Estes Park vs Grand Lake: Where Should You Stay When Visiting Rocky Mountain National Park?

As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases. We may receive a commission for purchases made through these links. This site also contains affiliate links to products besides Amazon and we may also receive a commission for purchases.

Nestled in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, two special towns lie on either side of the majestic Rocky Mountain National Park. Estes Park, to the east, and Grand Lake to the west are two amazing destinations that offer incredible views, different experiences, and their own attractions.

But which side is best for those who want to explore this beautiful park?

We will compare Estes Park vs Grand Lake, looking at the best hotels in each town, the attractions on each side of RMNP, and much more to help you decide if Estes Park or Grand Lake is right for your next adventure!

Estes Park vs Grand Lake: Where Should You Stay?

Should you Stay in Estes Park or Grand Lake?

Whether you’re looking for a peaceful getaway or an adrenaline-filled adventure, Estes Park and Grand Lake both offer plenty of enchanting experiences within Rocky Mountain National Park.

For those who prefer a more bustling atmosphere, Estes Park is the perfect spot. This quaint mountain town offers plenty of opportunities for shopping and dining in the evenings after you spend your days exploring the park.

But if you’re seeking a more relaxed experience, Grand Lake should be your home base. Grand Lake is smaller, but the views are unmatched.

No matter which side of RMNP you choose to explore, you’ll have access to some incredible scenery – so why not make it a point to visit both?

Getting There

Getting to Estes Park is, for the most part, easier than reaching Grand Lake. While both towns are located on the edge of Rocky Mountain National Park the routes to each town are quite different.

From Denver, you can take the short drive up to the park entrance at Estes Park, or continue on to Grand Lake on the west side of RMNP. Once inside, you can explore the numerous trails around either town that will lead you to some stunning views of the surrounding area.

If driving isn’t an option for you, there are shuttle services that offer rides to both Estes Park and Grand Lake. Public transportation into Rocky Mountain National Park from Grand Lake is much more limited than the other side of the park.

No matter how you decide to get there, once you arrive at either town, you’ll be surrounded by Rocky Mountain National Park’s breathtaking beauty.

When comparing Estes Park vs Grand Lake, Grand Lake has a trail that you can reach right on the edge of town
A view of Grand Lake in the distance from the trail

Exploring the Park

Exploring the park is an incredible experience no matter which town you’re based in – Estes Park or Grand Lake.

If you’re based in Estes Park, you’ll have easy access to popular attractions like Emerald Lake and Alberta Falls, along with the rest of the Bear Lake Corridor. This area offers some of the most beautiful alpine lakes in Colorado, perfect for a day of fishing or hiking.

For those wishing to further explore the park, Trail Ridge Road provides stunning views and wildlife sightings on your journey over the Continental Divide. Trail Ridge Road is what connects Estes Park to Grand Lake through RMNP, but cars can only use this route in the summer months due to weather conditions.

Grand Lake also offers plenty of activities within Rocky Mountain National Park. While it may take a bit longer to reach Bear Lake Corridor from Grand Lake than Estes Park, it’s worth it for its spectacular views and tranquil atmosphere. Plus, Grand Lake itself is right on the edge of RMNP – you can reach spots like Adams Falls without having to move your car if you stay in town.

No matter where your travels take you within Rocky Mountain National Park, one thing’s for sure – you’re bound to have an unforgettable experience!

Town Atmosphere

When it comes to the atmosphere of Estes Park and Grand Lake, you have quite the contrast. Estes Park is larger and more lively, with a wide variety of shops, restaurants, and attractions that are perfect for families or those looking for an adventure after exploring the park.

Grand Lake is much quieter but equally as beautiful and provides an ideal spot for those seeking some peace and relaxation.

No matter which town you choose, Rocky Mountain National Park offers endless opportunities for exploration. Each of these towns is perfect for different kinds of travelers, so choose the town that suits your style the best.

RMNP East Gateway: Estes Park

Estes Park is the eastern gateway town to Rocky Mountain National Park, and it is an amazing destination for anyone looking to explore this beautiful park.

This is an extremely popular Colorado town to visit in the summertime, and accommodations do book up. We’d recommend securing a room as soon as you know your travel dates for the best selection.

Estes Park is also home to some great hotels and restaurants, making it a great place to stay while visiting RMNP.

In addition, visitors can find plenty of activities here such as horseback riding, fishing, and golfing.

Best Hotel in Estes Park

Estes Park is home to some great hotels, offering visitors a comfortable stay and easy access to all that Rocky Mountain National Park has to offer.

