Where Should I Hike in Rocky Mountain National Park?

Rocky mountain national park timed entry permit

Planning a trip to Rocky Mountain National Park this summer? You need to make a reservation. The reservation will give you a two hour window to enter the park. The new system is designed to cut down on traffic and allow guests to practice social distancing. You can make a reservation on recreation.gov. There is a $2 online reservation fee in addition to the cost of park pass.

Keep in mind that the lines at the park entrances may be long, so for example if your timed entry is between 8:00 am and 10:00 am, I would avoid arriving last minute at 9:45 am. Also remember to print your pass and have it with you.

hiking near estes park, colorado

Visitors to Estes Park who do not have a reservation to Rocky Mountain National Park have several great trail options outside the park boundaries. If you don’t mind paying a fee, we recently hiked Kruger Rock in Hermit Park. The views are amazing!

Free adventures near Estes Park include walking or biking around the Lake Estes loop, climbing Lily Mountain, or hiking the Homer Rouse trail.

hike in Hermit Park to Kruger Rock near Estes Park, Colorado

favorite hikes in Rocky mountain national park

Sometimes we spend hours debating which hike we should do during our limited time in Rocky Mountain National Park. The reality is, you can’t go wrong. To help make the decision a little easier, I put together a chart (see above) to narrow down the hikes that are best for you based on the number of miles you want to hike, the popularity of the trail, and type of destination such as lake, waterfall or summit.

Bierstadt Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park

You will find details about these destinations (and more!) in the following pages:

Best Rocky Mountain Hikes Under 2 Miles

Favorite 2-4 Mile Hikes

Favorite Rocky Mountain Hikes for Families: Beyond 4 Miles

Sky Pond, Twin Sisters, and Flattop Mountain are some of my favorite hikes in the park, so I included them in my decision chart. I don’t classify these destinations as ‘family hikes’ because they are more strenuous. I recommend them to people looking for a fun challenge.

On the way to Sky Pond in Rocky Mountain National Park

Articles we’ve written about these destinations:

Sky Pond

Twin Sisters

Flattop Mountain

My list is just the beginning. There are countless adventures in and around Rocky Mountain National Park. I relate to the following quote by Abner Sprague, owner of Sprague Lake Lodge from 1910-1940.

‘If he (the guest) fails to see every nook and corner of the place on one visit, he comes year after year…. Our guests never get tired, the same old urge to visit spots seen more than once brings them back on their next vacation. They go home rested.”

Abner Sprague
Moose at Sprague Lake in Rocky Mountains
Sprague Lake

Rocky Mountain National Park – Spotting Wildlife at Sheep Lakes

One of the highlights of our trips to Rocky Mountain National Park is spotting wildlife. During our most recent visit, we were lucky to see both bighorn sheep and moose at Sheep Lakes which is located in Horseshoe Park.

sheep lakes

According to the national park’s website, Rocky Mountain National Park is home to approximately 350 bighorn sheep. Sheep Lakes is a great place to see bighorn sheep from May through the middle of August. There is a parking lot where you can safely pull off the road to view the animals who frequent the area. This is not a hiking destination, visitors are required to give the animals plenty of space to make sure both animals and humans stay safe. Many times park rangers will be stationed at the parking lot to direct traffic and answer visitor questions.

The park has a ‘Bighorn Crossing Zone’ in Horseshoe Park during spring and summer months. This means if you are driving, you will need to stop and wait for the sheep to pass.

Bighorn Crossing Zone – taken on previous trip to Rocky Mountain National Park from inside car

Bighorn sheep are attracted to Sheep Lakes because it is a natural salt lick that provides the animals with needed minerals.

We spotted the bighorn sheep at Sheep Lakes on the first day that the park opened to visitors after the shutdown for COVID-19. We came back later in the week to see if we could see the sheep again, and were surprised to see a pair of moose instead.

Bull moose can weigh up to 1,500 pounds and run as fast as 35 miles per hour.

