Rocky Mountain National Parks Experience
+Optional Canadian Add On
The following is a generalized itinerary for a full 14 day experience meant to simply give you an idea of the possibilities, and further customizable based on each guests’ priorities:
Day 1 (Denver/Prep):
Your Rocky Mountain National Parks Experience will start in Denver, where we will do a walkthrough of what people have/need. From there, we will take a trip to REI (as needed) and for groceries, then hit the road. We will complete the drive to Wind Cave and set up camp (or just sleep in the RV) late on the first night.
Day 2 (Wind Cave/Mt. Rushmore/Deadwood):
Wind Cave is the first stop on the Rocky Mountain National Parks Experience, and while not as known as some others, it has some unique features nonetheless. We will register for a cave tour as early as possible, seeing unique formations such as the webbing, found nowhere else in the US. While we wait for the tour, or right after, we will have opportunities to hike through the Black Hills of South Dakota, including expansive views from the top of a fire tower, all while families of prairie dogs look on.
After a short drive, we will continue the Rocky Mountain National Parks Experience for the rest of the afternoon at Mt. Rushmore. The entire site consists of a loop no more than ½ of a mile, but numerous educational opportunities exist that can extend the time of the trip. There is no way to hike above/up to/alongside the faces in the mountain, and the closest you will get is about 200 yards in front. When we wrap up at Mt. Rushmore, we will enjoy dinner (and optional gambling) in Deadwood, the city made famous by the eponymous (and fantastic) HBO show.
Day 3 (Badlands/Devil’s Tower):
Badlands is technically not one of the Rocky Mountains national parks, but a fun park with numerous 2-3 mile hikes with stunning payoff views nonetheless. Landscapes look alien, with jagged points rising along the main drive, while rolling sandstone carved by water stretches as far as the eye can see. The landscape is not only scattered with different colors, but also mountain goats unique plants all over.
After Badlands, we will continue the Rocky Mountains National Park Experience by heading over to Devil’s Tower. With an approximately 2 mile loop around, this is a wonderful way to wrap up the day. The first part of the hike takes you through boulder fields and desert vistas, while the second park feels like you’re in a forest). Not the mention Devil’s Tower itself, made famous in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. From the visitors center, the sun sets behind the tower, making for a perfect photo op (weather dependent) before we hit the road to Great Falls.
Day 4-6 (Glacier-US):
As late as the previous night was, we’ll do our best to get an early start and finish the last few hours of driving to Glacier, my personal favorite park and back in the actual Rocky Mountain national parks. I’ve had people ask me, “What’s Glacier like?”, and my response is usually something like “Close your eyes, imagine what God made the Garden of Eden to look like, and that’s about it.” Seriously, this place is amazing, and I’m not the least bit worried about overselling it.
The jewel of Glacier, and possibly all of the Rocky Mountain National Parks, is “Going to the Sun Road” which cuts right across the heart of the Rockies. When booking, keep in mind there are often years where this road is not cleared of snow until mid/late July and then closed again by mid-September. Regardless, we will also explore Many Glacier to the north, and Two Medicine to the south. Highlights include the world-famous Highline Trail, which we can hike as long as no one is TOO scared of heights.
As we’ll be close to a week into the trip, I do suggest we spend the final day of this leg of the Rocky Mountain National Parks Experience on the shores of Bowman Lake, Lake McDonald, and/or St. Mary Lake, simply relaxing and getting ready for the next part of the journey on the Rocky Mountain National Parks Experience.
Groups will have the option to continue their Rocky Mountain National Park Experience by going south to Yellowstone/Grant Teton, or add an additional 12 days to the trip to explore the Canadian Rockies to the north:
Canadian Rockies Optional Add On
Day 1 (Waterton Lake/Spray Lakes):
Heading north on the Rocky Mountain National Park Experience, Waterton Lake is the corresponding park on the Canadian side of the boarder. Crossing back over at Chief Mountain, we will explore Waterton and take an approximate 20-mile bike ride to areas closed by fire damage. Rented bikes can be traditional or motorized. Driving back to Calgary, we will stop for any gear we realized we forgot, then head west for an hour into the Canadian Rockies.
Just up the dirt road is the Spray Lakes Provincial Park, another hidden gem used by the locals. We can run into town (Canmore) for any supplies that may be needed for the next leg of our Rocky Mountain National Parks Experience, and the day can be spent on the shore, on the water, or hiking in the mountains, all walking distance from our campsite. Also, depending on weather, this area provides tremendous astrophotography opportunities.
Day 2 (Peter Lougheed):
Even though it’s technically a “Provincial Park” (think “State Park” in the United States), don’t sleep on Peter Lougheed, as this can hold its own with any of the other Rocky Mountain national parks. Just south of Banff/Canmore, is where the locals go when they don’t want to deal with tourists.
