Wildflowers in Bloom: A Family Hike to Mitchell Lake

Recalculating. In a word that is how I can sum up what it’s like to hike with a growing family.

Earlier this year I wrote about one of our all-time favorite hikes to Blue Lake in the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area. This summer, the 6.2 mile journey just wasn’t feasible with our 4.5-year-old and a 2.5-year-old. However, we didn’t want to miss an opportunity to visit one of our favorite places in Colorado, so we drove to Brainard Lake Recreation Area which is about 50 minutes from where we stay in Estes Park.

We have an America The Beautiful Pass which covers entrance into federal recreation areas including Rocky Mountain National Park and the Brainard Lake Recreation Area which is run by the U.S. Forest Service. For our family, the inclusive pass is a good annual investment.

Typically, I recommend hiking early in the morning to avoid crowds, but we took a chance and arrived at the park around 3:30 on a Friday afternoon just after a rain shower had rolled through the area. We were lucky to get into the park quickly (expect long lines on weekends/holidays). We also grabbed a parking spot at the Mitchell Lake trailhead.

Mitchell Lake Hike in Brainard Lake Recreation Area, Indian Peaks Wilderness. Features forest, lake, wildflowers, mountain views. Round trip 2 miles. Short family-friendly, dog-friendly hike. Mitchell Lake Trailhead

This is the same path you go on to get to Blue Lake, but we decided to hike to Mitchell Lake which is only 1 mile each way. My preschooler can hike this distance on her own.

This heavily wooded trail leads to Mitchell Lake
Tall pine forest

Good news for families with furry children – dogs are allowed here, but must be kept on a leash.

Dogs are allowed at Brainard Lake Recreation Area

We crossed a bridge over Mitchell Creek before officially entering into the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area.

A wooden bridge crosses over Mitchell Creek
Wooden bridge over Mitchell Creek

There is a lot of water along this trail which attracts mosquitoes. We regretted forgetting our bug spray as we were bombarded.

Mitchell Creek flows from Mitchell Lake
Mitchell Creek flows from Mitchell Lake

Most of the hike is heavily wooded, so views are limited until you arrive at Mitchell Lake which opens up to an impressive backdrop of Mount Audubon.

Mount Audubon

Even in early August, we found little patches of snow to play in.

Snow near Mitchell Lake in Indian Peaks Wilderness Area

Just seeing the stunning array of wildflowers makes this hike worth the drive from Estes Park. When you add in the lush forest and mountain views, it’s a 2 mile hike that is tough to beat! (just remember the bug spray!)

Wildflowers bloom near Mitchell Lake in Indian Peaks Wilderness Area

Photos from Lily Lake That I’ll Cherish Forever

Lily Lake is one of our favorite places in Rocky Mountain National Park. I think it’s one of the best places in the park to get great pictures of the beautiful surroundings. On our most recent trip, I was excited to take pictures of the wildflowers, but even more excited to capture a few moments of our girls genuinely happy and having fun together.

I loved how the pictures turned out, so I enlarged my favorite and had it professionally framed for our living room back home. It makes my heart happy every time I walk in the room.

Framebridge photo of sisters holding hands
wildflowers in Rocky Mountain National Park
Lily Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park
Longs Peak in the distance from Lily Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park
Lily Lake lookout over valley
bridge over Lily Lake

Highlight Hike: Sky Pond in Rocky Mountain National Park

My husband Eric and I were thrilled to have the opportunity to go on a more challenging hike during our last trip to Rocky Mountain National Park. His amazing sister not only offered to watch the girls for the morning, but also sat through hours of us deliberating about which hike we would choose. There are so many hikes that have been on our wish-list, it was difficult to decide. We finally agreed to attempt Sky Pond because we had hiked to Timberline Falls in the past, but for weather-related reasons, had never made it beyond the falls.

Alberta Falls in Rocky Mountain National Park
Alberta Falls is less than a mile from Bear Lake trailhead

We woke up early to get to the park by 6:00am. We found a parking spot at Bear Lake and began our hike towards Alberta Falls which is one of the most popular destinations in RMNP.

Trail leading up to The Loch

We continued on the trail past the falls towards The Loch.

The Loch

We arrived at The Loch, a peaceful lake surrounded by pine trees and filled with beautiful trout. We followed along the right bank. This is a popular destination, so it was nice to be there early and have it largely to ourselves.

Trail past the Loch

Beyond The Loch you pass over a mountain stream. This is a relatively flat section of the trail.

Timberline Falls in the distance
Timberline Falls in the distance

Soon the hike becomes more challenging as you quickly gain elevation heading towards Timerline Falls. In this section we spotted female elk and a marmot.

Timberline Falls cascades

We arrived at Timberline Falls, a breathtaking waterfall with sweeping views.

View from Timberline Falls
Trail to Sky Pond goes up Timberline Falls

The first time I saw the sign pointing to Sky Pond, I thought it must be a mistake. I didn’t expect to hike up a running waterfall.

We got some good advice from Erik Stensland’s hiking guide to climb ‘up the gash in the rock’ and ‘don’t worry about getting wet; just go slowly.’ This proved to be a helpful tip, and even though our feet got fairly wet, it made for a manageable scramble.

Lake of Glass

After we made it up the waterfall, the path continued on to the Lake of Glass.