Helpful links and resources

We’ve seen moose on both sides of Rocky Mountain National Park. On the East side of the the park we’ve spotted them at Sheep Lakes, Bierstadt Lake trail, Cub Lake trail, and Sprague Lake. On the West side of Rocky Mountain National Park, we’ve spotted moose in the Kawuneeche Valley and in the East Meadow. I’ve shared posts from all these hikes below. I’ve also included the National Park web pages where I found the moose and sheep facts for this post.

Family Hike to Bierstadt Lake Plus An Unexpected Moose Sighting

Moose Spotting Makes for a Memerable Morning Hike Around Sprague Lake

Peaceful Hike to East Meadow in Rocky Mountain National Park

Cub Lake Trail – a Wildlife Hotspot in Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain Animal Game

Wildlife viewing – National Park service website

Bighorn Sheep – National Park service website

Moose – National Park service website

The Best in Estes Park: A Cinnamon Roll Showdown

In January our family went to Estes Park on a mission to find the best chili in town. We had so much fun seeking out our favorite flavors, we decided to do another food adventure in May. This time we were craving our favorite breakfast treat – cinnamon rolls!

how we chose which cinnamon rolls to taste test

Unfortunately, we were somewhat limited on how many cinnamon rolls we could try during our trip to Estes Park. We decided since we were in town for a week we would taste a new cinnamon roll every other day. That means we tried rolls from four different restaurants. We chose the restaurants based on trip advisor, yelp reviews, and our own prior experience. Our cinnamon roll showdown contenders were Scratch Deli, Notchtop Bakery & Cafe, Trailhead Restaurant, and Cinnamon’s Bakery.

We judged based on appearance/presentation, taste and texture of the roll itself, and taste of the icing.

scratch deli & Bakery

Scratch Deli is one of our favorite lunch spots in Estes Park. The deli is inside a small space, so we always take our sandwiches to-go. This was our first time ordering anything sweet off their menu. The cinnamon rolls were very good. You could tell the dough was made fresh. The icing wasn’t overly sweet – even a little tangy. By the time we got home, we had to warm the rolls up a little bit in the microwave to get the full ooey-gooey effect.

notchtop Bakery and Cafe

One thing we noticed about all the cinnamon rolls we tried in Estes Park – they are generous in serving size! Every time we ordered, we split two rolls between our family of four and usually had some left over. The cinnamon rolls at Notchtop were delicious. The texture of the roll at Notchtop stood out among the others.

trailhead restaurant

This was the only cinnamon roll that we ate at the restaurant, so it had the advantage of being the warmest roll we tasted. Our girls (ages 3 and 5) both voted this as their top choice. I think they especially appreciate the sweetness of the frosting. We loved sitting on the back deck with views of Deer Mountain. Trailhead was the first restaurant we’ve been to for months because of COVID-19, which makes the memory even sweeter.

Cinnamon’s Bakery

Locals and visitors alike flock to Cinnamon’s Bakery for their fresh rolls. Considering how much we love cinnamon rolls, it’s surprising that this was our first visit to Cinnamon’s Bakery. This place is so popular, that my husband patiently waited in line outside and texted me, ‘should have camped’. Thankfully, the line moved quickly and he secured the rolls before they sold out.

And the winners are…

Best Roll – Notchtop
Kids Favorite – Trailhead
Best All Around – Cinnamon’s (but if they are sold out, head on over to Scratch and order some amazing sandwiches to go along with your rolls)

That’s our opinion, but we’d love to hear what you think!

estes Park restaurant News

We keep a list of our favorite places to eat and drink in Estes Park on our website. During our last trip, we noticed several location changes in town and wanted to share here:

The Dunraven Inn moved to a new location at the Estes Park Resort on Lake Estes. Dunraven has been our go-to date night spot, so we are eager to visit their new location. They are expanding service to include breakfast and lunch. You can read more here.