There is a high chance of seeing bears in this area, and we can pick from numerous hikes with stellar pay-off views, including King’s Creek Ridge, Sarrail Ridge via Rawson Lake, and/or Mt. Indefatigable. Proper shoes are a must, and hiking must be done with intention and respect. There are also numerous other less strenuous hiking options around Upper and Lower Kananaskis Lakes, which could be Rocky Mountain national parks themselves.
Day 3-5 (Banff):
Banff is wonderful, but you’re not exactly “roughing it” in what is probably the most well known of the Canadian Rocky Mountain national parks. Fine dining and shopping options abound in the downtown area, alongside the world famous “Fairmont Banff Springs” chateau, but don’t let this fool you: there are still numerous ways to get in touch with nature. Just a few miles from the downtown area, we can climb (or take a skylift) up Sulfur Mountain in the middle of the town.
Similarly, we can take a ski lift up Mr. Norquay just outside of town, getting stunning views of the city itself. Numerous easily accessible sites are available, from Johnston Canyon to Lake Louise to Bow Lake, though depending on the time of year we may need an early start to beat the crowds (particularly with Lake Louise and Moraine Lake).
On a night with idea sunset conditions, I’ll take you to “Ryan’s Sunset Spot”, simply a place on the side of the road that I have found to have some of the most incredible views I’ve ever seen. And as it’s unmarked, it’s usually just us there, a special moment just for us on the Rocky Mountain National Parks experience.
Day 6 (Icefield Parkway):
Without a bit of exaggeration, Icefield Parkway is easily considered one of the most stunning drives in the world, highlighting everything that the Rocky Mountain national parks have to offer. Connecting Banff and Jasper, we will drive this road in both directions, though driving north is when we will have the opportunity to take our time and stop at famous sites along the way.
Highlights in this portion of the Rocky Mountains National Parks Experience include Bow Lake, Peyto Lake (currently closed for renovations), Icefield Center, Sunwapta Falls, Athabasca Falls, and the Valley of Five Lakes. Each of these are 1-3 mile hikes typically on paved roads. We will also break up the day one of my all-time favorite hikes that, while still requiring effort, has an incredibly high effort to payoff ratio.
Day 7-8 (Jasper):
Most people describe Jasper as “Banff without the crowds”, but I personally feel like Jasper seems a little more wild and little more serious than what we’ve seen up to this point. Jasper is home to the world-famous Malign Lake/Spirit Island, which we will visit on the first day on a boat tour. The remaining day will be spent doing local hikes and checking out reasonable local landmarks such as Pyramid Lake and the Sky Tram to Whistler’s Peak. Jasper is the further north of the Rocky Mountain national parks and truly getting into the wild.
Depending on the groups desire/ability/reservations to hike Mt. Robson, we may leave Jasper and camp at Mt. Robson for an early start the next morning on one of the most special locations in the entire Rocky Mountain National Parks Experience.
Day 9-10 (Mt. Robson):
Mt. Robson is technically just a Provincial Park, but it’s also the tallest peak in the Canadian Rocky national parks and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, making it a perfect fit with the rest of the Canadian Rocky national parks. We will have been the peak from a distance from the Jasper Sky Tram, but in person is a different thing.
The heart of the park is at Berg Lake, which is a minimum of 13.1 miles. From here Mt. Robson, Berg Lake, and multiple glaciers are all within a stone’s throw. An additional 8 miles (4 out and 4 back) lead us around the mountain and right up to the massive Robson Glacier.
Robson does present some logistical issues: without a camping space, this turns into a 26.2 (marathon) hike in a single day, which is do-able but relatively unpleasant. While part of the same chain of Rocky Mountain National Parks we’ve been visiting in Alberta, Mt. Robson is operated through BC Parks’ Reservation System, separately from every other park up to this point. Camping sites are made available 6 months ahead of time and often sell out within minutes.
However, as lots of things change in 6 months and the reservation system literally charges to cancel, so most people who can’t make it simply don’t show up, rather than canceling the spot. All that is to say there is a strong change we will be able to get a backcountry campsite through patience at the Backcountry Office in the morning, but there is no way this is a guarantee.
Day 11 (Revelstoke/Glacier):
Today will involve a good but of driving, but rarely are the views better. We will traverse south, back down the Icefield Parkway towards Banff. When we reconnect with Highway 1, we will continue to the westernmost Canadian Rocky Mountain national parks: Revelstoke and Glacier (not to be confused with the Glacier we already visited in Montana).
At this point, everyone should know what “switchbacks” are. What you may not know is that these can be done for cars as well. Mt. Revelstoke is a non-stop climb of switchbacks to the top, and a very popular training spot for bikers. Once at the top, there is a loop of no more than 2 miles providing stunning views of the surrounding valleys, particularly following Hwy 1 along the west side of the Columbia river.