A more budget-friendly option is to book a stay at the Coyote Mountain Lodge. Clean and close to activities, you can’t ask for much more. Plus, we found our room to have plenty of space to dry out our gear after getting rained on at Sprague Lake!

If you’re planning a visit to Rocky Mountain National Park, you’ll need a comfortable and welcoming place to stay. The Pine Haven Resort is the perfect place near Estes Park for those who’d like a little more space in one of their meticulously cared-for cabins.

Past guests rave about the warm and inviting atmosphere, with many feeling like they’ve come home when they stay at Pine Haven Resort. Many guests return year after year.

If you’re planning a visit to Rocky Mountain National Park, the Inn on Fall River is perfectly situated between the Beaver Meadows and Fall River entrances to the park. This beautiful inn sits on the banks of a sparkling mountain stream and is surrounded by magnificent natural beauty, including towering evergreen trees that are over 300 years old.

While it’s a little further from town, the natural setting of the Inn on Fall River can’t be beaten.

One of the most iconic landmarks in Estes Park is The Stanley Hotel. This historic hotel is famous for inspiring Stephen King’s novel, “The Shining.” The hotel offers a variety of accommodations, including rooms in the main building, as well as suites and cottages on the property.

Visitors can take a guided tour of the hotel to learn about its history and paranormal activity or enjoy a meal at one of the on-site restaurants. Even if you’re not staying at the property, the hotel also offers ghost tours, where visitors can explore the property and learn about the hotel’s haunted past.

The Stanley Hotel sits atop a hill with a backdrop of the Rocky Mountains in Estes Park.
The Stanley Hotel in Estes Park

RMNP West Gateway: Grand Lake

Grand Lake is the western access point to Rocky Mountain National Park, offering visitors stunning views and plenty of adventure.

Located on the beautiful shores of Grand Lake, this charming mountain town provides a wealth of activities including boating, fishing, and hiking in the surrounding wilderness.

Grand Lake is a little harder to access when traveling from major Colorado cities like Denver, Boulder, and Colorado Springs. Because it takes longer to reach Grand Lake, many visitors do not put in the effort.

This makes Grand Lake much quieter than Estes Park! While it’s a little further away from some of the most popular points in Rocky Mountain National Park, there is plenty of beauty to find near Grand Lake, too.

If you’re looking for a more relaxed, slower-paced trip to RMNP, we’d recommend you stay in Grand Lake.

Best Hotel in Grand Lake

When it comes to finding the best hotel in Grand Lake, you won’t be disappointed.

The Grand Lake Lodge is a stunning mountain lodge that overlooks the shores of Grand Lake. With stunning views of the Rockies and easy access to nearby trails, this lodge provides all the comforts of home with a rustic charm. Guests can enjoy cozy cabins, delicious meals at their restaurant, and plenty of outdoor activities like horseback riding and fishing. Plus, there’s an indoor pool and hot tub providing a perfect way to relax after a day spent exploring RMNP.

With its beautiful setting and friendly staff, it’s no wonder why so many people return year after year!

Which Side of Rocky Mountain National Park is the Busiest?

Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the most popular national parks in the United States, and it is no surprise that it can get busy, especially during the summer. But which side of the park is the busiest?

Well, it depends on what time of year and day you visit. The primary western entrance to the park is located in Grand Lake, while Estes Park provides easy access to the Beaver Meadows entrance, which is usually the park’s busiest.

During the summer months, you may find that Estes Park has more visitors due to its proximity to Rocky Mountain National Park from Denver, just 70 miles from the city. It’s sometimes difficult to find a table for dinner at one of the restaurants in town.

However, during winter months when snowfall makes roads impassable, Grand Lake can become busier as visitors flock to Winter Park Resort less than 1 hour to the south for ski trips or simply to enjoy the serenity of a winter wonderland. The route from Denver to Grand Lake, south of RMNP, is about 120 miles.

Ultimately, both sides have their unique advantages and experiences to offer so make sure you plan your trip accordingly!

Estes Park Rock signage, marking both the busiest and the closest to popular hikes when comparing Estes Park vs Grand Lake

Which Side of Rocky Mountain National Park is Closest to the Best Hikes?

When it comes to the best hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park, the east side is definitely where it’s at.

Downtown Estes Park is only about 10 minutes from the entrance to Bear Lake Road (when there is no traffic). The Bear Lake Corridor is home to a number of stunning alpine lakes that can be reached along trails of various difficulties.