Twin Owls Steakhouse is moving to Taharaa Mountain Lodge. Several years ago we went to Twin Owls Steakhouse for an anniversary dinner. We are thrilled to see the change of location because it’s close to our old condo at Mary’s Lake Lodge. The views over there are unbelievable, especially around sunset.

Over the winter, The Other Side restaurant became Wayfinder. I took a look at their menu, and there are several items I’m eager to try.

I know there were many people (including us) who were sad to see Donut Haus closing last summer. The good news is the popular donuts will now be available at Tiny Town Sinclair (860 Moraine Ave).

Kruger Rock with Kids

Last year my husband wrote about his solo hike to Kruger Rock near Estes Park, Colorado. He enjoyed the trail so much that we decided to try hiking up to Kruger Rock as a family this year. I was blown away that my 5-year-old daughter hiked this on her own. My husband carried our younger daughter. We all enjoyed the challenge and appreciated the amazing views.

hermit park open space

Hermit Park Open Space is located Southeast of Estes Park, Colorado on highway 36. There is a daily entrance fee of $9 per vehicle. We went to Hermit Park to hike to Kruger Rock. Additional activities include camping, biking, and horseback riding.

Kruger ROck Trail

The hike to Kruger Rock is 1.7 miles each way. The starting elevation is 8,444 ft and gains 878 ft. Dogs are allowed on a leash.

This is a popular attraction, so plan to arrive early to get a parking spot. During our visit, we practiced social distancing by pulling on face masks when we were unable to keep 6 ft distance between us and other hikers (which was not often).

Kruger Rock in the distance

The hike begins through a meadow where we enjoyed seeing a variety of wildflowers. You can see Kruger Rock peeking above the trees in the distance.

views – Lake Estes and Estes Valley

We stopped several times on our hike for quick snack breaks.

I believe this purple flower is a pasqueflower. According to the national park’s website, it is one of the earliest flowers to bloom.

When I think of aspen trees I typically imagine the golden aspens of autumn, however the new green leaves in springtime are also stunning.

More views of Estes Valley

The hike uphill can get tiring, so we were thankful for the lookout points where we could stop to take in the expansive views of the Rocky Mountains. These spots are rewarding on their own for anyone who wants to cut the hike short.

The final ascent up Kruger Rock is a scramble. This was the first time our daughter attempted a summit like this, but we felt that the rock walls on both sides made this fairly safe from a serious fall. For extra caution, my husband walked behind her and guided her to the top.

I staid back with our 3-year-old (and snacks) then went up on my own once my husband and daughter came back down. At the top, I enjoyed the cute chipmunks and the surrounding mountain views.

360 views from Kruger Rock

This video shows the 360 degree views from the top of Kruger Rock. We really enjoyed this hike. I’m eager to head back to Hermit Park to explore more trails in this area.

Kid’s Review

I was reading what other hikers have said about Kruger Rock on AllTrails and someone pointed out that they passed kids around age 5 on the hike, but the kids were whining and parents had to help carry them. I was wondering, is she talking about us!? Haha, that would definitely be a good description of the reality of hiking with young children sometimes. So, I thought I’d ask my daughter her thoughts:

Did you like the hike? Yes!

Do you want to do it again? No.

Why? Because it’s really long.

Are you proud that you did it? Yes, because it was really hard.

Advice for other kids? You should keep on going until you reach the top!

I believe the comment I read suggesting that this hike might be better for older kids is valid. I’m also glad we pushed ourselves. I think the overall topic of when to turn around when kids are complaining on a hike vs. when to encourage them to keep going, is something we can continue to explore in future posts.

Helpful Links:

Hermit Park Open Space – Larimer County website

Kruger Rock – A Dog Friendly, Early Season Trail just outside Estes Park, Colorado – Eric’s post from last year

Wildflowers – Rocky Mountain National Park, National Park Service.

More Dog Friendly Hikes Near Estes Park, Colorado

More Early Season Hikes

Alltrails Reviews