It’s no wonder why 4 million people visit Rocky Mountain National Park each year. The park boasts numerous beautiful lakes and breathtaking mountain views that are accessible to both day hikers and backcountry campers. Plan ahead, though: if you would like to enjoy RMNP’s wilderness backpacking, you will need a permit. These permits help protect the park’s natural resources from too many visitors and are available in limited quantities.
So how do you get a permit for your next (or first) backpacking trip? This guide will make your permit reservation as easy as possible. Let’s get started and make sure you get a chance to experience all the park has to offer.
Picking the Right Trail For You
Before visiting a wilderness office in person or starting an online application, you need to find a campsite that fits your skill level and travel date availability. Some campgrounds are more popular than others, so availability will be limited. If you already have a particular trail in mind, make sure to book early. Campsites become available as soon as March 1st.
Any person of any skill level can purchase a permit to backpack in RMNP. That being said, picking the right trail does require preparation. Knowing your backpacking skill level before planning your trip will help you to choose trails and campsites that are a match for your ability, which will set you up for success on your trip. Use the following questions to help figure out what kind of experience is right for you.
Skill Level Questionnaire
How many overnight backpacking trips have you completed?
0 (1 point) _____
1-5 (2 points) _____
5+ (3 points) _____
What is your fitness level?
I go for walks (1 point) _____
I lift weights and/or run (2 points) _____
I do high-intensity workouts like CrossFit (3 points) _____
Where do you live?
Sea level (1 point) _____
5000 ft elevation (2 points) _____
I live in the mountains (8000+ ft elevation) (3 points) _____
Add up the points for each question. Use the table below to find out your skill level.
Skill Level Matrix
|0 - 5 Points||5-7 Points||7-9 Points|
Now that you know your skill level, you can pick a campsite that is a fit for you. There are lots of different factors that might make one trail more difficult than another, like the trail’s starting elevation. Hiking at high altitude is difficult for anyone who isn’t accustomed to it. For every 1,000 feet you ascend, you lose 3% of the available oxygen. Less oxygen in the air means your body has to work harder to function normally.
Quick elevation gain also makes a trail harder. A trail that gains elevation over a short distance will be steep and challenging to climb. Add a heavy backpack to the mix and even a fit person can become winded. You will need to account for this when picking a trail. To be safe, err on the side of caution. It’s no fun hiking all day only to find you are too weak to pitch a tent at camp.
Trail Level Matrix
This matrix provides parameters you need to pick a trail that’s right for you. In the next section, we’ll learn how to use these parameters to select a campsite.
|1-3 miles to the campsite||3-6 miles to the campsite||6-12 miles to the campsite|
|~500 ft elevation gain||~1000 ft elevation gain||N/A|
|Campsite at less than 9000’ elevation||Campsite at less than 11000’ elevation||Any elevation but once you get to 12000’ you will feel it|
|Stay 1-2 nights||Stay 2-5 nights||Any number of nights|
Choosing a campsite
In order to accommodate so many visitors to RMNP, there are some restrictions around when you can backpack and for how long.
June to September: you can backpack a maximum of 7 nights with no more than 3 consecutive nights at one campsite.
October to May (winter camping): you can backpack for a maximum of 14 nights with no more than a total of 21 nights per year.
There are many campsites to choose from, so let’s get started. Head over to the Rocky Mountain National Park Wilderness web page. Click on Most Recent Wilderness Campsite Availability List to see your options.
You should see some links along with date ranges. Each link downloads a .pdf with campsite availability for all RMNP campsites within a specific date range. Find the link that corresponds to when you would like to backpack, or click the last link on the page to see the entire season’s availability as one .pdf.
The campsite availability .pdfs contain a lot of information and can be confusing until you understand what they are trying to tell you. Check out the image below for help in understanding the different parts of the document. Use the guidelines defined in the Trail Level Matrix to pick a campsite that fits your skill level.
The first column is the park service’s ID for the campsite. This is useful when reserving a campsite to make sure you are reserving the correct one. There are some campsites that share a similar name, but have a different ID. Column two tells you the name of the campsite, while the third provides the number of miles from the trailhead to the campsite, or the distance of your hike. The fourth column is the elevation of the campsite in feet. Pay special attention to column five: it’s the snow date, which marks when a campsite will be snow-free. You are, of course, welcome to camp when there is snow, but you will need to bring additional equipment, like warmer clothing and a winter sleeping bag. Bear in mind that this date is an estimate, so there is no guarantee of accuracy. Backpacking after the snow date will significantly increase your chances of a snow-free trip.
Hiking times vary widely for a variety of reasons. Some people really like to take their time on their hike and enjoy the scenery while others are more goal-oriented and ready to get to their destination. Below are some loose guidelines for how many miles an average hiker can expect to cover in a certain number of hours. Use this information to help determine approximately how far you would like your campsite to be from the trailhead.
