day 2 – Rocky Mountain National Park
Rise early to get to the Glacier Gorge Trailhead before the parking lot fills up. Several hikes start here. Skypond via Glacier Gorge is considered a challenging but highly rewarding hike. At the end of May, the snow on the last part of this trail came knee-high. If you don’t have proper gear, you can opt to only hike the first part up to Loch Lake. The Loch Lake Trail is a moderate 5.4 mile trail with great views. The trail passes the popular Alberta Falls, before climbing to a scenic overlook of the valley. It comes to an end at the Loch Lake, which is where the Skypond trail takes over.
About one mile before reaching Loch Lake, there’s a sidetrack to the left. Make sure to hike the additional 1.2 mile to Mills Lake and back. This was by far the most scenic spot in Rocky Mountain National Park for me.
After a day of hiking, nothing is more appealing than a refreshing beer. The Barrel has over 60 craft beers on tap, to be enjoyed outdoors. Taster glasses allow you to take home a new favorite, in my case the Fremont Lush IPA.
Day 3 – Arches National Park
The scenic Trail Ridge Road brings you up close with the Rockies’ snow-covered peaks. The “Highway to the Sky” covers 48 miles between Estes Park on the East and Grand Lake on the West. Taking the Trail Ridge Road on the way to Utah only lengthens the drive by 15 minutes, which is well worth it. But given all the photo stops you’ll be making, it might just turn into an extra hour. Rise early to beat the crowds and enjoy sunrise high in the sky.
The beautiful scenery doesn’t end when getting off the Trail Ridge Road. The drive to Utah never stops surprising, with another spectacular view around every corner.
Arches National Park is home to more than 2000 natural sandstone arches. A day is enough to cover the park’s most typical trails and viewpoints. Warm up with a couple of short trails that lead up to majestic views. The Park Avenue Trailhead offers a first overlook on the park’s impressive rock formations.
The Windows Loop is an easy 1.2 trail. Climb the North Window for desert vistas.
Right across from the Windows loop awaits Double Arch. It takes a bit of a scramble, but the panorama through the arch is worth it.
Now it’s time for the real deal. The Devil’s Garden Loop Trail takes you past seven arches over seven miles. The first part is a walk in the park and thus heavily trafficked. The scrambling fun starts after Landscape Arch.
During this trail, I began to reach my saturation point for arches. Navajo Arch, Partition Arch, Double O Arch… You name it, we passed it. Nonetheless, the trail is pretty impressive, offering stunning desert views.
Save the crown jewel of arches for last, as Delicate Arch is best appreciated in sunset light. The Delicate Arch Trail goes uphill for 1.5 mile, to then reveal the most photographed of all arches. With good reason, if you ask me.
Day 4 – Canyonlands National Park
Canyonlands can be divided into four areas. The Island in the Sky is the most accessible one and thus recommended when you have limited time in the park. All three trails below are located in the Island of the Sky.
The Delicate Arch of Canyonlands is Mesa Arch. We tried to make it at sunrise, but a fourth early morning in a row was just too much to ask. Luckily, Mesa Arch was still shining bright at 8 AM.
The Grand Viewpoint Trail did not steal its name. You are constantly flanked by stunning canyon views on this easy 2 mile trail.
Try catching a ranger talk on the geology of Canyonlands National Park. The 20-minute talks start at 10:30 and 11:30 at the Grand Viewpoint Overlook.
Scrambling up the Aztec Butte Trail is rewarded with 360-degree views of Canyonlands. Take in nature’s beauty one last time before driving back to Denver.