Driving back east on Hwy 1, Glacier (Canada) offers numerous pull outs with 1-2 mile hikes through giant rock gardens, Roger’s Pass, and lush forests.
Day 12 (Yoho/Kootenay/Calgary):
Our final day will feature two Canadian Rocky Mountain national parks that pack a punch. Yoho is the smallest park we visit, but Emerald Lake and Takakkaw Falls are some of the most stunning sites we will see. Emerald Lake offers a relatively flat loop around the lake, while Takakkaw falls is impressive from both the viewing platform or by scrambling up rocks to where the waterfall makes impact with the ground.
Kootenay, much like Glacier yesterday, offers numerous, easily accessible pull outs featuring the Kootenay River, natural springs, canyons, boardwalks over a lush forest floor, and “hidden lakes” to discover.
When we wrap up with Kootenay, we will head back to Calgary, completing our loop with one more drive through Banff/Canmore. If we move through Kootenay quickly, we can check into a hotel, clean up, and cap the Canadian portion of the trip with a nice group dinner. At that point, we will rest up and get ready for a big drive to Yellowstone the next day to continue our Rocky Mountain National Parks Experience in the US.
Rocky Mountain National Park Experience, Continued
Day 7-9 (Yellowstone/Grand Teton):
Yellowstone is a stunning example of what almost all of the Rocky Mountain national parks have to offer. For many, it’s their favorite and rightfully so: Yellowstone has numerous features, from giant canyons, to waterfalls, to geysers, to volcanic springs, that in and of themselves would be the centerpiece of entire other parks. Here’s the other thing: everyone else knows this, and getting around the park can turn into a lesson in patience.
Not only is the park huge and parking limited, but Yellowstone is PACKED with tourists during summer months, and will often have bison (who do NOT care about cars) causing traffic jams as they walk down the roads. We will absolutely visit the Yellowstone highlights, from Grand Prismatic Spring to Old Faithful, some of the most unique locations in all of the Rocky Mountain national parks.
Grand Teton is a bad mother, and probably the single most recognizable location of all of the Rocky Mountain national parks. Just looking at it, you can tell this isn’t a cute little mountain. Depending on the group’s level of adventurousness, we can focus on a hike into Garnet Canyon and camping in the backcountry at the base of the mountain peak, or spend our time at Jenny Lake with the mountain reflecting off the water. The former requires crampons and an ice axe at almost any time of year. Either way, keep an eye out, this is one of the best locations to see bears: black and grizzly!
Day 10 (Salt Lake City/Arches):
Heading into the home stretch of our Rocky Mountain National Parks Experience, we’ll move from Montana back to Colorado, heading through Utah on the way. This will give us a perfect opportunity to check out Salt Lake City and restock as needed, then spend an afternoon in Arches. Arriving at Arches, we will be treated to thousands of sandstone arches scattered throughout the park. Starting at the back and working forward, we have all day to explore until the sun sets.
Day 11 (Mesa Verde/Black Canyon of the Gunnison):
Getting back into Colorado and the area most traditionally known as Rocky Mountain national parks, we will explore the southwest corner with two smaller, but highly interesting parks. Mesa Verde consists primarily of ranger guided tours of some of the best maintained Native American cliff dwellings in the country. Not far, Black Canyon of the Gunnison offers the opportunity to hike to the bottom of the canyon, far more reasonable than the Grand Canyon, but definitely make sure you’re in the right shape before we take off.
Day 12 (Great Sand Dunes/Estes Park):
You wouldn’t expect it, but take one turn out of the Rocky Mountain national parks and you feel like you’re in the middle of Aladdin. Surrounded by towering mountains, these are the largest sand dunes (in square mileage and height) in the country. The sand makes for amazing photography, and we should plan to either enjoy sunrise or sunset here. We will drive to and stay in Estes Park that evening, preparing for Rocky Mountain tomorrow.
Day 13 (Rocky Mountain):
On our final full day, we’ll explore THE Rocky Mountain National Park, with hiking options ranging from paved paths to climbs up 14,000 ft peaks. We should be relatively acclimatized by this point, but we’ll all still probably be breathing pretty hard. This expansive park offers everything from lakes, to mountains, to flora and fauna viewing opportunities. We will camp in the park for the final night.
Day 14 (Denver):
The next morning, we will have time to wrap up anything at Rocky Mountain National Park that we did not get to the previous day. Around lunch we will head south to Denver, completing our Rocky Mountain National Parks Experience. We will check into a hotel near the airport, clean up, and cap the trip with a nice group dinner. At that point, I will wish you the best and leave your group to travel to the airport the next day.