2-3 miles will take ⅓ of a day or ~2 hours
3-4 miles will take ½ of a day or ~4 hours
3-5 miles will take ¾ of a day or ~6 hours
6-8 miles will take the whole day or ~8 hours
For more information about each individual campsite, check out the Wilderness Campsite Designated Site Details.
You can search for the exact name of the campsite or select the region you plan to visit and locate the campsite in that section.
On this page, you’ll find information such as the elevation gain (steepness) and whether or not there is a toilet at the campsite. Having access to a toilet will save you the trouble of digging a cat hole, but since the toilets are wide open to the wilderness, don’t expect much privacy.
Okay, onto the next step: let’s reserve your campsite.
Reserving your campsite
Once you have a chosen your campsite, getting a permit is easy. Permits cost $26 per trip and can be purchased with a credit card, debit card, check, or cash (in exact amount only). You can reserve online or in person at a wilderness office. Whatever you decide, make sure to book sooner rather than later because there aren’t many spots and they fill up quickly. The park does hold some spots for walk-in reservations (only for trips that are no longer than three days), but your options will be limited. If you are flexible about your destination and only planning to make a short visit to the park, it’s worth a try.
You can reserve campsites from March 1st at 8 AM MST through October 28th each year. If you have any questions, you can call the Wilderness Office at 970-586-1242. Park rangers are always happy to help.
If you can’t make it to the wilderness office, you can reserve your permit online. Visit the Wilderness Campsites Reservation Request Application page to do so.
Click the Continue to the Form button.
Fill out the form with your information.
You are the Trip Leader. The Trailhead In and Trailhead Out would be the same unless you planned otherwise. The trailhead is the name of the region the campsite is located.
The vehicle information is the vehicle to be parked at the trailhead. If you need to change the vehicle on the permit after reserving, you will need to visit the wilderness office. A park ranger will print a new permit with your updated information. Since you will likely need to leave early the day of your trip, any changes to your permit should be made the day before.
The next page of the online form is where you select the day(s) you are camping and at which campsite(s).
Make sure to provide an alternative site choice just in case your first pick isn’t available. The next page is where you pay. Choose a payment method and continue.
Fill out your payment information to complete your reservation. Congratulations: you just submitted your permit request!
Reserve in person
If you don’t mind making the trek to RMNP, you can visit a Wilderness Office in person to reserve a campsite. There are two Wilderness Offices for RMNP, one in Estes Park and one in Grand Lake. The Wilderness Offices aren’t ordinarily busy and visiting in person gives you a chance to ask a park ranger questions about the available campsites. Park rangers can tell you details about a site, wildlife in the area, parking availability, and trail difficulty. You can also grab trail maps for further reading and exploring.
Wilderness Office East Side of RMNP
Wilderness Office is adjacent to the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center.
Hours: Monday - Sunday 7:00 AM - 7:00 PM
Address: Mills Dr, Estes Park, CO 80517
Wilderness Office West Side of RMNP
Summer Hours: Monday - Sunday: 7AM–6PM
Fall Hours: Monday - Sunday: 8AM–5PM
Winter Hours: Call for hours
Address: 16018 US-34, Grand Lake, CO 80447
Failing to pick up your permit by noon on the first day of your trip will result in your permit being automatically canceled and potentially given to another camper. If you are planning on picking up your permit late, make sure to call the wilderness office so your permit is held for you.
Longs Peak Ranger Station
Address: Longs Peak Ranger Station, Estes Park, CO 80517
Phone: (970) 586-1455
Hours: Call for hours
Wild Basin Ranger Station
Address: Wild Basin Ranger Station, Co Hwy 115, Allenspark, CO 80510
Phone: (303) 876-5309
Hours: Call for hours
More Info: Click Here
Displaying your permit
Once you have a permit, you are ready to go backpacking. What do you do with the permit? Your permit needs to be visible while hiking as well as when you are at camp. Make sure to display the permit on your backpack during your hike in and out. It should be visible to any passing park ranger. I recommend attaching the permit to a loop or pin ¾ the way up your backpack.
At camp, display the permit on your tent. This will let the ranger know that you are permitted to use the campsite and that your gear is not abandoned.
You will also receive a dash tag that needs to be displayed on the dashboard of the vehicle parked at the trailhead.
If you lose your permit before starting your trip, you can get a replacement at one of the locations listed in Pick up your Permit. If you lose it while on the trail, you may be stopped by a ranger. If you are stopped, don’t worry: they will radio a station to verify your permit status.
Enjoy your trip
Rocky Mountain National Park is an incredible park and I’m sure you will enjoy your time there. Make sure you follow the Leave No Trace guidelines to keep the trails and campsites pristine so that we can all enjoy RMNP for generations to come.
Wilderness Office Phone: 970-586-1242
General Park Info: 970-586-1206
Backpacking Dates: May 1 through October 31
Permit Fee: $26 per reservation
Payments Accepted: Credit card, debit card, check or cash (in exact amount only)
Reservation Start Date: March 1st at 8am