Among the alpine lake hikes are the Nymph, Dream, and Emerald lakes; Lake Haiyaha; the Loch, Lake of Glass, and Sky Pond; and trails to Mills and Black Lake. These are all popular destinations for hikers seeking spectacular views and pristine wilderness experiences.

While you can access hikes from the East Inlet Trailhead without ever moving your car, if you stay in Grand Lake, you’ll have to do more driving to reach popular points in the park.

In our opinion, Grand Lake is a great destination for those looking for a quieter mountain town or those making their 2nd (or 3rd, or 30th) visit to Rocky Mountain National Park.

Wildlife in RMNP: Estes Park vs Grand Lake

As one of Colorado’s most popular tourist attractions, Rocky Mountain National Park is home to a wide variety of wildlife. While both sides of the park offer plenty of opportunities for wildlife sightings, the east and west sides have their differences.

The east side, located near Estes Park, is known for its abundance of elk herds as well as smaller animals like deer and foxes. During the summer, the elk herds often migrate to higher elevations but can be seen all over the park.

Meanwhile, the west side near Grand Lake has more ideal settings for moose sightings. Moose are particularly fond of the Kawuneeche Valley just inside the entrance to Grand Lake and can sometimes be seen wandering around town.

The elusive bighorn sheep are certainly trickier to spot. Often, the sheep remain at high elevations that most visitors would never be able to reach. During late spring and early summer, the sheep come down to lower elevations to feed on nutrients in the soil, most often around Sheep Lake.

Of course, no matter which side you choose to explore, there is a chance to find plenty of amazing wildlife!

Mills Lake is in the Bear Lake Corridor and a beautiful spot closer to Estes Park vs Grand Lake
Mills Lake, which you can access in the Bear Lake area

Which Side of Rocky Mountain National Park is Prettiest?

No matter which side of Rocky Mountain National Park you choose to explore, you’re sure to be captivated by its awe-inspiring beauty. From Estes Park’s stunning river valleys and Bear Lake Corridor to Grand Lake’s breathtaking majestic peaks and grassy meadows, both sides offer plenty of gorgeous views.

If you’re looking for a more peaceful experience, the west side of RMNP is probably your best bet. Here, you can wander through lush meadows filled with wildflowers or take a leisurely hike along one of the park’s scenic trails. The park also has plenty of secluded spots where you can relax and watch the sun set over the horizon without another soul in sight.

On the other hand, if you’re looking for an adrenaline rush and popular hikes, head to the east side of RMNP. Here, you can find some of Colorado’s most beautiful terrain in the Bear Lake Corridor, which also offers plenty of opportunities for rock climbing and mountaineering.

Ultimately, it all comes down to personal preference: whether you want a more serene experience or an adventurous one, both sides have something special waiting for you in Rocky Mountain National Park!

Which Side of the Park has the Best Camping?

It’s hard to choose which side of Rocky Mountain National Park provides the best camping options, as both sides offer plenty of great spots.

As far as camping inside the park, there are 5 campgrounds (only 4 will be open for the 2023 camping season) that all have basic campsites. There are no electric full hookup sites in Rocky Mountain National Park. These sites can be difficult to secure, often filling up months in advance.

If you’re not able to secure a site within the park or wish to have a site with more amenities, there are options on both sides.

On the east side near Estes Park, you’ll find a variety of private campgrounds. These range from Estes Park KOA and Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Camp Resorts to more rustic site options. All are equipped with various amenities like showers, picnic tables, and fire pits. Plus, some like the KOA and Yogi Bear even have electric hookups, which is great for those who want to stay connected while camping or are planning longer stays.

On the west side by Grand Lake, you’ll still find plenty of campsites at resort-style campgrounds like Winding River, as well as various style sites at the Grand Lake KOA. These camps provide many of the same amenities as Estes Park’s campgrounds, and they offer their own stunning views and access to park attractions like the Holzwarth Historic Site.

In the end, it all comes down to what you’re looking for in a camping experience. Whether you prefer modern amenities or an unforgettable view, there are plenty of great options within and on both sides of RMNP!

A hiker traveling through an rocky alpine region
Whether you choose to stay in Estes Park vs Grand Lake, you can enjoy beautiful hiking views like this one!

In the end, whether you choose Estes Park or Grand Lake as your base for exploring Rocky Mountain National Park, you’re sure to have an unforgettable experience. Each town offers its own unique charm and access to stunning natural beauty. So make a reservation, pack your bags, and hit the road!