Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) was the only of the “Top 10” National Parks that we hadn’t been to. As proud National Park fanatics, we needed to change that.
With Expedia’s team of travel writers covering the most visited National Parks as part of their support of the centennial of the National Park Service, we knew that RMNP was the journey we wanted—no, needed—to tackle.
Expedia’s key ask? That we share how we planned for and executed this adventure–to provide a “recipe” for others interested in doing something similar. Truthfully, we were a bit unsure how to best proceed. After all, we travel so much that we’re travel writers. We’re so good with logistics (well, usually) that the details just sort of happen.
Since we have many friends and family-members interested in our love for National Parks and how we piece together these types of treks, we figured that we’d rely on them for cues regarding what people planning similar adventures want to know.
Here’s what we did:
We asked a broad group of friends and family members to ask us whatever they wanted to about the planning and execution of our RMNP adventure. We gave them an overview of our objective/requirements and set them free to ask away.
We heard back from a dozen people with dozens of great questions. Since many of the questions essentially overlapped and common themes clearly emerged, the questions below are accurate representations of what we were asked. And, all together, they give you the full picture.
Q: National Parks always seem to be so difficult to get to, and I can never determine when to go. How did you handle those concerns?
A: Fact: A vast majority of National Parks are outstanding places to visit any time of the year. We were originally planning to visit RMNP in January (for a Nordic skiing adventure), but other plans got in the way. We settled on March. While we weren’t able to ski, we were able to do a lot of hiking. The park was practically empty; it was a real treat. The off-season is great for our National Parks. We especially like April/May and September/October.
Q: Where did you fly into and how did you get around?
A: We flew into Denver (about 70 miles away), rented a car, and made a road trip out of it. Many of our nation’s National Parks offer convenient access via outstanding gateway cities. We always recommend that National Park adventurers spend some quality time in the gateway city near the park they are traveling to. It doesn’t have to be an entirely outdoors-y adventure, and most people appreciate that.
Q: Where did you stay along the way and how did you break up your time?
A: We flew from Seattle to Denver and immediately jumped in the rental car bound for RMNP. We stayed in Estes Park (right at the entrance to RMNP) for three nights and then went back to Denver for three nights before heading home. We loved having this sort of dual adventure; we got in touch with nature for those first several days and then splashed out in Denver, staying downtown, enjoying time with friends and family, and eating wonderful food.
Q: How do you find the best airfare, hotel rates, car rental deals, etc? What did you spend?
A: The million-dollar question! We always start our searches on Expedia. Period. Even before contracting with them, we’ve relied on their tools and exceptional prices.
- We secured round-trip airfare for two for $472.40 on our favorite airline, Alaska Airlines. We were then able to work directly with Alaska to secure upgrades based on our “elite” status with the airline. Many people think you lose those benefits when you book with a third party. You don’t.
- We weren’t quite ready to book our hotels at the same time, so we held off. When you book air on Expedia, you can often secure preferred pricing on hotels for several days/weeks after booking. We’ve always wanted to stay at the haunted Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, so we booked a gorgeous room there for a total of 693.93 for three nights. Expedia was also offering discounted rates at a brand new Hyatt Place in downtown Denver, so we jumped on it for $357 for our three nights in the city.
- Similarly, Expedia was offering us preferred rates on rental cars because we had booked air with them. Our one-week rental came to $323.57
- Finally, we booked a tour for our time in Denver. It was a walking tour that focused on history and whiskey. One of those things we like, and one of those things we love. The tour was only $70 for both of us.
Viewfinder Tip: Check out the #FindYourPark initiative for more inspiration.
Q: How do you recommend people decide between all of those airlines and all of those hotels?
A: That’s the beauty of Expedia. You can compare everything on one website. If you’re partial to an airline—like we are—you can go that direction. If you’re more focused on price, no problem, you can clearly see which options are the most economical.
When it comes to hotels, we appreciate being able to peruse verified user reviews right on the Expedia site. It’s so helpful and bolsters our confidence when purchasing. Also, we splurged a bit on our RMNP hotel, so reigned it in a bit when it came to Denver. Expedia enables you to figure all that out in one place.
Q: What did you do each day?
A: When we arrived in Estes Park (late afternoon, day one), we simply enjoyed the town and got the lay of the land. We always recommend giving yourself some time to get acclimated, no matter where you are heading. Early the next morning, we went directly to one of the RMNP visitor centers and got guidance from a ranger. She whipped out a map and highlighted myriad hikes and points of interest that would frame our two full days in the park. Few people know that you can enter a National Park having done as much or as little planning as you’d like.
We know Denver fairly well, so, here too, had no problem fine tuning our itinerary in the moment. Other than the aforementioned activity, we had nothing booked, so spent our time meandering the museums, enjoying the parks, and stuffing our faces with food finds.
Q: How do you make restaurant choices?
A: We rely on social media and things like #ExpediaChat to help us source great eats. We are particularly fond of elevated comfort food, so we tend to go in that direction when we’re not sustaining ourselves on healthy smoothies and protein bars. Go to Yelp and search for restaurants in your current location. You’ll certainly find some winners.
Q: Any surprises on this adventure?
A: Lots! We loved Estes Park. We usually find the charm in National Park towns, but we found Estes Park to be particularly inviting. Also, we can’t stress enough how much we enjoyed our off-off-season visit. Sure, 20-mile hikes weren’t in the cards, but we so enjoyed all of the space we had to enjoy RMNP. In terms of cost, we paid more than we would have liked to for our rental car, but here again Expedia offered a significantly lower price than we found anywhere else.
Oh, and we had a bit of a snowstorm in both RMNP and Denver. It was a real treat and didn’t shift our plans much at all.
Q: What other tips and tricks do you suggest.
A: Ask locals what’s what, particularly when getting off the beaten path. We’ll routinely ask baristas, bartenders, etc. for whatever insight they can share. Also, have a loose plan but get comfortable deciding in the moment. Some people resist outdoor National Park adventures because they can seem so daunting. As referenced in our example, feel confident just “showing up” if that’s what you need to do. Rangers are an amazing resource and will give you more than enough ideas.
Also, book using the Expedia App. It’s so fast and easy. And you can even use Apple Pay.
What’s your favorite National Park?