Past Lake of Glass

I found it a little difficult to see the trail between this lake and Sky Pond, but the scenery around us was nothing short of spectacular.

Above Timberline Falls on trail to Sky Pond
approaching Sky Pond
wildflowers blooming in Rocky Mountain National Park
wildflowers blooming
Sharktooth spires tower over Sky Pond
Sharkstooth spires
Sky Pond hike in Rocky Mountain National Park
Sky Pond

When we finally made it to Sky Pond, I was very excited to rest and eat a snack before heading back. However, it was hard to fully soak in the beauty as I was feeling anxious, knowing that the way back down the waterfall would be more challenging than the way up.

It wasn’t graceful – I mostly slid on my backside so that I could see the foot holds ahead of me. Once safely down, the adrenaline (and relief!) left us feeling invigorated, so we decided to extend our adventure.

Lake Haiyaha

Instead of heading back the way we came, at the Loch/Mills Lake trail junction, we followed a loop trail to Lake Haiyaha, which is a beautiful green color and is studded with boulders. This section of trail was quiet and peaceful, but it was longer and more challenging than I expected, adding to the total elevation gain of the hike. (We climbed a total of approx. 2,200 ft.)

Nymph Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park

After enjoying Lake Haiyaha, we continued down the mountain. The route gave us a glimpse of Dream Lake before rejoining the busier trail down to Nymph Lake, which was covered in beautiful pond lilies. From there it was a short walk back to the Bear Lake trailhead.

Hike route up to Sky Pond and down by Lake Haiyaha.

Eric wore a Garmin watch that tracked our hike from the Bear Lake trailhead to Sky Pond and back down via the alternative route by Lake Haiyaha. The total distance of our hike was just over 10.5 miles long.

This is now one of my all time favorite hikes. Not only did we get to see some of the most beautiful lakes in Rocky Mountain National Park, we also got to climb through a waterfall, an experience I’ll never forget!

Alpine Ridge Trail

The drive up to the Alpine Ridge Trail is an adventure. If you begin on the East side of Rocky Mountain National Park, you have the choice of driving up Old Fall River Road or Trail Ridge Road. Both routes are inside of Rocky Mountain National Park, so you need to purchase a park pass.

Old Fall River Road

We opted for the Old Fall River Road route where you can go one-way, and that is up. The road begins near the Endovalley picnic area and leads to the Alpine Visitor Center and the Alpine Ridge Trail. The gravel road is eleven miles long. You can expect tight turns and slow speeds. (The speed limit is only 15 mph.) The road is open seasonally and can close at any time for poor weather conditions. It’s a good idea to check the National Park Service’s Road Status Report before heading up. You can avoid crowds and afternoon storms by starting early.

Chasm Falls

One of the highlights along the road is Chasm Falls which is hidden from view. There is a small pull-out with enough room for a handful of cars to park. The trail leading down to the viewing deck is short and steep. If you can find a spot, Chasm Falls is worth stopping for. I included it as one of our best waterfall hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Chasm Falls off of Old Fall River Road

above tree line

Old Fall River Road takes you above the tree line. The views from this road are spectacular. Many times on our journey we have spotted elk. Eventually you connect to the parking lot of the Alpine Visitors Center where parking is competitive.

Alpine visitors center

The Alpine Visitors Center is a great place to use the restroom, shop for souvenirs, take pictures, grab a snack, and ask park rangers any questions you have about the tundra. It’s usually noticeably colder and windier at this altitude, so we add on a layer of clothing before walking around.

If you are looking for a fun and inexpensive activity/souvenir, my girls enjoyed picking out postcards for their friends back home at the gift shop. There is a post office in downtown Estes Park where you can purchase stamps and send them.

Alpine Ridge Trail

alpine ridge trail by alpine visitor center in rocky mountain national park

I’ve always noticed people hiking up the Alpine Ridge trail, but this was the first time we decided to make the hike up. It helped that we had a warm day with low winds.

trail ridge road leads to alpine visitor center and alpine ridge trail in rocky mountain national park

The hike is only .3 miles each way. Concrete stairs climb to the top. You start at high elevation and end up at even higher elevation, so even the short distance is a cardio challenge. My 4-year-old was able to make it on her own, but my 2-year-old got to ride on her Dad’s shoulders. I appreciate that the National Park Service places educational signage along the trail to help explain what you are looking at, why you are out of breath, and what they are doing to protect the natural environment surrounding us.

old fall river road leads to alpine visitors center

From this perspective, you can see Old Fall River road winding up the mountain.

wildflowers in rocky mountain national park tundra

The wildflowers were blooming on the tundra which is a delicate landscape. This area is roped off to encourage crowds to stay on the path.

views from alpine visitor center and alpine ridge trail

There were several groupings of large rocks that my girls enjoyed climbing on.

elevation is 12,005 feet above sea level on alpine ridge trail

The elevation at the top is 12,005 ft. above sea level. You can see for miles! I’m happy we took the time to take the small trek up the trail. It was something our whole family enjoyed. If you like this tundra hike, I also recommend reading our post on the Ute Trail.

Trail Ridge Road

We took Trail Ridge Road back down the mountain towards Estes Park. This trail is far less rustic than Old Fall River Road. We enjoyed views of the mountains and spotting a herd of elk playing in the snow.